FORT SMITH, Ark. – Moments after hearing their name called out during Sunday’s NCAA Division II National Tournament Selection Show, the UAFS men’s basketball celebrated earning their first trip to the Big Dance.
Then, it was back to work.
“We’ve had a good week of work,” UAFS coach Josh Newman said. “The guys were business as usual and excited to have the opportunity to keep playing.”
The No. 6 seed Lions will play the No. 3 seed Midwestern State Mustangs at 1 p.m. on Saturday in the first round of the South Central Region Tournament at Metro State University’s Auraria Events Center in Denver, Colo. The game will be broadcast on KHGG-FM 103.1 FM and via the Internet at www.sportshog1031.com. Live statistics and webcast will be available by visiting http://www.gometrostate.com/sports/2014/3/9/MBB_0309143658.aspx.
UAFS (21-6), which won the Heartland Conference regular-season title for the second year in a row, is one of three conference teams invited to the tournament.
No. 5 seed St. Mary’s (19-8), which received an at-large bid, will play No. 4 seed Colorado School of Mines (24-4) at 9:30 p.m., and No. 7 seed Texas A&M International (22-8), which won the conference tournament and received an automatic bid to the national tournament, will play No. 2 seed Tarleton State (27-2) at 3:30 p.m.
In the other first round game on Saturday, No. 1 seed and No. 1 nationally-ranked Metro State (28-1), which was last year’s national runner-up, will play No. 8 University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (21-8) at 7 p.m.
Some consider the South Central Region the toughest region in the tournament, and Newman wholeheartedly agrees.
“I think this field might be the toughest in the country,” Newman said. “You have four teams that are considered conference champions, the No. 1 team in the country, the No. 4 team in the country and two other teams who are in the Top 25. Then, we were ranked as high as No. 16 early in the year.”
UAFS went from being a lock to earn its first berth in the national tournament since becoming an active member of NCAA Division II three seasons ago to being on the tournament bubble after an early first-round exit from the conference tournament.
However, a 20-plus win season, a solid strength of schedule, a regular-season conference title and a No. 6 regional ranking were more than enough proof for the selection committee to extend the Lions an invitation to the tournament as an at-large team.
UAFS has put the drama of last weekend behind them. The Lions have spent the first part of the week focusing on themselves, shoring up some potential weaknesses while continuing to strengthen the elements of their offense and defense that got them to the tournament.
“Our biggest focus has been on ourselves to this point,” Newman said. “We’ve been trying to work on our timing and execution. We will start talking in-depth about Midwestern (Thursday) and (Friday) with the team. My assistants have done a great job breaking down film, and we will present the scouting report to the team once we land in Denver.”
UAFS averages 85 points per game with three players averaging double-figures in scoring – freshman guard Seth Youngblood (14.5), senior guard Jake Toupal (14.3) and freshman guard Alex Cooper (10).
The Lions allow 75.1 points per game and force 12.4 turnovers per game. Senior guard Jake Toupal, who was Conference Player of the Year and Daktronics Second Team All-Region, leads the team with 20 steals, and sophomore forward Kenny Martin leads the team with 46 blocked shots.
UAFS out-rebounds its opponents by almost seven rebounds per game (40.7-33.9). Martin and junior forward Miha Glavas lead the team with 7.3 and 6.5 rebounds per game, respectively.
Midwestern State (22-7) finished runner-up in the Lone Star Conference Tournament, losing to Tarleton State in the championship game. The Mustangs earned one of the five at-large bids to the region tournament.
The Mustangs average 74.9 points per game with three players averaging double-figures in scoring – senior guard Monzaigo Williams (15.9), junior guard/forward Xavier Blackburn (11.3) and senior guard DeJuan Plummer (10). Midwestern State allows 67.6 points per game and forces 12.8 turnovers per game.
Williams leads the team with 46 steals, while junior forward Tavarion Nix leads the team with 29 blocked shots.
The Mustangs are a strong rebounding team, out-rebounding their opponents by almost eight rebounds per game (41.3-33.8). Blackburn leads the team with 7.5 rebounds per game.
“They are a very physical and athletic team with a ton of NCAA experience,” Newman said.