Most teams would prefer being able to avoid a play-in game, but if New Orleans is any indication of how the First Four field feels about it, the extra game in Dayton isn’t such a bad thing.
The NCAA First Four begins Tuesday at UD Arena, with New Orleans (20-11) and Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) squaring off in the opening game for a shot to face top-seeded Villanova, followed by a matchup of Kansas State (20-13) and Wake Forest (19-12) with sixth-seeded Cincinnati awaiting the victor.
“I love the opportunity for me, selfishly, and for my student-athletes to experience this because this is not what it’s like at the other places,” New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger said before his team’s practice session Monday at UD Arena. “… And so to be able to come, to play a like-level team that is also a conference champion and a tournament champion on a neutral court, on national TV and be the first game of this entire tournament, … it’s pretty cool.”
Here are five things to know about Tuesday’s games.
Small but mighty
One of the top players for Mount St. Mary’s is the smallest in all of Division I basketball.
Junior Robinson, a 5-foot-5, 165-pound guard, is not to be overlooked, even if he blends into a crowd. He averages 14.1 points per game and was even better in the Northeast Conference Tournament, posting 20.7 points per game to lead the Mount to the title.
“When you look at Junior, you see a guy with enormous heart, a tremendous talent level and a true compassion and empathy level with his teammates,” Mount St Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “When you have a guy like that that can play with that kind of talent you’re going to have a really special season.”
Been here before
College Basketball Hall of Famer Danny Manning, in his third season as coach at Wake Forest, played at UD Arena for the first two rounds of the tournament in 1986 as a sophomore for top-seeded Kansas, but he said he couldn’t remember much about it — given how long ago it was and how many games he’s seen or played in since then.
Manning had 15 points with four rebounds and three assists in 71-46 win against No. 16 seed NC A&T in the first round, and he tallied 14 points with six rebounds and two assists in a 65-43 win over No. 9 Temple in the second round.
Kansas eventually lost to Duke in the Final Four.
Kansas State didn’t see Wake this season but can compare the Demon Deacons to Kansas, who they faced twice this year.
Manning served as an assistant on Bill Self’s staff at Kansas from 2003 to 2012, and KSU coach Bruce Weber said there are similarities between what Wake Forest does and the way Kansas plays.
“Kansas is up tempo this year,” Weber said. “… This group seems very offensive minded, kind of in a way what Kansas is this year, but we’ve got to stop them. We’ve got to get back transition. I think it’s going to be key. And then limiting those easy post touches and easy post entries where they can get — we’ve got to protect the paint.”
Wake is led by 6-foot-10 sophomore forward John Collins (18.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg), with help from guards Bryant Crawford (16.1 ppg) and Keyshawn Woods (12.8 ppg).
Manning praised Kansas State’s balanced offense — as the entire starting lineup averages 9.4 to 12.5 points per game — but its defense could be the biggest challenge for Wake Forest.
Wake Forest ranks 16th in the country in scoring offense with 82.7 points per game, while the Wildcats allow just 66.9 points per game (ranking 56th). They are among the best at causing turnovers, forcing 15.2 per game while averaging 7.8 steals.
“Defensively, they’re one of the better defensive teams in the country,” Manning said. “And it’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but one that we welcome and look forward to.”
Slessinger joked that if the selection committee was trying to pair up teams with different playing styles they did a great job with his matchup because Mount St. Mary’s is “as polar opposite as there is” to New Orleans’ style.
“They can create tempo, they can score in a lot of different ways and they’ve got some guys that in my day you would say they’ve got some motor scooters,” Slessinger said of the Mountaineers, who also are one of the better blocking teams despite struggling on the boards.
On the other side, Christian said the Privateers “play great positional defense and really do a great job stealing the ball from you, especially on drives,” and they are “one of the better transition offensive teams.”
They force 16.3 turnovers per game, ranking 14th in the country.
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