1. It's the Jags baby... The University of South Alabama will be coming to a television near you this March. I'm guessing most of you are surprised that such a school exists. USA is a small school located in the Mobile area. That's pretty much as far south as you go in Alabama. Last year, they enrolled a little over 14,000 students (undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral), so it is indeed small. USA calls the Sun Belt Conference home, along with other teams like Florida International and Troy. However... this is a team that you shouldn't simply dismiss and it won't be their first time in the Tourney. In 1989, the Jaguars took out Alabama in the first round, and lost to Michigan in the second. Who won the whole shebang in 1989? That's right, Michigan. They also made a first round exit in 1991. The coach and the program have been there before, and they may turn some heads this year. More on that in a bit...
2. Coach Ron Arrow... This is Coach Arrow's second stint at the USA helm. He lead the Jags from 1987 through 1995, bringing home two conference titles and two NCAA berths; he also took Texas A&M - Corpus Christi last year. Arrow returns this year to add another Sun Belt title, and NCAA birth at USA. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Coach Arrow, as his team is gearing up for the tournament. (Really... I did.) He describes the Jags as "an up tempo team" that's "fun to watch." He also noted the work ethic of his kids and thinks it's a team that "the public will like," especially those who haven't seen them play. Arrow is a good coach that stresses fundamentals and hard work with his kids. There was once another solid NCAA (football) coach by the name of Arrow. Coach Ed "Straight Arrow" Genero. This guy left his analyst job to take over a program guilty of NCAA violations that would make Kelvin Sampson blush. He may have only won 1 game, but come on, he suited up a team made of 20 kids (all walk-ons). The kicker from that team did go on to have a somewhat fruitful career.
3. Who to watch for... Guard Demetric Bennett is the best player on the team, and in the conference. This year, he's averaging 19.5 point, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game. At 6"4'205, Bennett is big enough to take it hard to the basket, but he's also a high percentage shooter (48% from the floor, 83% from the line, and 40% from beyond the arc.) Arrow described him as "a go to guy" and a complete package that has the talent to play at the next level. I agree. Paired with their other guard, Daon Merritt (11.3/2.8/5.5), the have possibly one of the most explosive back courts in the country. Third guard, Domonic Tilford (13.3/2.5/2.1), adds speed and flexibility to the mix.
Why will they go far? We've already covered the backcourt, and they will be dangerous. Let's talk about size. This team may be the biggest team that makes the tournament. They've got two kids at 6"9', two at 6'7" and Bennett at 6'4". They most definitely have the size to go up against any other team in the country. However, they are very fast and well conditioned. USA runs very well, won't get run out of the gym, and won't be doggin' in it the fourth quarter. They're size and speed gives them a huge rebounding advantage (they average almost 40 rebounds a game.) Yeah, they may not have UNC, Duke, or Memphis on their schedule, but they did have Vandy. Anyone been watching Vandy lately? I'm pretty sure they can play some ball. So, how did USA stack up against Vandy you ask? Although they went down 91 - 88, they did so in two overtimes, IN Nashville. No one else has done that this year. They can play with the big boys. Arrow noted that they let Vandy "get away," and they know they can play with anyone. He added that the Vandy game "got us ready for the rest of this year."
The coach has experience in the tournament, the team is big and fast, and they have shown they can play with teams from the bigger conferences. Look, they're going to come in probably ranked as an 8 or 9 seed. I guarantee they win their opening game, hands down. Depending who they draw from there on, who knows what can happen. When you see USA in your office poll, give them a look, even though you may have never heard of them. The Jags may end up being this year's George Washington, and if they do, remember where you heard it.... — Michael Cunius