The next six days will determine the season for the State College of Florida basketball team.
That is the simple version on how to assess the program.
There is nothing easy about coaching junior college basketball, particularly in Manatee County, which is why head coach Reggie Bellamy has one of the toughest jobs in the country.
The local terrain has become a near basketball wasteland, which Bellamy is trying to bring back to life by planting seeds in the minds of elementary school kids.
Coaching JUCO basketball is by itself difficult task. It’s not like baseball, which attracts high-level players because they can get their name in MLB draft early.
There are basically two types of players who come to junior college basketball programs: the Division I athletes, who have grade or character issues or both, and the good character kids, who don’t have Division I talent.
As a coach, you try and find those “borderline” kids; a good student-athlete who is willing to work hard and make himself into a productive player and those with talent who want to change their ways.
The SCF basketball program can only provide housing for eight basketball players, which means it has to find four local players to complete its roster.
The situation puts a premium on evaluating talent, which is far from a perfect science, especially if you have to judge an out-of-state recruit or foreign player by a video because of travel restrictions due to budget limitations.
The best male athletes in Manatee and Sarasota counties usually play football or baseball.
E. Reginald Smalls from Southeast is a rare exception, which is the reason he is the only player from an FHSAA school in Manatee County rated among the top 100 players in the state by Florida Hoops.com.
Smalls gave up football to concentrate on basketball.
Every college coach tries to sell a dream when recruiting a player, but Bellamy has to work twice as hard and be twice as creative.
He can tell Smalls, a smooth 6-foot-1 combo-guard, to come to SCF and make yourself good enough to play at a high-level Division I program.
James Life did it. A troubled youth who didn’t finish his high school season, he came to SCF (then called MCC) and used the opportunity to get a scholarship to Massachusetts, where he played two years.
Life was a hard worker determined to change his life. But you just don’t know how these kids will turn out, and with only eight scholarships that provide housing, you have to be careful.
Bellamy tries to leave very little to chance. He believes the best way to keep players eligible is provide a support base that includes tutors who will help them and monitor their progress. It’s a win-win approach that also helps recruiting.
“We can find the talent, but once we find them, we have to have everything in place for them to be willing to sign,” Bellamy says. “We have guys focusing on academics and getting them tutors for their core classes, which are a component parents want.”
Bellamy believes winning breeds more winners, but you need to get that first batch aboard.
He thought he had it last year when the Manatees got off to a fast start and had one of the best teams in the state until the roof fell in with problems that forced the team to lose some of its key players.
“Last year, we started out 12-1 because we brought in the right guys, and then we got hit because of character issues,” Bellamy says. “We had to clean that up, and we did to a certain extent. We didn’t lose any players this season, and that is an important part of the puzzle.”
There are nine freshmen on this year’s squad, and seven players have missed games because of injuries, which has contributed to the Manatees’ 9-13 record (3-5 conference).
Inconsistent perimeter shooting and play in the backcourt has been the biggest problem. Sophomores Markee Teal (6-7 forward) and guard Josh Mason are being counted to provide leadership down the stretch, and Bellamy is hoping some of those freshmen will step on, particularly 6-8 Odi Onyekachukwu his big man from Nigeria.
“Not close,” is Bellamy’s answer to whether the program is where he wants it to be. But he is also not discouraged by the record because of the team’s youth and injuries.
It doesn’t help that SCF has been through four athletic directors during his six years with the program. But things are getting better, and SCF President Lars Hafner is a basketball man, who played at St. Petersburg College.
“We are moving in the right direction, and I feel if we don’t move forward, it’s going to be because of me,” Bellamy said.
IF SCF wins tonight at home against Hillsborough Community College, it will be home for Monday night’s Suncoast Conference Tournament opener against Hillsborough again. The winner will be at St. Petersburg on Tuesday with the victor qualifying for the state tournament.
It would be a nice reward for the Manatees, but Bellamy knows there is a bigger picture to all of this.