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NCAA Tournament 2017: Get to know Mount St. Mary’s

How the NEC champs can escape Dayton and what can trip them up

NCAA Basketball: Mount St. Mary's at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, the top-seeded Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers survived a turbulent Northeast Conference Tournament. Their reward? A trip to the First Four, where they must win another game in order to get the true NCAA Tournament experience (and be steamrolled by Villanova in the First Round).

The Mountaineers, who went 14-4 in the NEC regular season, drew New Orleans for a Tuesday night showdown in Dayton.

It’s been a tale of two seasons for the group out of Emmitsburg, Maryland. Head coach Jamion Christian put together a brutal early schedule, complete with buy games at West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan, Arkansas and more. As a result, Mount St. Mary’s stumbled to a 1-11 start before finally catching fire against Coppin State shortly before conference play.

Since that 1-11 start, the Mountaineers are 18-4, powered by a chaotic defense and offensive efficiency. Christian’s system has been dubbed Mount Mayhem, and it focuses on intense ball pressure and limiting opponents’ looks from long range. The Mount ranks near the top of the NEC in nearly every defensive category and owns the 22nd-best turnover percentage defense in the nation.

That defense creates more opportunities offensively, which makes a difference considering how the team struggles to rebound. Elijah Long and Junior Robinson are the two names to know in the backcourt. Long is a team leader on both sides of the ball and is playing his best basketball at the right time. At just 5’5, Robinson is the shortest player in Division I, but is also one of the best in the NEC. He’s a good three-point shooter and is nearly automatic from the line, which he gets to with regularity.

How The Mount can win

New Orleans might objectively be a little better than Mount St. Mary’s, but this is a good matchup for the Mountaineers. The Privateers are prone to turnovers, ranking 349 in the country in turnover percentage and 348 in steal percentage on offense. This seems like a game where Long can thrive, particularly if the Mountaineers control the tempo.

The Mount isn’t a particularly big team, but then again neither is New Orleans. 6’9 Chris Wray might have an opportunity for a big game against a Privateers team that struggles to rebound and doesn’t defend well inside the arc. In the NEC Tournament, Wray played all but 10 minutes over three games, shooting over 50 percent from the field.

If the game is played on the perimeter, the Mountaineers will quickly find themselves in their comfort zone. Long, Robinson, and Greg Alexander are all three-point threats, and if one of them has a big game, Mount St. Mary’s can shoot its way into a meeting with Villanova. Then again, New Orleans tends to lose games played in the 50s and 60s and win them in the 70s and 80s. It may behoove the Mountaineers to be more methodical, which tends to work for them anyway.

How The Mount can go home

New Orleans defends the perimeter well and just might succeed at keeping the Mountaineers from scoring in bunches, even if the Privateers are prone to turnovers. On offense, Travin Thibodeaux bullied the Southland inside and might be able to neutralize Wray.

And as good as Mount St. Mary’s is at forcing turnovers, the Mountaineers cough it up a fair amount themselves. That’s concerning against a New Orleans team that boasts four of the top 25 players in the Southland in steal percentage.

At 6’5, Erik Thomas could be a nightmare for any opponent. He averages nearly 20 points per game on 59 percent shooting and pulls down eight rebounds per contest. If the Mountaineers can’t figure out how to stop him, they can be headed home early.