Preview: (16) North Carolina A&T (19-16) vs (16) Liberty (15-20)
Liberty is the first team to enter the tournament with 20 losses since Coppin State in 2008 which could make them a Cinderella team in this year’s tournament if they could become the first #16 to ever upset a #1 seed. The Flames winning percentage (.429) is also the lowest of any team in the field since 2005, when Oakland qualified with a 12-18 record (.400). The Flames went winless in their first eight games of the season but faced a competitive non-conference schedule with matchups against Georgetown, Richmond, William & Mary and Iona.
North Carolina A&T, meanwhile, entered the MEAC tournament at 15-16 but won each of its first three games in Norfolk by double digits. The Aggies 19 wins are the most by the program in more than a decade.
Players to watch: Liberty Junior guard Davon Marshall is one of the top long range shooters in school history. In four games in the Big South tournament, Marshall averaged 18 points per game including 20 points in the final against Charleston Southern in which he drained six of seven attempts from beyond the arc. North Carolina A&T junior forward Adrian Powell led the Aggies in points with 12.5 per game and pulled down 5 boards.
Key to the game: The Flames will look to deny the Aggies with perimeter defense. Liberty held opponents to 27 percent shooting from 3-point range in the Big South tournament, including Coastal Carolina to one made 3-pointer on 16 attempts. North Carolina A&T has only hit 30 percent of its 3-point attempts on the season. The Aggies also enter the tournament ranked 317th in Division I in field goal percentage. The Aggies force 7 steals and 16 turnovers per game. So I’m predicting this is going to be a good all-around game by both teams that want to make it to the field of 64.
My prediction: Liberty 79 North Carolina A&T 73
Preview: (11) Middle Tennessee State (25-8) vs (11) St. Mary’s (27-6)
Matthew Dellavedova is one of the most creative, electrifying players in the NCAA tournament but could be making a short stay if he is unable to solve one of the stingiest defenses in Division I. Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis employs a 10-man rotation and will likely throw several defenders at Dellavedova in an effort to frustrate the three-time All-West Coast Conference guard. Dellavedova is more athletic and has experience handling physical defenders after facing a host of NBA All-Stars at the London Olympics last summer. After averaging 7 points and close to 5 assists per game for Australia in London, Dellavedova returned to campus for his senior year better equipped to face longer, more athletic players.
Middle Tennessee State went 19-1 in the Sun Belt Conference, finishing the regular season as one of just seven teams in Division I to lose one game or fewer in conference play.
Players to watch: St. Mary's forward Brad Waldow. Dellavedova has help on the perimeter with WCC honorable mention guard Stephen Holt and junior swingman Beau Levesque, but may look to feed the post often with Waldow. In spite of their depth, the Blue Raiders still lack a go-to scorer. Marcos Knight leads Middle Tennessee State in scoring (close to 13 PPG). The senior guard has attempted less than 20 percent of the Blue Raiders field goals this season.
Davis has described senior guard Bruce Massey as the nation's top perimeter defender in the nation besides Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. Massey can also be spelled by Tweety Knight, another relentless defender.
Key to the game: Following a win over Middle Tennessee State early in the season Florida guard Kenny Boynton described the Blue Raiders as one of the most physical defensive teams he's ever faced. If Dellavedova can handle the rough nature of the game early, the Blue Raiders could be in trouble. In five losses, Middle Tennessee State averaged 57.6 points per game. The Blue Raiders will need senior guard Raymond Cintron to be accurate from the outside. Cintron has hit 70 3-pointers and is shooting and an impressive 44 percent from beyond the arc this season.
My prediction: Middle Tennessee State 74 Saint Mary's 67