By ROD GIPSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa men's team spent the majority of the regular season ranked among the nation's best Division II squads. It also spent a considerable amount of time as the top-ranked team in the South Region.
Eckerd, meanwhile, spent the season acquiring wins and respect, posting the second 20-win season in the program's 41-year history and first for fifth-year coach Tom Ryan.
After being ousted from the Sunshine State Conference tournament, both are out to prove they belong in the NCAA Division II South Region tournament, which begins today at Eckerd College's McArthur Center.
"We're obviously excited," Ryan said, "about the chance to keep playing as well as be the host school."
Ryan and the Tritons also are excited about the possibility of facing Tampa for what would be their third meeting this season and second in two weeks. The Spartans have won 38 of the 48 meetings. Eckerd, however, picked up two of those wins this season, beating UT 66-63 on Jan. 6 in St. Petersburg and 67-63 in the regular-season finale Feb. 21 at Tampa.
The Tritons come into the tournament winners of three of four and owners of the SSC's top defense. The offensive leaders are junior guard Dwayne Smith and senior forward Clevon Dunbar, who each average 12 points. Sophomore forward Cerwin Thompson has been solid inside with a team-best seven rebounds per game.
"We won't really do anything different if we play them again," Ryan said. "The kids just have to go out and play.
"We know Tampa is good, we know Eckerd is good and we know Florida Southern is good. So we'll just go out and play."
Tampa, meanwhile, first faces a mystery in Kentucky State. The Spartans never have played the Thorobreds, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions.
A high-scoring squad (80 ppg), Kentucky State has four starters in double figures, including senior guard Jonathan Johnson at 15 points. The Spartans, however, come into the tournament with post-season experience and something to prove. A 12-time NCAA Tournament qualifier, Tampa was cruising toward another bid until a late-season speed bump. Despite losing its last two games, UT received its bid and finds familiar foes Eckerd and Florida Southern among others in its post-season path.
"Losing those last games might have helped us," UT forward Gecarri Freeman said. "We missed out on the first-round bye but now we have extra motivation.
"We know what we have to go out and do."
WHO: Florida Southern, Eckerd, Tampa, West Georgia, Henderson State, Kentucky State.
WHAT: South Region tournament.
WHEN/WHERE: Today-Saturday; McArthur Center, Eckerd College (4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg).
AT STAKE: Winner advances to Elite Eight, March 22-24 in Bakersfield, Calif.
SCHEDULE: Today -- No. 4 West Georgia (21-7) vs. No. 5 Henderson State (20-9) 6 p.m.; No. 3 Tampa (21-6) vs. No. 6 Kentucky State (17-12) 8 p.m. Friday -- No. 1 Florida Southern (23-6) vs. West Georgia/Henderson State winner 6 p.m.; No. 2 Eckerd (22-7) vs. Tampa/Kentucky State winner 8 p.m. Saturday -- championship, 7:30 p.m.
KEY PLAYERS: Eckerd -- Dwayne Smith, G, 6-3 Jr. (12 ppg); Clevon Dunbar, F, 6-6 Sr. (12 ppg); Cerwin Thompson, F, 6-8 So. (7 rpg). Tampa -- Gecarri Freeman, F, 6-4 Jr. (13 ppg); Jon Brown, G, 6-1 Jr. (10 ppg); James Mereus, F, 6-8 So. (10 ppg); Sylvere Bryan, C, 6-10 Jr. (10 ppg). Florida Southern -- Christophe Humbert, F, 6-7 So. (15 ppg); Derek Heard, F, 6-6 Jr. (13 ppg); Cedric Powell, G, 6-1 Jr. (11 ppg). West Georgia -- Andy Young, G, 5-11 Jr. (14 ppg); Bryant Redd, G, 6-4 So. (12 ppg). Henderson State -- Kenyuan Morris, G, 6-0 Sr. (10 ppg); Niki Arinze, F, 6-6, 220 Jr. (10 ppg). Kentucky State -- Jonathan Johnson, G, 6-2 Sr. (15 ppg); Jason Lewis, G, 6-8 Jr. (13 ppg).
WHAT ECKERD HAS TO DO TO WIN: Exactly what it has been doing. The Tritons have played outstanding defense throughout the season and have relied on the tandem scoring of Smith and Dunbar and the inside presence of Thompson. WHAT TAMPA HAS TO DO TO WIN: Forget its regular-season loss to Eckerd and a conference tourney loss to Barry. The Spartans have solid 1-2 scoring in Freeman and Bryan and will rely on them. With outside shooting from Freeman, Peter Howard and Jon Brown and using depth, Tampa could be a team to beat.
TICKETS: $10 reserved, $8 general admission and $4 for students. Call Eckerd, (727) 864-8251. -- Compiled by Rod Gipson.