In this day and age, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and fall victim to hyperbole. An event as significant as the NCAA Tournament is certainly fertile ground to overly extol virtues.
But in the case of the USC Aiken men’s basketball team, which will play in tonight’s championship game of the Southeastern Regional, it might be hard to overdo the magnitude of this contest.
Plain and simple, this has the potential to be the most important game in program history.
Playing on their home court at the Convocation Center, the Pacers (24-7) have the chance to advance to the round of eight in the Division II NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. That type of high profile could lead to even greater recruiting and could allow the team to establish its brand.
In five previous appearances in the big dance, USCA has never gone further than the regional final, achieving that milestone only once. But under the guidance of head coach Vince Alexander, the winningest in coach in program history, the Pacers have become a postseason fixture. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament in five of the past six seasons, also winning 20 or more games in five of six seasons.
A victory tonight would show continued growth in USCA’s evolution as a member of the elite D-II teams in the nation. In spite of all of their success under Alexander, the Pacers aren’t in that group yet.
In a preseason poll of Peach Belt Conference coaches, USCA was picked to finish fourth in the league a season after winning the regular-season championship. This year, it won the regular-season title again and followed that by winning the PBC Tournament title.
All of that success, which allowed the Pacers to host the Southeastern Regional, they didn’t enter the national rankings until last week. At No. 20, they were still behind regional competitor Lincoln Memorial in the standings.
While the Pacers have advanced to tonight’s regional final, scheduled to tip-off at 7 p.m., the Railsplitters were eliminated by Barton, the bracket’s No. 3 seed.
“I think we’ve been overlooked and underestimated all year. Here we are, by the grace of God, in this situation,” Alexander said. “We don’t care about anything besides going out and accomplishing our goal, and our goal is to win this region.”
Every goal USCA has set so far this season, it has accomplished. Winning tonight would be another milestone surpassed that would forever change expectations of the already-successful program.
To get to the Elite Eight, which will be played at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., the Pacers must defeat the Bulldogs (23-7). USCA and Barton have previously played just twice, with USCA winning both matchups. They first played in 1979 when the Pacers bested Atlantic Christian (Barton’s name until 1990). They played again in 2008 and the then preseason nationally-ranked No. 1 Pacers won 81-76.
Past history won’t have much impact in tonight’s game. What will likely determine the winner is which team’s guards have the best game.
USCA starts a trio of guards, led by PBC Player of the Year, PBC Tournament MVP and First-team all-region selection Re’mon Nelson. He joined in the starting five by veterans Jesse Seilern and Ronald Zimmerman, while DeVontae Wright is a spark off the bench. Seilern is an agile player often charged with guarding the opponents best scorer while filling the stat sheet for the Pacers. Zimmerman’s dead-eye shooter, who’s among the best in all of D-II in 3-pointers attempted and made.
They’ll have their hands full trying to slow the Bulldogs’ potent guards – Gerald Boston and Chris Flemmings. In the regional, Boston is the top scorer posting 34 in a narrow win over PBC runner-up Montevallo and following that with 30 against the Railsplitters. The Conference Carolinas Player of the Year and First-team all-region selection is a volume shooter, launching 40 shots in two games but he’s efficient, connecting on 50 percent of those tries. And he’s got a nose for the ball, tracking down several rebounds while dishing out a regional-leading 10 assists, one more than Nelson.
Boston’s explosive off the dribble, close to unguardable in the open court and able to knock down long-range shots. That’s where Flemmings has been at his best in the regional. After being held scoreless in the first half of the Montevallo game, Flemmings went off for 15 in the second half, all coming from 3-point range. Against Lincoln Memorial, he hit three more 3s and totaled 13 points.
“I know they’ve got a really, really good guards, but I know we’ve got a lot of good guards too,” Alexander said. “I mean, I know they’ve got a kid that can score, but I think we’ve got some kids that can defend. I know … he probably puts up the most shots on their team and he scores a lot, but we have to do a job on him and the rest of the team.”
The rest of the team includes forwards Jon Hart and Keith Manley, who have both had double-digit scoring performances in the regional. They’ll likely have their hands full going against the Pacers front-court players. First-year transfers Paul Larsen, Santoine Butler and Kinley Branch are as formidable as any group of bigs in the nation. Not flashy scorers, they can power through and fly over opponents.
Larsen, a second-team All-PBC selection has been playing at a terrific clip the past two months and has been a difference maker for the Pacers. He’s almost a guaranteed double-double every game, muscling his way to several loose balls.
“You’ve got the chairman of the boards right here. We know if he’s in there, its gonna get cleaned up,” said Alexander, who’s understandably enthusiastic about the way his team is playing, finding a variety of ways to win in all kinds of circumstances. “I’ll be honest with you; I watch them, and I get confidence. … “I think they’re a very well-coached team. I think they do a good job, but you know, I think we’re a good team too.”
A good team with the opportunity to become a great one.
Staff writer Jeremy Timmerman contributed to this report.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.
At a glance
What: Division II NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional championship game
Where: USC Aiken Convocation Center
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Who: No. 1 USC Aiken (24-7) vs. No. 3 Barton (23-7)
• $10 for adults
• $5 for students/seniors
• Free for children 2-and-under
• Free for the first 150 USC Aiken students with valid USCA identification
USC Aiken in NCAA Tournament
1998 – at USC Spartanburg
• Regional quarterfinals – W, Columbus State
• Regional semifinals – L, Catawba
2008 at Augusta State*
• Regional quarterfinals – L, Clayton State
2009 at August State
• Regional quarterfinals – W, Lenoir-Rhyne
• Regional semifinals – W, Catawba
• Regional final – L, Augusta State
2010 at Augusta State
• Regional quarterfinals – W, Georgia College
• Regional semifinals – L, Montevallo
2012 at Montevallo
• Regional quarterfinals – L, Wingate
2013 at USC Aiken*
• Regional quarterfinals – W, Belmont Abbey quarterfinals
• Regional semifinals – W, Wingate semifinals
* USC Aiken No. 1 seed