Tuesday evening, at 5 pm MST, two of the top teams in Conference USA will meet on the hardwood battlefield in Huntington, West Virginia. The UTEP Miners have a conference record of 13-1, and have clinched at least a share of the conference title. Marshall's Thundering Herd sits at 4th place with a record of 10-4 in conference play. The Miners are coming off of a somewhat lackluster effort at home last Saturday, against the conference's last place team, the Rice Owls. On the same Saturday evening, the Thundering Herd had to go to a third overtime period before finally putting away a scrappy UCF team.
Tuesday's game shapes up to be a real clash of the Titans. Two of the best big men in the conference, will pound on each other in the paint. Hasan Whiteside, the Herd's big man, a shot blocking machine in high tops, leads the nation in blocked shots, and is tied for the top spot in the country in triple doubles. He isn't just a tall guy who stands around swatting shots and dunking the basketball. He can take the ball outside of the paint and hit the jumper. UTEP's big man, Derrick Caracter, is only 6' 9' tall, but at 280 pounds, he's built like a tank, and has the agility of a cat. He has a knack for pushing taller, thinner, big men out of his paint. Offensively, when Caracter gets the ball in the paint he is a very efficient scorer, 13th ranked in the country in field goal percentage. I expect Caracter to impose his will on Whiteside in the paint. Whiteside will block some shots. That's what he does, and expect the Miners to take the ball at him to force him to make plays or foul. Whiteside will score some points, too. You don't shut him down. You try to slow him down, and the Miners will keep him under control. He will find the helping defensive pressure on him to be very frustrating, and physically taxing. he will be pushed and pestered constantly.
Marshall has some sharpshooters who can light it up from outside, too. But, the Miners have some snipers of their own, lead by Randy Culpepper. These two teams are used to putting up points. UTEP's offense is 38th ranked in the country, putting up 76.6 points per game. Marshall is 16th ranked at 79.3 ppg.
The game will be won by the Miners' defense. UTEP's defense is relentless. They disrupt, they suffocate, they cause mental duress. Their conditioning and depth keeps the pressure on from the opening tip-off to the last minute of the game. Here is the final factor in the Miners' favor. The Miners were able to rest their starters for much of the Rice game, while the Thundering Herd was fighting for its life in a triple overtime game against UCF. The Miners will be physically, emotionally, and mentally fresh from their game, and the Herd will be physically, emotionally, and mentally drained, from theirs. At the end of a hard fought game, the Miners will win this one 82 to 74.