At a pre-tournament luncheon, everybody said what you expected to hear: "We respect our opponents. Anybody is capable of winning this thing."
But behind the cliches, this time there is truth in those friendly word volleys. Parity seems to have struck the Sunshine State Conference just in time for this weekend's men's conference tournament.
Twenty-one of the 56 regular-season games _ 37.5 percent _ were decided by four points or less. The No. 8 seed, Rollins, split two games with top seed Tampa. Second-seeded Florida Southern split with No. 7 seed North Florida. Saint Leo, under first-year coach Todd Smyly, had its first winning season since 1988-89 and its five conference wins were the most in 10 years.
In today's games at the University of Tampa's Bob Martinez Sports Center, third-seeded Barry (17-9) meets Eckerd (13-12) at 12:30 p.m., Florida Southern (22-4) meets North Florida (14-12) at 2:30, Florida Tech (15-11) clashes with Saint Leo (14-12) at 6:30 and Tampa (19-7), which tied with Florida Southern for the league title when it lost to the Mocs 89-69 six days ago, plays Rollins (11-15) at 8:30.
Florida Southern is the only SSC team ranked in the top 20, although Tampa just dropped out and received votes this week. Florida Southern is ranked No. 2 in the South Region, behind Alabama A&M. Tampa is third. The top two regional seeds receive first-round NCAA byes.
Tampa coach Richard Schmidt is concerned about two-time SSC player of the year DeCarlo Deveaux, a senior guard, whom the coach referred to as as a "one-legged player." Deveaux has been hampered by a sore knee most of the season, then the murder of his brother Drexel two weeks ago.
In the women's tournament, which continues with semifinal games Saturday, top-seeded Tampa has the home-court advantage when it meets North Florida (15-11) at 2:30 p.m.
The favored Spartans (21-5), who defeated Florida Tech 81-52 in Tuesday's quarterfinal, feature SSC player of the year Crystal Ashley, a 5-10 junior center who leads the team in scoring (15.1 points per game) and rebounding (9.4 per game). April Lindsey (King High) was co-freshman of the year and junior Tori Lindbeck remains UT's best three-point threat.
The other game pits Rollins (19-7) against Florida Southern (21-6) at 12:30 p.m.
In a move designed to spur ticket sales _ and an attempt to avoid conflicts with other events _ the conference tournament finals will be held Sunday afternoon. The women's final is at 12:30 p.m., followed by the men at 2:30. Both winners earn bids to the NCAA Division II tournament.
Single session (two games) tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students. A tournament pass (good for all five sessions, 10 games) is $40.