Eagles Fly Under the Radar, Face National Power in First Round
The Polk State College men's basketball team will be the clear underdog when it faces host Chipola College in the opener of the FCSAA/NJCAA Region 8 basketball tournament.
But Polk State's resurgent team is not intimidated.
The sixth-ranked Eagles (22-8) play third-ranked Chipola (25-4) Thursday in Marianna at 6 p.m. Central time (7 p.m. Eastern).
The Indians, the Panhandle runners-up with a rich winning tradition and 14 national tournament appearances, will be playing the first-round game on their home court Thursday while the Eagles will be five hours from home.
Not to fear, Polk State has a little history of its own.
The Eagles are this year's Suncoast Conference champions and have been to the national tournament three times.
They have also been to the FCSAA tournament six times in 13 years under coach Matt Furjanic, five times as Suncoast Conference Champions.
Plus, this is the third consecutive year the Eagles have been to the state tournament.
Playing Chipola is no big deal for Furjanic, despite a 78-46 defeat suffered to the Indians in early December.
"It was so long ago," Furjanic said. "We're going to approach it like any other game. Beating Chipola can be done. We can take their transition game away. It's a game where our players can adjust to the style. We have some scorers. We are playing with more confidence now. We're a different team and they are too. Anything can happen."
The Eagles possess experience and talent to ally any worries about Chipola, which was ranked No. 1 in the country in January.
Polk has played at least six state-ranked opponents this season.
The proof Polk can keep up can be found in three Suncoast Conference games, two with State College of Florida and one with St. Petersburg College.
While the Manatees featured one of the country's top scoring offenses, the Eagles rest on the laurels of their traditionally-stingy defense, which holds opponents to 64.7 points per game.
Following losses to Chipola, ranked fifth in the country at the time, and then-ranked Florida State College of Jacksonville, Polk turned it around.
"We started to gel," said Furjanic, who had just two returning starters from the previous season in sophomore center Ismaila Dauda and sophomore point guard Ralph Simmons.
Polk won seven of eight games heading into their first meeting with Suncoast Conference foe State College of Florida.
While the game resulted in an overtime loss in January, positives were found as the Eagles hung with the high-scoring Manatees.
"I thought down there we really played better as a unit," Furjanic said.
The Eagles also learned to play against a zone.
"It was a teaching tool," Furjanic said. "It gave us a chance to refocus on little things against the zone."
The Eagles reeled off a four-game win streak.
Furjanic felt as though Manatee did not win the second contest between the two, despite the 71-55 score on the road.
"We lost the game more than they beat us," Furjanic said. "We thought, 'Oh, we had them in overtime and we're on a win streak.' I thought they were a little over confident."
Polk kept the game within two possessions, except for one stretch.
However, Polk won the final meeting between the two at home.
"It was huge," Furjanic said.
The same day, Polk found out its first loss to State College of Florida was deemed a victory by the NJCAA when the Manatees were said to have used an ineligible player.
Polk showed what it was made of in a victory over St. Petersburg to end the season.
The Eagles trailed the Titans by 19 with seven minutes and one time out left in the game before they rallied to victory.
"We pressed and made a heck of a comeback," Furjanic said. "You want to have that feeling. We have a lot of freshmen who learned a lesson – don't get down early to play come-back basketball. Never quit. You never know what can happen."
Polk's Simmons is the press-break leader.
"He knows how to distribute the basketball," Furjanic said. "He is an excellent penetrator. For his size he can go to the basket and finish. He has a knack of getting our scorers the ball in position to where they can finish."
Simmons averages 8.2 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Polk's Nafis Walker (9.4 ppg) and Brock Van Lier share the point guard duties when Simmons is on the bench.
Walker is the team's best three-point shooter as well, averaging 3.7 treys per game.
The athletic Van Lier (5.2 ppg) is almost too unselfish. He's also Polk's best defensive player.
Freshman 6-foot-3 guard Bernard Samuel leads the team with a 13.9 ppg average.
"He's a natural scorer," Furjanic said.
Samuel is the team's best three-point shooter who also rebounds well.
Dauda, a strong, 6-foot-9 center from Nigeria who is often double-teamed, is the heart of the Eagles.
"We ride his back," Furjanic said.
Dauda's big hands allow him to lead the team in rebounding (10.2 rpg). He's also become a shot blocker.
Freshman Antonio Bishop fills in for Dauda.
"He does a good job inside," Furjanic said.
Scrappy freshman Shavanno Cooper (6-foot-6) can also play the inside.
Freshman guard Tyquan Burno is the team's sixth man with an accurate mid-range jumper.
He contributed big points when Van Lier was injured against St. Petersburg.
It's the post-season and teams are playing with renewed enthusiasm.
"You want to play at Chipola in March," Furjanic said. "One team makes it out, and why can't it be us?"
Polk will need to win three games to take theFCSAA title and advance to the NJCAA National Tournament on March 18 in Kansas.
Polk enters the tournament following a two-week layoff.
The situation is the same for all eight teams.
"We're focusing on the first game," Furjanic said. "We're not worried about being stale. Every team is in the same position."
The Eagles have been working on their fitness in hopes of playing three games in three days.
"We're trying to keep up our conditioning and trying to improve in practice," Furjanic said. "We have been evaluating things we did at the end of the season with our offense and defense."
Furjanic, recently named Suncoast Conference Coach of the Year for the sixth time, scoffs at the state tournament pressure.
"The pressure is getting to the tournament," Furjanic said. "Once you get in, that should be the fun time of year. Have fun and play hard."