DENVER -- The battle between No. 12 Richmond and No. 13 Morehead State wasn't just a matchup of mid-major surprises. It was also a showcase for two players projected to go on to the next level of play.
Morehead State's Kenneth Faried gained fame this year as the nation's best rebounder and is considered a potential NBA lottery pick. Justin Harper flew a little more under the radar, and the word "underrated" usually precedes his name.
But on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, Harper outplayed Faried, and his Spiders are moving on to San Antonio after a 65-48 win. It is Richmond's second trip to the Sweet 16, and it is being led by a native son: Harper grew up in Richmond--though he knew little of the Spiders "giant killer" legacy growing up. Along the way to the Sweet 16, Harper's fluid, versatile game is opening some eyes.
"I'm just focusing on taking my team further," he said. "Now we have a lot more eyes on us and people can see how we've improved."
Harper -- 6-foot-10, 225 pounds -- led all scorers with 19 points and was instrumental in helping control Faried inside, moving in to double-team Morehead State's dynamic forward. Faried -- 6-foot-8, 228 pounds -- finished with yet another double double, his 29th of the season. He scored 11 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. But his team was always chasing the score, and with his teammates unable to knock down perimeter shots, Faried wasn't much of a factor.
"That was our game plan," Richmond center Dan Geriot said. "He's such a beast on the glass, we did our best to make it hard for him."
Harper isn't the athletic force around the rim that Faried is, but he's a more skilled offensive player. His development was helped along by attending a Big Man camp in Boston last summer.
He wasn't picked for the preseason all-Atlantic-10 first, second or third team. But he scored in double figures in his last 30 straight games and was a first-team Atlantic-10 selection when the season was over.
"I brought a different mindset and approach this year," Harper said. "More like a professional. I put in more time."
Harper said he's heard projections putting him in the NBA's first round but is trying to focus on the task at hand: taking Richmond farther in the NCAA turnament that it has ever been.
"He's a skilled big man who can step up," said Eagles coach Donnie Tyndall. "I think he'll be a guy that will certainly get a good look from NBA people because of all the ball screening they do at the next level. He can pick and pop, make that 17- and 19-footer that Kenneth doesn't."
Richmond coach Chris Mooney puts Harper out on the perimeter in his modified Princeton offense. He thinks Harper's fluid game belies how hard he works.
"He's very versatile," Mooney said. "I think it was good for him to be in that competition (with Faried) tonight. I'm sure they'll see each other a lot over the next couple of months. They're just different."
Harper's teammate Kevin Anderson, Richmond's little big guard, also dreams of playing in the NBA next year. Anderson entered the NBA Draft last year, only to withdraw his name a few weeks later and return to school.
"That was a publicity stunt to get my name out there," he said. "I'll try to go to the NBA after this. That's my dream. But after winning Conference Player of the Year I owed it to myself to put my name out there."
Harper is more of a sure thing. Mooney constantly encourages Harper by telling him that he's going to play in the NBA, saying things like, "Justin, I hope you invite me to the green room on draft night."
"Things just to make him understand there was a reason the coach was being hard on him," Mooney said. "That there was a reason for that."
Though this was Harper's breakout season, Mooney said he's been developing every year.
"He improved dramatically between each season," Mooney said. "His nickname is 'True,' which they gave him as a freshman because that's the way he played. His shot looked so true. He's worked very hard to be in that position."
Morehead State is going home, but Kenneth Faried hasn't seen the last of Justin Harper.
"Hopefully I'll see him in the combine and we'll see what happens there," Faried said.