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NEW ORLEANS (GCAConf.com) – It's a relationship and a friendship that has endured for more than a decade, and this weekend Matt Cross of Talladega College will face off against his mentor, Dillard University head men's basketball coach Mike Newell for the very first time...officially that is.
"I would say I'm 35-2 against him in practice", said Coach Newell from his office, jokingly.
"But this is the first one that counts", replied Coach Cross at his desk in Alabama.
Newell, in his first season at Dillard, has brought a renewed sense of optimism to the Bleu Devil faithful. The program, which won just 15 games over the previous four season, was floundering badly when Newell took over for Bernard Griffith last summer. Newell, winner of 330 games in his career, has Dillard off to a 10-6 start this season (2-1 in the GCAC). The Bleu Devils will be hosting Talladega's eighth-ranked Tornadoes this Saturday at 5:00 PM on The Battlefield at Dent Hall.
Talladega comes in the matchup 16-3 and a perfect 3-0 against conference foes. However, the game at Dillard will be the Tornadoes' first Gulf Coast Athletic Conference contest played on the road.
"We've played well in those first three home games", said Cross. "We can't lose sight of how we won. We need to be prepared and understand how hard it is to go on the road and win. There's more parity in this conference this year, but it's still very strong. There's no clear-cut team that should win; there are teams that have the talent. Dillard is one of them."
Both teams have been impressive this season. Dillard (87.2) and Talladega (85.3) both rank in the top 20 in team scoring. Talladega, on an 11-game win streak, also ranks in the top 10 in scoring margin, rebound margin, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage. The Tornadoes are led by junior guard Jordan Washington, the nation's ninth-leading scorer at 21.6 points per game and senior forward Courtney Mack (16 pts, 7.9 reb) and have three wins over top-25 opponents this season.
The Bleu Devils' turnaround has been fueled by outstanding rebounding. Dillard is second in the nation in offensive rebounding average (17.3), and is in the top-10 in both total rebounding (45.9) and rebound margin (8.9). The roster has been completely overhauled, with 13 new players this season. One of those newcomers, junior forward Demetric Austin leads the team in both scoring (18.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.4 rpg). Junior guard Dennis Hightower (JR/Chicago, Ill.) has been a solid two-way contributor, ranking in the top ten nationally in steals (2.50, 3rd) and assists (5.56, 8th). The Bleu Devils are 5-3 at home this season and 1-3 against ranked teams. All three Dillard home losses have come by 2 points.
"When I put the team together I was focused on building a complete roster. We needed guards, bigs; we needed depth", Newell added. "I think we've put together a good team, and I think the main difference is that Matt has players who played on championship teams. He had players who've been through the highs and lows and that can be a big factor. But we have the home court advantage and we're looking forward to the challenge."
Cross readily admits he's built his teams using the template he learned as an assistant under Newell at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. "I learned the recruiting model from him", said Cross. "Find guards with toughness and bigs that can score and rebound the ball. We want versatile guys. The players that returned know our system and they help the younger guys. We're not at the level we want to be yet (this season), but we're getting better."
This is a big game for both schools. A win for Dillard would be the biggest block yet in the rebuilding of a program that hasn't produced a winning record since 2004-05. It would also provide the Bleu Devils a boost in their hopes to return to the NAIA tournament for the first time since 2003. For Talladega, a victory would keep the Tornadoes alone atop the conference standings and firmly entrenched in the top 10. The Tornadoes have been in the top ten of every Coaches' Poll since Jan. 6, 2015.
The history between the two coaches gives this game a little extra; or as the say in New Orleans, some "lagniappe". Mike Newell gave Matt Cross his start in the college ranks, even welcoming the young coach into his home. The respect that the two have for each other is real, and apparent when they talk about one another.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be able to coach against my mentor", Cross continued. "I'm sure that during the game I'll look down the bench at him a couple of times. And if they jump out on us early, I'll be prepared to hear from him too.
"You could always see the passion that Matt had for the game", said Newell. "We'd watch games and just constantly talk about basketball. He's a hard worker, he loves to win, and he knows how to run a program."
Coach Newell went on, "The fans that come out on Saturday are going to see a great environment for basketball. I think that Dillard has the best atmosphere in the conference, and I've enjoyed watching that school pride come back out [as the team has improved]. We'll be ready."