by Jeff Laughlin
Watching your alma mater play basketball in North Carolina usually means standing in large crowds while sighing or screaming in disbelief as your team exasperates you to your core. Winning matters to UNC, Duke, Wake Forest and NC State fans. In recent years, Davidson has become a model of success and a beacon of hope to the students of a lesser fandom.
My alma mater plays to a different crowd.
Going to UNCG games looks and feels great. They play in the Greensboro Coliseum in a Division I conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The fans, though they sparsely speckle the coliseum at times, cheer with the best of their ability for a usually mediocre team.
They have not won that NCAA Tourney bid since 2001 and only went one other time in 1995. Under current Head Coach Wes Miller, UNCG has struggled after former two-time Coach Mike Dement left the program in a state of ruin in 2011. Miller has a running mentality, making the team a delight to watch — unless they’re missing shots.
With smaller conference teams, most people figure the guards to be the key to the team. If you watch ESPNU or underdogs in the NCAA Tournament, announcers fixate on ball-handlers, since guards play the easiest position to define. Using a worn-out narrative suits these announcers, since the greatest shots in basketball history usually involve a guard having to heave an impossible chuck or knife through the lane on a difficult drive to win the game. Giving a fan familiarity with the likely final administrator connects them to the team/game in question, but this UNCG team has just one real strength in their current rebuilding run.
They have post players that can flat out ball.
On Wednesday, the guards struggled against an Elon team that owns a 9-3 record in conference play. Elon ran a 2-3 zone, not unlike the Syracuse zone that has dominated headlines in college ball for years. They pressure ball-handlers when necessary, but mostly, and especially against UNCG, they collapsed into the lane to keep the best weapon UNCG has from punishing them.
Though Elon won, the 81-68 score did not take into account how entertaining the game got. Power forwards RJ White and Kyle Cain combined for 37 points, all from the free-throw line down, and got to the line 13 times. Time and again, White and Cain penetrated the zone to score in the second half, cutting an insurmountable lead to two possessions a few times.
Whenever the game got close, though, Elon exploited the UNCG guards, who went 2-17 from long range. The end result made sense in the Southern Conference. Elon played superior basketball with superior talent, and that will be the case for the rest of a frustrating season for the Spartans.
That said, a shift approaches on the horizon. The aforementioned White played the best game of his career on Wednesday as a redshirt freshman and guard Tevon Saddler won SoCon Freshman of the Week for the fifth time this season. They make up the nucleus of an improving team with a young and hungry coach. Add that to Kyle Cain’s 15 points and 10 rebounds in conference play, and UNCG’s recent struggles look like they might pay off.
With just two people graduating, the bulk of the Spartans will return next season. Perennial powerhouse Davidson, by comparison, graduates five players this season, as does Elon.
Not to say that either of those teams cannot reload, or that Miller’s grasp of the game will lead UNCG into a Basketball Renaissance, but the team will improve from this year’s 13-16 (6-8 conference) mark thus far. The freshmen will grow and develop and the guard play will continue to blossom, matching the already stellar big men. Then we may see a new contender in an already packed top of the conference.
Until then, the team will bumble through the year before hopefully winning a game or two in the SoCon tournament. The Greensboro Coliseum hosts a team seemingly in peril, once without a winning record for the past two seasons. The building also hosts a team on the rise, and one that won their division under the same coach just two years ago.
Despite their obvious flaws, UNCG looks poised to dance sooner than you might think.