BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — We’re officially through day two of the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament. On Tuesday, the Florida Atlantic Owls defeated the UTSA Roadrunners in the 12/13 game. The victory for the Owls was their first post season win since 2008 (Sun Belt).
Thursday’s Conference USA tournament slate kicks off with a much anticipated third meeting between WKU and UAB. The Hilltoppers have made it clear how they feel about meeting UAB for the third time this season–READ.
Following first game is ODU-La Tech, Charlotte-Middle Tennessee, and UTEP-Marshall.
Western Kentucky (8) vs UAB (1)
Thursday, March 10, 12 p.m., CT
Hilltoppers and Blazers — Head-to-head
WKU and UAB have played 32 times with the Blazers leading the all-time series 21-11. This is the second year in a row that the pair have met in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament. UAB defeated WKU 53-52 last year and then went on to win the Conference USA tournament.
January 28 — UAB 62 WKU 69
The Blazers 14-game win streak was snapped by the Hilltoppers in a game UAB never led. Senior guard Aaron Cosby hit 5 three-pointers and led WKU in scoring with 20. Sophomore forward and Conference USA defensive player of the year William Lee led the Blazers with 20 points and 7 rebounds.
February 27 — WKU 67 UAB 71
In typical WKU versus UAB fashion, the Blazers prevailed in a close one on senior night, 71-67. UAB’s lone senior led the balanced Blazers in scoring with 12. Justin Johnson came off the bench and scored 19 for the Tops in 30 minutes. The Hilltoppers bench outscored their starters 47 to 20.
Keys to the Game
The Hilltoppers defeated North Texas 84-76 in the second round of the Conference USA tournament. WKU’s 84 points are the most they’ve scored in regulation since beating NAIA Brescia 93-66 on December 28. Sophomore forward Justin Johnson double-doubled with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Nigel Snipes had 16 points and hit four three-pointers.
A shocking stat from their game against North Texas was the Hilltoppers turning it over 13 times to the Mean Green’s 2. Not sure how that will translate to tomorrow’s game against UAB, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
In UAB and WKU’s two meetings this season, neither team hit more than 7 three-pointers. The team who hit the most three’s has won each game. The Hilltoppers hit 7 threes today in their win over North Texas.
Tomorrow’s quarterfinal game will likely be decided in the paint rather than behind the arc. WKU’s front court of Ben Lawson and Aleksej Rostov have given the Blazer’s trouble in each of the last two meetings. However, the x-factor for the Hilltoppers is 6-foot-7 forward Justin Johnson who can defend and rebound in the paint as good as any player of any size in the conference. Johnson had 19 points and 7 rebounds in their loss to UAB in Birmingham.
I’d give UAB a slight edge in the front court with Chris Cokley, Tosin Mehinti, and William Lee. The Hilltoppers’ trio of Rostov, Lawson, and Johnson will certainly test the Blazers bigs.
UAB should also have the edge in guard play with Nick Norton, Robert Brown, and Dirk Williams. Hilltopper guards Nigel Snipes and Aaron Cosby combined for 6 three-pointers against North Texas Wednesday.
I’m going with the Blazers to send WKU home for the second straight year at the Conference USA tournament.
Old Dominion (5) vs Louisiana Tech (4)
Wednesday, March 10, 2:30 p.m., CT
Monarchs and Bulldogs — Head-to-Head
ODU and La Tech will meet for the fourth time in series history in Wednesday’s quarterfinal game. The Monarchs and Bulldogs have met three times all while members of Conference USA. The Monarchs hold the series edge 2-1.
January 7 — ODU 56 La Tech 53
The Monarchs became public enemy number one in Ruston, La. when they snapped the Bulldogs 39-game home win streak. Senior guards Aaron Bacote and Trey Freeman combined for 38 of ODU’s 56 points. Conference USA player of the year Alex Hamilton scored 15 and dished out 4 assists. The Bulldogs hit 8 threes to ODU’s three, but it wasn’t enough to top the Monarchs.
Keys to the Game
I’m expecting two benches full of emotion tomorrow when these two teams meet. Monarch seniors Bacote and Freeman, and the Bulldog’s lone senior Hamilton, will all be fighting to continue their Conference USA careers.
Let’s put the guard play to the side and talk about the interior match ups. The Monarch bigs have played phenomenal of late. Forwards Brandan Stith, Zoran Talley, and Denzell Taylor have been as important to ODU during their 5-game win streak as Trey Freeman. It will be interesting to watch how La Tech forwards Erik McCree and Merrill Holden will fare against the Monarchs scrappy interior. McCree’s lingering knee injury appeared to be close to 100 percent healed in their win over Marshall last week.
It will be interesting to see what kind of pace of play is dictated tomorrow. Old Dominion is 347th out of 351 Division 1 teams in adjusted tempo. Conversely, La Tech is 54th. Given the stakes at hand and a neutral court, I think the pace will favor the Monarchs style.
I’m going to go with the Monarchs to beat the Bulldogs for the second time this year tomorrow. Both Freeman and Bacote appeared to be destined to make it to Friday in their win over Florida Atlantic Wednesday.
Charlotte (7) vs Middle Tennessee (2)
Wednesday, March 10, 6 p.m., CT
49ers and Blue Raiders — Head-to-Head
Charlotte and MTSU have met five times on the hardwood. The Blue Raiders lead the all-time series four games to one. As Conference USA members, Middle Tennessee is 4-0 against Charlotte.
January 14 — MTSU 73 Charlotte 72
All five Charlotte starters scored in double figures, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Blue Raiders who were led by sophomore guard Giddy Potts who scored a career-high 29 points. Senior center Joseph Uchebo double-doubled with 11 points and 18 rebounds. The teams were tied 71-71 before junior forward Reggie Upshaw sealed the deal for MTSU by hitting 1-of-2 free throws.
Keys to the Game
Giddy Potts returning for Middle Tennessee is a game changer for Coach Kermit Davis. Potts three-point shooting percentage of 49.3 is seventh best in the NCAA. His percentage is third best of those who’ve attempted more than 100 threes.
The most intriguing match up between the two teams will be Charlotte’s guards versus MTSU’s forwards. The 49ers only have two forwards averaging more than 25 minutes per game, and neither score in double figures. The Blue Raiders have three of the best forwards in Conference USA in Reggie Upshaw, Perrin Buford, and Darnell Harris. Both Upshaw and Harris shoot better than 40 percent, which is on par with Charlotte’s best three-point shooting guards.
The obvious fly in the ointment is senior center Joseph Uchebo. He broke the Conference USA single season rebound record this year and leads the league in double-doubles. Middle Tennessee and the rest of the conference do not have an answer for Big Joe. MTSU will likely give the big man a large dose of their star forwards driving to the basket in hopes of getting him in foul trouble. Uchebo had 18 rebounds in their second round win over Rice.
I’m going to give the edge to Middle Tennessee in what I think is a toss up. Coach Kermit Davis has been here and done it, and Mark Price – although doing an outstanding job – is still as green as the 49ers’ jerseys.
UTEP (6) vs Marshall (3)
Wednesday, March 10, 8:30 p.m., CT
Miners and Thundering Herd — Head-to-Head
UTEP and Marshall will meet for the 14th time tomorrow in the quarterfinal round of the Conference USA tournament. The Miners lead the all-time series over the Herd 10-3.
February 4 — Marshall 108 UTEP 112
Three Herd players scored more than 20 points in one of highest scoring Conference USA games in the conference’s 20 year history. Guards Dominic Artis and Earvin Morris Jr. combined 53 points and 7 three-pointers. No UTEP or Marshall player had double-digit rebounds.
Keys to the Game
The coaching match up in this game is as intriguing as the player match ups. Dan D’Antoni and Tim Floyd are two of the most seasoned coaches in Conference USA. Floyd coached two NBA teams and D’Antoni spent many years under his head coach brother in the league.
It’s highly unlikely these two teams will combine for 200 points in Legacy Arena. However, this game should easily yield the most points in the tournament. Barring a run of low scoring games the Herd will break the Conference USA record for points per game this season.
I predict Floyd’s token box-and-one defense will give the young Herd guards trouble and the Miners will win a very close one.