By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE — If Florida Southwestern played in the Panhandle Conference, Steve DeMeo voiced, the Buccaneers would be a contender.
But good enough to compete with reigning champ NWF State and its 12-0 mark?
"They're as good a team as anyone," said the Raiders' head coach. "They'd be right there."
You sure about that, coach?
That's debatable considering the Buccaneers went 0-2 against Panhandle foes this season, dropping a pair of eight-point losses to basement dwellers Pensacola State and Chipola. Those two programs finished a combined 5-19 in the Panhandle and are sitting out the Region 8 tournament. The Buccaneers are not.
At 26-6, Florida Southwestern played its way into the FCSAA showcase — the final hurdle to qualifying for the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas — by finishing 10-2 in the Suncoast Conference and then shoring up a second seed with a pair of wins in the conference tournament last week.
DeMeo was on hand last Monday to scout the state-tournament-clinching win over Polk State, a victory that shored up a first-round matchup on Thursday at 5 p.m. (CST) with the Raiders in Ocala.
So what did DeMeo see? A lot of what he already knew.
He caught a glimpse of Nych Smith, who averages a team-high 14.9 points, six assists, 1.8 3-pointers and 1.7 steals a night.
"He's arguably one of the best point guards in the state if not the country," DeMeo said.
He noticed the 6-foot-6 Murphy twins, Anthony and Tremell, who average a combined 26 points and 12 rebounds a night and each shoot above 50 percent.
He also recognized the explosiveness of Shanquan Hemphill (11.5 points on 58 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds per game) and Tyler Cheese (10.6 points).
"That's a good team and they're well-coached," DeMeo said. "This is one of the best state tournaments in the country and it's hard to get in, so obviously they're talented. They can beat anyone."
Even so, the Raiders enter as the prohibitive favorites to take home a third straight Region 8 crown. Their No. 1 state seed and No. 3 national ranking have earned that reputation.
DeMeo gave the Raiders a well-deserved weekend off to keep fresh — "their last free weekend," the coach told them — and he noted they've never been stronger mentally or physically.
"When we finished 12-0 in the conference we had 12 guys that were very happy," DeMeo said. "But they know there's one more notch before they can celebrate the national tournament. It's almost like a business-like atmosphere at this point."
Going through the rigors of Panhandle Conference will do that.
"Playing in the Panhandle, what it does first of all is prepare you for the state tournament and, knock on wood, the national tournament," DeMeo said. "We've had a few two-point games, a five-point win, some games we've had to pull it off in the clutch. That gives you confidence."
Depth, size, speed and a loaded backcourt also give you confidence — all things the Raiders don't lack.
Led by Jared-Wilson Frame's 14.7 points per game, all five starters average double-figure points. But it's the shooting percentages that stand out.
Frame, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, has knocked down 51 percent of his shots and 41 percent of his 3-pointers for 2.1 makes per game behind the arc. Panhandle Conference Player of the Year Jeromy Rodriguez averages 14 points per game on 61 percent shooting to accent nine rebounds, 1.4 steals and a block a night.
Meanwhile Daryl Edwards, a 6-4 sophomore guard, is the Kyle Korver of Juco basketball, hitting 2.4 3s a night on 51 percent clip en rout to 13.2 points per game. Andres Feliz, a 6-2 freshman point guard, is hitting 57.3 percent of his shots for 11.6 points per game to accent a team-best five assists per game, while Malik Petteway is averaging 10 points on 63 percent shooting and eight rebounds a night.
"Our team's very similar in terms of talent to last year," Rodriguez said of the crew that made the Elite Eight. "But last year we had a lot of people not recognize their roles. Now people have a role and they understand that. Every time they step on the court they do their job."