Mount St. Mary's vs. New Orleans: NCAA Tournament First Four preview, prediction

By Mike Sullivan, The Sports Xchange  |  March 13, 2017 at 5:12 PM
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The dream of each 16th-seeded team dispatched to the NCAA Tournament's First Four in Dayton, Ohio, is to win a contest and then take on one of the Goliaths of college basketball.

This year's reward for either Mount St. Mary's or New Orleans is the opportunity to play No. 1 overall seed Villanova in a first-round East Regional contest in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday.

The Wildcats also answer to defending national champions.

The two upstart schools will worry about that monumental task later. Both the Mountaineers and Privateers are chasing the second NCAA Tournament win in school history when they meet Tuesday.

Mount St. Mary's (19-15) qualified by winning the Northeast Conference tournament, while New Orleans (20-11) won the Southland Conference tourney.

The Privateers are part of the field for the first time since 1996. The program fell on hard times after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city and campus in 2005, and New Orleans finished 10-20 last season before the stunning turnaround.

"It's a great accomplishment," sixth-year coach Mark Slessinger said. "We're excited for the chance to put our university and our city back on the national stage in the biggest basketball tournament in the world. Our team goal has always been, from Day One, to win the Southland Conference, to go to the NCAA Tournament and to win games.

"Our goal was never just to get in this tournament. Our goal is to win games in this tournament. The guys are all very clear on the expectation level and what we have to do to meet it."

New Orleans is led by senior forward Erik Thomas, whose averages of 19.5 points and 7.8 rebounds prompted his selection as Southland Conference Player of the Year.

Senior guards Christavious Gill (11.6 points) and Nate Frye (10.3) also score in double digits for a squad that notched a road win over Pac-12 member Washington State during the regular season.

Mount St. Mary's had to dig itself out of an early-season hole as it started 1-11 against an arduous schedule that included NCAA Tournament teams West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan, Arkansas and Bucknell.

The Mountaineers were toughened up by the lumps they took and began thriving once the slate was filled with fellow Northeast Conference schools.

"How it started out was discouraging at times because we started out not so great," junior guard Greg Alexander told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "But for me personally, playing all these top-tier teams made me feel good once we got to conference play, and I knew we would be ready because I don't think these teams have seen the type of competition we've seen to start the season.

"I think the way we responded and went into conference play, I think everybody felt the same way I did, just ready for anybody."

Sophomore guard Elijah Long (15.4 points, 5.4 rebounds) and junior guard Junior Robinson (14.1 points) pace the Mountaineers. Freshman guard Miles Wilson (11.3) also averages in double digits.

Mount St. Mary's has played in the First Four at Dayton twice before, recording a 69-60 victory over Coppin State in 2008 and dropping a 71-64 decision to Albany in 2014.

Jamion Christian, the Mountaineers' coach since 2012-13, is looking forward to another chance to win in Dayton.

"I looked at the profiles of all those possible (First Four) teams, and I thought our resume was pretty good," Christian told the Carroll County Times. "We have a chance to go prove that now."


Prediction:

Consistency is key, and that's what will ultimately help the Privateers overcome Mount St. Mary's and move New Orleans into the next round and secure a meeting with No. 1 Villanova.

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