Located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains within the western part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Radford Highlanders (22-12, 12-6) will enter the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game winning streak.
Head coach Mike Jones is in his seventh season, and has produced three 20-win seasons of at a program that had just one win the year before he was at the helm. The Highlanders were picked to finish seventh in the Big South, however, they were second in the regular season and took the conference tournament by storm on the way to their first big dance appearance since 2009.
Radford is deep — especially on the perimeter. Nine players see at least 10 minutes of action. Using an excellent mix of veterans and youth they have built their success on hard-nosed, active defense. Big South first team selection Ed Polite Jr. and his frontcourt mate Randy Phillips are the anchors of the stingy Highlander defense. Both are physical rim-protectors that are active on the glass, making Radford an excellent rebounding team. Their ability to protect the lane allows their athletic guards create havoc in the passing lanes.
Polite Jr. leads the team in scoring with 13.6 per game, and the only other player to average in double figures is Big South Freshman-of-the-year Carlik Jones (11.6 ppg). The Highlanders have several contributors that are more than capable of having big nights; when shooters Donald Hicks, Caleb Tanner and Travis Fields Jr. are dialed in, Radford plays at its highest level. But they can also score inside: Forward Devonnte Holland might be the most polished offensive post player for the Highlanders.
HOW THEY CAN WIN
Radford’s defense makes this team special. Their full-court pressure — their 64.4 ppg are No. 14 best scoring defense in the nation, according to ncaa.com — have kept them in ball games this season. In order to win in the postseason, they must continue to force teams into their tempo, force turnovers, and rebound. Kenpom has Radford ranked No. 133 in adjustment defense, but if they can continue to keep teams out of the paint they have a shot at competing.
Offensively they will need Ed Polite Jr. to increase his production. He is an under-sized, yet athletic power forward that uses his combination of size and mobility to his advantage by attacking off the bounce and stretching the defense out with perimeter shooting. He is a capable shooter, but his strength is getting to the rim and hitting the offensive boards.
Carlik Jones has to be aggressive with his dribble penetration and his mid-range game. When he attacks off the dribble, good things happen for the Highlanders. Radford has a great and drive-and-kick game that starts with Jones. They will need to knock down perimeter shots, as the offense is prone to lulls when opposing defenses pack the lane to counter their driving guards.
The biggest key for the Highlanders is getting second-chance points and getting to the free throw line. They do an exceptional job of getting offensive rebounds. They also make 12.4 free throws per game, which offsets their lack of shooting, and is usually a result of getting on the glass.
Expect the game to be a physical contest when Radford steps on the court. The Highlanders aren’t going to give up easily. The Highlanders are a feisty group that doesn’t mind doing the dirty work to achieve their goals. Redford wants to play a game in the 60s and run off of turnovers.
They will have to get some post-production as they like to play inside out, but they have a tall task in front of them as they will likely be put up against a No. 1 or two-seed. Their defense is certainly capable of getting them a win; if they can find some consistency on offense, then they may be able to shock the world.