A pair of Division II powerhouses in the 20th century, North Carolina Central and North Dakota State meet on the grandest stage Division I basketball has to offer.
The winners of the MEAC and Summit League tournaments respectively have roots in D-II but are hardly newcomers to the March Madness scene. The 2019 NCAA Tournament marks North Dakota State's fourth appearance in the field since 2009, although it's the Bison's first bid since '15. They released the stranglehold South Dakota State previously held on the Summit's automatic bid to earn their way in.
For North Carolina Central, 2019 marks the Eagles' third straight appearance in the Big Dance, and fourth all-time dating back to '14. NCCU alum LeVelle Moton has flourished coaching his alma mater and heads into Wednesday's matchup in Dayton seeking another program milestone: Its first NCAA Tournament win.
First Four: No. 16 North Carolina Central Eagles (18-15) vs. No. 16 North Dakota State Bison (18-15)
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Keys for North Carolina Central
North Carolina Central made its way to Dayton with a come-from-behind win over MEAC regular-season champion Norfolk State, holding the Spartans to just 15 points in the second half. This was something of a recurring theme for NCCU, which held opponents to final scores of 53, 52, 69, 62, 57, 63 and 47 points in seven of its final eight wins of the season.
Defense is the Eagles' best course to victory; this isn't a team that's particularly explosive on the offensive end, coming in ranked No. 301 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. Raasean Davis and Jibri Blount combine to average more than 25 points per game, but the scoring production drops off considerably beyond the starting five.
Likewise, the Eagles do not shoot the 3-pointer with much consistency; Reggie Gardner's 31.3 percent is tops among players who see significant minutes. The bulk of NCCU's offensive production comes from the big man Davis operating in the interior, where he shoots a torrid 64.5 percent. The Eagles must establish Davis consistently against a North Dakota State defense that allowed opponents to shoot 52.9 percent from inside the 3-point line.
Keys for North Dakota State
The clash in styles between North Carolina Central and North Dakota State is evident when comparing how the Eagles closed out their regular season — winning games with stifling defense — and how the Bison did so putting up points. From Feb. 2 until the March 12 Summit League Tournament title game win over Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota State averaged 77.8 points per game in its eight wins.
On the season, the Bison rank 71st nationally in 3-point percentage, 79th from inside the arc, and 17th at the free-throw line. All that's to say when NDSU is clicking, it can score pretty much anywhere on the floor.
The duo of Vinnie Shahid and Rocky Kreuser, in particular, poses a threat to North Carolina Central. North Dakota State's two most effective 3-point shooters can stretch the defense, which could play a key role in Kreuser's case especially. At 6-foot-10, he should be able to draw out a larger defender from an already-undersized NCCU lineup.
Both NCCU and NDSU capitalized on their conference tournaments to secure unexpected NCAA Tournament bids. They have some positive momentum on their side, and head coaches with March experience. For North Carolina Central, the experience of participating in the First Four is much more comfortable. This marks three straight seasons in which the Eagles have been in Dayton.
The contrast in styles presents an interesting matchup. North Carolina Central cannot afford to go stagnant for too long on the offensive end, something that relegated the Eagles to a 10-point halftime deficit in the MEAC Tournament championship game. North Dakota State's ability to push the tempo could be the difference in earning a date with Zion Williamson and Duke.