If Coastal Carolina is to advance Friday in its inaugural Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the Chanticleers will have to take down the class of the conference.
The eighth-seeded Chants (16-16, 10-8 conference regular season) will face regular season conference champion Texas-Arlington (24-7, 14-4) in the second round at 12:30 p.m. (EST) at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
CCU split a pair of games this year with UT Arlington, losing by 21 on the road on New Year’s Eve and handing the Mavericks one of their four conference losses with a 72-70 win at the HTC Center in Conway on Jan. 30.
Junior 6-9 forward Kevin Hervey averages 17.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for Texas-Arlington, while guards Jalen Jones and Erick Neal also average double digits scoring.
“Hervey is an absolutely fantastic player, but there are so many pieces that go with him,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “… They are very talented. You don’t go to St. Mary’s, who is No. 11 in the country, and win by double-digits, you don’t go to Texas and win by double-digits and not be good. They are just good.”
The Mavericks and can present matchup problems with their height, as Hervey, 6-9 senior Jorge Bilboa of Spain and 6-8 Faith Pope all play significant minutes. Bilboa averages 9.2 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting better than 54 percent from the floor.
The Sun Belt conference is the only mid-major conference that had both a first round pick in the 2014 and 2015 NBA Drafts while also having a team win a game in the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Tournaments, joining each of the power five conferences in that distinction.
Arkansas-Little Rock defeated fifth-seeded Purdue in double overtime in last year’s NCAA Tournament and Georgia State topped No. 3 seed Baylor 57-56 in the 2015 tournament.
“From top to bottom what I’ve seen is anybody can beat you on a given night,” Ellis said. “There are so many teams in our league, and I know … eight teams that legitimately could go in the NCAA Tournament and win a game.”
Coastal Carolina made a splash in its first conference tournament game Wednesday, breaking a 34-year conference tournament record.
The Chants made 11 of their 16 three-point attempts in their 80-67 win over ninth-seeded South Alabama to set a new conference tournament 3-point field goal percentage record of 68.7 percent. Former conference member Alabama-Birmingham set the previous mark of 63.6 percent in 1983.
Senior guard Elijah Wilson scored a team-high 16 points, hit four of his eight three-point attempts and became the third player in CCU history to reach 1,800 career points.
“We stuck to the same game plan. That’s part of our strategy throughout the whole season,” Wilson said in the post-game press conference. “We have a lot of good shooters on the team and this was one of those nights where it went in our favor and everything fell.”
Coastal Carolina shared the ball extremely well, setting a season high with assists on 25 of its 29 made baskets, led by seven assists from both junior Jaylen Shaw and senior Colton Ray-St. Cyr and five from senior Shivaughn Wiggins. Shaw also had 14 points and a game-high three steals.
“Without question this is one of the better games that we played,” said Ellis, who coach South Alabama to a 171-84 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances from 1974-84. “We shared the ball. We shot the ball extremely well. When you shoot the ball well you look good, but I think sharing the ball was the big thing. And then defensively, playing with energy.”
Coastal trailed 27-21 midway through the first half but took the lead for good with a 13-1 run that included a pair of 3-pointers by Wilson and a three-point play by Amidou Bamba.
The Chants extended the lead to 12 points by halftime by closing the half on a 23-5 run, and the lead reached 20 points over South Alabama (14-18) in the second half while never dipping below nine points.
Bamba, a 6-8 freshman forward, and 6-9 sophomore center Josh Coleman scored 10 points apiece off the bench while hitting a combined eight of 12 field goal attempts.
The Chants will likely need similar production from its role players to reach Saturday’s tournament semifinals.