For most of the college basketball-following universe, March Madness begins next Thursday. I’ll be following it then, of course, but those of us who care about Division II will be watching closely this weekend. Saturday marks the beginning of the D-II NCAA Regionals, which are hosted on campus sites. The South Region will play in Lakeland at #1 seed Florida Southern, which like the University of South Florida, is not located in South Florida.
Nevertheless, #6 Harding will take on #3 Tampa, which will be playing roughly 1/2 hour away from home, rather than the Bisons’ 20 hours. Aside from that edge, though, the teams look fairly evenly matched.
Tampa finished tied for second place in the Sunshine State Conference, which was arguably the best conference in the region this year. The Spartans hosted the conference tournament and lost to Florida Southern in the championship game.
There are actually a lot of similarities between Harding and Tampa on paper. Both have slightly above average offenses and slightly above average defenses – just enough to win two-thirds of their conference games. The two play at almost exactly the same pace, so expect about 71-72 possessions for each team in tomorrow’s game. The Bisons were slightly better in overall shooting and offensive rebounding, while the Spartans have a slight edge in ballhandling.
What Tampa has that could potentially spell trouble for Harding is size and distribution of talent. Each member of their starting five averages at least 12 points per game, and two of them are 6’8″. One of those is SSC Player of the Year Jeremy Black, who averaged a double-double for the season with 18 points and 11 rebounds per game. The rest of the starting five liked to shoot the ball, with each remaining player shooting at least 100 threes on the season, led by senior Chris Evans’ 161 attempts.
While seemingly everyone on Tampa’s roster can shoot, they’re not as good at hitting threes as a team like Christian Brothers (they’re not even that much better than Harding), so they have to make up for it by playing solid defense. Their 98.5 defensive efficiency is solid, but not outstanding. It was enough to get by in the SSC, though.
So what’s the bottom line for Harding? Don’t get caught up with one player, because everyone on the team can score. To me, that would suggest they’re less susceptible to losing because of one bad performance, so that may also help them make up for their less-than-stellar net efficiency. They played only D-II opponents all year, amazingly enough, so they racked up their stats over the course of a lot more games against theoretically equal opposition.
The Bisons, on the other hand, have been shut down when a team figures out how to guard Matt Hall, although it hasn’t happened every time. Let’s hope that Tampa can’t find the answer until it’s too late. They’re certainly a beatable team, so we could see the Bisons’ first NCAA Tournament victory in school history. The game is at 2:30 EDT tomorrow.