March Madness begins Thursday for junior college basketball in Florida with the state tournament.
For the State College of Florida, the madness arrived more than a month ago.
If left SCF as the only team in the state junior college men's basketball tournament in Marianna with a losing record.
It forced Manatees head coach Brock Erickson to defend his character and the integrity of his program for using what was deemed an ineligible player.
Never miss a local story.
The madness is that if this were the NCAA, none of what happened would've mattered and there would be no ineligible player.
The powers that be took 18 victories away from SCF, leaving the Manatees with a 6-25 record. It's like winning a beauty contest and getting the trophy yanked because a judge in Siberia heard you were ugly.
It's sheer lunacy.
It makes you angry. But angry players play harder, and that's what you want in March.
So maybe the Manatees can capitalize on what they see as an injustice.
SCF's 6-foot-7 freshman, Obinna Oleka, has been playing out of his mind the last couple of weeks and is a reason Erickson said he believes his kids can knock off No. 8 Central College of Florida, its opponent today in a 2 p.m. tip-off.
Oleka was named national player of the week
for his performance in two Suncoast Conference tournament victories that earned SCF the state tournament trip, averaging 27 points and 13 rebounds.
The Washington, D.C., product, who has started only one game, has made a strong case that he is the sixth man of the year in junior college basketball.
"Obinna is the X factor because he didn't play well against Central Florida in the two games with them. We need him to control the paint and negate their ability in the paint. They are going to have a big size advantage against us," Erickson said.
Freshman point guard Michael Sanchez is the other half of the tandem that has enabled SCF to enter the tournament as the nation's top-scoring team, averaging 98.3 points per game.
It seems unlikely that any team can be more motivated than the Manatees. Obinna and Sanchez and the others are upset about what happened to their fallen teammate, guard Anders Haas. The Manatees have got to have the biggest chip on their shoulders of any team in the tournament, and that can often bring improbable results.
They had to forfeit those games because the National Junior College Athletic Association said Haas played on a club team in Denmark (Horsholm 79ers) that had professionals on it. SCF challenged the ruling, but lost.
The NCAA allows amateurs to play with professionals in Europe because it knows how commonplace that is and has cleared Haas to play NCAA ball next year, according to Erickson.
The NJCAA says that if an individual plays on a team with one professional, even though he is not paid, that player is ineligible. Erickson said Horsholm officials sent a letter that said there were no professionals on the team.
The Manatees lost twice to Central College of Florida. The first game on the road was a 105-103 defeat with Haas scoring 21 points, but Oleka only had 12 points and two rebounds. SCF has five players averaging double figures and quite a few more would if they got more minutes.
The leading scorers are Suncoast Conference Player of The Year Isaiah Williams and swingman Savad Garner, each averaging 17 points per game. The others are Sanchez (14.8 points per game), Oleka (10.9 ppg) and Denzel Myers (10.3 ppg).
"Along with Obinna, we need big games form Williams, Garner and Myers. Sanchez hurt his elbow and hasn't practiced in three days, but obviously he is important. He makes our offense go," Erickson said.
Central College of Florida (27-3) is averaging 89.7 points and has six players scoring in double figures, led by 6-8 center and UCF commit Eugene McCrory (16.3 ppg/5.7 rebounds per game). The top rebounder is 6-6 Jeremiah Eason (7.3 rpg/11.6 ppg). They have a tough backcourt, led by 6-3 playmaker Rasham Suarez from Puerto Rico, who can get in the lane, dish and shoot the three.
"We have to defend and rebound because they are a lot bigger than us and get out in transition, which is where we are at our best," Erickson said. "If they are making shots out of the post, our fast break won't work as well, so we have to limit their offensive rebounds. We've got to make open shots and try to score in 90s, if not the 100s."
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Followhim on Twitter at @ADellSports.