Last Updated: 2019-03-18
The always appreciative host city for the first four games of the NCAA Tournament is Dayton, Ohio and this year’s version of March Madness kicks off on Tuesday March 19 with a matchup between Northeast Conference champion Fairleigh Dickinson and SWAC champion Prairie View A&M. For this neutral site battle at UD Arena, the Knights are a 1.5-point favorite with a total of 149 against the Panthers. The winner will face #1 Gonzaga on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
Fairleigh Dickinson, back in the tournament for the first time since 2016, is in search of the program’s first NCAA Tournament win. The Knights fell to Florida Gulf Coast 96-65 in the play-in round three years ago. Prior to that, the Knights were last in the tournament in 2005, 1998, 1988, and 1985.
FDU bludgeoned Wagner in the first round of the NEC Tournament, but got a stiff test from Robert Morris in a comeback win to get to the finals as a #2 seed on the road against top-seeded Saint Francis PA. The Knights won 85-76 with their second-most points per possession in a conference game. That was enough to overcome a poor defensive performance.
Prairie View A&M, henceforth to be called PVAMU since it’s just easier, held serve as the #1 seed in the SWAC Tournament. Wins over Alcorn State and Grambling State got the Panthers into the title game against perennial contender Texas Southern. The Panthers prevailed 92-86 in a seesaw battle in which PVAMU forced 24 turnovers.
PVAMU played far and away the tougher non-conference schedule. Their schedule before SWAC play ranked 46th per Bart Torvik. Fairleigh Dickinson’s non-conference schedule ranked 268th. But, that was a long time ago and it’s fair to wonder how much that matters in the Month of Madness.
The Knights offense is the best unit in this game. FDU ranks fifth nationally in three-point percentage going into the tournament and 58th in free throw percentage. Greg Herenda’s team ranks 30th in effective field goal percentage. This is an unfamiliar venue for both teams, so it will be interesting to see how they shoot the ball. Fairleigh Dickinson is fifth in three-point shooting success, but not reliant on the distance jumper, as the Knights shot a three on only 35 percent of their field goal attempts. That ranked 271st in the nation.
Most people shun 16 vs. 16 games because the teams aren’t household names, but this one has a lot of layers. Will PVAMU be able to speed up the tempo? The Panthers rank 39th in tempo to this point and Fairleigh Dickinson ranks 222nd. Also, PVAMU was second nationals in turnover percentage on defense at 24.7 percent. A lot of that has to do with the SWAC, which is one of the worst conferences for offense in the country.
PVAMU was 20-1 in “Quadrant 4 Games”. This game falls into that category. FDU, meanwhile, was just 17-8 in those games and had 13 losses during the regular season. PVAMU went 1-11 in non-conference play and still only lost 12 games.
Winning the conference tournament is one thing. Winning in March Madness is another. Fairleigh Dickinson is a fairly young team, with only two seniors on the roster. One of them is Darnell Edge, who shot 46.5 percent from three-point land during the season. He and Mike Holloway Jr. will be focal points for the Knights in this one.
PVAMU has a very experienced roster, as all but one player getting regular minutes is an upperclassman. Third-year head coach Byron Smith had a lot of building to do with this program. The Panthers have only been to the NCAA Tournament once (1998) and went 7-24 in his first season. This is the best offensive squad Smith has had, led by Devonte Patterson, who averaged 13.3 points per game for the season, but has played his best ball since the start of February with six 20-point games.
Pick: PVAMU Panthers +1.5
These 16 vs. 16 games can be tough handicaps because the teams are usually very different in both structure and experience. Fairleigh Dickinson does have more experience in these pressure situations in March Madness by virtue of the 2016 bid, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Panthers dictate the tempo. Prairie View A&M ranked 25th nationally in three-point percentage defense, which could hinder the Knights a little bit. Also, the pressure defense of PVAMU will be tough for FDU to prepare for with the short turnaround from Selection Sunday to Tuesday’s first play-in game.
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