Chattanooga and Indiana square off in primetime on Thursday night on CBS, and the Mocs have been largely ignored as an upset possibility by the talking heads. But they are missing some key things about this Mocs team when they do that.
First of all, this Mocs team has played their best games when the lights have been on. Their performance against ETSU in the SoCon Championship Game was not always beautiful, but it was easily their best game of the conference tournament. The win at Dayton? Georgia? Illinois? All big name opponents with more attention on them. When have the Mocs struggled? When they are trying to put away one of the worst teams in the SoCon, VMI. When they are going on the road in the middle of a tough stretch to face Western Carolina. When they are coming home and facing UNCG. The lights are never brighter than in the NCAA Tournament. The Mocs should play one of their better games. Yes, I understand that this does not guarantee victory. After all, the Mocs did lose at Iowa State earlier this year. It should be noted, though, that that is their only loss against the RPI Top 100, against five victories.
Secondly, the Mocs have played with intense pressure on them for the last six weeks of the season. There was talk of an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament at one point. This program had not won a SoCon Tournament game since 2010. There was the all-time single season wins record at the school. As the accolades came in, the team seemed to play tighter. The team was putting more and more pressure on themselves, it looked like. Now, as the Mocs head to the NCAA Tournament, they don't have to worry about any of those things anymore. The pressure is off. Everything from here will be considered a bonus for most Mocs fans and most analysts around the country. The Mocs can finally get back to playing loose basketball again, which they have not done much since late January.
Those are the emotional factors about the Mocs as they head into the NCAA Tournament. Playing a blueblood like Indiana followed by the possibility of playing another in Kentucky (or can Stony Brook spring that upset?) should get the blood moving and the Mocs should be in great shape on that front. There should be no concerns about them from that vantage point.
The Mocs also got a good draw here. Indiana is not a huge team, and they are a guard oriented team, led by Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell is tremendously talented, averaging over 17 points and five assists per game. He will be a handful for anyone. However, Ferrell takes 43% of his shots from three point range. The Hoosiers on the whole take about 40% of their shots from three. The Mocs have done a great job this year running teams off the three point line and forcing them to take contested twos, where Justin Tuoyo can clean up a lot of the mistakes. Tuoyo has a penchant for getting into foul trouble at times, but the 6-10 junior has won the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year the last two years for a reason. He is an incredibly talented defender when he is on the court.
Tre McLean will likely draw the chore of defending Ferrell. McLean is long, and the Mocs best perimeter defender. He is 6-5, and could cause trouble for Ferrell.
Troy Williams is the Hoosiers next best scoring option after Ferrell. He is averaging 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest. He will be the responsibility of Chuck Ester to guard, more often than not, more than likely. Williams is a very good inside presence for the Hoosiers. He is 6-7. Ester is actually 6-7 as well. There is no size difference there.
Thomas Bryant is 6-10 and the Hoosiers big man. He is averaging 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He will be guarded by Tuoyo, but Tuoyo leaves to go help a lot. Bryant will either need to get Tuoyo in foul trouble, or get open for drop off passes and easy baskets.
The size of the Hoosiers should not bother the Mocs. They are basically identical when it comes to that. This is good for the Mocs on another front. Their offense has bogged down this year when everyone can sit back and fill up the lane so that Greg Pryor, Jonathan Burroughs-Cook and Tre McLean can't drive to the basket with the ball. The way the Mocs offense does best is when those guys can go to the basket and either make a short jumper, pass it off to Tuoyo, Ester or Duke Ethridge for an easy basket, or give it out to the wing to an open Eric Robertson for a long three. Indiana can fill the lane better than most SoCon teams, but there are far worse opponents the Mocs could be facing in the first round.
On that note, the thing that would help the Mocs the most in this tournament would be a hot run from Eric Robertson. He is making 40% of his threes on the year. At the early parts of the season he was making up over 45% from long range. Since hitting 6 of 7 from three against Mercer on February 8, he has made just 15 of 54 (27.8%) from three point range in the nine games since then. He did go 4 of 9 during the SoCon Tournament, so maybe that was a sign that he is about to break out of his mini-slump. If Robertson starts making threes in bunches, this offense becomes very difficult to stop.
The Mocs do not have a go to scorer. Casey Jones was the Preseason SoCon Player of the Year, but he went down in December and never returned to the lineup. He was supposed to be that player this year. The rest of the team is striving to fill in those gaps. Tuoyo has gotten better offensively than when he first got to campus, but he does not always make it look easy to score. Ethridge and Burroughs-Cook have had their moments off the bench. McLean has an excellent first step with the ball and has decent range, so he can be a dangerous scorer. But Greg Pryor is the person that holds the whole team together offensively.
Pryor does not get much credit from all conference teams and things of the like, but people that watch the Mocs a lot know that he is the key to the team. He is tough and he is a leader. He also will knock down a big shot at just the right moment. He isn't going to put up Ferrell's kind of numbers from the point guard position, but he is going to get the team into the right place and into the right play. He is going to make the right choices. He does not turn the ball over often, and he is smart.
The other player that plays a key role that has not been mentioned yet for the Mocs is Dee Oldham. Oldham comes off the bench for the Mocs, but he plays a huge role. He rebounds well, defends pretty well, and makes all the little hustle plays that are so critical in a basketball game. Oldham really came into his role during conference play and really took off with this club. He is going to be a key component if the Mocs spring the upset. If this is a close game at the end, he will be the one making a key hustle play in the final three minutes.
All in all, the Mocs could not have asked for a better region. They are in a region dominated by guard play- a perfect fit for what the Mocs match up better against. The Mocs first round match-up is not ideal (it is never is ideal to go up against one of the most tradition rich powers of college basketball who is the Big Ten regular season champ that is probably underseeded and is led by one of the best point guards in the country). However, all things considered, it could have been much worse.
I expect the Mocs to relish this opportunity. I expect much like against Georgia, Dayton, Illinois and ETSU (in the SoCon Championship Game) for the Mocs to jump out to an early lead, catching some people's eye. I expect for the second half to start and for the Hoosiers to make a run. Just when the Hoosiers will think they have broken the Mocs spirit, Pryor will make a big play, Oldham will come up with a hustle play and Tuoyo will make one huge defensive play. The Mocs will spring the upset in the closing moments of a very hotly contested game.
Mocs 79, Hoosiers 77.