Tough road ahead: NWF State gets No. 8 national seed

By SETH STRINGER

NICEVILLE — Northwest Florida State got its high seed and first-round bye.

The Raiders also got a brutal draw in the NJCAA Division I Men's National Basketball Championship bracket, which was released Monday on Twitter.

NWF State assistant coach Jake Williams was the first to announce the Raiders' eighth seed in head coach Steve DeMeo's office, where his coaching staff, athletic director Ramsey Ross and sophomores Teehjay Bogan and Jared Wilson-Frame waited anxiously for what they envisioned to be a top five seed.

"Last year we thought we'd be lower and we got higher," Williams said of the No. 2 seed the Raiders garnered during last season's Elite Eight run. "This year we thought we'd be higher and we got lower."

DeMeo, who was able to breathe a sigh of relief Sunday when it was announced the Raiders (27-3) were one of four at-large bids, was undeterred.

"As long as you have a bye that's the important thing, especially with the day off after that," said DeMeo, whose team had its 15-game win streak snapped on Friday with an 83-79 loss to Eastern Florida State in the Region 8 semifinals.

The eight seed brings with it a murderer's row of national powerhouses on NWF State's side of the bracket.

Jones County (Mississippi), the Region 23 champion and ranked eighth nationally after a 28-1 campaign, likely awaits the Raiders in the Sweet 16 for a 4:30 p.m. tipoff on March 21. 

"You can never look past a team that's 28-1," DeMeo said." In Jones County we have a tough, hard-nosed, scrappy team as we've already found out. Jones County won the national title in 2014. We won the national title in 2015. Any time you win a championship, the program has to be top-notch. I heard they're as good as any team we've faced this year."

If the Raiders survive that test they'll likely get an Elite Eight matchup with top-ranked San Jacinto, the Region 14 champion which defeated NWF State 95-88 on Nov. 19 at The Arena en route to a 32-1 record.

"We're not even going to think about San Jac until it's 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday if we win," DeMeo said. "If we lose we're going home because it's one-and-done."

Meanwhile Hutchinson, seeded fourth and playing on its home hardwood, is the favorite to advance to the Final Four. That could potentially set up a rematch against NWF State, which lost 116-90 to the Blue Dragons in last year's Elite Eight.

"We're accustomed to playing the best competition in the country," DeMeo said. "That's why we play the schedule we play. We just have to be better than we were in the state tournament."

The film tape and scouting reports will soon arrive. And the practices will become more important with the Raiders flying to Kansas on Friday.

"We have four straight days here, counting today, and my gut is to give them Friday off," DeMeo said. "We'll practice Saturday and Sunday in Wichita and then we'll have practice on Monday at Hutchinson on their brand new floor."

A new floor. A new stage. A new spotlight, one in which the Raiders are approaching with a business-like attitude.

"We just have to stay focused, prepare the same we have all season and play to our best ability," DeMeo said. "We feel we're ready."