Kenny Payne: UNC Greensboro is an NCAA Tournament team
Five things to know about Kentucky’s opponent on Saturday, the UNC Greensboro Spartans:
1. The Spartans nearly upset Gonzaga in last year’s NCAA Tournament
Coach Wes Miller’s club, champions of the Southern Conference, were at the same regional site, Boise, as Kentucky last March, though the two schools were in different brackets. The No. 13 seed in the West Region, Greensboro led No. 4 seed Gonzaga 64-62 with 1:48 remaining before losing 68-64.
Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins tied the game at 64. After a Greensboro miss, the Zags’ Zach Norvell Jr. hit a three-pointer with 20.8 seconds left to push Gonzaga back in front. Greensboro’s Marvin Smith missed a three-pointer that would have tied it.
The Spartans put the scare into the heavily favored Zags despite missing their first 13 three-point attempts. UNC Greensboro finished 3-of-22 from beyond the arc. Guards Frances Alonso and Demetrius Troy led Greensboro with 16 points each.
Gonzaga knocked off Ohio State 90-84 in the next round before losing to No. 9 seed Florida State 75-60 in the Sweet 16. This year, of course, the Zags are ranked No. 1 after beating Duke 89-87 in the finals of the Maui Invitational.
2. Greensboro is off to the best start in school history
With several key players returning from last year’s club, the Spartans are off to a 7-1 start. They’ve beaten North Carolina A&T 74-66, UNC-Wilmington 82-61, Johnson & Wales 105-57, Prairie View A&M 74-66, Delaware 84-65, Louisiana Tech 80-73 and Greensboro College 111-33.
Their lone loss was 97-91 at LSU on Nov. 9. Trailing by as many as 18 points in the second half, Greensboro went on a 22-8 run to cut the Tigers’ lead to 93-88 with 13 seconds remaining.
Greensboro made 19 of 33 three-pointers in the loss for 57.6 percent. Thirteen of the made threes came in the second half. Kyrin Galloway, a 6-foot-8 junior who had never scored more than 15 points in a game, scored 32 points on the strength of going 8-of-10 from three-point range.
Greensboro is currently 65th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. The Spartans are 64th in offensive efficiency and 86th in defensive efficiency.
3. Wes Miller is the UNC Greensboro coach
Born in Greensboro, Miller started his college career as a point guard at James Madison before transferring after one year to North Carolina, where he started off a walk-on. He made three of five three-pointers and scored 12 points in UNC’s 83-79 win over UK on Dec. 3, 2005.
“He came closer to reaching his potential as a player than anybody I’ve ever coached,” said UNC’s Roy Williams, who coached and mentored Miller.
After playing professionally overseas, Miller began his coaching career as an assistant at Elon and High Point before joining the UNC Greensboro staff in 2010. The next season, at age 28, Miller was elevated to interim coach. After going 11-11, he was promoted again to permanent coach at the end of the season.
His first four seasons at the school were a struggle. Greensboro went 9-22, 14-18, 11-22 and 15-19 before finally breaking through to 25-10 and an NIT bid in 2016-17. Miller credited his willingness to try new things, including a 1-2-2 zone press he learned by sitting next to Oregon Coach Dana Altman on a cross-country flight.
The Spartans finished 27-8 last season after winning 11 of their final 13 games, including a 62-47 victory over East Tennessee State in the Southern Conference Tournament final. In March, Miller was rewarded with a seven-year contract extension.
4. Francis Alonso is Greensboro’s best player
The 6-foot-3 senior guard from Malaga, Spain, is averaging 19 points per game. He has scored in double figures in every Greensboro game this season, including a season-high 26 against Division II Johnson & Wales, 23 against North Carolina A&T and 20 in the loss at LSU.
He’s made 24 of 52 three-point attempts this season for 46.2 percent. He is just the sixth player in SoCon history to make 300 three-pointers in his career. And Alonso has been nearly perfect from the foul line, going 28-of-30 for 93.3 percent.
Nicknamed “The Magician,” Alonso is from the same hometown as the Indiana Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis. Alonso also played for Spain’s National Team. His career high in college is 31 points last season against Wake Forest.
5. Greensboro’s center was his league’s Defensive Player of the Year
James Dickey, a 6-10 junior from Raleigh, earned the SoCon honors last season after blocking 71 shots in 35 games. He has blocked 125 in his career, including seven in UNCG’s opener against North Carolina A&T.
“I talked to somebody today who knows the kid well,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said Friday. “He talked about how he blocks everything.”
Dickey is also Greensboro’s leading rebounder at 8.3 per game. He averaged 8.4 last season and posted a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds against Gonzaga. He had 10 points and 14 rebounds in the Spartans’ 80-73 win over Louisiana Tech.