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Play-In Game Preview

March 18, 2003 Columns No Comments

Previewing the Play-In Game

by Phil Kasiecki

For the third straight year, the NCAA Tournament has 65 teams, meaning there is a play-in game on Tuesday of the first week. This year’s play-in game, held in Dayton for the third straight year, will feature Big South champion UNC-Asheville (14-16) and Southwest Athletic Conference champion Texas Southern (18-12).

UNC-Asheville was an easy pick for this game, as they are the only team in this year’s tournament with a losing record and the 17th team all-time to qualify with such a record. While their losing record might make one think they are a surprise team, their appearance in the NCAA Tournament is not a shocker save for the fact that the Big South has been dominated by Winthrop the past four seasons. The Bulldogs were actually picked to win the conference in the preseason, with four returning starters from last season and Winthrop suffering heavy personnel losses.

The Bulldogs have one of the conference’s top players in senior guard Andre Smith, along with good size in the post in 6’11” senior center Ben McGonagil. Smith is a do-everything talent, as he led the team in scoring, assists, and steals, while also hauling down 4.1 rebounds per game. They were dealt a setback when small forward Billy Allen was ruled ineligible for the first semester, and he never did play this season. But they got good contributions from some younger players, and won three straight games in the Big South Tournament to get here.

Texas Southern, on the other hand, is a surprise coming out of the SWAC. The Tigers were picked around the middle of the conference in most preseason publications, and sustained an early loss to Chicago State, which held the nation’s longest losing streak prior to that game. It was a season of streaky play; the Tigers won 9 of 11 games around the start of SWAC play, including a 9-1 start in conference, before losing six of its last eight in the regular season to finish third in the conference. In the SWAC Tournament, they won two close games, then knocked off Alcorn State in the finals after Alcorn State upset the league’s regular season champion Prairie View A&M. A relatively young team with just two seniors and three sophomores among their key players, they are the only team in the NCAA Tournament whose RPI is below 200.

The Tigers are a small team, so it’s no surprise that their strength is in the backcourt. Senior Ra’Kim Hollis and sophomore Allen Lovett are the team’s top two scorers and rebounders, while junior Lionel Willis chips in 10.7 points and 5.2 per game and makes over 54% of his shots. Marquel Timmons, the other senior on the team, runs the show capably with a 2.2 assist/turnover ratio. The team’s tallest player, 6’8″ junior Jamaal Clark, only plays 11 minutes per game, so second-year head coach Ronnie Courtney usually stays with a small lineup for most of the game.

Courtney has tried to make Texas Southern more athletic, and that will be their primary advantage against the Bulldogs. Neither team shoots the lights out, but the Tigers would appear to have the edge in an up-tempo game, especially if they can create turnovers – a possibility since UNC-Asheville commits over 16 turnovers per game. Both teams also allow plenty of points – the Bulldogs allow 76.1, while the Tigers allow 81.6 – so this game could easily be shootout. In the end, look for UNC-Asheville to become the second consecutive play-in winner with a sub-.500 record, as their experience and size will help them pull this out.

Prediction: UNC-Asheville 87, Texas Southern 79


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