Perhaps it's only appropriate that the NCAA Tournament's first automatic bid would come down to a match-up of Coastal Carolina and UNC-Asheville. It's as if some microscopic battle of good versus evil will be playing out on out television sets this afternoon. For the third-seeded Bulldogs it's a chance to return to the Dance for the first time since 2003 and for only the second time under head coach Eddie Biedenbach who is a legend in the Big South, standing as the conferences all-time leader in both total wins and conference wins.
Then there's the case of the Chanticleers. A juggernaut of a team during the regular season only to be upended in recent weeks by speculation and NCAA investigations. Regardless of whether or not Coastal Carolina is guilty of anything when the dust ultimately settles, in this day and age more often than not you're guilty until proven innocent.
But beyond simply the presence of an archaic storyline is the simple fact that this contest will feature two of the top three teams in the conference during the regular season, both teams split, and Coastal is still reeling from their buzzer-beater loss to the Bulldogs just two weeks ago at home.
So put up or shut up time, who's walking away with an automatic bid this afternoon?
Coastal Carolina, #1 Seed, 28-4 (16-2)
We know this Chanticleer team is not the same one that reeled off 22 straight wins during the regular season - down to just eight players - but it may still be the best in the conference. In the wake of losing among others leading scorer Desmond Holloway, Coastal Carolina has seen several individuals step up to help carry the load in the closing weeks of the regular season and continuing into the conference tournament. Sophomore guard Anthony Rafta (21.8 ppg in last four games) and senior forward Chad Gray (21.6 ppg over last five games) have both risen to the occasion and have led the way for an offense ranked 17th nationally in scoring and 4th in field goal percentage.
You know with Coastal you're getting offense, lots of it. According to data from Synergy Sports Technology, the Chanticleers ranked 11th nationally in scoring efficiency. What makes them particularly dangerous though is they have shown the ability to score at a high rate both in transition and in the slow down half court offense, ranking above the 90th percentile in efficiency in both regards. Is a lot of this due to the play of individuals who won't be in uniform tonight? Absolutely, but keep in mind Coastal has eclipsed the 80-point barrier in their last three games.
What has gone largely unnoticed this season - as is often the case in the Big South - is the Chanticleers have had some degree of success defensively. Overall the defense ranked in the top 25 in efficiency this season, allowing less than .8 points per possession. With that said, they are abysmal defending the perimeter, ranking 211th in the country in opponent three-point field goal percentage. Their success has been defending inside the arc (9th in opponent two-point field goal percentage) and playing smart (8th in free throws allowed per game) at that end of the floor.
UNC-Asheville, #3 Seed, 18-13 (11-7)
As previously mentioned the Bulldogs were one of two teams in the Big South to defeat Coastal Carolina during the regular season, though it required a buzzer-beater to do so, this after the Chanticleers won the first meeting by 21. J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey have been the pace setters on offense this season for Asheville as the only two individuals who finished the regular season with double figure scoring averages. Their marks have gone up in the playoffs and Primm (19 points) and Dickey (18 points) are coming off strong performances in a win over High Points in the conference semifinals.
As a whole, the Bulldogs can't match Coastal for overall offensive effectiveness. However, should this game turn into an up tempo contest, it definitely favors Asheville as the team ranks 10th nationally in transition offensive efficiency, averaging greater than 1.2 points per possession. Even more impressive than that, only two teams (George Mason and Southern Methodist in case you were interested) have posted better field goal percentages in transition this season. The Bulldogs aren't a bad half court offense, they just don't pack a real punch in any one regard, particularly when you factor in a three-point field goal percentage that ranks 219th in the country.
In somewhat of a bizarre trade-off, should the game become a slower paced, grind it our affair, UNC-Asheville has the personnel to excel defensively. The Bulldogs were excellent in half court defense during the regular season, ranking as the top unit in the Big South and in the top 35 nationally, holding opponents to below 40% shooting and just .78 points per possession. Furthermore, they force over 24 turnovers per game, the 16th best mark in Division-1. They've already proven once that they can beat Coastal playing in this manner - their win two weeks ago was a 61-58 final - but we can't forget the all important factor here: the Chanticleers will be at home.
Coastal Carolina is playing at home, they're backs are against the wall so to speak given their recent NCAA driven troubles, and even with a depleted roster still nearly beat UNC-Asheville just a couple of weeks ago. It has all the makings of a classic, but the Chanticleers probably still come out on top for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1993.
Data from KenPom.com was used in this post.