Star power? There’s enough bang for the buck here to make a supernova jealous. Oakland point guard Kay Felder is probably the best dang NCAA player still standing who has yet to appear in the Big Dance. Old Dominion guard Trey Freeman might be the best player going who’ll end his collegiate career having never boogied on Bracketville’s gilded stage.
Freeman’s backcourt mate, Aaron Bacote, is one of the best dozen free-throw shooters (80.8% lifetime) in the history of Conference USA. And Felder’s favorite kick-out target, the Grizzlies’ Max Hooper, is chasing history of his own, having taken 249 field-goal attempts this season — and all 249 of ‘em from behind the 3-point arc.
If the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend is about marquee coaches, then Wednesday night’s championship game in the inaugural Vegas 16 men’s basketball tournament is about marquee backcourts. More specifically, it’s about two upperclass duos who’ll take their final bows together at Mandalay Bay: Felder (a junior) and Hooper (a redshirt senior) on one side, Freeman (a senior) and Bacote (a senior) on the other.
It’s also about a shared frustration — and a shared second chance. Over the last two seasons, the Grizzlies and Monarchs have averaged 22.5 victories between them, a pair of programs knocking at the door of an NCAA tourney berth that never materialized. Earlier this month, ODU (24-13) fell to surging Middle Tennessee, 55-53, in the C-USA championship game. Oakland (23-11), one of the Horizon League’s toughest outfits, was stunned by Wright State in its conference tourney.
So here they are. And even if neither group really wanted to be here, they sure as heck haven’t played like it. The 6-foot-2 Freeman has averaged 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in his first two tourney games in the desert; Bacote led all scorers (26 points) during Tuesday night’s win over UC Santa Barbara in the semis.
Felder and Hooper, meanwhile, have been even more electric: The former dropped 27 points on Towson Monday night and scorched East Tennessee State on Tuesday with a triple-double — 29 points, 10 boards, 10 assists. The 6-6 Hooper came off the bench to nail eight of 11 3-point attempts, chipping in 28 points of his own.
And if the big names don’t entice you, then maybe the clash of styles — and strengths — will.
On paper, Wednesday night’s showdown is a meeting between one of the hottest shooting teams in college basketball and one of the staunchest defensive units in the country. Jeff Jones’ ODU roster tends to lead with its fist — and with a wicked smothering mode, posting a Top 20 defense nationally in points allowed per game (61.4, seventh) and opponent effective field goal percentage (45.3, 18th) and opponent field goals made per game (21.0, sixth).
In the other corner, coach Greg Kampe’s Oakland side boasts a Top 20 offense in points per game (86.9, first), offensive efficiency (1.136 points per possession, seventh), 3-point percentage (39.7, 12th), free-throw percentage (77.1, seventh), field goals made per game (28.9, ninth) and free throws made per game (20.2 first).
So something’s got to give. But, if the performances earlier this week are any indication, it won’t give without a whale of a fight first.