For the second consecutive year the Conference USA Men’s and Women’s basketball tournaments will be held in Birmingham, Ala. For the men’s bracket, the 13 versus 12 game will be held at UAB’s Bartow Arena. All of the remaining games will be held at the Legacy Arena just three miles from UAB’s campus.
North Texas (9) vs Western Kentucky (8)
Wednesday, March 9, 12 p.m. CT
The Mean Green and the Hilltoppers — Head-to-Head
WKU and North Texas have met on the hardwood 22 times with the Hilltoppers owning the all-time series 17-5 and 2-0 as Conference USA members.
January 16 — WKU 81 North Texas 76
WKU defeated North Texas in their lone meeting during the the 2015-16 season. The Hilltoppers 81-76 win in Denton was their only victory in their 4-game back-to-back road swing. WKU was balanced with five double figure scorers to North Texas’ three. Aaron Cosby and Chris Harrison-Docks led the way for WKU scoring 16 points each. More than half of North Texas’ points came from Jeremy Combs and J-Mychal Reese who scored 21 and 23 respectively. The Hilltoppers went 22-of-30 from the line, which proved to be the difference in the game. Cosby hit 5-of-6 to close out the game. The Mean Green’s loss to WKU was their second in a row, and they would go on to lose the next three.
Keys to the Game
WKU and North Texas seem to be going in opposite directions as the season comes to an end. The Mean Green has lost four of their last five, and the Hilltoppers have won four of their last five. North Texas has had moments of brilliance and moments that make you scratch your head. The Mean Green defeated La Tech by 11 at home, and then lost at Southern Miss by 11.
The Hilltoppers have steadily become one of Conference USA’s best interior defensive teams. Seven-foot-one junior forward Ben Lawson and 6-foot-10 senior forward Aleksej Rostov have been holding their own lately against the likes of UAB and Middle Tennessee who feature big, powerful forwards. Senior guard Aaron Cosby has hit 16 three-pointers over the last two games, which has given Coach Ray Harper a seemingly impossible inside out game to stop.
The Mean Green’s achilles heal has been their lack of depth. Jeremy Combs, J-Mychal Reese, and Deckie Johnson, all are averaging more than 32 minutes. Only one other North Texas player averages more than 20. Against a team like WKU who has six players averaging between 20.8 and 31.4 minutes per game, the Mean Green will need to get to the free throw line often where they lead Conference USA in attempts. Deckie Johnson could be an x-factor for North Texas with his ability to make threes. He hit eight and five in wins against FIU and La Tech.
I predict WKU will continue their recent stellar play with a convincing win over North Texas. The Hilltoppers have the advantage at every position and they are significantly deeper.
Charlotte (7) at Rice (10)
Wednesday, March 9, 2:30 p.m. CT
The 49ers and Owls — Head-to-Head
Charlotte and Rice played twice during the 2015-16 season with Charlotte winning in Houston and at home. The 49ers own the all-time series over Rice three games to two.
February 11 — Rice 73 Charlotte 102
The 49ers starting five accounted for 83 of Charlotte’s 102 points. Coach Mark Price’s squad hit 17 threes, which is the most by any Conference USA team this season. Senior forward Joseph Uchebo had one of his 16 double-doubles this year with 10 points and 15 rebounds. Rice was lead by soon to be named Conference USA Freshman of the Year Marcus Evans with 20 points. Senior guard Max Guercy had 12 assists and freshman guard Connor Cashaw hit 3 three-pointers.
March 3 — Charlotte 88 Rice 75
Charlotte had another spectacular night behind the arc hitting 11 on the road in Houston. Guards Braxton Ogbueze and Curran Scott combined for 50 points. Rice was balanced in their scoring with four in double figures, but were once again overpowered by Charlotte’s prolific offense. Marcus Evans’ four three-pointers and 27 points led the Owls.
Keys to the Game
Rice ended the regular season on a 3-game losing streak after having won four straight before. Charlotte had won three straight before falling at North Texas in their last game of the regular season.
Both Rice and Charlotte rank in the bottom five of the country in opponents field goal percentage. It’s highly unlikely a defensive battle will take place in Birmingham on Wednesday. The 49ers have been able to distribute their points significantly better than the Owls with six players averaging in double figures to Rice’s three. Charlotte has the edge in the paint with senior Joseph Uchebo, and has proven in both of their previous match ups this season they are the superior outside shooting team. Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov will need to combine for 50-60 points to have any chance against the 49ers.
I predict Charlotte will put on another impressive offensive show and advance to the quarter finals against Middle Tennessee.
UTEP (6) vs Florida International (11)
Wednesday, March 9, 8:30 p.m CT
The Miners and Golden Panthers — Head-to-Head
UTEP and Florida International have played seven times with the Miners lone loss to the Golden Panthers coming earlier this season. The Miners and Golden Panthers played twice this season with each team winning on the other’s home court.
January 23 — FIU 79 UTEP 69
The Miners were down by as many as 21 in a game FIU led from tip to finish. UTEP got as close as 70-67 with 2:48 before the Golden Panthers we’re able to separate for the final time. The battle of the big men was won by FIU senior center Adrian Diaz who had 20 points and 8 rebounds. Senior center Hooper Vint had 8 points and 5 turnovers for the Miners. The surprise of the game was the three-point contribution from FIU’s bench, which went 5-for-9 from the behind the arc. Senior forward Daviyon Draper nearly triple-doubled with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists. UTEP was led by junior forward Lee Moore who scored a game-high 21 points and brought down 8 rebounds.
February 11 — UTEP 84 FIU 74
Four Miner starters poured in 11 three-pointers on a night where UTEP was 56 percent from the field and 57 percent from behind the arc. With Hooper Vint and Terry Winn both fouling out, the Miner guards were left carrying the load on the road. Omega Harris and Lee Moore each had 20 points and Dominic Artis dropped a season-high 10 dimes. Hindered with foul trouble, Adrian Diaz played only played 27 minutes but still managed to score 12 points and bring down 7 rebounds. Junior forward Elmo Stephen led the Golden Panthers in scoring with 18 off the bench in 28 minutes.
Keys to the Game
When evaluating UTEP you can separate the Miners’ Conference USA season by their play Before Vint and After Vint. Don’t get me wrong, senior center Hooper Vint has played pretty well for Coach Tim Floyd this season, but during a two-game home stand in the beginning of February Coach Floyd made an adjustment to his starting line up that featured Hooper Vint coming off of the bench. Since the change to a more guard-heavy starting lineup in their game against WKU, the Miners have gone 6-2.
As the season comes a end for FIU, the passing of the torch from seniors Adrian Diaz and Daviyon Draper to juniors Donte McGill and Elmo Stephen is nearing completion. However, the Golden Panthers success in Birmingham this week will be in the seniors hands. Diaz must stay out of foul trouble, and Draper will have to limit his turnovers.
I predict UTEP will defeat FIU for the second time this season and meet Marshall in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
FAU (12) vs Old Dominion (5)
Wednesday, March 9, 2:30 p.m. CT
The Owls and the Monarchs — Head-to-Head
FAU and ODU met once during the 2015-16 season with the Monarchs winning on the road in Boca Raton. ODU is 4-0 all time against FAU. The Monarchs have beaten the Owls the past three years as Conference USA members.
January 28 — ODU 78 FAU 66
The Monarchs’ Conference USA First Team senior Trey Freeman eclipsed the 1,000 point mark as a Monarch in their win over the Owls. Sophomore forward Brandon Stith double-doubled for the second time in the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds, and FAU sophomore center Ronald Delph scored a career-high 16 points.
Keys to the Game
The Monarchs finished the regular season winning 5 of their last 6 games, but it wasn’t enough to secure a top 4 seed. ODU’s suffocating defense allowed only 60.4 points per game in those five wins. Sophomore forward Brandan Stith has been a force of late in the paint for the Monarchs. Over the last six games he is averaging 11.1 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, and 14.3 points per game. When his brother B.J., a Virginia transfer, becomes eligible, you can bet the two bash brothers will be a force in Conference USA next season.
The Owls will have to lean heavily on their youthful interior defense if they want to stand any chance against ODU. The Monarchs make a living offensively in the mid-range and paint. Ronald Delph, who has fouled out six times this season, will have to play smart against Brandan Stith and freshman forward Zoran Talley who will be coming at him in waves. Coach Michael Curry will have to use a myriad of guards to try and slow down Trey Freeman – in fact, he may need three or four.
I predict Old Dominion to beat FAU and advance to the quarterfinals where the 4 seed La Tech will be looking to avenge their January loss to the Monarchs.