There’s never an easy opponent in the NCAA tournament, so you might as well start at the top.
The Maryville College men’s basketball team compiled the winningest single-season record in school history this winter, but it wasn’t enough to land the Scots a home game to open the Big Dance. No. 19-ranked Maryville will pit its 24-2 record — best-ever for the Scots in the shot-clock era — against host No. 14 Millsaps College (25-3) on Friday in Jackson, Miss.
A road trip is a tough pill to swallow for a Maryville team which enters riding a 17-game winning streak, also a Maryville record.
The Millsaps regional, which includes Mary Hardin-Baylor (25-3) vs. Fontbonne (21-6) in the other half of the bracket, is a tough place to start, but Maryville coach Randy Lambert is taking an either-now-or-later approach.
“If you’re going to go down there, it might be a little better to play the host team first,” he said. “You might sneak up on them.”
Tipoff is 9 p.m.
WBCR radio, AM 1470, will have the broadcast.
Maryville has secured its 10th consecutive national tournament berth with this year’s bid. Traveling for a first-round game isn’t what Lambert would have liked, but, “No question it’s better than the alternative,” he said, “and that’s not playing at all.”
The Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference champion Majors, home court withstanding, are the favored team. The trio of Edrick Montgomery (16.5 points per game), Rodney Rogan (13.9) and Lorenzo Bailey (12.4) pace an offense averaging 80 points per game, holding opponents in the 60s. Coincidentally, so do the Scots.
Senior Alex Bowers, team-best 15.9 points per game, leads a Maryville team that has stunned the South Region this season. The Scots have torn through their record-setting year after replacing three starters from a year ago, including All-American post player Bobby Golden.
Freshman sensation Eryk Watson, most valuable player of last week’s Great South Athletic Conference tournament, has helped Maryville compensate for the loss of Golden and the others. The silky point guard trails only Bowers on the scoring ladder with 12.7 points per game. With sophomore Chris Orr adding 11.1 points and senior Jonathan Johnson 9.2, Maryville is torching the rims at an 85.0 points per game clip.
Seniors Quinn Bradley, Jeremy Holliday, Bowers and Johnson have reached the NCAA tournament in each of their four seasons, winning the opener each time.
The NCAA selection committee thought little of those numbers, though, and Maryville isn’t happy about it.
“I’m playing the underdog card very stringently in practice,” Lambert said. “We feel like we haven’t been getting the respect we deserve all year long in the polls.”
His biggest concern, Lambert said, isn’t with the Majors but with his predominantly young Scots. Millsaps starts a pair of seniors and three juniors. After Bowers, Johnson, Bradley and Holliday, Maryville is decidedly freshman and sophomore.
“We’ve got players on our team with years of national tournament experience,” Lambert said. “I do worry about how our young people will respond in a game with this kind of pressure.
“I could tell in practice (Tuesday) that both Quinn and Alex are picking up their leadership responsibilities more.”
The Majors are awfully big in the post, Lambert said, but, there again, Maryville has been there and done that this season. Division II-rival Carson-Newman College, a team the Scots routed earlier this season, has size and athleticism to spare. NAIA scholarship program King College was no slouch beneath the basket either.
“Our work’s going to be cut out for us,” Lambert said, “but I like our chances. I think we’re playing our best basketball right now, and we’re in good health.”
Should they advance, the Scots would meet the Mary Hardin-Baylor/Fontbonne winner for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. There’s an outside chance Maryville could play host to a four-team bracket at that point.
“There’s always a chance,” Lambert said. “Again, geography will play into the picture and just how the higher seeds fare in the first couple of rounds. Our location helps when we get to that point.”
To dismiss out of hand that Maryville can reach the round of 16 is to discount the Scots body of work to this point.
“I’m awfully proud of the string of NCAA appearances we have,” Lambert said. “I’m proud of the fact we’ve always won at least one game (in the national tournament). That proves we’re not just making a token appearance. We want to keep that string alive.”