It's been quite the year for West Florida athletics. The football team stole the spotlight, reaching the national championship game in the program's second season. Now the men’s basketball team is off to memoriable start.
"When I took the job, I told [football coach Pete] Shinnick that we were going to grow our programs together," head coach Jeff Burkhamer said. "Boy, what they have done has been unbelievable, but we've been able to turn around the basketball program and grow each year."
Burkhamer is in his third season as head coach, and took over a team coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons. He began to rebuild the culture. Last year, his Argos set a GSC record by improving by 13 wins ending with a 20-9 record. This year has been more of the same.
The Argos began the season 12-0, the best start in program history. They reeled off 19 consecutive wins at home, tying the program record. West Florida earned its first Top 10 ranking in the D2SIDA poll earlier this season, and has been up and down the NABC Top 25, currently at No. 15. The Argos sit at 17-2, their two losses by a combined four points.
Darryl Tucker is leading the way. He came into the program last year, a transfer from Central Georgia Tech College. The senior forward leads the team in points (15.4 per game), rebounds (9.3 per game) and blocked shots (24). In fact, he leads the entire Gulf South Conference in rebounding this season.
While the numbers are impressive, it’s magnified when you realize he’s doing it all off the bench.
"He requested to come off the bench," Burkhamer said. "He just feels more comfortable doing that. He feels like he can sit and watch for a few minutes. We usually bring him in at the first media timeout and he plays starter minutes from there. It's an opportunity to keep him out of foul trouble early, and keep him in the game late. He's had a great year, and I'm really proud of what he's done the year-and-a-half he's been with us. He's really a big key to our success."
Tucker is fifth on the team in minutes played, on the court for 24.0 per game. He is always in the middle of things, whether it be on the boards or at the rim, or the receiving end of a high-flying alley oop, becoming one of the most exciting dunkers in the GSC. In a game last weekend, Tucker played a mere 11 minutes, and still scored 11 points while pulling down eight rebounds, the most on the team.
Why the bench? Why isn’t Burkhamer finding ways to get his top statistical player on the court from start to finish?
"I started the first game," Tucker said. "I didn't like the way I came out, so I requested to come off the bench. I get a better feel looking at the game. It was best for the team.
"When the game tips off, the coaches can tell me what to do and what the game plan is. I watch about two or three minutes, and get a good feel for the game. Once I'm in there, I try and make the best impact I can."
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This, in turn, has a trickle down effect. When others see the selfless act to take on the role of sixth man, they quickly realize that the Argos run on teamwork. Despite Tucker's success, West Florida is no one-man show.
"I think everybody understands that when he comes in, the game changes a little bit," Burkhamer said. "I think they respect the effort that he gives. To be able to give in and let somebody else start just buys in to our team-first philosophy."
Rebounding. Scoring. Defense. You name it, Tucker seemingly excels at it.
"It's not the points or the rebounds," Tucker said. "It's the heart. I feel like I give my team more energy when I'm on the court and even when I'm off the court. They can hear me yelling their names. But it's really the energy I give, I don't care about the points or the rebounds. I just care about the win."
Whether he's on the floor or on the bench, Tucker feels his biggest role is being one of the team leaders from the first whistle to the final buzzer.
"Most definitely," Tucker said. "Everybody is held to a certain standard, especially this year. We lost by one possession last year in the playoffs. That really left a bad taste in our mouth. This year I really tried to step out and be the leader. I try to lead by example, and do the best for our team. We have four other seniors. We all try to do the best to win."
This team is deep, with Tucker leading five players in double-digit scoring. Ten players are averaging at least 12 minutes a game, so if you suit up in an Argos uniform, you need to be ready to contribute. Just one game out of first place in a stacked Gulf South Conference, Tucker has West Florida right where they expect to be.
"The biggest difference is experience," Tucker said. "[Last year] was our first year, we had to buy into the system. We had to get in shape, I don't think we were at our peak. This year, everybody's locked in. We should win the Gulf South, we should win nationals. We have the best coaches and the best players. I don't think there's any doubt we should win it."
It's not often a team can mesh so well that its best player not only comes off the bench, but asks to do so. That's the culture that Burkhamer's built in Pensacola, Fl. and both his team, and Tucker, have thrived in it.
"When he's in tune to the game, I think he's the best big guy in the league," Burkhamer said of his star. "He's athletic, he can run and jump, he can make plays, he rebounds the ball. He does a lot of good things for us."