DAYTON, Ohio — In the NCAA tournament, the tournament champions from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Patriot League generally find themselves paired against elite opponents, with little chance of advancing.
But thanks to the First Four — the NCAA’s euphemism for the play-in games that require eight teams to try to earn their way into the field of 64, even after earning a berth in the tournament — Southern and Holy Cross are meeting in what figures to be a competitive matchup Wednesday night in the UD Arena.
The Jaguars (22-12) are a two-point favorite over the Crusaders (14-19) in the opening game of the second night of the First Four.
“Even when we play big teams, we don’t feel like all the odds are against us,” said Southern guard Christopher Hyder, whose team beat Mississippi State on the road in its second game of the season. “We just came here to play and, regardless if they’re a big school, small school, we’re going to do what we have to do to win. We don’t look at anybody as a big school or small school just because of their name.”
The Jaguars and Crusaders had less time than many other teams to prepare for their opener. On the other hand, they have the television stage all to themselves as they try to reach the round of 64.
“We’re not choosy,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “We’re just glad to be among the elite here playing in this tournament. Our guys are very excited to be here, and I think that the excitement will ultimately give us the energy that we need to help us hopefully play well and perform well.”
Holy Cross certainly isn’t choosy after entering the Patriot League tournament as the ninth seed.
“Even our play-in game in our own league tournament, we were the underdogs going into that,” center Malachi Alexander said. “So I think we’ve stuck with that, and it adds a sort of toughness to our team that I think will easily translate over.”
The winner of Wednesday’s game moves into the more traditional role of David facing Goliath as it plays West region No. 1 seed Oregon on Friday in Spokane, Washington.
“Our sole focus is Southern and that game right now,” Alexander said. “But you can’t help but think about playing the No. 1 seed and how huge that would be for us.”
Good tourney prep
Hyder said Southern’s preconference schedule was good preparation for the NCAA tournament.
Nine of the Jaguars’ 13 games before SWAC play were on the road. They featured opponents from bigger conferences — such as Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tulane, Wyoming, Memphis and Louisiana Tech — and four of them were played in a tournament format.
“It helps you get prepared for days like this, because it’s kind of a short turnaround,” Hyder said. “We didn’t get to do the normal, long scouting report against them, so it helps you prepare for this, and your system plays a big part when you play these types of tournaments because you’ve got to be ready to play (right away).”
‘Humbled’ Hyder makes it back
Hyder is the only Jaguars player who has competed in the NCAA tournament. He was a freshman on the team that lost to No. 1 national seed Gonzaga 64-58 in 2013.
But Hyder missed most of the next season because of a blood clot, and the Jaguars were ineligible for postseason play that season and last year.
“It was emotional because I never had an injury like that, that took me out the whole year,” Hyder said. “So I just learned from it and cheered my team on. It also made me more humble because my first year we went and it’s kind of like my second year we didn’t, my third year we didn’t. It just humbled me every year so we could get back to this stage where we’re at now.”