First Round Tuesday: Your Commentary
The postseason champions of the Big South and Sun Belt open the 2011 NCAA Tournament with the winner moving on to play top-seed Pittsburgh in the Southeast Region. Eddie Biedenbach's Bulldogs were the pick of more than a few pundits to win the conference tournament given the heave personnel losses incurred by regular season champ Coastal Carolina and two-seed Liberty having lost four straight games to end the regular season. UNC Asheville beat the Chanticleers at Coastal Carolina to win the automatic bid, and their run began in that same gym on a Matt Dickey runner at the buzzer on February 22nd. The Bulldogs have won seven straight games with Dickey (15.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.3 apg) and J.P. Primm (14.4 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.8 rpg) leading the way.
UNC Asheville starts three guards with junior Chris Stephenson averaging 9.4 points per game, and forward John Williams (5.3 rpg) and center D.J. Cunningham (7.5 rpg) are expected to get the job done on the boards. The Bulldogs essentially break even on the glass, possessing a rebounding margin of minus-0.3 but that number is better than what Arkansas-Little Rock brings to the table (minus-1.5). Coach Biedenbach's team turns the ball over 15 times per game but they're very good at forcing turnovers, averaging nine steals and forcing 17.6 turnovers per game. Averaging 74 points and nearly 72 possessions per game, the Bulldogs will look to play at a higher pace than the Trojans (65.7 possessions/game) and get to the basket (57% of their points are scored on two-point shots).
Arkansas-Little Rock arrived at this point by winning four games in four days at the wild Sun Belt Tournament. The Trojans finished fifth in the West Division and their ticket wasn't punched until Solomon Bozeman knocked down a three-pointer in the final seconds against North Texas. Bozeman, who began his college career at USF, is the lone double-digit scorer for Scott Shields and rarely leaves the floor. Bozeman has played 30+ minutes in every game against Sun Belt competition except for four, either meeting or exceeding that mark in six of the Trojans' last seven games. But whether or not UALR goes on to the nation's capital will depend on what the other expected contributors bring to the table. Gus Leeper scored 10 in the win over North Texas but averages just 1.6 points per game on the season. Seniors Alex Garcia-Mendoza (8.6 ppg) and Matt Mouzy (8.0 ppg) are next in line behind Bozeman and they'll both be needed.
Courtney Jackson and Eric Kibi are the leading rebounders for the Trojans, who have to get the job done on the boards by committee due to their lack of size. UNC Asheville isn't a lights-out rebounding team themselves but they are better than the Trojans, grabbing 34% of their missed shots on the season. If UALR can take care of the basketball, something they've done well with an average of just 11.8 turnovers per game, and hold their own on the boards they can win. The Trojans outscore their opponents by just one point per game on the average so look for some late-game suspense in the first game of the night in Dayton.
9:00 PM UAB vs. Clemson (TruTV)
The Blazers and TIgers were done no favors by the schedule planners, getting the late game tonight with the winner off to Tampa to play East five-seed West Virginia...at 12:15 pm EST (huh?). The beefs in regards to whether or not a team should be in the field are done but there will be a lot of eyes on UAB, the outright Conference USA regular season champion. Senior point guard Aaron Johnson ranks among the nation's best in assists per game with 7.7 in addition to scoring 12 points per contest. His primary responsibility on offense is to set up Jamarr Sanders (17.7 ppg) and Cameron Moore (14.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg), two players with the ability to drop 20-plus on an opponent on any given night.
Mike Davis' team plays just 65 possessions and turn the ball over 12.3 times per game, and they also enter tonight's game as the better rebounding team. Clemson doesn't play as fast as they did under Oliver Purnell in the first season of the brad Brownell era but old habits die hard, with the Tigers averaging eight steals per game. Guards Demontez Stitt (14.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.4 apg) and Andre Young (10.8 ppg, 3.0 apg) are also the team leaders in steals per game, with their quickness making up for the change in game tempo. Jerai Grant, Milton Jennings and Devin Booker are the key contributors in the frontcourt, and Tanner Smith is a solid player on the wing.
Clemson has played well defensively for much of the season, allowing 60 points and forcing more than 15 turnovers per game. Opponents shoot just 40% from the field, and the Tigers do a good job of grabbing offensive rebounds (34.6% offensive rebound percentage). But UAB is better at keeping their opponents off of the offensive glass, hence the earlier statement that the Blazers are the better rebounding team. Tonight's matchup may be just as much about motivation as execution. Clemson really hasn't been criticized for their inclusion, as they took North Carolina to overtime in the ACC semifinals (in all honesty the Tigers let that one slip away) and enjoy the pedigree of playing in a BCS conference.
But the Blazers aren't exactly chopped liver; despite having just one RPI Top 50 win (the same number of victories as Clemson) Mike Davis' team did go 9-3 against teams from 51-100 and did not suffer any horrific losses (teams ranked 200 or worse in the RPI). All they've heard is that they don't belong but UAB is a talented team that can not only win tonight but also on Thursday afternoon. Clemson can win a couple games as well, but it's that disrespect that may push UAB on to Tampa.
Postseason NIT Games
7:00 PM (3) Dayton at (6) Charleston (ESPN2)
7:00 PM (7) Vermont at (2) Cleveland State (ESPN3)
7:00 PM (8) Coastal Carolina at (1) Alabama (ESPNU)
7:30 PM (6) Harvard at (3) Oklahoma State (ESPN)
8:00 PM (6) Murray State at (3) Missouri State (ESPN3)
9:00 PM (6) Fairfield at (3) Colorado State (ESPN3)
9:00 PM (5) UTEP at (4) New Mexico (ESPN2)
9:00 PM (1) Boston College at (8) McNeese State (ESPNU)
11:00 PM (7) Kent State at (2) Saint Mary's (ESPN2)
College Basketball Invitational Games
7:00 PM James Madison at Davidson
8:05 PM San Jose State at Creighton
8:05 PM Hofstra at Evansville
9:00 PM Austin Peay at Boise State
College Insider Tournament Games
7:00 PM Ohio at Marshall
7:00 PM Furman at East Tennessee State
8:00 PM Jacksonville at East Carolina
8:00 PM Rider at Northern Iowa
9:00 PM North Dakota at Air Force
10:00 PM Northern Arizona at Santa Clara
1:00 AM Portland at Hawaii