GREENSBORO — It hurts to be the last team cut from the NCAA Tournament field.
Now top-seeded UNCG (28-6) doesn’t want to fall into the hangover trap as it gets set to host eighth-seeded Campbell (20-12) in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at 7 p.m. today.
Because often, snubbed teams who believed they belonged have carried their disappointment into the NIT, played poorly and exited early.
The players have talked about that, seniors Francis Alonso and Demetrius Troy said at practice Monday afternoon in the empty Greensboro Coliseum.
Those two know each game from here out could be their last in a Spartans uniform.
“It was a matter of time for us. We needed time to realize what happened and swallow it,” Alonso said. “… We prepared ourselves for the worst-case scenario. But after realizing we were the first team out, that made it harder. We realize now we have a chance right away to show people what we’re capable of. To have that chance in our arena, in front of our fans, that’s something beautiful.”
And so the Spartans get Campbell, the regular-season champ of the Big South, a 20-win mid-major team upset by Gardner-Webb in its conference tournament.
The Camels feature the nation’s leading scorer, 5-foot-9 senior guard Chris Clemons from Raleigh, who averages 30 points per game in a Princeton-style offense — similar to systems run by SoCon teams Furman and VMI — built around spacing, spreading the floor and hard cuts toward the basket or open spots on the floor.
Clemons and Troy grew up in the same city, going to the same camps and AAU tournaments as kids. Clemons’ older brother and Troy are friends.
“He’s a special talent, man,” Troy said. “The nation’s leading scorer. That says it all.”
It’s a challenge for UNCG, just as getting over the emptiness of Sunday is a challenge.
“I’d like to think we’re over it, that we’re past the disappointment,” Troy said. “We’re happy to have the No. 1 overall seed in the NIT. We’re happy to come back to practice and play. We’re still alive, and there’s over 200 teams out there who aren’t. We’re still together, still growing as a team, not ready to hang it up just yet.”
Spartans coach Wes Miller liked what he saw from his players Monday, one night’s sleep removed from a raw, emotional Sunday.
“Listen, we tried to prepare ourselves all week for the roller-coaster of the Selection Show,” Miller said. “I don’t know if there was a way to prepare for that moment. It was very difficult. … The players have looked and felt different since they woke up this morning.
“We’re humans. We were disappointed. But we’re very grateful to be here. We’re proud that we’re the overall No. 1 seed in the NIT. This is a big deal for our program and our players.”
Part of that preparation, Troy said, were object lessons previous teams learned the hard way.
“Coach made a really nice point to us even before we watched the Selection Show when we were weighing all our options,” Troy said. “He talked about some old Davidson teams who came from our same conference, good teams that didn’t necessarily go as far as they should’ve in the NIT because they were of that (disappointed) mindset. But we have a team full of guys who just love to play basketball. That will outweigh any other feelings of being … too disappointed to play.”
The Spartans will play a Campbell team dealing with its own disappointment, a regular-season champ tripped up when it mattered in a one-bid league’s conference tournament.
It should be a good matchup, with the winner facing another good mid-major next, either Lipscomb or Davidson.
And as long as UNCG wins, it will keep playing on its home floor until the semifinals in Madison Square Garden.
“It was a mad dash two years ago in the NIT to get up to Syracuse, straight into a blizzard,” Miller said. “No offense to people up North, but I’m pretty happy we don’t have to go through that again. It’s really neat to be at home. Our campus and the Greensboro community have really embraced us the last few years. To play in front of them again, well, that is special.”(tncms-asset)6bb31fd6-4399-11e9-b858-00163ec2aa770 —(/tncms-asset)