By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE — This time there was no ladder under the net, no scissors to be passed around. The postgame celebration at center court was nonexistant.
Instead, as NWF State capped off the program's first 12-0 run through Panhandle Conference play with a 64-59 victory at Tallahassee last Saturday, Raiders head coach Steve DeMeo and assistant coach Rory Kuhn shored up travel plans to scout the Suncoast Conference tournament.
By Monday the duo were in Fort Myers watching Florida Southwestern punch their ticket to the Region 8 tournament, where they'll open the showcase in Ocala against the top-ranked Raiders on Thursday at 5 p.m. (CST).
The Raiders are the overwhelming favorites to win a third straight Region 8 crown, their top ranking in Florida and No. 3 national ranking affirming that.
So how'd we get here? How'd this crew come together to produce a 26-2 regular season campaign and deliver a league record never before achieved in NWF State's illustrious tradition?
DeMeo had all the answers in a Q&A leading up to the postseason.
We knew coming into the year your team had a solid core of five returning sophomores in Jared Wilson-Frame, Daryl Edwards, Jeromy Rodriguez, Malik Petteway and Teehjay Bogan. How important was that nucleus?
"We knew we were blessed with the right chemistry of sophomores, especially with having a few league leaders in Jared and Daryl and Romy. The best thing I can say about this program and the staff is we show a lot of confidence in our guys. When they decide to come back we empower them and let them know what they can become. From the end of last year to the start of summer, there's a lot of development that's taken place on and off the court."
That development has specifically shown with Petteway and Bogan, Petteway going from a third option in the post to a double-double threat and Bogan becoming a key role player after starting nearly the entire non-conference slate. Did you see this coming?
"We pride ourselves on developing players on and off the court. It really comes down to getting the players to believe in themselves. With Teehjay, we started his development at the end of last year and it bled into summer. We knew he had the skills. Now he's a huge part of our success. A part of that was accepting his role, a part of that was him embracing more minutes and a part of that was being a helluva player.
"Malik was the same way. You have a guy who didn't have as much opportunity last year playing behind (Moustapha Diagne), but this year he's embraced a bigger role and has been a great big man for us. On the boards and finishing around the rim, he's one of the best in the business."
So you have this strong sophomore core. Now the impetus is on filling out the roster with guys that can fill the shoes of Diagne, Shadell Millinghaus (Texas Tech), Will Pfister, etc. What were you looking for?
"At this level your roster's always in flux. Every other year we have to find the most talented guys that have the best character that come from winning programs. Then you have your fingers crossed and hope that it all works. But an important part of the equation is the assistant coaches know what I want and the direction I want with recruiting and bringing everyone together. You have to be on the same page with your coaches to get to this level of success."
What was that direction?
"We look for guys that have skill — dribble, pass and shoot well. If you can pass you understand how to play the game. If you can shoot you can properly space the floor. If you can dribble you can run the court in transition. Romy and Malik are our 4/5s and they can both take the ball up the the court and pass. They're not limited what they can do because of their position.
"Another big thing is character. They got to love the game and be coachable."
A couple of the recruits carried cachet, specifically with Kansas State transfer Ron Freeman and Oregon State transfer P.J. Bruce. Let's go through five of the new recruits and how you found them.
Freeman (6-foot-6 sophomore G/F)?
"We knew about him last year and Jake (Williams) and Rory kind of discovered him before Kansas State. They both worked him together. He could shoot, he was athletic, he had length. We knew he could take over games.
"A lot of what we do in getting players like Ron comes down to relationships that I or my assistants have. It's just making sure you develop and nurture those."
Bruce (6-3 sophomore PG)?
"Rory did a good job of staying on that. He'd proven he could play in big games, and we knew he could help us tremendously in the backcourt."
Andres Feliz (6-2 freshman PG)?
"Feliz was a guy that was supposed to go to South Florida. We have a very good relationship with the Dominicans and the federation people there. They were happy with Jeromy and his direction, so we were fortunate to land him."
Andrew Gordon (6-10 freshman center)?
"We'd been recruiting him for awhile and Jake did a good job with his AAU coach."
Karim Ezzedine (6-9 freshman forward)?
"I think Rory discovered him through D-I contacts. You got to network like that in our line of work. We thought he'd fit in well."
That crew, along with your staff, the sophomores and Casey Ponder and Joe Cook-Green on the bench, cut down the Panhandle Conference nets on Feb. 15 after securing a third straight Panhandle Conference crown. Then you finish off the conference slate undefeated. How big was that?
"Obviously it's a credit to our players for sticking to our values, our core principals and being resilient. Any time you can go through the best Juco conference in the country undefeated, it's a credit to the staff's hard work and the time put in by everyone from the administration on down."
But the true measure of NWF State's success lays ahead, right?
"The guys are excited about the postseason. How could they not? Everybody comes here to play in the state and national tournament. We don't take that for granted and everybody is very business-like in that approach. But we also have a lot of fun. That's why I love this team so much."