UNCG using tournament snub as fuel

The Spartans were the final team left out of the Big Dance last season despite a school-record 29 wins

UNC Greensboro guard Isaiah Miller was picked as the preseaon Player of the Year for the Southern Conference. (James Crisp / AP Photo)

If UNC Greensboro was a member of, say, the ACC — or any other Power 5 Conference, for that matter — it might have been selected to play in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season in 2018-19.

Because the Spartans play in the one-bid Southern Conference, they had to settle for being the No. 1 overall seed in the NIT.

Coach Wes Miller’s veteran team finished with a school-record 29 wins, lost only to Quadrant 1 opponents, had a final RPI ranking of 32 and threw scares into both Kentucky and LSU during a memorable season that ended disappointingly only because conference rival Wofford enjoyed one that was just a fraction better.

The disappointment was palpable on Selection Sunday after Miller and his players learned that they were the first team left out of the field of 68, a snub USA Today characterized as one of the NCAA committee’s most egregious.

“It’s a brutal feeling to know you were that close,” the former North Carolina point guard told the newspaper after the brackets were announced. “It’s an indescribable pain to sit in a room full of kids that had their dreams crushed, with all the work they’ve put in. It’s a big moment for our school to be considered as an at-large, but it’s tough to swallow knowing we were right there.”

In an effort to prevent history from repeating itself, the Spartans have put together a challenging 2019-20 nonconference schedule that includes games against Kansas, Georgetown and NC State — along with defending conference champions Radford, Vermont and Northern Kentucky.

The thought process is that perhaps an upset or two might be enough to push them over the top this March. The biggest upset, however, may already have happened in that Miller is still “right there” for his ninth season at UNCG.

He resisted the temptation to leave for a higher-profile job after three straight seasons of 25-plus wins and the loss of leading scorer Francis Alonso.

As much as Alonso and his 17.3 points per game average will be missed, the Spartans’ cupboard is anything but bare. They were recently picked to finish second (again) in the SoCon, and junior guard Isaiah Miller — who quietly emerged as stat-stuffing force a year ago while averaging 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.9 steals — was named the league’s preseason Player of the Year.

Conference Defensive Player of the Year James Dickey, a 6-foot-10 senior who led the team in rebounding at 8.0 per game last season, is also back, as is fellow starter Kyrin Galloway, a senior forward who scored at nearly a double-figure pace at 9.4 per game.

Add to them a strong recruiting class of six new freshmen — led by point guard Keyshaun Langley, the preseason SoCon Rookie of the Year, and his twin brother, Kobe — and the Spartans should have the talent and depth to make another strong run at an NCAA bid.