By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
WEST LIBERTY —
First-year Fairmont State University head men’s basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun never once wavered on what his goals were for his team this season.
From the day he was hired last spring, to FSU’s Fan Fest in October and on throughout the entire season, Calhoun was determined to get his team to the NCAA Division II National Basketball Tournament.
But now that the Falcons are there for the second time in four seasons and the sixth time since the school joined the NCAA D-II ranks in the mid-1990s, Calhoun and his players would like to take advantage of the situation and advance past the opening round for the first time since 1999.
Fairmont’s first step in doing so begins tonight at 8:30, when the fourth-seeded Falcons (22-8) battle fifth-seeded Livingstone (N.C.) College (22-6) in the opening round of the D-II Atlantic Regional at West Liberty University’s ASRC.
Both FSU and Livingstone earned at-large bids to the tourney and both finished as the runner-up in their respective conference tournaments. The Falcons lost to top-seeded West Liberty in the WVIAC Tournament title game, while Bowie State upended the Blue Bears in the CIAA championship contest.
“Everybody at this point is very good, and every game is going to be a challenge,” said Calhoun. “Livingstone is a very athletic team with two very good guards who can score the ball. They’ve also got some big guys inside who are 6-8 and 6-9, and they do a good job of rebounding and controlling things in the paint.
“Defensively, they’re going to mix things up a lot, play a lot of zone, and we expect them to press us. A key for us is to handle their pressure, get some easy baskets early, and we’ve got to rebound the ball well and play good defense.”
The Blue Bears, who are making their first-ever NCAA D-II Tournament appearance, are led by guards Mark Thomas and Jody Hill. Thomas, a 5-10 junior point guard, averages 18.0 points per game as well as 4.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He’s second on the team in made 3-point field goals with 48.
Hill, on the other hand, is a 6-1 junior guard who averages 13.9 points and has connected on a team-high 53 3-pointers. The balanced Blue Bears also have four other players who average between 8.4 and 7.0 points per outing.
“They’ve got some bigs that we’re not used to seeing in our league,” said FSU senior backup center Andrew Gunnoe, who along with senior guard Isaac Thornton are the Falcons’ only players left from the 2010 national tourney team which fell in the opening round to eventual runner-up Indiana (Pa.) University. “That’s going to be a challenge for us. They want to control the glass, and we have to be able to control the glass.”
FSU freshman backup point guard Ke’Chaun Lewis agrees.
“They like to dominate on the glass with their size, and we can’t allow that,” said Lewis. “We have to have five guys hitting the glass hard at all times.
“Defensively we have to contain their guards, especially the point guard who is averaging 18 points a game. We need to be more consistent on defense too and get stops. We also have to cut down on our fouls on defense. We can’t guard guys standing on the foul line. We have to play solid defense with our feet and our bodies and play hard on both ends for 40 minutes.”
Fairmont enters tonight’s game having won seven of its last 10 outings. Two of the Falcons’ losses during that span have come against No. 1 ranked and top-seeded West Liberty.
Livingstone, on the other hand, won eight straight before falling 85-74 to Bowie State in the CIAA title game. The 22 wins by the Blue Bears this season is a school record.
“Livingstone is a team which has been consistent all year,” said Calhoun. “They’re 22-6, and they won the CIAA South championship, so obviously they’re good. They’re not a team which captured magic in a bottle so to speak and won three games and made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been consistent from day one in a league which has three teams in the NCAA Tournament, so we’ve got a challenge awaiting us.”
Both Livingstone and FSU have been good road teams this season. The Blue Bears are 16-3 away from their home gym this year, while the Falcons are 13-4 in games not played at the Joe Retton Arena.
First-round action in the Atlantic Regional begins today at noon at the ASRC with third-seeded and 10th-ranked Indiana (Pa.) University (24-5) taking on sixth-seeded East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University (22-6). At 2:30 p.m. second-seeded and 16th-ranked Winston-Salem State (N.C.) University (21-6) will tangle with seventh-seeded Slippery Rock (Pa.) University (22-8). Top-seeded and No. 1 ranked West Liberty University (30-1) and eighth-seeded Bowie State (Md.) University (16-13) will square off at 6 p.m. before FSU and Livingstone battle in the region’s final contest tonight at 8:30 p.m.