By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: UNC-Asheville -3.5
2:00 pm Central – Kimmel Arena, Asheville, NC
Radford Highlanders (10-7, 9-2)
March 6, 2020. As the final seconds ran off the clock, the Radford Highlanders would see their NCAA Tournament chances dissipate in the Friday night air. The Highlanders, Big South Conference Regular Season Champions, were upended by the Hampton Pirates 86-78. For a team that had taken down Northwestern, Richmond and Winthrop, we were left speculating the “what if” for the 2019-20 Radford Highlanders. This was the third 20+ win season for the Highlanders, with only one NCAA Tournament appearance to show for their efforts. Coach Jones has built a successful program in Virginia over the course of three seasons, but the Highlanders have had a tough time getting that elusive Conference Tournament win to top off their successful season. For mid-major teams in one-bid conferences, this is a harsh reality they face each season: Conference Tournament Championships have far greater worth than Regular Season Championships.
While Radford had a nice taste of success over the last few seasons, make no doubt of it that Winthrop is the top dog of the Big South Conference this season. With a 15-0 record, 12-0 in conference play, we are pretty much at this point in the season getting a feel for who the two seed will be for the Big South Conference Tournament. Radford is currently slotted in the two seed spot, but by no means do they have a comfortable edge in this spot. The UNC-Asheville Bulldogs are right on their tail, only one-game behind the Highlanders. Radford lost to these same UNC-Asheville Bulldogs yesterday in overtime by a score of 76-68. UNC-Asheville closed a 17-point gap at one point in the early stages of the second half. The Bulldogs went on a 19-4 run to close the game and push for extra time to decide the winner. UNC-Asheville won yesterday, but I expect Radford to showcase themselves better the second time around.
A key loss this season for the Highlanders is Carlik Jones. The 2019-20 Big South Player of the Year left the Radford program after putting up outstanding numbers during his three-year stint. Jones is now a member of the Louisville Cardinals program, where he continues to dominate the upper-tier competition in the ACC. The Highlanders also have lost their two secondary scorers from a season ago: Travis Fields and Donald Hicks. A freshman and a sophomore lead the 2020-21 Highlanders in scoring this season. The freshman, Fah’Mir Ali, is averaging 10.7 points per game, while the sophomore, Dravon Mangum, is averaging 9.5 points per game. Not surprising given these two are the leading scorers, the Highlanders are not an offensive juggernaut. The Highlanders are averaging 67.0 points per game this season (251st in Division-I), with the majority of their points coming from inside the three-point arc (54.7% on two-point shot attempts; 47th in Division-I). The Highlanders are solid defensively, holding their opponent to 65.2 points per game (51st in Division-I) and teams shoot just 40.9% from the field against them this season (67th in Division-I). Opponents only gather 28.9 rebounds per game this season against the Highlanders (8th in Division-I), while they are grabbing 38.1 rebounds per game (66th in Division-I). Usually a team that owns the glass will own the game, which has been indicative of their 9-2 record in conference play. The one knock on Radford along with their lackluster offensive prowess is their carelessness with the basketball at times. Radford is averaging 16.3 turnovers per game this season, which ultimately led to their loss against UNC-Asheville Sunday (23 turnovers). The Highlanders are 2-3 when they have 17+ turnovers in a game this season.
UNC Asheville Bulldogs (9-7, 8-3)
Prior to UMBC’s dethroning of #1 seed Virginia in 2018, the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville were one of those “close call” games in the NCAA Tournament. The 2012 NCAA Tournament saw what might have been the first ever #16 seed to take down a #1 seed. Unfortunately, a few controversial calls were made against the Bulldogs late in the game, which ultimately led to a Syracuse victory 72-65. The Bulldogs were down three-points with 35 seconds left, and the in-bounds pass by Syracuse was certainly off of Brandon Triche of Syracuse… The officials though did not make the call. The Bulldogs were oh-so-close to a victory, but it instilled in myself and other fans of Cinderella teams out there that a #16 seed can beat a #1 seed. Little did I or the rest of the world know that the #16 seed win would come in a 20-point drubbing six years and one day later from the controversial UNC-Asheville vs Syracuse game. Poetic justice? Perhaps.
The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA Tournament just once since their controversial game with the Syracuse Orange. They had 20+ winning seasons for three-consecutive years starting in the 2015-16 season, but the Bulldogs have fallen on hard times. The 2018-19 season was a hard pill to swallow for Bulldog fans. They lost their head coach and had to endure a horrendous 4-27 season. The Bulldogs improved last season, finishing 15-16, but I know that UNC Asheville is a program that prides itself on 20+ win seasons. Tajion Jones and LJ Thorpe lead the way in scoring for UNC Asheville this season. Jones is averaging 17.0 points per game this season, while Thorpe is averaging 12.4 points per game.
It is a pretty simple logic for determining wins or losses for the Bulldogs: 72 points. When the Bulldogs score at least 72 points this season, they are 9-1. When the Bulldogs are held to 71 points or fewer, they are 0-6 this season. Had it not been for a furious comeback that led to overtime, the Bulldogs could have very well lost yesterday to Radford, only scoring 67 points in the first two periods. The Bulldogs are currently averaging 75.4 points per game this season (72nd in Division-I), while shooting 47.3% from the field (38th in Division-I). Like their opponent Radford, the Bulldogs like to take two-point shots rather than three-pointers. The Bulldogs are shooting 55.3% on two-point shots (33rd in Division-I) this season. The Bulldogs are very much so just a middle of the road defensive team. UNC Asheville is allowing 72.9 points per game (221st in Division-I) and teams are shooting 45.1% (226th in Division-I) from the field. As Radford discovered yesterday, the Bulldogs do play with active hands though on the defense and have a knack for causing disruption in the passing lanes this season by notching 7.4 steals per game (45th in Division-I).
Two postponed games were in my hand of cards last week, so here is hoping for a different result this week. UNC-Asheville has done a great job since their loss to Hampton back on January 9th. The Bulldogs have rattled off five wins out of six contests, covering the spread in four out of the six games. The thing that worries me though is the back-to-back element for this contest. Last time they played a back-to-back with a similar opponent in Gardner-Webb, the Bulldogs won the first game and were crushed the second time around. Radford dropped their first four games to open the season, but they have not lost back-to-back games since November. Prior to yesterday’s defeat, the Highlanders had won six in a row and covered the spread in all six of those games. I think had it not have been for a complete debacle to close the game out yesterday, Radford would have won the game straight up. For my best bet today, I am going to take Radford +3.5.
Jack’s 2020 CBB picks: (14-13)