03/14/08 — UPJ satisfied with underdog role vs. MOC

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UPJ satisfied with underdog role vs. MOC

By Ryan Hanchett
Published in Sports on March 14, 2008 2:48 PM

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Seventh-seeded Pittsburgh-Johnstown is considered an underdog in the 2008 NCAA Division II East Regional men's basketball tournament.

It's a role the Mountain Cats know well.

And it doesn't bother UPJ coach Bob Rukavina.

"I think the role of underdog serves us well," said Rukavina. "We have kind of been an underdog all year in our league, so we are used to being in this position."

Until this season, UPJ had played as an independent for nearly two decades. A first-year West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference member, the Mountain Cats logged a 22-7 worksheet and claimed the regular-season title.

Still, UPJ didn't register enough points in the East Region poll.

"With the new format in the tournament, so much emphasis is put on strength of schedule and who you play," said Rukavina. "In the east, we have 45 teams, which makes us the largest region in the country. Some of the others have 22 or 23 teams and we all receive the same amount of bids."

But regardless of what bantering the region poll creates, Rukavina is well aware of the Mountain Cats' first-round opponent -- No. 23-ranked Mount Olive College. The second-seeded Trojans are making their fifth consecutive postseason appearance.

"The experience factor is a big advantage," said Rukavina.

One reason for UPJ's success is Chris Gilliam, who received the Daktronics Division II East Region player of the year award. Gilliam averaged 19.7 points and 8.9 rebounds a game this season.

"Chris has had a great year for us, and he is a really good player," said Rukavina. "He is a big strong guy who finishes plays around the basket and always plays hard. He doesn't get caught up doing things that aren't in his game.

"He doesn't take a bunch of long jumpers or things like that."

Gilliam should be a great matchup against Trojan forward Brandon Streeter, who was a first-team all-region pick along with Gilliam. And second-team all-region pick Kendrick Easley also impresses Rukavina.

"They seem to be led by Streeter and Easley," said Rukavina. "Both of those guys are two of the best at their positions. Streeter is a big strong kid who reminds me a lot of Chris in the way he battles around the basket."

The teams are nearly identical -- on paper.

Mount Olive's high-energy offense produces 84 points a game, while UPJ knocks down 79.7. Each team shoots 50 percent or better from the floor.

But statistics, added Rukavina, mean nothing at this point in the season.

"This time of year it's all about who shows up and plays their best," he said. "I really hope that both teams play up to their potential, which should be a great game."