Jeff Fife | An open letter to Valley UNC fans
Most of the Carolina fans around here are trying to figure out who they’d rather play in the second round, Butler or LSU. But as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” Even though Radford is a 26. and a half-point underdog and a #16 seed has never beaten a #1 seed, the Hustling Highlanders should give the Tar Heels a little more action than they anticipate.
I’m not suggesting that Radford will upset UNC; I do believe, however, the game will be closer than the spread would indicate. Here’s a synopsis of the Highlanders and what fans should expect this Thursday.
Radford and UNC have three common opponents this year; UNC-Asheville, Wake Forrest, and UVa. UNC swept UVa, lost to Wake, and pummeled Big South opponent UNC-Ashville by 68 points (that’s not a misprint, but it is embarrassing). Radford beat UNC Ashville three times this year – but not by 68 points. Against ACC foes, Radford had a chance to beat UVa. with the final shot in Charlottesville and lost by two. Radford’s frontcourt blocked 10 shots and overall was dominant in the paint at JPJ. Having watched that game live early in the season, my two thoughts were UVa. is really bad or Radford is quite good – turns out both were true. If Dave Leitao had Radford’s frontcourt, he’d probably still be employed today.
Radford gave Wake Forest fits as well. The Highlanders outrebounded the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem. Take pause, UNC fan,s and reread that sentence. Radford was actually winning the game at the 14-minute mark in the second half until Coach Gaudio benched all his starters, which lit a fire under Wake, eventually leading them to a 22-point victory.
All the media attention has been focused on Artsiom Parakhowski, a 6 foot 11 inch, 260-pound center from Belarus. Parakhowski averaged a double double this season (including against ACC opponents) and is in the top 10 in the country in rebounding. The Big South player of the year has only been playing organized basketball for five years (and speaking English for two and a half years). A columnist for the Charlotte Observer this week replayed a conversation he had with an NBA scout about RU’s big man whose stock seems to be rising quickly. The unnamed scout mused that Parakhowski could go as high as late first round if he came out this year (he still has one year of eligibility left).
Teams can’t put too much focus on Art, however, because Joey Lynch-Flohr, Radford’s starting center last year and two-time Big South Conference first-teamer, is a dangerous low-post presence that has been called a “poor-man’s Hansbrough.” He’s equally scrappy as he is chiseled. He has a linebacker’s body matched with a tight end’s hands. Watch for his jump hook from five feet out – either hand.
Every upset-minded small school in the history of the NCAA tournament has one commonality – senior leadership. Radford’s starting guard, Kenny Thomas, is a 6’3 sharpshooter from Richmond, Va. RU’s senior averaged 15 points a game and is a streaky shooter that can go on phenomenal scoring sprees, as evidenced by his 35-point performance against UNC-Asheville to vault RU to the Big South Tournament championship game.
Although the above-mentioned players get more notoriety, the engine behind the Hustling Highlanders is point guard Amir Johnson. Amir doesn’t have a pretty shot, but he is skilled at dropping passes into the post and setting up his teammates on fast breaks. A gifted and unselfish ball handler, he averaged over five assists a game and almost five rebounds as well. He was one assist short of a triple double in the Big South semifinal game.
Another fun player to watch will be Eric Hall coming off the bench. This 6-8 forward only averages 16 minutes a game but managed 45 blocks (six coming against UVa.) this year. He is a special athlete that can outjump most of UNC’s players and will offer several ooohs and aaahs to the Greensboro crowd with his acrobatic swats.
More than likely, UNC will advance to the second round of the tournament, but it’s won’t be as easy a game as most of the country believes. If nothing else, it could be the coming out party for Parakhowski and should be highly entertaining.
– Column by Jeff Fife