Introducing Cinderella: Abilene Christian earns first-ever NCAA bid

AP Photo/Michael Wyke
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Gardner-Webb won’t be the only school making its NCAA Division I tournament debut, as Abilene Christian punched its ticket with a 77-60 win over New Orleans in the Southland Conference tournament title game Saturday night. Senior forward Jaren Lewis led the way with 20 points, six rebounds and three steals, but it’s worth noting that Abilene Christian pulled away from UNO while its leading scorer was on the bench with four fouls.

Senior guard Jaylen Franklin added 16 points and six assists, and forwards Hayden Farquhar and Joe Pleasant scored 14 points apiece while also combining to grab 14 rebounds. Abilene Christian shot better than 56% from the field Saturday night, and defensively the Wildcats forced New Orleans into 20 turnovers.

Joe Golding’s program, which won no more than 13 games in any of its first four years back in the Southland (as a provisional Division I member), has won a total of 43 games over the last two seasons. And now the Wildcats will be a part of of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament for the first time.

CONFERENCE: Southland

COACH: Joe Golding

RECORD: 27-6 (14-4 Southland)

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 151
  • NET: 155

PROJECTED SEED: Abilene Christian may land on the 16 line despite the impressive overall record. For selection purposes the team is 23-6 (only games vs. Division I opponents are counted), and it’s ranked 342nd in strength of schedule. The Wildcats played a total of five games against teams in the first three quadrants, going 2-3.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Seniors Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin are two names to know, with the former being a second team All-Southland selection and the latter earning third team all-conference and all-defensive team honors. The 6-foot-6 Lewis entered Saturday averaging 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, with Franklin accounting for 10.0 points, 4.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds per. Another upperclassman who’s figured prominently in the team’s success is junior guard Payten Ricks, an honorable mention All-Southland pick who’s averaging 11.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: All five of Abilene Christian’s games against Quadrant 1/2/3 teams were played on the road, with wins over Pacific and Lamar and losses to Texas Tech, Pepperdine and Sam Houston State. The Wildcats’ worst defeat: a one-point loss at Stephen F. Austin back on January 23.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Abilene Christian is allowing just 63.2 points per game, a figure that ranks 17th nationally. The Wildcats are also ranked seventh in steals per game (8.6) and 17th in turnover margin (plus-4.5). Offensively this is a team that is shooting 38.7% from three on the season, and they’re shooting 47.1% from the field overall.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: You may not know a great deal about Abilene Christian unless you hail from Texas. But there are some recognizable individuals who spent some time on the campus before going on to make a name for themselves. Professional boxer and actor Randall “Tex” Cobb briefly attended the school before leaving to take up karate in his first foray into combat sports, and former Dallas Cowboy Clint Longley played quarterback at ACU.

Also, Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard earned his master’s degree in education from Abilene Christian.