NICEVILLE – Not even two minutes into the Selection Monday telecast, the NWF State men had their answer.
And also a target on their back.
Yes, Steve DeMeo’s crew is the No. 1 seed in the NJCAA Division National Tournament. The team to beat. The favorite if you will.
A fifth straight Panhandle Conference crown, a second straight Region 8 championship and this past weekend’s win over previously top-ranked Florida Southwestern State earned the Raiders that moniker headed into next weekend’s showcase in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“We’re used to playing with a target on our back,” DeMeo said. “We’ve overcome a lot of adversity in always having to live up to that hype and the tradition we’ve built here.”
DeMeo was joined in the Student Services Building for the NJCAA Selection Monday telecast by his assistant coaches, a handful of players in Javion Hamlet, Eric Vila, Noah Morgan, Ludgy Debaut and Sam Baker and athletic director Ramsey Ross.
They’d all been a part of the 27-4 campaign. And also the 11-3 mark against ranked foes, which overshadowed the résumés of tournament programs with more wins and less losses.
“We played 14 of our 31 games again ranked opponent, so we felt like we earned this,” DeMeo said. “We played a great schedule and we went through Region 8 and won three games.”
Now the Raiders will enjoy a first-round bye in preparation for a first-round showdown on March 19 against the winner of 16th-seeded Arizona Western and 17th-seeded Cape Fear.
“It really comes down to winning that first game and setting the tone,” DeMeo said. “Those are two tough opponents and we can lose any round if we don’t bring our A-game.”
Echoed Vila, a 6-foot-11 forward headed to UTEP next year: “This is what we’ve been working for all season, but we’re not going to take that 1 seed for granted. We’re ready to finish what we started.”
Cue Hamlet nodding his head yes.
The No. 1 seed is a big accomplishment, but we ain’t done,” said the 6-3 point guard, who’s yet to decide on his D-I destination next season. “Obviously the goal is to win a national championship and that’s what we’re going up there to do.”
The Raiders enter the tournament outscoring foes 89-75 nightly on the strengths of an offense shooting a blistering 51 percent from the floor and making 9.5 treys a night at a 38-percent clip.
Chris Duarte, Panhandle Player of the Year and bound for Oregon, leads the Raiders with 19.1 points per game and 7.3 rebounds, followed by Hamlet with 17.8 points and 6.6 assists a night.
Vila averages 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds a night, and the Raiders’ depth extends to Noah Morgan (nine points per game), Tyrie Jackson (eight points), Niceville alumnus Trey Diggs (7.6 points) and Ludgy Debaut (4.7 points, 5.4 rebounds).
The depth is key. As is the chemistry, Hamlet said.
“We love each other, on and off the court,” Hamlet said. “Whoever’s night it is, we’re cheering for each other. And if we’re playing together, playing how we know how, we feel we’re unbeatable.”