Top-Ranked Wonder Boys Face Tigers Saturday

The list of firsts for the Arkansas Tech men’s basketball program under fourth-year head coach Mark Downey includes many special moments that will live forever in Wonder Boys’ lore.

First win in a Gulf South Conference Tournament game (2008). First GSC Tournament title (2009). First NCAA Tournament appearance (2009). First win in an NCAA Tournament game (2009). First GSC West Division championship (2010). First No. 1 national ranking (2010). On Saturday, the nationally top-ranked Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys will celebrate another first when they and several thousand of their fans host an NCAA Division II Tournament men’s basketball game at Tucker Coliseum for the first time ever. The Wonder Boys (29-1) will face Tuskegee University (20-10) at 6 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Division II South Regional. The Tucker Coliseum ticket office will open at noon Saturday. “It’s everything that you hope for,” said Downey. “Last year, seven of the eight teams that hosted their regional won them. We want to hold serve here at home and move on (to the NCAA Elite Eight). It’s great to have it here because you have a leg up on everyone before it even starts. Hopefully we can go out and protect our place.” Arkansas Tech removed any doubt as to the location of the men’s NCAA South Regional by claiming its second consecutive GSC Tournament title on Sunday.

The Wonder Boys won the championship game 64-63 over Alabama-Huntsville on a 3-pointer by GSC Tournament most outstanding player Marcus Pillow with 11.8 seconds left and a blocked shot by Irvin Humphrey at the buzzer.

The depth of the field for this weekend’s regional is demonstrated by the fact that Alabama-Huntsville — which was the GSC East Division co-champion during the regular season — is a No. 7 seed.

A total of five nationally-ranked teams — No. 1 Arkansas Tech, No. 6 Valdosta State, No. 11 Rollins, No. 13 Florida Southern and No. 22 Clark Atlanta — will be in Russellville for the men’s regional.

“There are four or five teams here that would be good enough to make it to the Elite Eight out of any regional in the country,” said Downey. “Thank goodness we have it at home. It would be hard to go into someone else’s building with this caliber of a field and win it. It will be hard enough to win it here.”

Tuskegee made it to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament title last Saturday. The Tigers defeated Clark Atlanta 61-57 in the championship game behind a 54-36 rebounding edge.

Rebound margin has been a key for Tuskegee all season. The Tigers lead the SIAC with a plus-4.8 rebounds per game average this season. They also lead the SIAC in offensive rebounds (16.4 per game).

“We did not rebound particularly well at the GSC Tournament,” said Downey. “For us to rebound it like we did and still win was a rare thing. (Tuskegee) has three or four guys who can really go get it on the glass. We’re going to have to put bodies on people and pursue the ball. Rebounding will be huge.”

Tuskegee’s greatest weakness is perimeter shooting. The Tigers rank 246th in NCAA Division II in 3-point field goals made per game (4.3).

“We’ve got to cut off their drive to the basket,” said Downey. “We’ve got to plug gaps, but we still want to pressure the basketball like we do.”

Arkansas Tech is led by senior guard Brandon Friedel, the GSC West Division player of the year. He averages 15.1 points per game and ranks third in the GSC in 3-point field goals made per game (3.03).

Junior forward Jeremy Dunbar (11.8 points per game) and senior guard Renard Allen (11.5 points per game) also average double figures in scoring for Tech.

Junior point guard Laithe Massey adds 9.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

Friedel, Allen and Massey were all named to the All-GSC West Division first team. Dunbar and Friedel earned spots on the All-GSC Tournament team.

The winner of the Tech-Tuskgee game will face either Valdosta State or Clark Atlanta at 8:30 p.m. Sunday in the regional semifinals.