UNC Greensboro (21-8) heads into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament after earning its second SoCon tournament title in four years.
The Spartans will take on Florida State (16-6) in a First Round contest slated for Saturday at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, with tip-off set for 12:45 p.m. on TruTV.
The matchup with Florida State holds some obvious intrigue given the ACC background of Spartans head coach and former North Carolina Tar Heel Wes Miller, and with Greensboro being in the heart of ACC country. The Seminoles were in town just Saturday, taking on Georgia Tech in the championship game of the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Spartans are largely responsible for what has been a golden generation for Southern Conference basketball since the start of the 2015-16 season. In fact, the SoCon’s improvement as a conference has been a topic of conversation nationally over the past three years.
UNCG’s biggest strengths:
Defense and Isaiah Miller
Under Wes Miller, the Spartans’ calling card has been defense. In fact, the more they can “ugly” the game up, the better chance the Spartans will have a chance of springing the opening-round upset.
UNCG’s staunch defense centers around its athleticism, as well as one of the best on-the-ball defenders in SoCon history in Isaiah Miller. He ranks second in league history in career steals (313). Miller is the first back-to-back winner of the the league’s player of the year and defensive player of the year honors in league history.
Following the graduation of James Dickey, UNCG added 7’1 center Hayden Koval (7.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG) — a grad transfer from Central Arkansas — and is going to finish his career ranking among college basketball’s best shot-blockers. This season alone has seen Koval knock away 65 shots in 29 games, which is good enough for 11th nationally.
While Miller and Koval highlight the strength of the team, it’s how that affects a game, and in particular, how it directly leads to offense. The Spartans are at their most dangerous when they can create live-ball turnovers out of their 1-2-2 press.
On offense, Miller has the quickness and leaping ability to be an electrifying dunker, comparable to former Murray State standout Ja Morant.
Miller generates a majority of his league-leading 19.1 PPG from his outstanding play as a defensive player, having posted 72 steals this season (2.6 SPG). The senior from Covington, GA, currently ranks third in UNCG history in scoring (1,950 points) and is just 50 points shy of becoming the 12th player over the past 34 years to finish a career with 2,000 or more points.
Miller is not a great perimeter shooter, connecting on just 21.3% (10-of-47) from three this season, however, when he does make them, the Spartans feed off that momentum almost as much one of his patented steals and highlight-reel dunks. Miller is an excellent slashing guard, whose biggest strength is beating defenders off the dribble and getting to the basket.
The athletic guard also ranks second on the team in rebounding, pulling down 6.9 boards per game, which is eighth overall in the SoCon.
Miller enters his second NCAA Tournament as a Spartan with 230 made field goals this season, which ranks second to only Iowa’s Luka Garza nationally.
UNCG’s biggest weakness:
At Southern Conference media day back in early November, Wes Miller made one of the most accurate comments about his team. He was asked about the expectations and he gave the old cliche’ “I think we have a chance to be really good” comment followed by “at times though, we struggle offensively and quite honestly we have to get better at shooting the basketball.”
As the season has progressed, those words rung true.
The Spartans never really got good at shooting, but learned how to get the most out of their strengths, meaning UNCG got stronger defensively as the season progressed, posting an eight-game winning streak in conference play as the calendar flipped to February.
UNCG learned how to take fewer perimeter shots (a weakness) and rely on its defense to get the offense needed to compensate for the lack of shooting prowess. Remember that 5-for-36 stinker in a non-conference loss to woeful Coppin State? Things certainly changed for the Spartans following that game.
In many ways, this Spartans team is the anti-March mid-major, in that they don’t use the three as a weapon to equalize talent and athleticism during the madness. In fact, it’s the opposite. The Spartans use their Power 5-level athleticism to create turnovers and generate points to compensate for that lack of consistency and efficiency from beyond the arc.
All told, the Spartans ended the season last in the SoCon in both overall field goal percentage (42.5%) and three-point field goal percentage (30.2%).
Who wins and why:
The chance of an upset relies on the ability for the Spartans to create live-ball turnovers against the Seminoles and get points off of them. If you see a big advantage in points off turnovers here for UNCG, there’s a good chance it’ll move on.
As much as I want UNCG to win for the SoCon here, Florida State isn’t the type of opponent that would seem ripe for the upset. While UNCG is athletic, Florida State has more of those type athletes and sport the best perimeter shooting team in the ACC (39.0%), as well as the top scoring offense (79.0 PPG), and top field goal percentage defense (39.8%). Those ingredients don’t add up to an upset, but if I am wrong, the Sweet 16 is a real possibility.