(16) Fairleigh Dickinson vs. (16) Prairie View A&M
Initial Thoughts: And so it begins! The 2019 NCAA tournament will officially commence 6:40 PM EST on Tuesday when Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View – auto-bid representatives from the NEC and SWAC, respectively – tip-off in Dayton. Both looked mighty impressive in their conference tournaments, particularly the Knights, who went into a hostile environment and took down the NEC regular season champion St. Francis Red Flash in their building. What jumped off the screen in that game was just how much FDU’s size dwarfed the 4-guard lineup of St. Francis. With Xzavier Malone-Key sidelined for the entire conference tournament – his status for Tuesday remains up in the air – head coach Greg Herenda trotted out a long three forward lineup with Elyjah Williams (6’7), Kaleb Bishop (6’8) and Mike Holloway (6’8) at the 3, 4 and 5 positions. Despite the Red Flash catching fire from downtown, the Knights dominated the paint on the other end of the floor, generating layup after layup through an array of mid-range drives and post-ups. And when St. Francis ramped up the full court pressure, the Knights’ didn’t bat an eye and surgically picked apart the extended defense with precise passing and cutting.
Those observations are why I’m heavily leaning FDU in this matchup against Prairie View, a team with many stylistic parallels to St. Francis with their guard-heavy, pressure-intensive DNA. The Panthers take after their press-happy brethren in the SWAC and are one of the smallest teams in the country across all five positions – for context, kenpom.com’s ‘average size’ metric ranks PVA&M as the 8th smallest team in the country.
Prairie View A&M on Offense: Everything for the Panthers revolves around getting to the rim offensively, most of which falls on the shoulders of their three-headed scoring attack of Gary Blackston, Devonte Patterson and Dennis Jones. Jones sets the table as the ball-dominant point guard, Blackston flanks him on the perimeter as a score-first 2-guard and Patterson is a hybrid wing / forward that loves to slash from all over the floor. FDU must slide their feet and defend without fouling to take away the Panthers’ primary scoring avenue, but this shouldn’t be a major adjustment for the Knights, who finished the year with the NEC’s lowest defensive free-throw rate (a measure of how many free throws an opponent takes, relative to field goal attempts).
Fairleigh Dickinson on Offense: This side of the ball is where there’s a substantial edge for FDU and here’s why. Off a made basket, Prairie View will typically get into their 2-2-1 zone press that has confounded opposing ball handlers all season long. Per Synergy, the Panthers’ press forced turnovers on 33% of possessions, an astronomical rate when you consider their 25% overall turnover rate was already second highest in the entire country. Not only does the press generate steals, but it also acts a delaying mechanism by forcing opponents into initiating their half-court offense late in the shot-clock. A great example of this is seen below, as Alabama State takes 7-8 seconds just to get set up offensively:
However, those jaw-dropping turnover figures are inflated by playing in the SWAC against a slew of sloppy ball handlers. The Knights’ two primary facilitators – stud sophomore point guard Jahlil Jenkins and veteran off-guard Darnell Edge – should not fall prey to carless turnovers and Elyjah Williams’ size at 6’7 should make him an X-factor in the press break with his ability to see over the top of the defense.
If the Knights are able to break the first wave of pressure in an efficient manner without throwing it away, they should have a field day executing in the half-court. Prairie View simply has no one who can cover Mike Holloway 1-on-1, a 6’8 250-pound weapon who will likely force the Panthers to double every time he gets a touch. With the Panthers diverting a ton of attention toward Holloway, off-ball cuts and relocations should free up the Knights for open looks all over the floor. While FDU doesn’t shoot a ton of 3s, they cash-in on those attempts they get – FDU shot 40.5% from behind the stripe as a team, the 6th highest clip in the nation.
Key Factor(s): Much like many teams who pressure aggressively, the Panthers’ are prone to excessive fouling. 24% of opposing scoring this year has come via the free-throw line, the 7th highest percentage in the country, per kenpom.com. And while Prairie View loves to seek contact themselves themselves, a tight whistle on Tuesday could backfire on them, especially if FDU is able to convert their opportunities from the charity stripe. Both of FDU’s guards, Jenkins and Edge, are money from the line and the other forwards not named Elyjah Williams typically capitalize on their freebies as well.
Final Predictions: Even with Xzavier Malone-Key potentially absent from an already thin rotation, the Knights’ still have the horses to out-athlete the scrappy Panthers. The key will be protecting the rock and being patient working through Holloway inside, but I trust the cerebral backcourt tandem of Jenkins and Edge to play a steady floor game. It’s interesting that these two teams are ranked just one spot apart in kenpom (Fairleigh Dickinson 208th; Prairie View 209th), which coincides with FDU opening as a small 1.5 point favorite. While I’m a tad bit wary about fading such a savvy coach in Byron Smith, the Knights are built to withstand any tricks Smith throws at them.
SU Pick: Fairleigh Dickinson
ATS Pick: Fairleigh Dickinson -1.5
O/U Pick: Under 150
(11) Belmont vs. (11) Temple
Initial Thoughts: Praise be to the NCAA Selection Committee, because at long last, they gave us a mid-major at-large champion to cheer for. Rick Byrd and his Belmont Bruins snuck into the tournament after falling in the Ohio Valley tournament final (to someone named Ja Morant?), a game the Bruins played without stud center Nick Muszynski. By all accounts, Muszynski will be good to go for this matchup in Dayton, where Byrd looks to finally collect his first-ever NCAA Tournament win (how is that possible?).
On the other hand, Temple offers its own unique coaching storyline, as this is Fran Dunphy’s final ride into the sunset before ceding control of the program to Aaron McKie next year. Conspiracy theorists may point to that as a reason for the Owls qualifying for the tournament (and I’ll admit to placing them in my bracket partly for this reason…), but what matters is that they have a date in Dayton on Tuesday night.
Belmont on Offense: Belmont’s offense is a thing of beauty, plain and simple. It’s a clinic in crisp ball movement, intelligent cutting and passing, and pristine shot selection, all of which add up to the nation’s 20th-best offense per KenPom. Redshirt freshman point guard Grayson Murphy is the straw that stirs the drink, pushing the ball in transition to catch the defense before it gets set and attacking via Coach Byrd’s brilliant array of transition drag screens. Attacking early makes it significantly harder to help in the post/on the roll man, earning Muszynski plenty of easy finishes inside, and if the opposing guards do dive down too far, Belmont will punish them with pinpoint perimeter shooting and from its stable of shooters, including Dylan Windler (43%), Nick Hopkins (38%), Kevin McClain (37%), Murphy (37%), and Michael Benkert (36%).
Defending that kind of scheme requires a ton of attention to detail and discipline, something that comes and goes with this Temple squad. Dunphy is a legend, and the Owls have rangy athletes, but the focus can be an issue at times. Of course, that shouldn’t be an issue on a national stage in the NCAA Tournament, but I personally guarantee you’ll see a few Temple defensive possessions that leave you completely dumbfounded.
The Owls will play all man-to-man (99.4% of the time this year), and Dunphy often uses the aforementioned athletes to crank the defensive pressure. The problem is, Belmont is so phenomenally coached that they are allergic to turnovers, ranking 18th nationally in turnover rate despite playing a [redshirt] freshman at point guard. If the opponent takes care of the ball, Temple’s defense becomes extremely ordinary, and I expect the Bruins to score early and often.
The crucial individual matchup will be Quinton Rose (or JP Moorman) on Windler, who just posted a historically efficient season against OVC competition. In the rare instances where he has struggled this year, it has been against high-level athletes, and Rose is absolutely that. Take a look at Windler’s splits against better competition, and some concern arises:
If Rose/Perry/etc. can limit Windler and bother him with their length, Belmont will need even greater contributions from its role players. Those guys are plenty capable - the Bruins won at Lipscomb and at Murray State in games where Windler was nearly invisible - but it becomes far more difficult without their star playing like one.
Temple on Offense: Starting with Belmont again: the Bruins’ entire defensive strategy is predicated around one central tenet: no easy buckets. They play a much more conservative variety of man-to-man, choosing instead to focus on forcing as many two-point jumpers as possible. They run you off the three-point line, do not foul, and they’ll dominate the defensive glass against a Temple team that doesn’t much care for offensive rebounding.
If Belmont is able to dictate the Owl shot selection, that becomes a major problem for Temple. Rose, one of the nation’s most frustrating players (in 3MW’s estimation), is perfectly content to chuck those mid-rangers, and Alston can be tempted into doing the same thing. As Temple’s highest-usage players, you see where the problem lies: Belmont has solved basketball’s math problem, and if Temple isn’t careful, they’ll lose the game simply due to arithmetic.
Key Factor(s): Without question, the biggest swing factor will be Muszynski’s health. Byrd would likely have loved to have gotten the Wednesday night slot, simply to give his star center’s ankle more time to heal. Of course, the Bruins gave Murray State everything it could handle even without Muszynski (one possession game until the final minute – don’t be fooled by the 12-point final margin), so they’re not doomed without him; senior Seth Adelsperger fills the same role just fine. But the freshman is just a higher ceiling player and more of an offensive threat, so the Belmont training staff will be on 24/7 duty to get his ankle in game shape by Tuesday night.
Final Predictions: This spread surprised all three of us, opening at -3 or -3.5, and the numbers mostly dictated that I take the underdog Owls. However, after combing through the matchup and how this game is likely to play out, I think Belmont covers the number as long as they don’t have a ghastly shooting night from the perimeter. Temple’s gambles will give them chances to cash in from three, and they simply have too many quality shooters to miss all night. I think the Bruins get it done in a high possession game (70+), Rick Byrd cries again (I mean that respectfully and in a good way – I adore the passion), and Maryland will be extremely nervous about Thursday’s impending meeting in Jacksonville. 83-74, Belmont.