No. 16 North Carolina Central Eagles (19-15) vs. No. 16 Texas Southern Tigers (15-19)
There are plenty of similarities between the North Carolina Central Eagles and the Texas Southern Tigers. Both programs are playing in consecutive NCAA Tournament games. Last year, the Eagles lost in the First Four to UC Davis. Meanwhile, the Tigers faced the wrath of the eventual National Champions in the first round. Another similarity is program-building. During the 2016-17 season, these programs each won at least 23 games. Due to a whole bunch of turnover on the roster, they had to fight regain relevance. As a result, neither team won 20 games this season. In fact, the Tigers come into this game with a losing record. The final similarity entering Wednesday’s game comes in the form of a schedule. Both teams play a bunch of road games during the non-conference schedule. Therefore, they accrued plenty of losses early-on. However, the Tigers started the season with 13 straight road games. They lost all 13 games, including 6 games to NCAA Tournament teams.
Now, both teams return to the NCAA Tournament in the First Four for a chance to play the Xavier Musketeers on Friday. The Eagles finished in sixth place with a (9-7) record in the MEAC. The Tigers finished in second place with a (12-6) in the SWAC.
They earned the automatic bid in different ways. First, the Eagles won 4 games in 5 days. Only one of the victories came by double figures. Overall, they have won five games in a row to go over .500 to end the season. Meanwhile, the Tigers blew the doors off of the competition during their three-game tournament run. They won their games by an average of 13 points. In all, the Tigers have won seven straight games.
Head coach Lavelle Moten has his offense scoring almost 73 points per game. They can play at various tempos. However, Moten might want to slow the game down just a little bit with an aggressive defense. The Tigers are coming into this game scoring over 77 points. However, they scored over 81 points per game during conference play. Their defense was a little bit better as well. The Tigers gave up almost 80 points per game in the regular season. Yet, they slowed teams down to the tune of 76 points per game in conference play. Clearly, they are comfortable with an up tempo performance in the First Four.
As we have seen in the first two games, lead guards have struggled with their shooting. The Eagles are shooting 34 percent from 3-point range. Meanwhile, the Tigers come to the game shooting at a 36 percent clip. However, the Eagles do not rely on long-range shooting. Therefore, Raasean Davis needs to have a great game in the paint. He leads the Eagles with 15 points and 8 rebounds. If he can dominate the interior, the Eagles will have a legitimate shot at advancing to the Round of 64. Remember, the Tigers have a 7-2 center that blocks 2.9 shots per game. Trayvon Reed can single-handedly alter the game on the defensive side of the ball. Dare we say, Reed might enter triple double territory on Wednesday night.
However, Reginald Gardner needs to have a big game. Gardner averages 11 points per game. He also attempts 6.8 3-pointers per game. He shoots 34 percent from long range in wins. He’s only connecting on 31 percent of his 3-point attempts when the Eagles lose. Meaning, this game may come down to whether Gardner or his teammates can hit timely shots from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have a couple of prolific scorers on the perimeter. Diminutive point guard Demontrae Jefferson does everything for the Tigers. He is producing 23.4 points and 4.5 assists in 25 games of action. Jefferson missed some time in December and January. Yet, he demolished opponents on the court with three games over 30 points. He also scored at least 20 points in 19 games. Will Jefferson have the ability to come out firing for the Tigers. Jefferson attempts over 8.1 3-pointers per game. He makes roughly 39.5 percent of those attempts. Yet, it may be Donte Clark’s ability to dominate on the wing that can lead the Tigers to a win. Clark is scoring 18.6 points per game.
If defense is the answer for both teams, the win will also come down to turnovers. The Tigers average 12.5 turnovers per game. In case you’re wondering, they have fewer assists than turnovers this season. However, they finished with eight more assists than turnovers in 18 games of conference play. Fortunately for the Tigers, the Eagles are only forcing 11.7 turnovers per game.
The difference in styles should bring out a great matchup. Oh yeah, there’s one more similarity- both universities are Historically Black Universities. Only one team will be advancing to the first-round. Usually, it’s not wise to pick the team with the losing record. But that early season schedule should have toughened up head coach Mike Davis’ team.
Score Prediction- Texas Southern 75 – North Carolina Central 70