The NCAA Tournament begins on Tuesday night in Dayton with the annual opening round game, this time matching the champions of the Big South and Southwestern Athletic conferences. Neither team will light up the scoreboard but with both being solid defensive squads this has the makings of a low-scoring contest when you figure in both teams having just one full day of preparation. The key in a game like this: knowing who you are and what you need to do in order to win. A team can digest only so much in a scouting report about a team that in most cases you haven't seen much of outside of Championship Week.
Randy Peele's Eagles accomplished one of the tougher things to do in a conference tournament, winning on the home floor of the regular season champions (Coastal Carolina) to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. Winthrop is not a good shooting team, shooting 38% from the field on the season. But Coach Peele's team is among the best defensive squads in the nation as their opponents shoot 39% and turn the ball over more than fifteen times per game. Frontcourt players Mantoris Robinson, Matt Morgan and Andy Buechert combine to average nearly seventeen rebounds per game and Reggie Middleton leads the team in scoring.
They took on some challenges in the non-conference schedule but they've got nothing on what George Ivory's team went through. A lot of teams that are HBCUs take on the role almost equivalent to that of a barnstorming outfit in November and December, taking on just about any opponent that offers a hefty paycheck in exchange for a game that the visitors are unlikely to win. The Golden Lions started the season 0-11, not winning a game until they beat Mississippi Valley State on January 4th. In that stretch they played four straight tournament teams (Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri and Kansas State) and maybe there's something to be said for none of those games having a margin of more than eighteen points.
Guards Terrance Calvin and Savalace Townsend lead five UAPB players averaging at least eight points per game and Coach Ivory essentially sticks to his seven-man rotation. That's about the same number of players that Winthrop will play, although it will be interesting to see if either (or both) team extends their rotation in light of the hurried travel of having one day in between finding out the opponent and gameday. Calvin and Lebaron Weathers lead the way on the boards, and as a team UAPB out-rebounds their opponents by almost seven rebounds per game. The Golden Lions have a defensive rebounding percentage of 73.6% this season and that's a solid number.
The outcome will likely be determined by turnovers and which team can best capitalize on their opponent's mistakes. UAPB has a turnover rate of 24.5%; Winthrop is well below that at 18.2%. But that doesn't mean that the Eagles rely upon assisted baskets for the majority of their offense. Winthrop assists on 47.4% of their baskets, a far cry from Pine Bluff's 58.0% number. The players that Coach Peele relies upon to make things happen do a good job of not turning the ball over when they go to work and that could be the difference on Tuesday.
The winner gets Duke in Jacksonville on Friday, and the team heading to the Sunshine State will be Winthrop. Their ability to control tempo and defend while also not turning the ball over on offense will be the deciding factors in a six-point victory for the Eagles.