CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Andrew Fleming has all of 1 minute of March Madness playing experience in his career, coming late in a lopsided loss at another school.
Yet on this Lipscomb team – and for a handful of teams playing opening-round games around the country Friday – he qualifies as a grizzled NCAA Tournament veteran.
Cal State Fullerton, College of Charleston, Marshall, Murray State and UMBC are in the same position. There’s practically no NCAA experience on the roster and each are led by men who are in the tournament for the first time as a head coach.
That can make handling a big moment on this stage a challenge.
”I’ve been telling guys just to enjoy it,” said Fleming, who saw mop-up duty in Iowa’s second-round loss to eventual 2016 champion Villanova. ”It’s just a lot of fun. We’re going to be competing at the highest level right now.”
Indeed. The 15th-seeded Bisons (23-9) play their first-ever NCAA game against reigning national champion North Carolina in the second-seeded Tar Heels‘ home state.
The attention on the gap between high-seeded perennial powers and the lower-seeded upstarts usually focuses on the obvious:
The number of NBA prospects. The bigger front lines. The speed and length on the wing.
Yet there’s more to it for players who are also making their NCAA Tournament debut.
It’s dealing with the buzz that reverberates around campus from earning a spot in the field of 68. It’s getting to often bigger venues and then taking everything in while going through light practices that are open to the public.
There’s the rush of extra media attention and interviews leading up to the game – and of course, playing win-or-go-home games at the time of year when even casual college basketball fans are closely watching.
Cal State Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor leads the 15th-seeded Titans (20-11) against No. 2 seed Purdue in the East Region in Detroit, marking only the third program appearance (1978 and 2008 were the others) in the tournament. Taylor figures only so much can be done to keep inexperienced players from feeling overwhelmed.
”I don’t know if it’s preventable,” Taylor said. ”I think more than anything we embrace it. We’ve worked hard for this.
”One thing that we’ve talked about since the conference tournament is just trying to keep things simple, keep things as easy as possible and make easy happen. Attach something that we know we can do to your mind mentally. Focus on that and then just see what happens at that point. But I don’t want these guys to not enjoy the moment, but I also obviously don’t want them to get overwhelmed.”
In Charlotte, South No. 16 seed UMBC drew top overall seed Virginia. That program has one player who has been part of an NCAA team in VCU transfer Jairus Lyles, though he didn’t play in the Rams’ only game in that 2014 tournament, while coach Ryan Odum is in the tournament for the first time as a head coach.
Three of the teams in this inexperienced bunch play Friday in San Diego.
In the Midwest, College of Charleston (26-7) is a No. 13 seed under fourth-year coach Earl Grant and will fourth-seeded Auburn in the Cougars’ first tournament game since 1999.
Murray State (26-5) is the highest seed of the trio, a No. 12 in the East bracket taking on fifth-seeded West Virginia. It will be the first NCAA game for the Racers since 2012 and the first as a head coach for Matt McMahon, now in his third season.
Marshall (24-10) is the East 13-seed and faces No. 4 seed Wichita State in the program’s first NCAA game since 1987 under fourth-year coach Dan D’Antoni.
”I would say it’s a matter of focus,” Marshall guard Jon Elmore said. ”With our young guys and kind of early on in the season we had our bumps, but as the season progressed, you see those young guys learning. They’re sharper, more fluent in what we want to do, are more fluid.”
That’s really all these teams can do at this point: trust what brought them to this point.
”I’m looking at it like hopefully we’re naive enough to just go out there and play and not worry about it, right?” said Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander, who was part of four NCAA Tournament trips as an assistant at Belmont but will have his first as a head coach against UNC.
”But there is … a disadvantage. They’ve got guys who won the national championship last year,” Alexander said. ”But it doesn’t have to show itself through the course of this 40 minutes that we get” Friday.
AP Sports Writers Noah Trister in Detroit; and Bernie Wilson in San Diego; contributed to this report.
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