The mighty Northwestern State Demons outlasted Stephen F. Austin in the thrilling, back-and-forth Southland Conference championship to earn a bid in the NCAA tournament last week.
Their reward? A 14 seed and a matchup with the No. 3 Florida Gators, SEC regular-season champs and Ken Pomeroy's No. 1 overall team.
But don't for a second think Mike McConathy and his team aren't champing at the bit for a shot at the Gators. This is the third time the veteran head coach has led the Demons to the Big Dance, and in 2006, also as a No. 14 seed, they shocked Iowa in an instant classic.
Will history repeat itself in Northwestern State's first year back since that memorable moment? Or will the Gators' recent upset at the hands of Ole Miss help them roll to the Round of 32 as smoothly as expected?
Let's take a closer look.
Note: All advanced statistics come from BBState.com, unless noted otherwise.
Where: Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas
When: Friday, March 22, at 7:27 p.m. ET
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Betting Line: Florida -19, via Vegas Insider
What's at Stake?
Northwestern State has nothing to lose. After finishing second in the conference to Stephen F. Austin, the Demons weren't expected to be here.
While another upset win would be nice for the program that hasn't been here for seven years, they are simply playing with house money.
As the favorite, Billy Donovan and company have a little more pressure.
The Gators have made it to two straight Elite Eights, and considering the talent on this year's roster, a third straight trip isn't out of the question.
However, questions are quickly rising about their ability to win close games (0-5 in games decided by single digits), and an early upset would be met with deafening criticism.
Additionally, the winner will meet the victor of UCLA and Minnesota for a chance to go to the Sweet 16.
Florida Player to Watch: Scottie Wilbekin
The junior point guard is an efficient offensive player.
He averages only 9.0 points per game and can go hot-and-cold from the outside, but his effective field goal percentage of 46.1 is far better than fellow guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario.
Moreover, he's an elite, heady distributor, averaging 5.0 assists and just 2.0 turnovers per contest. His assist-to-turnover ratio is second-best in the SEC and ranks 39th in America.
Quietly, Wilbekin is one of Florida's most dependable offensive players.
But where he is most valuable to this team is on the defensive side of the ball.
At 6'2", and 179 pounds, the hard-nosed Wilbekin is willing and capable of guarding any perimeter player in the country. He has quick feet, maybe even quicker hands and averages 1.5 steals per game.
If it weren't for Nerlens Noel, Wilbekin, an SEC All-Defensive Team selection, would have deserved major consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
While Florida's four other starters tend to get more attention, Wilbekin's tough, intelligent play on both sides of the court makes him vital for a deep tournament run.
Northwestern State Player to Watch: Jalan West
Completing the vastly underrated point guard matchup that more people should be talking about, we have Jalan West.
The 5'10", 175-pound redshirt freshman is truly electric.
Not only does his quickness make him incredibly difficult to stay in front of, but he is a dynamite distributor and an absolute pest on the defensive end.
West is averaging 5.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game, and before you credit that to Northwestern State's up-tempo pace, consider the fact that he logs only 24.7 minutes per contest.
On a tempo-free basis, West is 16th in America in assist-to-turnover ratio, 28th in assist rate and third in steal rate.
Not many people know about him, but they will, come Friday afternoon.
Key Matchup: The Pace
In a way, the point guards' contrasting styles epitomize each of their teams. Wilbekin, who is strong and physical, leads a Gators team that tends to slow things down and win with aggressive defensive play.
Florida is 221st in America at 66.0 possessions per 40 minutes, but third overall in points allowed per possession and second in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings.
Northwestern State, on the other hand, is led by the lightning-fast West and is first in the country at 75.2 possessions per 40 and thrives as the speed of the game hastens.
The Demons play 10 players more than 15.0 minutes per game and no one over 26.0. McConathy isn't scared to make hockey substitutions.
There you have the key matchup.
If the Gators are able to slow the pace, they will roll with ease. If this turns into an up-and-down, transition game, the Demons are far more likely to stick around for 40 minutes.
It's far easier to slow down a game—especially when you have more talent on the floor.
I really liked Northwestern State coming into the tournament, but the Demons are running into a team that has very few weaknesses.
MConathy's squad has some superb athletes as well, and I like them to cover the spread, but Florida will run away in the end.
Florida 70, Northwestern State 58
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