The worst of the best will kick off March Madness tonight as the Liberty Flames take on the North Carolina A&T Aggies at 6:40 PM (EST) in Dayton. The winner of this game will move onto Lexington to take on Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals. Both of these teams were some of the longest of long shots to make the tournament going into their conference championships.
Credentials: Simply put, the Flames are the worst team in this tournament according to almost everyone's tempo based rankings. Liberty didn't win a Division I game until New Years Eve and didn't win back-to-back DI games until the conference tournament. Dale Layer's squad put their abysmal 1-10 start behind them and have started to gel late in the season. You could see the improvement from his team as they went 4-5 in February and then got really hot at the Big South tournament taking down host Coastal Carolina, the North's number one seed High Point, the league's hottest team Gardner-Webb, and finally the league's overall number one seed Charleston Southern.
Talent: Part of Liberty's struggles throughout the season could have stemmed from their roster made of six junior college players. Instead of the traditional recruiting route, Layer added more senior talent which took a long time to gel.
John Caleb Sanders and Davon Marshall simply couldn't play with each other to start the year, but now they are a scary backcourt tandem. In the frontcourt Liberty has installed an impressive rotation of JR Coronado, Andrew Smith, Tomasz Gielo, and Joel Vander Pol. Smith and Gielo can spread the floor, while Vander Pol and Coronado can control the inside. Coronado is a tenacious rebounder, but does not have a polished offensive game. He can limit Liberty's offense at times.
North Carolina A&T
Credentials: The Aggies went into the MEAC tournament with a 15-16 mark, but Cy Alexander's squad got hot at the right time. A&T has won six of their last seven games, including wins over North Carolina Central, Savannah State, and Morgan State. By battling through the MEAC tourney, the Aggies find themselves as a March Madness participant for the first time since 1995. This season was certainly an impressive inaugural season for Alexander, as his predecessor, Jerry Eaves, never had a winning season in his nine years at A&T.
Talent: A&T really isn't going to blind you with talent, but they have a trio of scorers who can propel them at times. Adrian Powell is a 6'6 forward who leads the team in scoring (12.4 ppg) and also averages five rebounds per game. Right behind Powell are guards Lamont Middleton and Jean Louisme who average nearly 22 points per game together. The "x-factor" for this one may be 6'8 senior Austin Witter, who leads the team in rebounding at just over seven per game. The Aggies will need a good game from Witter to be successful.
Bottom Line: The Flames may be a slight under dog in this one, but I think they run away with the victory and a trip to Lexington. If you put their record behind them and just look at the last five games, Liberty is playing with confidence, has superior guard play, and has a frontcourt rotation that A&T simply can't match. A&T's best hope probably comes in shutting down the three point arch, which means keeping Marshall, Gielo, and Sanders under wraps. The other player we haven't talked about is Tavares Speaks, who was on fire from 18 feet in Myrtle Beach. He presents a mid-range game that is hard to defend.
Liberty 73, North Carolina A&T 61