BRADENTON -- When Joe Whelton took over the State College of Florida men’s basketball program prior to the season, he was told the experience would be unlike any other.
The warnings might have seemed a little unusual to the casual fan, considering Whelton had coached professional basketball overseas for nearly three decades.
Unfortunately, they proved true. But Whelton says he has learned enough to change the culture of the program.
The SCF team that plays its Suncoast Conference Tournament opener today on the road against Hillsborough Community College hardly resembles the squad Whelton envisioned before the season began.
He has lost six players for parts of the season for a variety of reasons, including academics, failure to adhere to school rules and injuries.
Anthony Prescott, the Manatees’ leading scorer, became an academic casualty in December and never returned. Dauntae Johnson, the 6-4 highly touted swingman from North Port High who started every game before Christmas break, also was lost to grades.
Cedric Johnson, a 6-8 bundle of talent from Miami Carol City, had problems adhering to school rules and never dressed for a game.
Eric Halliwell, a 6-8 Sarasota High grad whom Whelton called his MVP, suffered an appendicitis attack about three weeks ago and was lost for the season.
On what might be considered a bright note under all the carnage is that freshman Denzel Myers and sophomore Bobby Thomas came back after missing five games for academic ineligibility.
“I coached professionally for 27 years and never had to deal with something like this,” Whelton said. “I was told these kinds of things can happen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I didn’t recruit any of the players who left. We are recruiting different types of kids.”
The common belief in junior college basketball is that the Division I players who go Juco have academic or discipline problems or both and the good students lack high-level skills. Whelton refuses to buy into that.
“There is some truth to it, but I don’t believe you have to take chances with at-risk players,” Whelton said. “For next season, we are looking for responsible people. There are kids in our area who might be late bloomers and are overlooked by Division I schools. We get them in here, work with them and get them peaking at the right time and you can be successful.”
Whelton says the athletes in his program get a lot of help with tutors and extra study sessions if they are struggling and are constantly monitored.
“You have to be pretty irresponsible not to make the grade at our school,” he said. “But it still was a surprise because none of those players who left ever gave me a problem on the court. I would think you would see that, but they never showed it.”
The off-the-court issues required Whelton to make adjustments, and he said he feels good going forward.
“In the pros you are more of a CEO-type boss. Here you have to be more of a coach and father figure,” he said. “In the pros, my youngest guy was 22; here you are dealing with a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds. Despite being a little frustrated, I am enjoying it and feel good about the future. Don’t forget all these guys were recruited by another coach, so it was tough on them and me.”
The Manatees’ most consistent players this season have been Myers and 6-8 sophomore Odi Onyekachukwu. They have gotten a big lift the past few weeks from 6-2 sophomore guard Elias Gutierrez from Sarasota High.
The Manatees (6-18) get a chance for redemption today in their 1 p.m. tipoff at Hillsborough (9-18). The winner will be at Polk State College (17-13) on Monday night with the winner qualifying for the Region VIII tournament (state tournament) March 7-10 at Chipola College in Marianna.
SCF is 1-2 against Hillsborough, losing a 67-63 contest Wednesday when the Manatees blew an 11-point lead and converted only 6 of 18 free throws in the second half. They defeated Polk earlier in the week.
“It certainly is possible that we can win those two games. We are embarrassed how we blew the game against Hillsborough and are out to correct that,” Whelton said. “Foul shooting is a big thing on the road. You can’t miss all those free throws. Rebounding also hurt us last game. We lost a lot of big people and need somebody to step up and help Odi. We would like to get more rebounding from Giannis Stavriandis (6-8 sophomore). He is the guy who can help us on the boards.”