UAB Blazers (22-5, 12-2)
Marshall (15-12, 11-3)
Series Record: 16-6, UAB
Game Time: 7 p.m., Central
TV/Live stream: CUSA Digital Network (PAID)
Radio: David Crane, 99.5 FM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Watch The Throne, a studio album by Jay-Z and Kanye West, should be the theme music for the UAB Blazers in the Conference USA this year. It seems of late every hurdle the Blazers leap over is met by an equally taller one in front of them. For the third time in less than a month UAB’s spot on top of the conference standings will be contested. The Blazers were the ones left standing in both previous title bouts and know better than anyone, it’s tough at the top.
The first place Blazers will be stepping in to the ring with a familiar foe Thursday night. The second place Marshall Thundering Herd will enter Bartow Arena for the 11th time where the Blazers own a 7-3 record and a 16-6 over all series record. The house that Gene built is no stranger to first place fights. Just eight months ago Bartow Arena hosted a WBC heavyweight championship boxing batch between Alabamian Deontay Wilder and Eric Mollina. Those in attendance witnessed a thrilling win for the local favorite. On Thursday night, Blazer fans will be hoping for another knock out victory when the clock hits zeros.
UAB has won six in a row over Marshall with five of the wins coming as Jerrod Haase as head coach. The most recent win over the Herd came on January 30 when both teams were first and second place then as well. The Blazers won 81-78 thanks in part to five players scoring in double figures. Forwards James Kelly and Ryan Taylor accounted for 49 of the Herds 78 points and attempted nearly half their field goals (32-of-69).
Unfortunately the finish between UAB and Marshall was not without controversy. What appeared to be a ball knocked out of bounds by junior forward Tosin Mehinti was ruled out on Marshall and subsequently led to free throws that sealed the game for UAB.
Scouting the Herd
Conference USA’s best offense runs like a well oiled machine these days. At 85 points per game, the Herd are inching ever closer to the Conference USA scoring average record of 85.3 done by TCU in 2001-02. Needless to say, Coach Dan D’Antoni has built something special in Huntington. The Herd have the third fastest offense in the NCAA averaging just 13.9 seconds per possession, which is a full 3 seconds faster than UAB’s.
One of the key ingredients of Marshall’s potent offense is the three-point shot. The Herd have attempted 800 threes this season. Old Dominion has the fewest attempts in Conference USA with 430 less than the Herd. Marshall has attempted an astonishing 272 more three-pointers than UAB this season, and has missed more three-pointers than four Conference USA teams have attempted.
The most effective offenses are ones that don’t limit their style of play to one dimension. Marshall has been so lethal because they are a threat behind the arc and in the paint. The Herd have the sixth best two-point field goal percentage in the nation at 56.4 percent. Forwards James Kelly (20.6 PPG) and Ryan Taylor (14.3 PPG) both boast two-point field goal percentages better than 61 percent, which would lead one to believe they only settle for good looks when going inside.
If you haven’t heard of “King James” Kelly before reading this preview, you’ll know him well enough after Thursday night. The senior forward who transferred from Miami is dominating Conference USA this year. The star is averaging 20.6 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game, and leads the Herd with 1.3 steals per game. There isn’t anything he can’t do. He can run point, bang in the paint, and hit NBA range three-pointers. He can also do this…
Corralling the Herd
Fortunately for UAB, the coaching staff has a game they won from late January to look back to. There’s no disputing the game had a controversial ending; however, the game was decided in the other 39 minutes of the game, not the final 30 seconds.
UAB and Old Dominion have been the only Conference USA teams to hold Marshall under 80 points. Taking a quick glance at the box score you can see that a defense as good as UAB’s still couldn’t prevent James Kelly from scoring 30 in the game. Stopping Kelly isn’t the key. It’s stopping his supporting cast.
Along with James Kelly are three other Marshall players averaging double-digit points in forward Ryan Taylor, mentioned earlier, and guards Jon Elmore and Stevie Browning. Elmore, the VMI transfer, became eligible on December 14. The Herd’s success and Elmore’s entry into the lineup are not coincidental. The sophomore guard can play on the wing, run point, and can drop a highlight dunk at a moment’s notice. He leads the team in assists with 3.5 a game, while shooting a respectable 38 percent from three. Like James Kelly, Jon Elmore can score in a variety of ways.
If the Blazers want to win their 23rd game of the year and extend their home win streak to 24, they’ll need to repeat the defensive effort they displayed in the game in late January. James Kelly will likely get his points, but the other starters must be contained. The Blazers played a stifling man defense for much of the game against Middle Tennessee on Sunday. Rarely were any Blue Raiders left open behind the arc, and on two occasions shot clock violations were forced. If UAB can keep Marshall under 80 points again they’ll win in front of what’s predicted to be a near sell out crowd.
Sophomore forward William Lee has totaled 86 blocks through 27 games, which is tied for fifth in the NCAA. He trails the nation’s leading shot blocker, UIC’s Tai Odiase, by 3 blocks. As a team, the Blazers have compiled 173 blocks, which is second only to the University of Washington who has 194.