The Not-So-Neutral Court: Miners Draw Tulsa in C-USA Semi-Final

Day two of the 2010 GMC Sierra C-USA Championship is now officially behind us and if we learned anything yesterday it is that anything can happen in March.  #2 Memphis?  Done.  #3 UAB?  Done.  #4 Marshall?  Done.   When the dust settled, Day 2 left us two shocking upsets and two dominating performances by the league champion and the pre-season pick to win it all.  Who predicted that  UTEP, Tulsa, Southern Miss, and Houston would be the last four standing in the C-USA Tournament?  Not everybody at once.

So, it's Tulsa.

Just a few short weeks ago, the Miners and Hurricane clashed in Tulsa.  If you recall, Randy Culpepper led the Miners to the 78-70 win when he went off for 29 points.   UTEP played ferocious defense, holding TU to 24% shooting from the field while the Miners hit an amazing 58% from the field.  Derrick Caracter was plagued by foul trouble but still managed 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks.  Tulsa's Ben Uzoh led the Golden Hurricane with 22 points while Jerome Jordan pitched in 19.  So, what's changed since then?

UTEP's subsequent victories against Tulsa wereordered #7 and #10 amidst UTEP's incredible, school-record 15 game winning streak.  The Miners have won five straight since their last game, including games against Marshall and UAB.  UTEP has been a model of consistency.  There have been some close calls (at USM, Marshall, vs. UAB), but the Miners experienced, and deep, squad has been able to hold off the many upset bids that have come their way.

Tulsa had been defined by an ability to rack up wins against far-inferior squads but being unable to beat teams with equal talent.  Duke and Memphis both soundly defeated the Hurricane, but they were able to come away with wins against East Carolina, SMU, and Rice.  Going into the C-USA Tournament, I dismissed Tulsa as a contender quite frankly on the basis of one key statistic:  1-6.  That is the record TU had against the top 4 seeds in the C-USA Tournament. Now, things have chanced.

Tulsa was able to beat one of the top 4, Marshall, and they did it soundly.  Now, with UAB and Memphis out of the tournament, the Hurricane know that an NCAA Tournament bid is a very realistic possibility.  But, the road still travels through a team that has given TU's senior laden squad fits:  UTEP. 

Tulsa's fans understand the significance of yesterday's upsets.  If TU gets by the Miners, they will be the consensus favorite to win the league tournament and qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  Expect the crowd to be a huge factor today, even if the game is at an incredibly random time (2:00 MST).

TULSA FEAR FACTOR:  8/10

Why so high?  A loud, not-so-neutral tournament crowd, a senior squad playing with nothing to lose (no chance at an at-large), but playing with a purpose (to erase the memory of a regular season defined by losing big games). Also, don't forget how hard it can be to beat any team three times in a row.  

Why so low?  Tulsa is a dangerous team and beating Marshall twice shows that they can beat good teams too, but the memory of their terrible February keep lingering in my head.  Tulsa wasn't competitive against Memphis a few weeks ago.  Yes, the Hurricane beat Marshall impressively, but for whatever reason TU struggles against UTEP's defensive aggressiveness and depth.  In both UTEP games, TU has shot 40% from the field or worse.

THE STAKES

For UTEP, this is their last chance  to beat an RPI Top 100 team (#71).  Yesterday, we took a look at UTEP's at large resume, and we know that the Miners resume is strong, but has been padded by wins against the cellar of the conference.  With Memphis and UAB out, UTEP's first-ever C-USA Tournament Title is now closer than ever.  Tulsa, is playing for the right to keep playing meaningful games.  And, to prove to themselves that they can be as dominant as people thought they would be so many months ago.

THE PICK

I have to go with the Miners.  If UTEP would have struggled with UCF, I might think otherwise, but Tony Barbee's squad came out focused and determined to avoid the fate of UAB and Memphis.   It's not going to be easy, but I think the Miners escape with the win.

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