Crawford a worry for Cincinnati N.M. State guard set assists record East Regional


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- After his team had advanced Friday with a first-round victory over Nebraska, New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy witnessed up-close Cincinnati's dismantling of Coppin State.

"I was amazed how they distort the game," McCarthy said. "They take you out of your offense and make you do things you don't want East Regional

to do. Your players are forced to do things they're not accustomed to doing."

So, it will be up to McCarthy to come up with a plan that will allow his team to stick to its game plan when No. 7 seed New Mexico State (26-7) faces No. 2 seed Cincinnati (25-4). Also Atlantic 10 champion Massachusetts (24-6) will play Virginia (20-9), with the winners advancing to the Sweet 16 later this week in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Cincinnati-New Mexico State game will feature the Bearcats' relentless defensive pressure against New Mexico State, which fearlessly attacks the basket. Playing perhaps its best overall game of the season, the Aggies defeated Nebraska, 93-79, with New Mexico State getting nine dunks -- six by senior forward Cliff Reed.

"I've seen New Mexico State play, and I never really noticed him," said Cincinnati forward Erik Nelson, commenting on Reed's 24-point performance. "When I saw him I said 'hey, did they get some new guys for the last few games?' For the NCAA tournament some people step up their game, and he has."

It's easy for Reed to step up, playing with guard Sam Crawford who scored 20 points and had 16 assists -- an NCAA tournament first-round record -- in Friday's win. Crawford, just 5 feet 8, can dominate a game and, perhaps because he plays in Las Cruces, he might be one of the most overlooked players in college basketball.

"This year, he's playing like I envisioned," said McCarthy about Crawford, a former junior college player in his second year with the Aggies. "From January on, Sam has been able to focus and mature as a person and player. He doesn't get a lot of media attention, but he's a solid player."

He'll need a solid effort to get past Cincinnati, which is ranked third in the nation in fewest points allowed. The Bearcats have forced more than 20 turnovers a game with a trapping style that could pose problems for Crawford.

The Bearcats also have an outstanding guard in senior Nick Van Exel, who scored seven points against Coppin. It was the lowest scoring game for Van Exel -- who averages 18.7 points per game -- since the second round of last year's NCAA tournament when he scored six against Michigan State.

"When we got the game in hand, Nick just wanted to get everyone involved," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said of Van Exel, who hit three of 11 shots and had six assists.

McCarthy said, "When I came here, we were 275 out of 290 [in the computer rankings] and I had to get better athletes to compete in the conference. We were getting freshmen who needed to develop -- we couldn't get the finished product.

"The junior college player was developed more than any freshmen we could get in," he said.

The afternoon will begin with Massachusetts attempting to get to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. To do that the Minutemen will have to do something that they've never done -- beat an Atlantic Coast Conference team.

The Cavaliers will look to take advantage of their size against the Minutemen, whose biggest player is 6 feet 7. But the player most likely to be the key to Virginia's success will be point guard Cory Alexander, a sophomore who tied career highs in points (27) and rebounds (seven) in Virginia's first-round win over Pennsylvania.

The game will be the first meeting between Virginia and Massachusetts. The Minutemen played one ACC team this season, opening the season with a 67-64 loss at Florida State. This will be Virginia's first game of the season against a team from the Atlantic 10, which had all four of its teams advance to the second round.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad