The 2023 game of the First Four will have a somewhat familiar feel to last year, though Steve Lutz hopes only to a point.
“I’d first like to say, shoot, it’s a lot better to be here now than the last time I was sitting here,” the coach of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi said Monday afternoon at UD Arena.
His Islanders are set to play in the first game of the tournament for the second straight season after dropping a 76-67 decision to Texas Southern last year.
Lutz hopes his team can take something from that experience when it plays fellow 16 seed Southeast Missouri State at 6:40 tonight.
“I sure hope so,” he said. “If you don’t learn from it, then it wasn’t worth doing it the first time. Experience is always key in life. It’s key in basketball. So yeah, I think that the experience will absolutely help us, but when you tip that ball up tomorrow at whatever time, all that stuff really goes out the window. You’ve still got to go play the game of basketball.”
SEMO coach Brad Korn, who was part of the 2017 First Four as an assistant at Kansas State, agreed his opponent should have an advantage, but he wasn’t complaining.
“Just because of the normalcy and the way that everything is ran, the deer-in-the-headlight looks probably won’t be there for them as much as it would be probably for somebody for the first time,” Korn said.
Meanwhile, Lutz was asked how he felt being in the First Four again rather than getting the chance to go straight to the field of 64 as two of the other 16 seeds do every year.
“I go back and forth,” he said. “As a program, you want to obviously go directly into the NCAA Tournament. I think that that’s everybody’s goal, but the First Four is fantastic. This arena last year was electric. The people here in Dayton are great. If you’re complaining about coming to Dayton and the First Four, you’re messed up in my book.
“There’s a lot of teams sitting at home right now. There’s a lot of teams playing in other tournaments that would trade in a heartbeat.”
While Lutz said the first game Tuesday night will match teams that want to get up and down the court, the late game between 11 seeds Arizona State and Pittsburgh should be a contest in styles.
Here is what you need to know about each team playing tonight:
Southeast Missouri State
The Redhawks (19-16) punched their ticket by winning the Ohio Valley Conference for the first time in 23 years. Seeded fifth, they needed to win four games in a row to do it, knocking out the top two seeds along the way.
In their third season under Korn, they have a winning record for the first time.
Phillip Russell, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, leads SEMO with a scoring average of 18.2 points per game. He averaged 20.3 points per game en route to OVC Tournament MVP.
SEMO is 257th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings with the No. 263 offense and 243 defense. Its schedule ranked 321st.
The Redhawks’ other Division I NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2000 when they were a 13 seed and nearly upset No. 4 LSU, coming up short by a 64-61 final.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
The Islanders (23-10) were the top team in the Southland Conference regular season and won the league’s tournament for the second straight season to get into the field of 68.
They beat Northwestern State 75-71 in the title game despite a serious knee injury to top player Terrion Murdix, who is out for the season, early in the game.
The Islanders are 17th in the nation in scoring at 80.4 points per game and 23rd in steals (8.8).
TAMU-CC is 170th in Pomeroy rankings with the No. 137 offense and 229 defense, and they played the No. 352 schedule.
Murdix and senior forward Isaac Mushila made the All-SLC first team while senior Trevian Tennyson made the second team.
Lutz is 46-22 in two seasons leading the Islanders and was named Southland Conference Coach of the Year.
The Islanders, whose first season of basketball was 1999-2000, have never won an NCAA Tournament game, losing to No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the round of 64 in 2007 and fellow 16 seed Texas Southern last year.
The Panthers (22-11) tied for third in the ACC regular season standings with a 14-6 conference mark.
They are in the NCAA Tournament for the 27th time but first under Jeff Capel, who took over the program in 2018 after stints at Oklahoma and VCU. He is the 2023 ACC Coach of the Year.
Senior guard Jarious Burton made the All-ACC First Team after averaging 16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists in conference play.
Nike Sibande, who began his college career at Miami University, is the ACC Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 9.7 points per game in conference play.
The Panthers are 77th in the Pomeroy rankings with the No. 24 offense and 142 defense while ranking 75th in the nation in points per game (76.1).
Pitt last made the NCAA Tournament in 2016 when it lost to Wisconsin in the first round. The Panthers last advanced in 2014, and they made their only Final Four in 1941.
The Bulldogs (21-12) finished ninth in the SEC in the regular season but won nine of their last 13 games.
They are in the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time overall and the eighth since 2002. They last made the tournament in 2019 when they were upset by Liberty in the first round and last advanced to the round of 32 in 2008. MSU has one Final Four — 1996.
Under first-year coach Chris Jans, MSU is 49th in Pomeroy rankings, including No. 6 on defense and No. 164 on offense.
Senior big man Tolu Smith leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 15.8 points per game and made the All-SEC First Team. He has 12 double-doubles and led the SEC in field goal percentage at 57.6.
Entering the week, Mississippi State is the only team to rank in the national top 20 in scoring defense (61 points per game/10th nationally), field goal percentage defense (39.4/10th) and steals (8.9 per game/17th).
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