Though they have just one NCAA Tournament win between them, North Carolina A&T and Southern are two of the more successful programs in Division I HBCU basketball. NC A&T will be making its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance, the first since facing Tim Duncan and Wake Forest back in 1995. Southern will be making its eighth tourney experience, its first since 2006. Both teams face tall odds for advancing, but then again, when has an HBCU not?
(16) NC A&T vs. (16) Liberty
During the ’80s and ’90s, North Carolina A&T was about as consistent of a tournament fixture as any mid-major. The Aggies represented the MEAC in the Big Dance nine times in 15 years, and were so dominate that the conference tournament became known as “The Aggie Invitational.”
Then, A&T went on a dry spell. The team that won 15 of the first 25 MEAC tournaments went 17 seasons without hanging another banner at Corbett Sports Arena. And entering this year’s conference tournament with a 15-16 overall record, it looked as if A&T would have to wait another year to make its return run. It turns out A&T had some tricks up their sleeves, beating three higher ranked seeds, including bitter rival North Carolina Central, to bring the conference title back to Greensboro.
A&T (19-16) will matchup against a similarly late-blooming team in Liberty (15-20), on Tuesday night. Liberty started 0-8, and didn’t get its first win against Division I competition until it eked out a 63-62 win over Western Carolina. Like A&T, they struggled against conference competition, finishing 6-10 in the Big South. They finished the regular season, winning two out of three contests before winning four straight to claim the conference title over teams it had gone a combined 1-4 against during the regular season.
Both teams count on their backcourts to make big plays on offense. Senior Adrian Powell scored 15 points per game in the MEAC tournament, hitting 12 of 17 three-point attempts and grabbing five rebounds per game. His backcourt mate, Lamont Middleton can score as well.
Liberty’s junior guard Davon Mitchell has a reputation as a dangerous shooter, and it is one that is well-earned. Mitchell shoots 43 percent from beyond the arc, and hit a ridiculous 17 of 24 three-point attempts during the tournament. Guards John Caleb Sanders and Tavares Speaks are also capable scorers.
Frontcourt play could be a deciding factor for both teams. While neither team has a go-to player inside, NC A&T’s Austin Witter could cause matchup problems. The 6´8 senior was named MEAC Defensive Player of The Year after blocking three shots per game, and is also a capable three-point shooter, as he connected on five of 12 three-point attempts in the MEAC Tourney.
This may be NC A&T’s best shot yet at grabbing its first NCAA Tournament win in school history. If it can contain Liberty’s high-scoring backcourt, it should advance to meet top-seeded Louisville on Thursday.
(16) Southern vs. Gonzaga (1)
Congratulations, Southern University Jaguars. The good news: You are the first SWAC Champion since 2008 not to have to participate in play-in, or First Four game, as we are calling it now. The bad news: You get to play the number one team in the country, Gonzaga, in their backyard.
Southern looked to be the SWAC’s strongest team early on, starting the season with a 14-8 record that included a win over Texas A&M. Southern remained solid throughout conference play, but lost the regular season title to Texas Southern. With TSU ineligible for playoffs due to NCAA sanctions, Southern stepped up and won the SWAC Tournament, thus securing the conference’s automatic bid.
After an anxious 24 hours, the Jags learned they wouldn’t have to play in the First Four, most likely, thanks to its 23-9 overall record and the Texas A&M win. Still the Jags face a tall task, one that no 16-seed has ever been able to accomplish.
If Southern is going to shock the world, it will have to rely on a heavy dose of Derick Beltran and Malcolm Miller. The two combine for nearly 32 points and 10 rebounds a game, pretty impressive when you realize Miller’s numbers (15.8 ppg, 6 rpg) have been accumulated in less than 27 minutes per game off the bench.
The problem for Southern will come when it has to match up defensively against skilled big men Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. These two are as solid of a frontcourt as there is in college basketball, and will test Southern’s big men early and often.
Twenty years ago, Southern pulled off a big upset by knocking off fourth-seeded Georgia Tech as a 13 seed under the direction of legendary coach Ben Jobe. But considering the 0-fer bottom-ranked seeds have accumulated against top seeds over the last 28 years , this would dwarf that upset.