Who: Liberty Flames (27-6, #64 KenPom) at Lipscomb Bisons (25-6, #49 KenPom)
When: Sunday, 4:00 p.m. ET
Vegas: O/U 138.5, Lipscomb -7
KenPom: Lipscomb by 6, 73-67,
It was always going to come down to these two teams. Even dating back to November and December, it was clear that Lipscomb and Liberty were the teams to beat in the ASUN. Each team had a win over a Power 5 team and were a clear cut above the rest of the league. After both finished 14-2 in the league play while splitting the head-to-head matchups, the Bisons and Flames will convene in Nashville for a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament.
Lipscomb is the No. 1 seed and will have home court advantage for the matchup. The Bisons opened up the tournament by dispatching a Kennesaw State team that hung around longer than many expected and then by thoroughly handling NJIT in the semifinals. Liberty took care of business against Jacksonville and North Florida to set up the primetime tilt.
The first matchup between the two was a dominant performance from Lipscomb right from the jump. The Bisons raced out to an 18 point halftime lead thanks largely in part to a stifling defensive showing. In the second matchup at Lipscomb, Liberty returned the favor by holding the potent Bisons offense under 1.00 points per possession en route to an eight point victory.
So what should we expect in the rubber match? Here are some things to watch for on Sunday.
The Tempo Battle
Stylistically, Lipscomb and Liberty are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Bisons want to get up and down the floor, and are ranked No. 14 in tempo on KenPom at over 73 possessions per game. Liberty - who’s coach Ritchie McKay stems from the Tony Bennett coaching tree - wants to grind you down. The Flames are ranked No. 349 in tempo at just over 62 possessions per game. I’d be shocked if there’s a bigger difference in that metric between two teams in a conference tournament championship this year.
The first matchup featured 65 possessions and a Lipscomb. The second was a Liberty win consisting of 69 possessions. So, Lipscomb won the slower game while Liberty won the faster. Go figure! However, the team that can dictate the tempo in their direction will likely gain a slight advantage. If the pace is up tempo from the start, that favors the Bisons. If Liberty is able to slow it down and make Lipscomb work on every possession, the Flames should have the upper hand.
I know, it’s a shocking revelation to state that if a team can limit another team’s star player, their chances of winning increase drastically. In Lipscomb’s win, the Bisons held Scottie James to just five points and five rebounds, both well below his season averages. In the second meeting, Liberty forced Garrison Mathews into a rough night from the floor as the he went 5-of-16 from the field. Neither team is so dependent on a single player that taking them out of the game completely ruins their gameplan. Both teams have multiple guys that have a major impact on the game. But the team that can limit the other’s go-to guy will have the upper hand.
Win the 3-point battle
When it comes to shooting from behind the arc, both teams are on similar levels. Lipscomb shoots it at a 37.4 percent clip while the Flames hit a 36.7 percent mark. Both teams are good and capable of knocking down shots at a high rate. Defensively, Lipscomb holds opponents to 31.8 percent from deep while Liberty follows close behind with a 32.9 percent rate. The first matchup featured Lipscomb getting hot from deep en route to the win, and Liberty’s win in the second matchup was largely a result of holding the Bisons to 3-of-18 shooting from deep. Make more shots, probably win the game. It’s groundbreaking stuff, but sometimes it can be that simple.
When presented with two teams that have proven to be relatively evenly matched, sometimes it comes down to the little things. In a winner take all situation, the team with home court advantage, the best player and experience in this type of game have a slight upper hand. For those reasons, Lipscomb will be the one cutting down the nets following a close game to make it back to their second straight NCAA Tournament.