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UNC GREENSBORO

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A young coach and a Spanish point guard lead a veteran team out to erase last year's heartache

BY ONE measure the Spartans shouldn't even be in the NCAA tournament discussion. Ken Pomeroy ranks them as the fourth-luckiest team in the nation, meaning they have the fourth-highest deviation between their actual and expected records.

UNCG's good fortune will be tested within the Southern Conference, which has three other teams—Wofford (page 66), Furman and East Tennessee State—battling for an automatic bid. All four are ranked in the top 15 of the College Insider mid-major poll. "I'm not sure, nationally, that people understand how good the league is," says Wes Miller, 36, who's in his eighth season as the Spartans' coach.

Consider: UNCG is one of just 11 teams with 21 or more wins. And Wofford, the current leader of the SoCon, beat the Spartans 72--43 in Greensboro. "That," Miller says, "was humbling."

Leading UNCG is 6'3" senior guard Francis Alonso (10), who grew up in Málaga, Spain, eschewing soccer for the sport his dad, Paco, played professionally. He's a 37.9% three-point shooter, the team's leading scorer (16.9 points per game) and the biggest reason UNCG can make a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. "I don't think there are words to describe what he's meant to the program," says Miller. "One of the most dynamic guards in the country."

Inside, Miller leans on junior forward James Dickey, the conference's reigning defensive player of the year. The 6'10" Dickey missed six games with a right-foot injury but he's back to being one of the nation's top shot blockers and the team's best rebounder (7.5). He had three swats in an 83--60 victory over The Citadel on Jan. 24, helping to hold the nation's highest scoring team to 32 points below its average. Dickey blocks 10.1% of opponents' two-point shots when he's on the floor, which ranks 24th in the country, according to kenpom.com.

After winning the conference championship in 2018, UNCG battled valiantly in the first round before falling to No. 4 seed Gonzaga on a Zach Norvell Jr. three-pointer with 20.8 seconds left. The Spartans have 10 players back from that team, experience that will undoubtedly help if they're lucky enough to make the Big Dance again.