Fresh off winning the Southeast Regional championship game, the No. 20 USC Aiken men’s basketball team has turned its focus to its opponent in the Elite Eight. It turns out the Pacers have a good deal in common with their next opponent, seventh-ranked Drury University.
Like the Pacers (25-7), the Panthers (28-4) were underestimated heading into the season. USCA was picked to finish fourth in the Peach Belt Conference and Drury was tabbed for a second-place finish in the West Division of the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
Both turned those mediocre expectations into conference regular-season and tournament titles before hosting regionals. The Panthers hosted the Midwest Regional in their home of Columbia, Mo., about 45 miles north of Branson.
Once in the Division II NCAA Tournament, both pulled away from their first two opponents before narrowly defending home court in the regional final. Drury beat eighth-seeded Findlay 89-77 and No. 4 seed Michigan Tech 76-62 before holding off the No. 3 seed Bellarmine 67-61.
USCA head coach Vince Alexander highlighted another similarity between the programs.
“I do know their leading scorer is a guy who can shoot it,” he said of 6-foot-2 senior guard Alex Hall. “They look like a team that can shoot the ball pretty well.”
Hall’s averaging 19.4 points per game while hitting 44.9 percent of his 3-pointers to lead a Drury team that is second in the country in 3-point shooting at 42.4 percent.
That’s not a far cry from the Pacers’ leading scorer, Ron Zimmerman, who averages 15.1 points per game on 44.8 percent 3-point shooting, while the Pacers connect on 40.7 percent of their 3-point attempts.
Both Zimmerman and Hall are within the top five in made 3-pointers a game, with Zimmerman leading the way at 3.87 and Hall in fifth at 3.42 per contest.
Because of the Panthers’ ability to shoot the ball from outside at an elite level, Alexander said, but he also felt his team had an edge inside the arc.
“My initial thoughts are that we have an advantage inside, and we’ll have to play strong perimeter defense as well,” he said.
The Panthers have only two players in their normal rotation who stand 6-foot-6 or taller – Teddy Simniok (6-7) and Ian Carter (6-6) – while four Pacer regulars are at least that tall in Derrick Scott (6-9), Santoine Butler (6-8), Kinley Branch (6-6) and Paul Larsen (6-6). Neither of the Panthers’ bigs averages better than five rebounds a game; their leader on the boards is 6-5 Ian Carter at 5.3 per game. Both Butler and Larsen average well better than that, with Butler bringing in 6.7 and Larsen leading the way with 8.8.
The game isn’t until March 28 at 8:30 p.m., a full nine days after the teams won their regional final. Alexander said he isn’t worried about rust before the trip to Louisville, Ky., though.
He’s more excited about how well his coaching staff and players will be able to get “needed rest” and plan for the Panthers’ shooters and size deficiency.
“If we get time to prepare, we’re pretty good,” he said. “The more time we have to look at a team, and the more time our guys have to look at a team, it helps us tremendously.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.