By Justin Rimpi
Two of the hottest teams in the nation will face off in Dayton, Ohio, on the campus of the University of Dayton in a “First Four” game nationally broadcast on truTV. Expect the tip off at 6:40 p.m. Tuesday.
The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights (20-13) and the Prairie View A&M Panthers (22-12) go head-to-head for the opportunity to face the No. 1 seed in the West Region, the Gonzaga Bulldogs. That game will take place Thursday in Salt Lake City.
The Knights enter the NCAA Tournament going 14-2 in their last 16 games and winners of eight consecutive games. The Knights were winners of the Northeast Conference, which gave them an automatic bid into the “Big Dance.”
FDU left for Dayton early Monday morning and have been completing their final preparations, including their a practice session at the University of Dayton Arena.
The Panthers have won 21 of their last 22 games, including 11 straight games. Prairie View A&M won the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference).
Both teams are playing their best as they head into the tournament.
Prairie View A&M is an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), located in Prairie View Texas, a little less than 50 miles west of Houston.
The Knights are led by senior guard Darnell Edge, who averaged 16.4 points on the season. Edge is No.3 in the nation in minutes played with 38 per game. Edge is ninth in the nation in free-throw percentage and fourth in the nation in 3-point field-goal scoring, hitting just under 47 percent of his shots from downtown. Edge was voted first-team All NEC.
Senior forward Michael Holloway Jr. averaged 12.5 ppg and was voted second-team All NEC.
Sophomore guard Jahlil Jenkins averaged 13.5 points and was second in the conference averaging 1.6 steals per game. Jenkins is sixth in the nation in minutes, playing 37.5 per game.
The Knights have all five of their starters averaging in double-figures and have played without great contributions from their bench all season. The Knights only have six players averaging double-digit minutes this season.
FDU sophomore guard Xzavier Malone-Key, who averaged 11.4 points per game on the season, has been inactive the past three games due to a concussion he sustained in practice preparing for the conference tournament. Malone-Key has made the trip to Dayton, but his prospects to play in the biggest game of the Knights’ season are not promising.
Malone-Key was a spectator throughout the open portion of practice Sunday afternoon.
Depth could be a problem for the Knights heading down the stretch, and as fatigue and pressure begin to set in, the Knights will not have an answer off the bench.
This is in stark contrast to Prairie View, which has nine players averaging double-digit minutes.
The Panthers are led by senior guard Gary Blackston who averaged 15.2 points on the season and was third in steals in the SWAC with 1.7 per game. Blackston was voted All-SWAC 1st team.
Junior forward Deonte Patterson averaged 13.4 points on the season and was also an All-SWAC 1st team selection.
Both teams play tenacious defense that forces their opponents into turnovers leading to easy points in transition on the other side of the floor. The Panthers are fourth in the nation, forcing over 18 turnovers a game. The Panthers are 11th in the nation in total steals, 14th in steals per game and enter the game second in the nation in turnover margin.
The Panthers, on average, have over 5 less turnovers than their opponent.
The Knights are 30th in the country in total steals and average just under 8 steals per game.
A key to a Knights victory is to be careful with the ball for the entirety of the game or the Panthers will take advantage of sloppy playing. The Panthers have been one of the most opportunistic teams jumping into the passing lanes this season. Edge and Jenkins have been sure-handed all season, and they must be decisive decision-makers if they want to lead their team to victory. Jenkins averaged 2 turnovers per game, and Edge averaged a little less than 2 turnovers per game this season.
FDU is a bigger team than Prairie View and being able secure defensive rebounds and converting second-chance points will be a key for the Knights. The Panthers do not have any players above 6-9, while the Knights have four players on the roster taller than that.
The Knights averaged just under 33 rebounds per game. The Panthers also averaged 33 rebounds per game this season.
The Panthers’ keys to victory will revolve around running the Knights off the 3-pointer and making FDU take contested shots throughout the game. The Knights are sixth in the nation, knocking down 40 percent of their shots from deep. The Knights also shot just over 47 percent from the field as a team this season. The Knights will knock down their fair share of shots, but contesting each and every shot will make the the game much more difficult for the Knights.
This is the sixth time the Knights have qualified for the NCAA tournament and are 0-5 in the tournament. The Knights hope to leave Dayton with their first NCAA victory in the history of the school. The Knights were last in the NCAA tournament in 2016 where they also played in Dayton for a “First Four” game. The Knights lost to Florida Gulf Coast, 96-65.
This is the Panthers second NCAA tournament in school history. In 1998, they were defeated by the No.1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks, 110-52.
The Knights are led by sixth-year head coach Greg Herenda, who has gotten to the NCAA tournament twice in his tenure with the Knights.
“Our program has grown since , and Mike Holloway Jr. and Darnell Edge are tremendous senior captains that have won a championship in the conference,” Herenda said. “We are more prepared top to bottom, we have better players, we have more players, a tremendous staff. We need to be prepared for a team that will test us. Hopefully, this year’s experience will help us advance in this year’s tournament.”
Byron Smith is in his second full year at the helm of the Panthers. Smith was voted the SWAC coach of the year at season’s end. This is the first time that Prairie View has won both the regular season and conference championship in school history.
“I think it is surreal. We are grateful for the opportunity to play here in Dayton,” Smith said. “I think it is any young person’s dream, or goal that’s playing college basketball, is to be one of the top 68 teams selected. I think that it is a dream come true.”
Both the Knights and Panthers are entering Dayton on fire and something must give. Both teams will leave Dayton, but the ramifications of this game cannot be any larger.
The teams are looking for their first NCAA tournament win in school history and doing so in front of a national audience will raise the profiles of these teams to new heights.
(The Equinox is traveling to Dayton to cover the game. Follow us here and @equinoxfdu on Instagram and Twitter)