With both teams winning seven of their last eight games, Thursday’s tilt will be a battle between two teams with a conference title in their sights.
It’s not often these days that Conference USA has two top 100 teams facing off in mid-January. In fact, before last week’s Old Dominion versus Western Kentucky game it hadn’t happened since 2015. This week the conference will have two as Western Kentucky (50th) is set to face UAB who is ranked 81st and Middle Tennessee who is ranked 53rd in Ken Pomeroy’s current rankings.
Since the Hilltoppers joined the conference, the games against them have felt more important than most no matter where the teams are ranked in the standings. Maybe it’s the geographic proximity, the fan banter, or most likely it’s the fact that both UAB and Western Kentucky have rich histories of success on the court and their programs are proud and confident.
Conference pride is not something most think about in our hodge-podge group, but personally I’m proud to see multiple meaningful games that feature NCAA tournament type teams in a three day span. But don’t get it twisted, I want to win. Good losses don’t exist in my book.
Let’s take a look at Western Kentucky who has an identical record of 13-5 as UAB and are 5-0 in conference play.
Scouting the Hilltoppers
How big is Thursday’s game you might ask? MASSIVE. This game is an opportunity for UAB to regain some of it’s momentum that has been lost since winning the conference two seasons ago. If the Blazers want to be considered as one of the top teams in Conference USA each season they need to win games like these consistently.
UAB has had a tough time in Diddle Arena the past two seasons. Two years ago the Tops ended our 16-game win streak, and last season we were nearly run out of the gym on national television. Western Kentucky is going to have the place packed and they are going to be loud and confident.
If you haven’t been following the Tops’ season thus far, their 13-5 record might not seem that impressive at first glance, but once you look at their resume you’ll see they have one of the best group of wins as any mid-major in the country. Their wins in the Bahamas against current AP #3 Purdue and 26th KenPom.com ranked SMU are remarkable considering how short handed they were in Novemeber. Speaking of that, let’s break down their key pieces.
Western Kentucky has the 47th most efficient offense in the country, but UAB is no slouch as they’re ranked 50th. They are extremely balanced with a lethal inside presence of Justin Johnson and Dwight Coleby, as well as the conference’s top 3-point shooting percentage. Coleby is a Kansas transfer who is built like a house at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds. Blazer fans are well aware of Justin Johnson who has now become a solid 3-point shooter having hit five at Old Dominion. Oh, and by the way, the Tops have a four-star, 6-foot-9 forward Moustapha Diagne that’s working his way into the lineup as well.
As good as the Tops are in the paint, they may be even better at the guard position. All three of their primary guards can handle point duties, and each has a diverse skill set. Darious Thompson is a graduate transfer from Virginia who recorded a triple-double versus Marshall last week. Lamonte Bearden is another transfer that came from Buffalo and has become one of the best scoring wings in the conference. Their freshman Taveion Hollingsworth has had an equally as good a start as Zack Bryant, and he has been a starter since day one. Lastly I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their other four-star player that just became eligible in Josh Anderson who might be the best player on the team before season’s end.
This will be the best offense UAB has seen up to this point. They scored 112 points at Marshall and 75 at Old Dominion. We have our work cut out for us and we’ll need to play our A++ game to come out with this win.
3 Keys to Blazer Victory
- Chris Cokley will need to have another monster night and hopefully get their front line into foul trouble. If he gets a couple of early fouls we are in trouble.
- This isn’t a game where UAB can afford to not have a great 3-point shooting night. We have to hit open shots because they are going to hit theirs.
- I’ve been very pleased with UAB’s defense of late and that could be the difference in Thursday’s game. The Top’s have not played a team in the conference that can defend like we do when we are at our best.