Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Previewing the First Four, Round 1
By Brian Bennett
DAYTON, Ohio -- The road to the Final Four begins at the First Four.
For the first time in NCAA tournament history, there will be four play-in ... excuse me, first-round games, held in Dayton for the right to move on to what is now referred to as the second round on Thursday and Friday. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, two automatic-bid teams will square off to determine which faces a No. 1 seed later in the week, while a pair of the final at-large squads will try to prove their worthiness in the expanded field.
Yes, it's different and will take some getting used to. We're here to guide you through it with a preview of the First Four's first-day action.
Arkansas-Little Rock (19-16) vs. UNC-Asheville (19-13)
How they got here: North Carolina-Asheville upset Big South regular-season champion Coastal Carolina in the conference tournament championship game. After finishing fifth in the Sun Belt's West Division, Arkansas-Little Rock made an improbable run through the conference tournament, nipping North Texas by one point in the championship game.
Storyline: UNC-Asheville is making just its second NCAA tournament appearance, and in 2003 the Bulldogs won the opening-round game in Dayton over Texas Southern before losing to Texas. Arkansas-Little Rock is in its first NCAA tournament since 1990, when it lost to eventual national champion UNLV. The winner advances to play No. 1-seed Pittsburgh on Thursday in the Southeast Regional.
Players to watch: UALR guard Solomon Bozeman was the Sun Belt's regular-season and tournament MVP, and his 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds against North Texas left punched the Trojans' dance card. The South Florida transfer shot 46 percent from 3-point range this season. UNCA is led by guards Matt Dickey, who was the Big South tournament MVP, and J.P. Primm.
What to look for: UNC-Asheville center D.J. Cunningham has had an injury-plagued season and missed the Big South tournament, but the Bulldogs expect him to play in Dayton. When available, the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder provides a strong rebounding and shot-blocking presence inside. Without him, the starting lineup in the Big South tournament featured no player taller than 6-foot-5, while UALR has two players 6-7 or taller in its starting five. Asheville has a balanced scoring attack, with six players averaging at least 8.8 points per game. The Trojans' game plan is simple: lean heavily on Bozeman and the 3-point shot, at which they finished 13th best in the country in making.
UAB (22-8) vs. Clemson (21-11)
How they got here: Clemson finished 9-7 in the ACC and won one game in the ACC tournament to squeak its way in. UAB claimed the regular-season Conference USA title but lost its first game in the conference tournament to East Carolina before receiving a Selection Sunday surprise.
Storyline: Along with VCU, UAB was the team nobody could believe made the field. All the criticism about the Blazers, though, obscured the fact that Clemson didn't beat anyone of note all season, either. Both of these teams have a lot to prove while deciding who plays No. 5-seed West Virginia in the East Regional.
Players to watch: UAB point guard Aaron Johnson leads the nation at 7.7 assists per game. Backcourt mate Jamarr Sanders is often the beneficiary of those passes and paces the team at 17.7 points per game. For Clemson, senior guard Demontez Stitt is averaging 17 points and five rebounds over his past 10 games, including a 25-point effort in the ACC tournament loss to North Carolina.
What to look for: OK, it's time to stop griping about the selection committee and get down to business, and this has all the makings of an interesting game. Both teams are evenly matched and boast very similar statistics across the board. They both average 68 points, hold their opponents to just over 60 points, shoot 44 percent from the field and start a three-guard lineup. The Stitt versus Johnson matchup should be fun to watch. In a stronger year, these two might be meeting in the NIT. But that's just griping. "We're supposed to be here because the committee selected us to be here," Johnson said. "So what other people got to say about us, they can just keep talking because we're going to play basketball."