Conference USA Tournament: Semifinal Preview & Comment Thread

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The top four teams in Conference USA held form, and now prepare to go to battle in the Conference USA tournament semifinals Friday at the Don Haskins Center.

No upsets to report, no surprises remain, and no cinderella slippers will be worn. Conference USA is down to the top four teams in the league. Those four tied as co-champions in the regular season, and now it is time to determine who steps forward as the lone champ of league tournament.

GAME 1: (3) Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (24-8, 13-3) vs. (2) Tulsa Golden Hurricane (19-12, 13-3)

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders enter the contest having won three straight, and 12 of their last 13, including a 62-48 victory over Old Dominion in Thursday's quarterfinal round. Tulsa enters with the longest current winning streak in the league having won nine straight. They downed Tulane 70-49 Thursday to advance into the semis.

The Blue Raiders are led by senior forwards Shawn Jones and Neiko Hunter, who lead the team in both scoring and rebounding. Jones averages 14.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game, while Hunter averages 12.9 points and 4.7 boards. Senior swingman Kerry Hammonds II is also one to look out for, as he averages 12.4 points, to go along with 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

As a team, MTSU isn't the most explosive offensively, but they do rebound the ball well, and they are an exceptional defensive team. In fact, they have held 7 of their last 8 opponents to 55 points or less, including four of those seven held below 50.

Tulsa, who is a bit less experienced, is led by their trio of sophomore guards who combine for 37 points, 14.8 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game. James Woodard, one of those sophomores, has clearly stepped forward as the leader of this young team, averaging 14.9 points and 6 rebounds a contest. He's scored in double figures in an amazing 23 straight games, including a game high 24 against Tulane.

Like the Blue Raiders, Tulsa isn't the most explosive offensive team, but they have shown throughout the year that they are capable of playing the game fast or slow, and they also rebound fairly well. Couple that with coach of the year Danning Manning on their bench, and you've certainly got a force to be reckoned with.

This one, at least on paper, sets up to be an extremely exciting matchup. Neither team goes extremely big, and both play a similar style. In fact, the matchup of those styles translated into a 58-53 decision in favor of the Hurricane in their only matchup back on January 23rd in Tulsa. One could likely expect more of the same in this one.

GAME 2: (4) Southern Miss. Golden Eagles (27-5, 13-3) vs. (1) Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (26-6, 13-3)

The Golden Eagles enter their semifinal contest against La Tech having won six straight since their 'mid season slump' that saw them lose two in a row. They knocked off the home team UTEP Miners in the quarters to advance. Louisiana Tech enters having won five straight, and 9 of 10 dating back to February 1st. They easily handled Charlotte to earn their spot in the semifinals.

Southern Miss is led by a trio of talented seniors who have plenty of experience in these types of games. Michael Craig, who just returned from injury, was huge in the win against UTEP tallying 12 points and 12 boards. He averages 11.0 points and 7.2 rebounds on the season. Neil Watson, the true leader of the team, averages 10.9 points and 4.1 assists, and Daveon Boardingham goes for 10.3 points and 4.7 rebounds a game.

Although they are the four seed, this here is arguably the best team in Conference USA. There's not a ton statistically that really jumps off the page, but the truth is this team can do it all. They've got the experience, the athleticism, and the coaching and they are never an easy out no matter who it is they face.

On the other side, the Bulldogs are not quite as experienced, but are just as, or perhaps even more talented than the Golden Eagles. They are led by a stable of guards including Alex Hamilton, Raheem Appleby (who is just making his way back from injury), and Kenyon McNeil. Of course though, their rotation and production stretches much deeper than that. In fact, four players average in double figure scoring, while eight average 6.6 points or better per contest.

As far as stats are concerned, this is hands down the best team in Conference USA. The Bulldogs rank 15th nationally in points per game, 15th in rebounds, 14th in assists, and are also a top 100 team in field goal percentage. Ideally, this team would like to get out and run, but they've shown they can win a slower paced game as well.

Southern Miss took the lone matchup between the two this year, an 80-71 result back on January 19th in Hattiesburg. Like the first semifinal contest Friday, one should likely expect to see more of the same between these two. Both teams are most comfortable pushing the ball and getting out into transition. The Golden Eagles were able to get the best of La Tech in round one, but that was in Hattiesburg, and the Bulldogs were without Appleby. Should make for an exciting round two, and a great wrap up of the Conference USA semifinals.

Tipoff for Game 1 of the Conference USA semifinals is set for 2:00 p.m. MT, with Game 2 set to tip at 4:30. Both games will be carried live by CBS Sports Network.

Make sure to stay tuned to MinerRush for in depth coverage of the Conference USA tournament, as well as all things UTEP sports. Also, make sure to on Twitter and as always don't forget to like our Facebook Page. Picks Up, and Go Miners!

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