The #21 UTEP Miners have already won their first ever Conference USA Tournament. So, why not pull a Tony Dungy and rest their starters for the post-season? Thankfully, in college athletics, every game matters. UTEP may have the #1 seed sewn up, and UAB may be the #3 regardless of Saturday's outcome, but the importance of this game cannot be understated.
ON THE LINE
For the Miners:
- Another Top 50 RPI Win. Against the current RPI Top 50, UTEP is 2-0, with wins against Memphis and UAB. A season sweep of the league's RPI Top 75 teams (Tulsa, Marshall, UAB, and Memphis) would go a long way towards locking up an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
- A chance to extend a school record conference winning streak to 14 games.
- A chance to preserve it's #24 ranking in the AP poll. Rankings matter. When was the last time a team ranked in both polls to finish the season didn't make the tournament? I've been researching that issue and can't find a single example. As any fan of a "mid-major" knows, you are never guaranteed anything. But, it will be hard for the Committee to leave UTEP out, regardless of what happens in the tournament,with a win on Saturday.
For the Blazers
- UAB is sitting at #41 in the RPI. They boast nice non-conference wins against NCAA lock Butler and fellow bubble team Cincinnati. But, the Blazers have also been swept by Memphis (RPI #50). The Blazers have struggled against the elite C-USA teams. They are 1-0 against Tulsa, but 1-1 against Marshall, 0-1 against UTEP, and 0-2 against Memphis. If they finish 2-5 against the league's RPI Top 75 teams, the Blazers may take a backseat to Memphis as the league's best contender for a second bid to the tournament.
- That's really it. UAB is playing for their at-large lives at this point. I still don't think Memphis has a real chance at an at-large bid, not because they're not good enough for the tourney, but because they have been dismissed for far too long. Memphis has crawled back into the RPI Top 50, though, and if they beat Tulsa (RPI #71) today, that number should improve. Memphis may very well have made the likely C-USA semi-final game a de facto playoff for the right to be considered next in line after UTEP for an at-large bid.
UAB Fear Factor: 7/10
Why a seven? UAB has the talent to take UTEP to the wire. Elijah Millsap is a heck of player. He's a guard who nearly averages a double double (16.1 p.p.g. and 9.3 r.p.g.) So why isn't the Fear Factor higher? Two reasons.
- First, UTEP is playing at home in front of a crowd that has sold out the DHC for a week. The Don is going to be absolutely rocking as 12,222 Miner fans cheer on the Miners for the last time in El Paso this season. Expect the crowd to help the Miners get some favorable calls.
- Second, UTEP's front-court of Derrick Caracter and Jeremy Williams should dominate the game.. UAB has a solid front-court, but the last time around, in a double-overtime slug fest, J Will and Caracter combined for 36 points and 22 rebounds. UAB likes to play a small line-up, with four guards and a single post player (Howard Crawford). Millsap, at 6'6", is the team's leading rebounder. Even Crawford, averaged under five boards a game.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Randy Culpepper is playing lights out right now and will have a chance to win the C-USA Player of the Year Award tonight. In my eyes, UAB's four conference losses eliminate Millsap from Player of the Year consideration, but more than those losses, a dominant performance by Randy Culpepper tonight should set him apart from the rest of the field. More than any other Miner, Culpepper feeds off of the momentum of the game. In front of a packed house, expect RC3 to feed off the crowd and have a big night.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's not going to be easy. To off-set UTEP's advantages in the post, Mike Davis played 6'10" center Kenneth Cooper for 35 minutes; nearly double his average of 18 m.p.g. Cooper responded with season highs in points (18) and rebounds (12) before fouling out. There's a reason why Cooper only averages 18 minutes a game though. UAB Is at their best when they play small ball and let the offense revolve around the talented Millsap. After the Memphis loss, Mike Davis pointed to bad match-ups as the reason why UAB struggled so much with the Tigers. UAB has the same problems with a UTEP squad who showed against Marshall that they are more than capable of leaning on their bigs when they know they have an advantage.