Since it's implementation in 2011 some have treated the First Four stage of the NCAA Tournament as either an unnecessary play-in game or a glorified losers bracket. But for the two teams that will kick off this year's First Four, it's the first step in a journey towards a championship. When the Prairie View A&M Panthers (22-12) square off against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights (20-13) in Dayton, Ohio, you can expect the 2019 NCAA Tournament to get off to an exciting start. Both teams come into this game with plenty of momentum. And when you consider that the West Region's No. 1 seed in Gonzaga is waiting on the other side, momentum is a good thing.
Prairie View A&M started their season slow (1-11) but has saved its best basketball for last. The Panthers have won 11 in a row, claiming their fourth SWAC regular-season championship in the process. They won their second SWAC Tournament trophy by outscoring the opposition 259-223 in three games to secure the conference's automatic bid. Fairleigh Dickinson also enters the Big Dance on a hot streak, winners of eight in a row and 10 of their past 12. The Knights punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament by winning their sixth Northeast Conference Tournament title, beating regular-season champ St. Francis (Pa.) in the final.
Both teams are a combined 0-6 in the NCAA Tournament so one of these teams will make history on Tuesday night in Dayton.
First Four: No. 16 Prairie View A&M Panthers (22-12) vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson Knights (20-13)
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Keys for Prairie View A&M
In 34 games this year, the Panthers have given up 70 or more points in more than half of them (18), with eight opponents reaching the 80-point mark. So a defensive battle may not be in the cards for them. Scoring early and often against Fairleigh Dickinson should be one of the Prairie View A&M's top priorities. Gary Blackston leads the Panthers at 15 points per game and he's made 20 of his last 49 shots from the field. A&M also gets solid production from forward Devonte Patterson (13.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg), as well as guards Gerard Andrus (10.0 ppg, 48 percent shooting), Darius Williams (8.9 ppg, 1.1 spg), and Dennis Jones (8.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.1 spg).
After their 1-11 start, the Panthers have gone 22-1 thanks in large part to their offense, which has outscored the opposition 1,604-1,481 during this stretch. They've proven that they can turn on the jets on the offensive side, and they'll have to do so again if they want that elusive NCAA Tournament victory.
Keys for Fairleigh Dickinson
During the course of the season the Knights held 19 of their 33 opponents under the 70-point mark. This shows that they can play defense when needed, and it will be needed to slow down a Prairie View A&M team that is averaging 75 points per game and just scored 86.3 over three games to win the SWAC Tournament. Gary Blackston leads the way on offense for the Panthers, so FDU will want to make slowing him down a priority.
On offense, the Knights feature five players (guards Darnell Edge, Jahlil Jenkins, and Xzavier Malone-Key, along with forwards Mike Holloway Jr. and Kaleb Bishop) that are averaging at least 10 points per game. As a team, FDU is among the top 30 teams in the country in shooting (47.8 percent from the field), compared to Prairie View A&M's 44 percent shooting (tied for 210th). If the Knights can maintain their balanced attack on offense and force the Panthers into bad shots they should be in good position to pick up their first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
While this will be an entertaining, hard-fought, and high-scoring game, Fairleigh Dickinson has a little more offense on their side with five guys averaging double digits in scoring. Prairie View A&M keeps it close and to the wire, but the Knights find a way to advance to Salt Lake City to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Thursday.
Prediction: Fairleigh Dickinson 73, Prairie View A&M 71
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.