NICEVILLE, Fla.(WJHG/WECP) - Every game matters.
The state tournament is two months away, and the national tournament tips off two weeks after that. But even with ten games separating the top two men's teams in the Panhandle Conference from the postseason, every single remaining game is like a playoff play-in.
Three teams, Chipola, Northwest Florida, and Tallahassee are ranked in the national top 25. The other two, Gulf Coast and Pensacola, have proven to be formidable foes in the opening week of conference competition.
Anyone can win. They're all vying for two spots. There is no margin for error.
Saturday night's game in Niceville between No. 11 Chipola and No. 8 Northwest Florida, there first of three meetings between the two, is vital.
Coach Steve DeMeo and his Raiders are 16-2 overall and 2-0 in league play, earning their second win against a young but game Gulf Coast team that fought hard to protect its home floor.
As one of the league's most accomplished coaches, it's almost a guarantee DeMeo's teams will contend for state and national titles year out. Still, he knows not to take any game or team for granted, especially Chipola and first year coach Brendan Foley.
"He's doing an incredible job," DeMeo said of Foley. "They play fantastic defense, they rebound the ball as good if not better than anyone in the country, and they don't take bad shots on offense. For a first year coach, coaching a new team, I'm very impressed with how they're playing. It's a little bit of a scary game, because we've been at the top of the food chain and they're coming after us."
Indeed, they are.
"They were ranked preseason number one in the country for a reason," Foley said. "They're a top two team in the country, in my opinion."
Although Saturday is their toughest test yet, Chipola could make a case for being the second team on that list. The Indians whipped No. 6 Tallahassee 101-73 on Wednesday night in their conference opener. They take an 18-1 record into this weekend, eager to add another W and take over first place.
"If you can't get excited for this opportunity, then you don't belong here," Foley added. "Like I've said all along, I'm blessed to have a good group of kids and they have been very coachable and they're excited. They're fired up. They know the atmosphere over there and how good Northwest is."
Saturday tip-off is set for 7:30, following the women's game which begins at 5:30.
The women's game is also a marquee match-up, with the Lady Raiders defending the No. 1 national ranking and undefeated record against No. 10 Chipola.