NICEVILLE - Steve DeMeo likes to break down the year into four seasons.
The first, the NWF State men's basketball coach begins, is the non-conference slate.
The Panhandle Conference 12-game gauntlet follows.
Then, if everything goes right, second season segues into the Region 8 state tournament.
"And if you're truly fortunate," said DeMeo, "you make the NJCAA national tournament."
The Raiders passed the first test - albeit not with flying colors - with a 14-2 run through November and December's stacked non-conference slate.
Tonight begins second season, the Raiders hosting 10-5 Pensacola State for a 7:30 tipoff at The Arena. And the significance of a win can't be oversold.
"It means everything because our league can be determined by one loss," DeMeo said. "It can make or break your year. We saw that four years ago when I got here and we lost to Pensacola early. Basically we didn't make the state tournament because of one loss."
Ranked 24th in the country at 14-2, that postseason-less outcome seems implausible this year.
The Raiders, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, are too deep. Too seasoned. Too balanced.
The starting rotation of Daryl Edwards, Jeromy Rodriguez, Malik Petteway, Andres Feliz and - replacing a resurgent Teehjay Bogan - Jared Wilson-Frame may be the best in the country.
All are shooting 56 percent or above and, outside of the 6-foot-7 sophomore Petteway (8.9 points per game), average double-digit points.
Rodriguez, a 6-7 sophomore, averages 14.6 points on 61 percent shooting to accent 9.3 rebounds, while 6-5 sophomore Wilson averages 13.4 points on 56 percent shooting and sports a 50-percent clip from beyond the arc for 2.6 3s a night.
But there's no dropoff for the second five - Ron Freeman, P.J. Bruce, Bogan, Andrew Gordon and Karim Ezzedine.
"I've never had a team with this much depth," DeMeo said. "We have more guys that want to play and score, so that's going to be the biggest challenge in getting guys to understand their roles on a daily basis. From my perspective they're understanding that more and more.
"Every team's different, but what I love about this team is everyday they come to practice ready to get better. They come in ready to prove themselves."
Speaking of practice, no longer are the Raiders going an hour and 15 minutes every day. After facing the adversity of two first-half losses, DeMeo wanted more repetition - more shots, more time in the weight room, more film sessions, more challenges. So he bumped up the practice time to two hours.
"Our national championship team never went more than an hour and 15 minutes, but they were a bit more seasoned, more mature," DeMeo said. "These guys need the reps."
Of course DeMeo and his coaching staff will get a better idea of the team's progression with Panhandle Conference play. That starts tonight against Pensacola State, which features 6-7 wing Harrison Curry and 6-8 forward Kani Coles.
"Coach (Pete) Pena's team's always gets better when conference play starts," DeMeo said. "It's a fierce rivalry and they return a bunch of guys, so we expect a highly competitive game."
And also a highly competitive conference slate.
"It's hard to explain to the guys how tough conference play is until they've been through a game," DeMeo said. "Right now the guys are fighting and competing, the staff's excited and the fans are bouncing around the team.
"We stubbed our toes against some high-level foes earlier this season and played some high-level competition. We found out a lot about ourselves. Now we're ready for the second season."