Northwest Florida fired up for Panhandle slate

NICEVILLE, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - The "most wonderful time of the year" is supposedly Christmas.

For sports fans, answers may vary, and for NJCAA basketball players and coaches, answers may vary as well depending on the state of their program.

At least during basketball season, the start of Panhandle play is something Northwest Florida basketball looks forward to for quite awhile.

The Raiders are ranked third in the country. After blowing through all but one opponent in non-conference so far, they'll embark on a conference journey that comprises their toughest scheduling stretch this Saturday.

Northwest Florida hosts Pensacola to tip-off conference play. They'll play all teams three times, including national No. 4 Tallahassee and No. 18 Chipola.

This is the time to assert themselves as being "for real," both on the state and national levels.

"I think they understand there are going to be teams that are just as talented as us," head coach Steve DeMeo said. "They're going to be competing hard against us."

It's a fitting precursor to the national tournament, which the Raiders fully expect to be a part of again.

"We refer to them as a unique group of guys where, the last few years, they understand they want to be a part of a team. They're not just out there [to be] the best player on the court. We have a collection of eight, nine guys on the court that could be the best on any given day."

At 14-1, the approach has worked so far. Four players are scoring in double figures, led by sophomores Chris Duarte with 19.8 points per game 7.3 rebound per game and Javion Hamlet with 17.5 ppg and 6.3 assists per contest.

A pair of games at the Visit Panama City Beach Men's Classic at Gulf Coast may have been a perfect opportunity for the Raiders to gain an early advantage. With Chipola and Gulf Coast also playing a pair of games at the same location, the event provided valuable in-person scouting.

Still, the Raiders weren't the only ones watching, and there's a big difference between seeing opponents play and actually getting players to execute it.

"The real problem is getting your guys to understand it, getting your guys to defend those guys the right way," DeMeo added. "That's the key, and that's the challenging part about being a junior college coach is, a lot of times our guys don't get locked into the right things or they only get locked into one side of the ball. It's not football, it's basketball. You've got to play offense, defense, special situations as well."

So far, DeMeo's team has done just that.

Prior to Panhandle play, the Raiders host a final non-conference opponent Thursday night, taking on Shelton State at home at 7:30 p.m.