By SETH STRINGER
The marquee matchup has national championship written all over it.
NWF State finished the season ranked No. 3 in the NJCAA Division I national polls after a 12-0 Panhandle Conference run. San Jacinto, the Region 14 champ after a 32-1 season, ranked fourth.
Yet, when the powerhouses tip off Thursday at noon in Hutchinson, Kansas, the victor won't be handed a ladder and scissors to cut down the nets. The prize instead will be a Final Four spot and a likely matchup with tournament host Hutchinson.
"I agree that we probably shouldn't be playing this early, but you just gotta play who's in front of you," said NWF State head coach Steve DeMeo, the architect behind three straight Elite Eight trips for the Raiders and a national title in 2015.
The early matchup came about because NWF State fell to a No. 8 seed after a semifinal loss in the Region 8 tournament. Meanwhile San Jac rose to the No. 1 seed with the top-three ranked teams (Hutchinson and South Plains joining the Raiders) faltering in their respective region tournaments.
San Jac flexed that top-seeded muscle in Tuesday's Sweet 16 with a 115-77 win over Connors State.
They also flexed their talent in Niceville on Nov. 19 in a 95-88 win over NWF State.
"It was two high-level teams playing. They made a couple of extra passes and we missed a few more shots than them," DeMeo said. "There's nothing in particular that they did to bother us."
A lot has changed in four months.
"When you play a game in November you don't know a lot about your team," DeMeo said. "Now we have a better feel of where our team's at. We're a much better team — better offensively, better defensively. We know who our point guard (Andres Feliz) is, we know who can score and we know how good Jeromy Rodriguez can be."
Speaking of time between matchups, the 10-day layoff between NWF State's region tournament exit and Sweet 16 win attributed to a slow start Tuesday where the Raiders trailed by as many as 11 in the first half before outscoring Jones County 73-50 over the final 28 minutes of play. Wilson-Frame's halfcourt buzzer-beater before the half that knotted the score at 36 was the focal point of the momentum shift.
"The key was getting our first win," DeMeo said. "It took a little while to get going and sometimes we just start slow, but to end the half the right way with that shot was a huge boost for us. Then we came out defending in the second half and held Bruce Stevens, one of the best big men in the country, to two points. I was proud of the way the guys played and now we're ready for a good test in playing San Jac.
"We feel like we could win by 10 or lose by 10. I feel their coach feels the same way."
The teams are comparable on paper.
NWF State averages 91.1 points per game on 53 percent shooting. San Jac averages 98.7 points, good for sixth in the country, on 48.5 shooting.
Both teams hit around nine 3s a game, although NWF State does it on four less shots, while San Jac holds a 48-40 advantage on the boards behind three guys 6-foot-10 and above.
Each team has four players averaging double-figure points, sophomore guards Jordan Duffy (19.5) and Corey Davis (17.3) leading San Jac while sophomores Wilson-Frame (14.6) and Rodriguez (14.5) lead NWF State.
NWF State forces 17 turnovers a game and holds foes to 71.5 points a night. San Jac forces 13 turnovers and holds foes to 64.1 points per game.
But this game won't be played on paper. It'll be settled on the hardwood of Hutchinson Sports Arena, where Elite Eight matchups don't get any more marquee than this.