In a year when anything could happen during the run up to the NCAA Tournament during the conference battles, it seems fitting that the First Four 16-seed matchup on Wednesday night features two teams that no one expected to be in the field.
Holy Cross is in its first year rebuilding under Bill Carmody, the former coach of the Northwestern Wildcats. After 13 years of frustration in the Big Ten, he accomplished what he couldn't with the more talented and often unlucky Wildcats.
The Crusaders finished just 5-13 in the Patriot League, but won four games in a row in the conference tournament, including knocking off the favorite Bucknell in double overtime. In nine days, Holy Cross went on the road and beat four teams that it had just lost to over the final three weeks of the season.
Southern had a similar story, stumbling near the end of the season, and losing four of its final five games. Just when the team needed to be hot, it looked as if the season were just going to fizzle out. But the one win during that time came against SWAC favorite Texas Southern, and then they did it again a week later during the tournament in Houston. The Jaguars then won a tough fought game against Jackson State during the conference finals.
That allowed them to slip into the NCAA Tournament after two seasons of being unable to represent the league, two seasons that had been very impressive in that league. So to say that Roman Banks and team have something to prove is an understatement.
Here is the bad news for anyone tuning into this game: you are not going to see spectacular offense out there. Carmody brought along his slow, deliberate Princeton-style with him when he came to town and it shows in the stat block. Holy Cross is one of the slowest teams in the country, and works the ball until it can find its shot, normally a 3-point attempt. Because of their height disadvantage, the Crusaders don't get a lot of their own rebounds, and that can be a recipe for disaster.
However, they are facing up against a team that is even smaller than them, leaving open the possibility that one of their weaknesses may actually become a strength in this game. If it does turn that way, look for Malachi Alexander to be the beneficiary at 6-7. He should have the body to bang with the Southern big men inside.
Southern also struggles with efficiency on offense and will have to contend with Carmody's trademark 1-3-1 zone which he deploys with abandon. It will be a look that Southern isn't used to from the SWAC, and it will challenge a team that is used to playing 1-on-1 ball against their conference opponents.
Holy Cross is good at forcing their opponents into mistakes and the zone provides them some good looks on the glass, helping to prevent second opportunities for their opponents.
Player to Watch, Holy Cross: Robert Champion
Champion may be undersized against a normal team when he lines up at the power forward spot, but when facing up against Southern, he should have no issues. He is more suited on the wing, which you can see from the number of 3-point baskets he has attempted this season. Look for him to be a tough matchup for whomever draws him, and he should have no trouble shaking free on the outside. Champion should improve on his usual 11.5 points per game, and also be an asset on the defensive end.
Player to Watch, Southern: Jared Sam
The sophomore for the Jaguars was one-half of their size advantage in the SWAC this season. He was one of the more prolific rebounders in the conference on both ends, and a strong shot from inside. But Sam needs to stay out of foul trouble if he hops that whatever he can provide will be on the court long enough to manifest itself. Sam played just 20 minutes in the win over Jackson State in the finals. But in the previous two games, he was impressive against both Texas Southern (3 blocks, 7-for-7 FT) and Alabama State (4-for-6 FG, 5 rebounds, 2 steals). Southern needs Sam to stay on the floor, so that their other players, such as Adrian Rodgers, can really shine.
A game that will run at a slow pace like this one will normally favor the team that can shoot better, but this one may be the exception. Holy Cross struggles with offensive efficiency, but the Crusaders have the size advantage and play in a style that Southern just isn't used to seeing. Plus the Jaguars will need to contend with a zone that is just foreign to them. Holy Cross will force a lot of 3-point shots, and that is just going to be the downfall for Southern.
Holy Cross 52, Southern 45