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Jackrabbits, Friars both well aware of upset talk heading into NCAA tourney meeting

Providence won the Big East regular-season title but its meeting with South Dakota State has been viewed with upset potential

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Buffalo Practice
South Dakota State guard Alex Arians (34) dribbles the ball during open practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 at the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Gregory Fisher / USA Today Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. — It might be the most discussed potential upset in this year’s first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

And the teams from South Dakota State and Providence College involved are well aware of it ahead of their Thursday meeting at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, which tips off at 11:40 a.m. The Jackrabbits have a 30-4 record and the No. 13 seed in the Midwest Region, while the Big East regular-season champion Friars are the No. 4 seed and have a record of 25-5.

Providence coach Ed Cooley made it clear Wednesday that he had caught wind of the national pundits that have picked SDSU to be their upset pick on Thursday, and cranked it way up to make sure his team was motivated.

“I don't think there's a person in America that has given us a chance in this game we're about to play, not one person. Some of you are in this audience, and I can tell you thank you,” Cooley said in his Wednesday press conference. “I'm going to thank you right now because our players have earned the right to be in this building, have earned the right at the seed that they have, and I can't tell you how excited we are to play this game (Thursday).“

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Buffalo Practice
South Dakota State's Eric Henderson speaks to the press before a practice session on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 at the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Mark Konezny / USA Today Sports

SDSU coach Eric Henderson said his team would try to keep its head down and continue to do what’s earned them all the praise, winning 21 games in a row and boasting one of the nation’s best offenses at nearly 87 points per game.

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“It's something that you can't really hide, to be honest with you,” SDSU coach Eric Henderson said Wednesday. “Like the win streak, like those types of things, we don't talk a lot about it. I’d prefer probably to fly under the radar a little bit more, but it says a lot about our guys. It says that people have confidence in them, and so do I. … It's going to be a heck of a game. We have a lot of respect for Providence. … (You) try to block it out, but it's out there.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Buffalo Practice
South Dakota State's guard Matt Mims (1) passes the ball during open practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 at the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Gregory Fisher / USA Today Sports

The Friars, who are making their first NCAA appearance since 2018, have earned the label of being lucky, given that they were 11-2 in games decided by five points or less during the season and KenPom.com has the Friars ranked No. 1 in its luck rating. Luck or not, the season has led to Providence’s best seed in an NCAA tournament since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 with a mixture of size and balance.

“I kind of find it a little bit funny that everybody calls us lucky and stuff like that, but we can't really control the narratives that people put on us,” Providence guard Jared Bynum said. “We just go out and do what we do and try to win games. And at the end of the game, if you win, whether you are lucky or not, you either win or you lose, and we've been winning a lot.”

Nate Watson, the Friars’ leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, is the only PC player who has NCAA tournament experience. The winner of the game will take on either fifth-seeded Iowa or No. 12 Richmond, which will play the second game of the day in Buffalo at 2:10 p.m.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Buffalo Practice
South Dakota State Jackrabbits guard Baylor Scheierman (3) dribbles the ball during open practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 at the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Gregory Fisher / USA Today Sports

Even with this being the Jacks' sixth NCAA tournament appearance since 2012, no player on the roster has played in the Big Dance before. The national spotlight related to SDSU has mostly focused on Jackrabbits' 3-point shooting, which is firing at nearly 45% clip and leads the nation, as does the Jacks’ effective field goal percentage, which values 3-pointers as more valuable shots.

“It makes us harder to guard having about four or all five of us being able to shoot out on the perimeter,” SDSU guard Baylor Scheierman said. “The defense has to contribute to that. In order to win these types of games, you're going to have to score points because other teams are going to score too, so I think it makes us a lot more difficult to guard.”

Cooley’s praise for SDSU was focused on how the Jackrabbits have an offensively simple gameplan that leads to big results. He specifically praised Scheierman, the 6-foot-6 sophomore who was the Summit League player of the year and is second on SDSU in points and leads the team in rebounds, assists and steals.

“They know who they are,” he said. “I don't think they take bad shots. I think they know their personnel. You can see they have a lot of offensive synergy and continuity. I think what makes them good is how simple they are.”

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Buffalo Practice
South Dakota State's Douglas Wilson, left, and Baylor Scheierman speak to the press before a practice session on Wednesday, March 16, 2022 at the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Mark Konezny / USA Today Sports

Scheierman said the focus will be only SDSU playing its best and trying to win, not worrying about the title of bracket buster or Cinderella.

“It's cool, but at the same time when the ball goes up tomorrow, we're going to have to do what we've done all season,” he said. “Can't change anything now, so you just have to stay locked in.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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