Rattlers annually face nation’s best

It’s the second week in January and the men’s basketball team is below .500 with a 3-8 record. At first glance, a record of this nature may spell a losing season so far. This may be true, but the ability of the competition the Rattlers have had to face should not be overlooked.

As of Jan. 5, according to Jeff Sagarin, who has provided statistical rankings for USA Today since 1985, the Rattlers’ schedule was the toughest schedule of the 332 teams in Division I NCAA basketball. The rating of the schedule is based on the average difficulty faced by each team in games played thus far. The ratings also make sure to take into account the rating of the opponent and the location of the game. FAMU’s current rating of 81.37 has since dropped them two spots to number three, with fellow MEAC school Coppin State leading the nation with an 81.91 rating.

The factors that have given the schedule the push to the top in the nation include playing four top 25 teams in the early going of the season. The Rattlers opened the season at two historically dominant Big Ten schools.

Michigan State, who at the time was ranked tenth, kicked off the Rattler woes with a 104-72 victory Nov. 19, which was followed by a 91-60 Rattler loss to current No. 1, Illinois. At the time, FAMU squared off with Florida in an 88-51 loss, the Gators were ranked No. 18 while Mississippi State was No. 24 when they sent the Rattlers packing with a 104-80 defeat. The latest blowout the Rattlers suffered came at the hands of Oklahoma, who is 12-2 and now ranked No. 25 in the AP poll. The Sooners destroyed FAMU 104-45 Dec. 30.

One reason each game appeared to be severely overmatched was the discrepancy of shooting percentage between FAMU and their opponents. The Rattlers shot an average of 37.4 percent from the field compared to a 53.7 percentage from the nationally ranked teams.

“Our shooting wasn’t affected by the big gyms or big names (of the schools),” said guard Tony Tate.

“We competed though, and that’s all that matters.”

“It wasn’t easy,” said head coach Mike Gillespie. “But we wanted to challenge ourselves by playing with the best teams and players.”

Tate, who was aware of the schedule ranking, looked to take advantage of the games.

“Those games prepared us like no one in the MEAC,” Tate said.

“I mean, I wanted to win them all, but I really wanted to beat Illinois because we went on a 15-4 run against them before they were number one.”

The rise in the strength of schedule is a significant jump from the previous season. The Rattlers ended last season with a 67.08 schedule rating, settling for No. 306. Even though the season concluded with a 96-76 loss to the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament, FAMU faced only three Top 30 teams in the Sagarin rankings. No. 17, North Carolina State gave the Rattlers their third loss in three games to begin the season with a 92-62 defeat. Finishing with a No. 28 ranking in Sagarin’s year-ending poll, Florida smashed FAMU 102-78.

Before suiting up for the Rattlers, Tate played at Pittsburgh. As a member of a national contender that has played teams with less talent, he has experienced what it’s like to be on the upper side.

“You don’t take those games lightly,” Tate said.

“You realize that you could get knocked off by one of those teams, so we never took the approach of going into a game like we were automatically going to win. The teams that have done that probably have felt the after-effects of that.”

While each loss was brutal in score, the players viewed the games as learning experiences.

“It was great getting us prepared,” said forward Darius Glover.

“It forced us to get mentally tough and focused.”

Whether or not his team has the toughest schedule or has learned from the losses, Gillespie stressed that the Rattlers must continue to move forward.

“Those games are over and done with,” Gillespie said.

“We’re just excited to be in conference play in the MEAC right now.”

Contact LeMont Calloway at thefamuansports@hotmail.com.