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Patience, defense drive Spartans to top of Southern Conference

UNC Greensboro head coach Wes Miller holds the net in the air to celebrate his team’s 62-47 win over East Tennessee State in the Southern Conference Tournament championship last Monday. (KATHY KMONICEK / AP)
UNC Greensboro head coach Wes Miller holds the net in the air to celebrate his team’s 62-47 win over East Tennessee State in the Southern Conference Tournament championship last Monday. (KATHY KMONICEK / AP)

UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller needed time and patience – rare commodities in college athletics these days – to install a foundation in his program.

The school stuck with him through four losing seasons before last year’s 25-win breakthrough. It got better this season as the Spartans set a school record with 27 victories and won Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Miller stuck to his defensive-minded principles and the reward for him, his players and UNCG’s support is the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 17 seasons.

The 13th-seeded Spartans (27-7) face No. 4 Gonzaga (30-4) on Thursday in Boise.

“We’re fortunate to have a team that has really bought into what we value, the defensive end, and trying to be together regardless of circumstance and play the right way on offense,” Miller said in a telephone interview just before the team’s cross-country flight to Boise.

The Spartans won the regular-season title last year but came up short against East Tennessee State in the SoCon Tournament final. They returned the favor Monday with a 62-47 win over ETSU in the championship.

“We knew our team was a special group of guys and we’ve been working hard for the past year,” said junior guard Francis Alonso, who averages a team-high 15.6 points per game. “So much love, not only from family and friends, but basketball fans that are following UNCG.”

The Spartans do a lot of things well – shoot the 3-pointer, shoot the 3 some more, block shots and dominate the boards – but defense remains their first priority.

It starts with a 1-2-2 press that forces 15.2 turnovers per game. It ends with quality rim protection (3.9 blocks per game).

“Our pressure defense has been our backbone,” Miller said. “We really believe it kind of sets a tone for a defensive possession. Changing defenses within that is something we believe in. In some games, we turn people over, some we speed them up. It’s allowed us to dictate the game a little bit on our terms.”

Miller zeroed in on an intriguing matchup of the teams’ frontcourts. UNCG center Jordy Kuiper can operate outside the 3-point line. The majority of 6-6 forward Marvin Smith’s baskets have been 3-pointers. James Dickey has 71 blocks and averages 8.3 rebounds.

“Other than Duke, I’m not sure there’s a better front line in the country than the three guys (Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura) they roll out,” Miller said. “I’m really impressed with Hachimura. But I do think we have a really special front line with three guys that have the ability to compete with anybody.”


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