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NCAA Tournament Profile: Get to know the Abilene Christian Wildcats

Do the Wildcats have what it takes to pull off a miracle upset?

NCAA Basketball: Abilene Christian at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re an avid reader of the site, then the abbreviation ‘NMTC’ will mean something to you. For the uninformed, that stands for ‘Never Made the Tournament Club’ a series currently hosted by us that shines a spotlight on the Division-I teams that have never been able to reach the big dance.

Until this past Saturday, the Abilene Christian Wildcats possessed an unenviable status as members of the club. Now, after winning the Southland Conference Tournament, ACU has found itself as a 15 seed in an opening round matchup with the Kentucky Wildcats. (INSERT JOKE ABOUT THEM SHARING NICKNAMES HERE.) Here’s everything you need to know about ACU:

How did they get here?

Abilene Christian has only been a member of Division-I since the 2013-14 season, so it has naturally taken a large effort to bring them to this current point. Picked to finish 4th in the Southland Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll, the Wildcats headed into conference play with a résumé that featured only 3 games against KenPom top-200 teams (and only one win within that bunch, coming against Campbell).

However, the Wildcats were able to capitalize on the power vacuum left by the disappointing season that was had by Stephen F. Austin, allowing them to finish conference play with a 14-4 record. Heading into the Southland Tournament, Sam Houston State was the odds-on favorite, having dropped only two conference games all season (neither was against ACU).

Ultimately, the Wildcats did not have to face the Bearkats for a third time, as they were upset by New Orleans in the semifinals. From there, the Wildcats made quick work of the Privateers, securing their first NCAA Tournament bid in program history, all while adding victories to their first winning season since making the jump to D-I.

How do they play?

“Fast.”

“Hasty.”

“Hurried.”

None of these words would be used to describe Abilene Christian, a team whose offense is much more focused on a slowed pace that produces high-quality looks. It is this reason why they’re in the top 20 in the country in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 38.6% of the outside shots they take.

However, that’s not to say that they are high-volume three-point shooters. Intent on taking the best look possible, the Wildcats are not concerned with hoisting up three after three. Instead, they’re content to strike when the moment is right—that’s when they’ll hurt you the most.

Which players should I watch for?

Up until February, this list would have included Jalone Friday, who was the Wildcats’ leading scorer before being “dismissed from the team...for violating university policies.” However, ACU has made do without him, with much of the burden being placed on senior forward Jaren Lewis.

Lewis, along with senior Jaylen Franklin, are the guys who have stepped up during their collegiate swan songs, allowing the bulk of the ACU offense to flow through them. Whether that entails Franklin dishing out assists or Lewis bringing down boards, these two are the guys to watch.

How do they win?

It’s very unlikely, but if ACU is to make a miraculous upset of Kentucky come true, they will need Payten Ricks, their sharpshooting junior guard to light it up from downtown. He hit five three pointers in their semifinal win over New Orleans, and he’ll need to be red-hot against a Kentucky team whose only glaring weakness is their three-point defense.

Hitting those outside shots will also prevent them from having to take it inside against Kentucky, whose size advantage will surely give the Southland champs plenty of fits.

In essence, everything would need to go perfectly right for ACU to win. But hey, isn’t that what March is all about?