Opening Round Game Preview
Winner takes on top seed Louisville Friday
The reward for either Alabama State (22-9, 16-2 SWAC) or Morehead State (19-15, 12-6 Ohio Valley) is a shot at the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament field, the Louisville Cardinals. But in order to get to that point they need to win the opening round game that will be played in Dayton Tuesday night (7:30 PM on ESPN). Both made their way into the field of sixty-five in different ways; the Hornets won the regular season title outright and beat second-place Jackson State in the SWAC Tournament final. Morehead State, on the other hand, limped into the postseason on a four-game losing streak. But three wins later, beating the top two teams in the OVC (UT Martin and Austin Peay) in Nashville, Donnie Tyndall's Eagles are in the Big Dance for the first time since 1974.
Alabama State will get a lot of attention for the name of SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Chief Kickingstallionsims (2.8 blocks per game), but he's not the main man for head coach Lewis Jackson. Guard Brandon Brooks (13.8 ppg, 6.8 apg) was named SWAC Player of the Year and has four games of at least ten assists and just six games in which he's failed to score double figures. Brooks averaged just 7.5 points per game in the Hornets' final two SWAC Tournament games but he also averaged six assists per game and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-to-1. He's that important to the fortunes of the Hornets because outside of reserves Tramaine White and Ivory Butler Alabama State struggles to take care of the basketball.
The Hornets break even in assist-to-turnover ratio, a number that leads the SWAC. But Morehead State's assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.9 isn't far behind and that number ranks ninth in the Ohio Valley Conference. The good thing for Alabama State is that even though they lack the best turnover margin (-0.81, 6th in the SWAC), the Eagles have been much worse this season (-2.53, 9th in the OVC). Like most small schools guard play is paramount for Alabama State, with Chief averaging just over twenty minutes per game. At 7-foot-1 the senior big man makes for a tough matchup within the SWAC, but junior Wesley Jones (9.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is more important to the Hornets on the inside. Roland Fitch is the only frontcourt reserve that Coach Jackson turns to on a consistent basis, so avoiding foul trouble is a must.
Morehead State has an imposing figure on the interior as well, and despite standing just 6-foot-8 sophomore Kenneth Faried (13.9 ppg, 12.8 rpg) can get the job done in a variety of ways. Like Chief the Newark native was named conference Defensive Player of the Year, averaging a little less than two steals and two blocks per game. On the season Faried has twenty-three double doubles, including a 27-point, 24-rebound effort in a November loss to Florida A&M. Due to his activity and skill the Hornets may have to look elsewhere when it comes to guarding Faried; Kickingstallionsims lacks the overall skill level needed to slow the sophomore down.
But Coach Tyndall's got two other forwards who will command the attention of Alabama State in leading scorer Leon Buchanan (15.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and junior Maze Stallworth (12.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg). All three average over twenty-nine minutes per game, and along with guards Demonte Harper (10.8 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Brandon Shingles (3.9 apg) make up the core of this championship team that got hot at just the right time. Morehead State led the OVC in field goal percentage defense (41.8%) but their calling card is rebounding. Thanks primarily to Faried the Eagles have a rebounding margin of +8.0. Alabama State enjoys a margin of just +1.2, a number that still ranked fourth in the SWAC. The main focus for the Hornets in their scouting report should be the Eagles' rebounding prowess, a skill that makes up for shooting percentages that ranked seventh in the OVC (44.1% FG, 33.4% 3PT).
The key for Morehead State: take care of the basketball. On the season the Eagles averaged 15.2 turnovers per game, a key factor in their four-game skid to end the regular season. But in the OVC Tournament Morehead State averaged eleven turnovers per game, and without that improvement Morehead State is done for the season. Man for man the Eagles are the better team but miscues could render that point moot should they ignore the important lesson learned during Championship Week. Brandon Brooks can keep Alabama State in this game in a fashion similar to what Coppin State's Tywain McKee did in last year's Opening Round Game. But just like McKee, he'll be going up against an opponent with more weapons.
Winner: Morehead State Margin: 7-11 pts.