Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories previewing Tarleton State and its third trip to the Division II Elite Eight. Today, The Flash examines the similarities in men’s basketball at Tarleton and Mount Olive, the Texans’ national quarterfinal opponent, and the differences between the universities themselves. We will have a different feature each day as part of our Cross Timbers Orthopaedics Road to Evansville blog that begins Monday morning.
By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (March 22, 2015) — Tarleton State University and the University of Mount Olive (NC) share few similarities, but despite having never met on the hardwood, their men’s basketball programs are eerily linked.
Both historically and currently.
Historically, because each school made its first NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearance in 2005. Currently, because the teams meet in the first national quarterfinal game at the 2015 Elite Eight at noon central standard time Wednesday inside the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
Also currently because of the similar path each team has taken to finish among the final eight out of 319 teams in Division II.
Tarleton and Mount Olive each began the year with long win streaks, the Texans beginning 12-0, and the Trojans 9-0. Then came adversity, Tarleton dropping two of its next three and Mount Olive losing two of four. They were 13-2 and 11-2, respectively, at basically the midway point of each team’s season.
Then came the defining run for each team, with Mount Olive winning 17 consecutive games and Tarleton running off 14 straight wins through the meat of their conference schedules. Both leagues – Tarleton is in the Lone Star Conference while Mount Olive is part of the Conference Carolinas – were strong at the top with four teams in each posting 20 or more wins.
Each team won regular season conference titles, and each was upset in conference tournament play. Then both bounced back with three straight regional playoff wins.
Each club is led by athletic shooting guards. South Central Region Championship MVP Mo Lee averages 15.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals to lead Tarleton. Conference Carolinas Player of the Year Dontrell Brite is putting up 14.1 points, 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals for Mount Olive.
Both have head coaches entrenched in the history of their schools. In 27 seasons as head coach at Tarleton, Lonn Reisman has won 588 games, 18th most all-time in Division II. Joey Higginbotham has been on staff 16 years at Mount Olive, earning a promotion to head coach in May, 2008.
But the schools are vastly different.
University of Mount Olive was known was Mount Olive College until January, 2014. Founded in 1951 in Mount Olive, North Carolina, population 4,740, the private Christian university offering associates and bachelor’s degrees in 15 major areas of study is home to about 3,500 total students.
Tarleton State University is part of the Texas A&M University System that offers bachelor’s, master’s and even doctor’s degrees in 25 areas of study with a steadily growing student enrollment that is approaching 12,000. Located in Stephenville, population 18,561, Tarleton became a senior college in 1961, 10 years before Mount Olive.
UMO has 167 faculty members, just 15 percent of the 1,098 at Tarleton, according to cappex.com, which says Tarleton boasts a 39 percent graduation rate within six years compared to 28 percent at Mount Olive.
Tarleton has football and Mount Olive does not. UMO instead has men’s and women’s golf and tennis, sports Tarleton offers for women only, and UMO also has men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse.
With the bigger population and enrollment numbers come larger fan bases for Tarleton. The Texans played home games in front of an average of 2,097 fans, while UMO home contests were attended by an average of just 249.