Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mid-Major Madness: South Alabama

This is the third in a new series here at March Madness All Season. “Mid-Major Madness” is simply a weekly column chronicling the small-conference sleepers that I feel have the best shot at pulling an upset or two during the NCAA Tournament. The only real criterion is that a team has to be a projected 11 seed or lower in the Big Dance and from outside the major conferences. Last week: Rider Next up: South Alabama

One of the major telling points for an upset in the NCAA Tournament is how a particular team performed against major-conference competition and other high-quality squads throughout the season. While perusing the results of various mid-major teams, it is hard to ignore what South Alabama has done. The Jaguars have wins over Mississippi State, WCC co-leader San Diego and Western Kentucky. However, perhaps more impressively is the fact that “Team USA” has just four losses on the season – by a combined 13 points, including two defeats at the hands of Vanderbilt and Mississippi by three points each.

The Jaguars currently sit at 18-4 overall in Division-I games, 12-1 in the Sun Belt Conference. The lone league loss came two weeks ago at North Texas by two points. USA did not get off to a hot start this season, losing its first D-I game, as well as two of its first three. After starting 3-3, though, the Jaguars ripped off 12 consecutive wins before the aforementioned defeat. A Sun Belt showdown against Western Kentucky is coming up on February 21 – that game could be for the conference title. A win there and the Jags might have a case for an at-large bid. As it stands right now, they still will have to win the conference tournament in order to reach the Big Dance.

South Alabama is led by star guard Demetric Bennett, a 6-foot-4 senior who has the ability to light up the scoreboard every night and carry the Jaguars to a victory. He is averaging almost 23 points per game over his past five contests, and is also pitching in more than six rebounds per game. He doesn’t just pad his numbers against inferior competition, either – in the three games against SEC competition (Vandy, Ole Miss, Miss. St.), Bennett averaged nearly 31 points and seven rebounds per game, including a 39-point performance against MSU. He doesn’t force shots and can get points from beyond the three-point line as well as inside the arc. Like most successful mid-majors, USA has an outstanding perimeter group, with Domonic Tilford and Daon Merritt flanking Bennett in the backcourt. Tilford is a 5-foot-10 sophomore who can knock it down consistently from three-point range and can get hot in a hurry. He has stepped up his production recently, averaging 20.7 points per game in his last three contests. Merritt is one of the most underrated playmakers and penetrators in the mid-major world; he can get to the basket and create for himself or his teammates on nearly any defender. He has dished out at least six assists on 12 occasions this year and scored in double-figures 14 times.

Of course, the Jaguars also have very solid inside balance so defenses can’t focus too closely on Bennett and the guards. Brandon Davis is an active and aggressive forward who is a monster on the offensive glass and is very efficient from the field. He is also adept at getting to the foul line, shooting almost as many free throws as Bennett despite playing more than 200 minutes less than him. He is averaging 12.0 points and 9.2 rebounds over the past five games. DeAndre Coleman is an excellent rebounder at both ends of the floor, but he is absolutely dominating on the defensive glass. It is nearly a guarantee that he will grab any missed shot by the opponent. He is somewhat inconsistent in his production, but he has corralled at least 10 boards in eight games this year. Ronald Douglas is another solid big man down low – he is a terrific offensive rebounder and shot-blocker.

South Alabama is very impressive at both ends of the floor, ranking among the conference leaders in scoring offense and scoring defense, as well as offensive and defensive efficiency. The Jaguars can score both inside and out, and they are outstanding at getting to the foul-line for free opportunities. They crash the glass on the offensive end, getting more than their fair share of second chances. They share the ball and don’t revolve completely around any particular player. Defensively, the Jaguars don’t allow too many open shots and are very good at grabbing defensive rebounds and limiting multiple opportunities for their opponents. USA defends the three-point line at an extremely high level, but it has the height and athleticism to make life difficult inside the arc as well. They can be beat if their outside shots aren’t falling down and their opponent is dominating down low, both in terms of points in the paint and rebounds. Of course, shutting down Bennett would help tremendously.

If South Alabama’s non-conference performance is any indication, the Jaguars are going to be a team no one wants to see as its first-round opponent come March.

1 comment:

  1. Good writeup. USA definitely has a great team this year. Go Jags!