Southern Miss and Kansas State meet in East Regional affair

3/15/2012 7:39:27 AM

Kansas State earned an at-large bid after a strong showing in a tough Big 12 Conference. The Wildcats went 10-8 in league play and ended up 21-10 overall, earning the fifth seed for the conference tournament but falling to eventual runner-up and No. 4 seed Baylor in the quarterfinals, 82-74. Most importantly, K-State fared well against the league's other tournament teams during the regular season, most notably pulling off a season sweep of Big 12 tournament champs Missouri. The 'Cats split their regular-season series with both Baylor and Texas, but were also swept by Kansas and Iowa State. KSU took on a solid non-conference schedule as well, logging wins against fellow tournament squads in Alabama and Long Beach State while falling to West Virginia in double- overtime. This will be K-State's third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and fourth in the past five seasons under head coach Frank Martin. The Wildcats picked up a five-seed as an at-large member of last year's tournament, beating Utah State in the second round before dropping a 70-65 decision to Wisconsin. KSU is 32-29 all-time at the NCAAs with 26 overall appearances, four trips to the Final Four and one unsuccessful showing in the 1951 championship game.

Southern Miss received a somewhat surprising at-large berth with the squad off a lot of pundits' radars after a shaky close to the season. The consideration seems warranted, though, given the weight attached to non-conference schedules. The Golden Eagles took down tournament teams South Florida, Colorado State, New Mexico State twice and lost to Murray State in double- overtime. In large part, Southern Miss took care of business in Conference USA as well, splitting its season series with regular season and C-USA tourney champion Memphis on the way to a 11-5 league mark and 25-8 overall record. The question marks came about after the Golden Eagles tripped to back-to-back losses at Houston and Texas-El Paso late in the year and struggled as the league's No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Southern Miss barely got by 10-seed East Carolina in the quarterfinals, needing overtime to prevail, before losing to eventual runner-up Marshall in the semifinals. The Golden Eagles are making just their third-ever appearance at the Big Dance, and first since 1991 when they lost to NC State in the opening round as an 11-seed. The program has yet to win a tournament game but received its highest-ever seeding this year at No. 9.

Thursday's combatants have met six times previously on the hardwood, with the series tied at three games apiece. The most recent meeting saw Kansas State take a 74-55 victory at the Sprint Center in Kansas City Dec. 11, 2008 as part of the K-State Holiday Classic. This will mark their second neutral site encounter but first in the NCAA Tournament.

The Golden Eagles manage to take care of business on both ends of the floor, leading to a plus-6.7 scoring margin -- good for second in C-USA behind Memphis. The offense is the better of the two halves, averaging 71.6 ppg but on a league-low 41.6 percent shooting. Helping to pick up the slack is the conference's best free-throw shooting percentage at 73.6 percent and a decent enough 35.8-percent showing from beyond the arc. The defense waned a bit in the latter stages of the season, holding opponents to 64.9 ppg and a 44.2 shooting percentage. A balanced offense features six players averaging better than 9.5 ppg led by sophomore Neil Watson's 12.2 points. Watson also stands second in the conference with 4.5 assists per game while junior LaShay Page puts up 11.5 ppg and ranks third in C-USA with 72 three-pointers falling at a 35.5-percent accuracy. Senior Darnell Dodson gives the Eagles a trio of legitimate double-figure scorers at 11.1 ppg while adding 4.7 boards per contest. Junior Jonathan Mills leads the club in rebounding with 6.2 per game, shoots 50.5 percent from the field and averages 9.7 ppg. The depth rolls on with Maurice Bolden (9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Angelo Johnson (9.5 ppg). Southern Miss ranks third in C-USA with a solid plus-4.6 margin on the glass (36.7-32.1).

The Wildcats did well to hold their own in a talent-rich Big 12 Conference this year behind an efficient offense and a well-rounded defense. K-State puts up 71.4 points per game and connects at a decent 44.3 percent from the field, but the defense often gives it the best chance to win. Opponents score just 63.7 ppg and hit at a meager 40.8 percent from the floor against KSU -- and that's saying something in the Big 12. The balance leaves the Wildcats with the league's fourth-best scoring margin at plus-7.7. Another source of strength for the squad is rebounding where KSU holds down the conference's third-best margin at plus-4.9 (37.3-32.4). K-State also ranks second in the Big 12 in blocks per game (4.7). Junior Rodney McGruder is among the conference's best scorers at 15.4 ppg, adds 5.3 rebounds and tops the roster with 48 three-pointers on 39.0 percent shooting. Senior Jamar Samuels leads the team in rebounding at 6.6 per contest but is the Wildcats' only other double-figure scorer at 10.3 ppg. Sophomore Will Spradling checks in at 9.5 ppg with 2.9 assists per game and 45 threes dropping at a 33.8-percent accuracy. Angel Rodriguez paces the club with 3.2 assists per game as a freshman and chips in 8.0 ppg. The Wildcats get some depth down the line in the form of Jordan Henriquez (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Thomas Gipson (7.1 ppg, 4.6 ppg).