When USC Aiken won its regional men’s basketball tournament a year ago, the Pacers were happy to be among the Elite Eight field for the NCAA tournament. This year, USC Aiken is in it to win it.
The Pacers lost to eventual national champion Drury in last year’s quarterfinals. They meet Chico (Calif.) State on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. in Evansville, Ind.
“Last year, we were sort of new kids on the block,” says Vince Alexander, USC Aiken’s eighth-year coach. “We didn’t know what to expect. We came in, and I just don’t think we played well. Our guys didn’t respond well.”
This year, Alexander counts 10 seniors on his 13-player roster. All five starters are seniors, including two who are in their fifth year with the program. The experience of those players, both during the regular season and in the postseason, should aid the Pacers in their quest to reach Saturday’s national championship game to be televised by CBS.
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So experienced is Alexander’s team, he says he occasionally just watched and observed during practices and throughout a season that produced a remarkable 32-3 record and a stretch of 27 wins in the Pacers’ final 28 games.
“These guys have been through it. They know what to expect,” Alexander says. “They have high expectations for themselves. It makes it a little easier for me. Rather than me imposing my expectations on them, these are their expectations.”
The normal progression for college athletes through a program is anything but for many Division II players. USC Aiken is no exception. One starter sat out two seasons and another one season, both for academic reasons. One starter transferred from The Citadel, and another from Mercer. The fifth starter found his way to Aiken from Austria on the recommendation of a former Pacers player.
“We’ve been extremely blessed to have the kids we have,” Alexander says.
At 6-foot-10, Alvin Brown staked claim to being the tallest employee in the Food Lion grocery chain during the previous two seasons. To shore up his academics, Brown worked part-time and attended school part-time, unable to practice or play with the team. He returned to lead the nation this season in blocked shots with four per game.
Guard Ronald Zimmerman, a Spring Valley High product known as “RZ3” to his teammates and USC Aiken fans, went through a self-imposed academic suspension for the 2010-11 season.
The season on the sideline helped the 6-foot Zimmerman better acclimate himself to college, academically and in basketball. He now maintains a 3.0 grade-point average and leads the Pacers in scoring with 16 points per game.
DeVontae Wright, a 6-foot guard, and Paul Larsen, a 6-6 forward, began their careers at The Citadel and Mercer, respectively. Alexander’s coaching connections at those schools led the two to USC Aiken. Wright averages 15 points per game, and Larsen contributes 13 points and nine rebounds per game.
Then there is 6-3 guard Jesse Seilern. Alexander offered Seilern a scholarship without having seen him play – in person or on video. Former USC Aiken player Jeremy Fears was playing professional basketball in Austria five years ago when he met and got to know Seilern.
On Fears’ recommendation, Alexander brought Seilern on board, and the 6-3 guard has rewarded the coach with a 10-point scoring average as well as on-court and off-court leadership.
Of the next four players who get significant playing time, 6-5 guard Shane Porchea is a transfer from USC Upstate and 6-8 forward Santoine Butler is a transfer from Gardner-Webb.
All but Butler played a season ago when USC Aiken fell three wins shy of a national title. Immediately following that quarterfinal loss, team members vowed to give full-out effort in the weight room, class room and on the court during the offseason and throughout this season.
With three games remaining in the regular season, Alexander listed four goals for his team. He wanted them to win a quartet of three-game seasons. The final three wins of the regular season clinched the Peach Belt Conference championship.
Three wins in the conference tournament secured a third consecutive league championship and a No. 1 seed for the NCAA regional tournament. Three wins in the regional merited a spot in the NCAA Elite Eight.
Now the Pacers are three wins from a national championship, confident they have the talent – and experience – to win it all.