No. 16 LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds (18-16) vs Radford Highlanders (22-12) +4.5
The LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds were not supposed to be in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. However, head coach Derek Kellogg led the Blackbirds on a five-game winning streak to end the season. They even upset the top seeded Wagner Seahawks in the NEC Championship game. However, the first two regular season games were tight contests. Therefore, a road win to make the NCAA Tournament was something they were capable of doing. Now, the First Four will be a different animal when March Madness tips off.
Meanwhile, the Radford Highlanders have been a second half team as well. The Highlanders played a fairly tough non-conference schedule and it prepared them for what was to come in conference play. They finished second in the Big South. So, it was no surprise when they found themselves in the Big South Championship game. Still, the Highlanders needed a game-winning 3-pointer shot from Carlik Jones at the buzzer.
Speaking of Jones, he will be in a battle against one of the unheralded veteran players in college basketball. The Blackbirds have guard Joel Hernandez leading the way, offensively. Hernandez leads the team with 20 points per game. They also have Raiquan Clark pouring in 17.4 points per game. Oh yeah, the two guards combined to average 13 rebounds per game. Due to their lack of size, the Blackbirds must team-rebound at a high level. During conference play, they finished third in the rebounding category. In fact, the Blackbirds are the 21st rated rebounding team in the country. We will see just how tenacious they are on Tuesday night.
The Highlanders are an undersized team as well. Ed Polite is a difference-maker in the open court. His ability to get to the rim will be key for the Highlanders to advance to the Round of 64. To put it bluntly, if Polite can dominate his matchup, the Highlanders can win. However, if he is unable to overwhelm the Blackbirds with his athletic skills, then it could be a long day for head coach Mike Jones.
Tempo is also a major factor in the First Four opener. The Highlanders play tremendous defense. They are limiting opponents to 64.4 points per game. Moreover, the Highlanders don’t play at a prolific pace. As a result, opponents can really struggle to get easy shots in transition. The Blackbirds are a little better offensively. However, they average 77.5 points per game. In other words, they score 10 more points per game than the Highlanders. Whoever controls tempo, controls the game.
Both teams are playing their best basketball of the season. Clearly, each team had to go on a run to earn the automatic bid. Yet, both teams are currently on their best winning streaks of the season. The Highlanders have won seven straight, while the Blackbirds have won five straight.
If it comes down to foul shooting, the Highlanders have the advantage. They are shooting 72 percent as a team. Jones and Polite take the most free throws. They are both over 72 percent. Meanwhile, the Blackbirds are shooting around 69 percent from the free throw line. The main culprit is Hernandez. He is only connecting on 66 percent of his freebies. Clark is over 75 percent from the foul line. Due to their ability to get into the lane, they should have plenty of opportunities to earn some And 1’s.
There are some high flyers in this game. Hopefully, we see each team with their best foot forward. If so, we should have a high-intensity game on our hands. The Highlanders are 4.5 point favorites. If the score gets into the 70’s it will be an upset.
Score Prediction – Radford 64 – LIU-Brooklyn 59