Both UNC-Asheville and College Of Charleston will look to pull upsets in their opening round games in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams will take the floor on Thursday, the first full slate of games. UNC-Asheville won the Big South Conference Tournament, earning them an automatic bid and a 15 seed. The Cougars won the Colonial Tournament and were slotted as a 12 seed.
Asheville is 27-7 on the year and will face without doubt, their toughest test of the season vs the UCLA Bruins, who are 29-5 and are a 2 seed. The Bulldogs biggest wins this season out of conference came over Central Florida and So-Con Semifinalist Western Carolina.
The losses in non-conference for UNC-Asheville include Eastern Kentucky, Georgia State, NC Central, Dayton by 20+ points and Arkansas by more than 30. Arkansas is the only NCAA Tournament team that the Bulldogs have played.
The Bulldogs go as Big South Player Of The Year , Drew Pember goes. The 6ft 9 Senior from Knoxville averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds per game. However in the loss to Arkansas, he was held to 5 points on 1 of 7 shooting and just two rebounds in 21 minutes. Pember has to have a big game for the Bulldogs to have a shot to shock the world vs UCLA. The Robin to Pember's Batman for Asheville is 6ft 5 Senior Wing Taijon Jones who averages 15 points per.
UCLA is 29-5 on the season and the most storied program in NCAA Men's history. They have had a recent revival under Head Coach Mick Cronin after he was hired away from Cincinnati in 2019. Cronin led UCLA to the Final Four in 2021 just his 2nd year at the helm.
The game will feature a "star watch" of sorts, as UCLA features Jamie Jacquez Jr. He was named a 2nd team All-American and Pac-12 Player Of The Year, this season. The 6ft 7 Senior for the Bruins, will look to outduel Pember. It may not be often that the two are matched up on each other, though. Jacquez averages 17 points and 8 rebounds per game. The supporting cast for the veteran star is really good , as well.
UCLA features three other players who score in double figures. Senior Guard Tyger Campbell averages nearly 14 points per, Junior Wing Jaylen Clark is their defensive star, averaging nearly 3 steals per game. Clark also adds 13 points per on the offensive end, Freshman Guard Amari Bailey has chipped in nearly 11 per night and has shot a 49% overall clip.
15 seeds do at times beat 2 seeds. Look no further than last year, when 15 seed St. Peter's shocked Kentucky and made a run to the Elite 8. Florida Gulf Coast did it about a decade ago knocking off Georgetown. Those two teams were younger teams, Kentucky was full of Freshman and G'town was having their 1st big year with a group new to the pressure of NCAA Tourney. This UCLA team is full of veterans, who have won games in this setting and a Coach who has been here time and time again. Although Mick Cronin didn't have a great tournament record at Cincinatti, his teams often overachieved to get there or be higher seeded, than they probably should have been. My thought here is, even if a 15 seed knocks off a 2 seed, I am not sure UCLA is the 2 seed that is most prone to it.
College Of Charleston will look to pull the much more prevalent 12 over 5 upset. At least one 12 wins generally every year in the tournament. The Cougars are 31-3 on the year, winning 30 games in D-I is an accomplishment regardless of schedule. They had non-conference wins over Old Dominion, SoCon Runner-Up Chattanooga, a down Coastal Carolina squad and traditionally solid, Davidson. Their losses came at North Carolina early in the season, Hofstra by four and at Drexel by one.
Charleston features 5 guys who average double figures and 6 who score 9 or more per game. 6ft 4 Senior Wing Dalton Bolon leads the charge scoring 12 per game, Croatian Big Man Ante Brzovic averages 11.5 points and over 6 rebounds. The "Tasmanian Devil" Reyne Smith (no-joke is from Tasmania) adds 11 points per night, Point Guard Ryan Larson averages over 10 per and 4 assists per game. Pat Robinson chips in with 10.6 per and Fort Mill native Ben Burnham scores 9 and has shot 45% from deep in limited minutes.
San Diego State is 27-6 on the season and is 3-5 against teams in tournament field. Only one Aztec player averages double-digits, Senior Matt Bradley averages a baker's dozen. Darrion Trammell adds 9.5 points per and just over 3 assists per. SDSU will have a size advantage at a few spots on the floor. If Charleston can compete on the glass, they'll have a solid chance at knocking off the Aztecs. The Mountain West again got 4 teams in the field and has had a sub-par track record in recent years in the NCAA Tournament.
We will see Thursday if either or both of these Southern mid-major programs can pull the upset and possibly become this year's Cinderella.