Spartans set for SoCon Tournament
By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The story would be more compelling if it included amazing upset tales narrated by the voice of Bill Murray as Carl Spackler in "Caddyshack." That's not the deal with the Southern Conference men's basketball tournament, which is almost always won by one of the two best teams in the league.
The current UNCG Spartans don't fit in that category, and their 6-12 regular-season league record isn't inducing many guarantees of net-cutting. Yet there are some reasons to believe that sleeping on the Spartans could be a habit as dangerous as it is sedentary:
• Diversity is their strength. No fewer than seven of them have scored 23 or more points in a game this season. No other team in the SoCon has had more than three individuals go for 23 or more.
The big nights have come by various means – post play, 3-pointers and dribble penetration. Forward Aaron Brackett, who gets a majority of his shots from mid-range spots, delivered 28 at Appalachian State without benefit of a free throw or 3-pointer. In his 28-point night at Chattanooga, Brandon Evans took 10 of his 11 field-goal attempts from behind the arc.
"They're never out of a game," Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said last week.
•They've generally been competitive. Only Wofford (92-70) and the College of Charleston (87-69) handed the visiting Spartans lopsided defeats. The tournament's host, Chattanooga, needed double overtime to claim a 111-110 win in one of the highest scoring games in recent SoCon history.
• They're a resilient group. They overcame deficits or 10 or more points in seven league games during the regular season. Admittedly, this is not the best trait to develop.
"You don't want to be known as a team that gets down by double digits," freshman swing man Trevis Simpson said after his team finished the regular season with a loss at Davidson. "It's good to fight back, but we want to start off on top. To be down and fight all the way back, we tend to burn selves out. By the time we tie the game, we have nothing left to sustain it."
• They improved in taking care of the ball. The Spartans had a positive turnover margin in 10 SoCon games and were even in two others.
The general fuel to most of this has been an improvement from long range. UNCG has boosted its accuracy by 8.8 percentage points over last season (from 28.7 percent to 37.5). Only two other programs in the 345-team behemoth that is Division I have made bigger gains. All in all, the Spartans' success rate is the program's highest in a decade.
There isn't any great secret about what it will take to make a sudden move to a championship, however. They'll have to take opponents out of offensive rhythm, and that's especially true in the first 10 minutes.
At least four times this season, coach Mike Dement said something like this: "When we learn to defend better, we'll be really good."
The Spartans will get another crack at Davidson to open their quest for a second SoCon title, and that won't be easy. The Wildcats are rounding into form, having won nine of their past 10 games. Up next would be another hot club, Western Carolina.
As arduous as that looks, UNCG knows things could be worse. Confronted by one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, the Spartans began the season at 0-15. The numerically modest turnaround that followed should still be cause for long-term optimism. In the SoCon, only Georgia Southern got more regular-season minutes out of freshmen than UNCG in 2010-11.
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