The 2011 NCAA Tournament kicks off Tuesday from UD Arena in Dayton under a brand new format, as Big South champion UNC-Asheville takes to the hardwood against Sun Belt champion Arkansas-Little Rock, in the first game of the inaugural "Field of 68."
Dubbed the "First Four", Tuesday's matchup is the opener of four games over two days at UD Arena as part of the new play-in format to reach the traditional 64-team field. The winner of this matchup moves on to face the Southeast Region's top seed, Pittsburgh, Thursday in Washington, DC at the Verizon Center.
UNC-Asheville emerged out of the Big South Conference as the third seed, taking out top-seeded and regular-season champ Coastal Carolina, 60-47, for its third conference tournament championship and first since 2003. The Bulldogs ran through Charleston Southern (72-63) and High Point (62-45) to reach the final and now enter their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance riding a six-game winning streak. UNC-Asheville took on a hefty non-conference schedule with matchups against three of this year's better tournament teams, Ohio State, North Carolina and Georgetown, and although each resulted in defeat, the top-flight competition should help prepare the Bulldogs for center stage come Tuesday. This will be Asheville's second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, having gone 1-1 in its only other trip in 2003 when the Bulldogs downed Texas Southern in the opening round before falling to Texas.
Arkansas-Little Rock claimed its first-ever Sun Belt Conference Tournament title in dramatic fashion as senior Solomon Bozeman's three pointer with 1.5 seconds to play lifted the Trojans to a 64-63 win over North Texas in the championship game. UALR needed to rip off four wins in four days as the fifth seed in the Sun Belt's Western Division to earn an NCAA berth, taking out South Alabama (82-68), Arkansas State (59-52), Middle Tennessee (65-56) and North Texas along the way. It was quite the turnaround for the Trojans, who ended the regular season on a three-game slide. UALR makes its return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 when it lost to eventual national champion UNLV, 102-72. The Trojans own a 1-3 mark in the tourney all- time.
Tuesday's historic matchup will be the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
The Bulldogs are led by Big South Conference Tournament championship MVP Matt Dickey, who averages 15.3 points per game and 3.3 assists. J.P. Primm, named to the All-Tournament team, backs Dickey with 14.4 ppg and a team-high 4.6 assists. Primm also paces the club in steals with 66 and has knocked down 53 three-pointers on 35.3 percent shooting. Dickey has dropped a team-leading 61 threes on 37.4 percent shooting with 61 steals. Chris Stephenson led Asheville with 14 points and eight rebounds versus Coastal Carolina and averages 9.4 ppg. D.J. Cunningham adds a solid 9.0 points and team-leading 7.5 rebounds per game. The Bulldogs finished as the third-best scoring team in the Big South at 74.2 ppg, second in field-goal percentage (45.5) and fourth in free-throw percentage (70.6). The defense leaves a bit to be desired at 68.2 points against, sixth in conference, but the Bulldogs rise to third in field-goal percentage defense (41.7) and rank second in blocks with 4.5 per game. UNC- Asheville checks in as the league's sixth-best rebounding team (36.0 rpg), third in assists (14.6 apg) and second in turnover margin (plus-2.59) in addition to a league-leading 9.3 steals.
The Trojans have the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in Bozeman, though his 16.5 points per game stands as the team's lone double-digit scoring option. He also ranks second on the squad in three-pointers with 64 on 46.4 percent shooting and in assists (2.7 apg). Arkansas-Little Rock averages 68.0 points per game, placing them just 10th in conference, while giving up 67.0 ppg on the other end, good for fifth in the Sun Belt. Not surprisingly, UALR also struggles shooting the ball at just 42.6 percent from the floor, but ranks second in three-point shooting (39.8 percent). Matt Mouzy leads the club with 72 three-pointers on 38.7 percent shooting and adds 8.0 ppg. Alex Garcia- Mendoza puts up 8.6 ppg. Helping the Trojans' cause for possible advancement is a conference-leading defensive field-goal percentage (33.7) and turnover margin (plus-2.00).
UNC-Asheville has the offensive numbers to post a big win and showed its ability both in the regular season and conference tournament. On the other hand, Arkansas-Little Rock came out of relative obscurity to surge to the league title and faces a tall task to keep that momentum going for much longer given its full body of work.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UNC-Asheville 76, Arkansas-Little Rock 70