By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – At this point, discussing the depth of the Panhandle Conference seems like a broken record.
But here we are, staring down a top 25 where four Panhandle women's basketball teams reside in the top 10 and Chipola is 16th.
Unbeaten are Northwest Florida State, Tallahassee and Pensacola State. The record of the five Panhandle teams? 69-5.
One unbeaten will fall Saturday night when the fifth-ranked Raiders and 10th-ranked Pirates open conference play at 5:30 p.m. in Pensacola.
The Raiders enter 15-0. The Pirates are 16-0.
Yep, a team that's considered the fourth best in the conference currently leads the nation in wins. How about that for depth?
"It's gonna to be a battle every night in this conference," said Bart Walker, NWF State's head coach.
So what does 16-0 look like on the stat sheet?
Panhandle Conference opener
No. 5 NWF State (15-0) at No. 10 Pensacola State (16-0), Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
The guard-oriented Pirates excel defensively, shining in transition with four guards who average double-digit points. Forward Naterria Luster, listed at 6-foot, leads the team with 13.7 points per game.
The Pirates' 16 steals a night lend to opponents turning the ball over 23 times a night, which helps fuel an offense dishing out 15 assists per game and outscoring foes by an average margin of 84.1-58. Meanwhile, on the boards the Pirates sport a plus-12 edge.
"They're extremely athletic. They're very quick with and without the ball in their hands," Walker said. "They're a tough team to guard. Most of their kids play away from the basket and they're a very guard-oriented team.
"We'll just have to make adjustments and maximize what we do well and shut down what they do well."
What NWF State does well could fill a book. After all, the Raiders are outscoring foes 82-33 a night.
Offensively, they're shooting 53 percent and draining 42 percent of their 3s for 8.1 treys a night. Forward Trinity Baptiste leads the Raiders with 13.6 points a night off the bench, followed by guard Jade Lewis with 13.5 points, guard Georgia Gayle with 13.4 points and forward Awa Trasi with 10.4.
The lights-out shooting effort is aided by an opportune defense averaging 16 steals a night and forcing 20.1 turnovers per game. Foes are also shooting less than 30 percent from the floor and the Raiders are winning the battle of the boards by a 46-20 margin. All that lends to a run-and-gun offense that feeds on outlet passes and averages 20.4 assists a night.
Not bad for a crew that only returned two players from last year.
"I'm proud of what they've accomplished so far and what they've picked up on in such a short time together," Walker said. "We just want to move forward and keep climbing."
That climb will hit some peaks soon with the avalanche of ranked foes awaiting. Of course the Panhandle inexperience may be a blessing in disguise after the team finished 1-11 in conference play last season.
"Only two players on this team have experienced the grind in the Panhandle, so with the others we can only discuss the competition level we expect to see," Walker said. "But we've seen most of the teams play in person during their classics. I think they understand the dynamics of the league. They just have yet to experience that adversity."
So far there's been no talk of last year's 1-11 mark under then head coach Tamela McCorvey. Only of the 15-0 start.
"We just move forward and don't draw any comparisons," Walker said. "I tell the team, 'We have high expectations for this program, for this athletic department.' I challenge them every day to get better.
"We're definitely evolving and our goal is to be diversified. Can we score? Can we defend? I believe we have a good combination. But this will be a whole new test."