One of the best efficient shooting offensive attacks in the conference, meets one of the grittiest, physical defensive teams in the league as Western Kentucky puts their unbeaten conference record on the line against UTEP.
The big question hanging over this game from a UTEP standpoint is the status of UTEP's walking double-double Vince Hunter.
Hunter tweaked his left knee in the final minutes against UTSA last Saturday, and did not practice Monday, and is considered a game time decision with a sprain. Good news alert: Hunter did practice today in UTEP's workout in Bowling Green.
The silver lining if there is even a hint of one with the possibility of Hunter being out or limited is the improvement and emergence of a few guys over the past few games.
"It's important for those guys to know that we can win on the road if we play smart, if we don't foul, if we don't turn it over and defend at a high level. This game will be more like the Colorado State and New Mexico State [road] games in terms of talent, ability, crowd and experience of the team that we're playing against, certainly it's our biggest challenge on the road since pre-conference."
"We're playing better, I think, in all areas. Certainly we had to after the Louisiana Tech loss, where we were completely disrupted by them. Hopefully we can learn from that. We're sharing the ball better and I think we're defending better."
Earvin Morris is one of those who has emerged for UTEP as another long, physical shutdown defender and the sharp shooting JUCO transfer has scored at least eight points in his last seven games. Inside the stretch of the last seven games, Morris is averaging three makes from behind the three point line per game, and has slammed the door in a few close games this season with his ability to finish in the open floor.
Morris has earned the defensive trust blessing from Coach Floyd and has been entered in the Miners starting lineup, and the change has seemed to even give C.J. Cooper a lift in his offensive game.
Cooper was in a 2/9 slump from behind the three point line, and all of a sudden has hit two three pointers in each of the last three games since.
The defensive presence Morris has also brought has turned him and Julian Washburn into a defensive nightmare for opposing swing guards.
Washburn seems to be awakening from his slow offensive start, and along with Morris will frustrate WKU's elite guards, but to what extent is the big question.
The Miners will have a depth advantage in the front court against WKU, but it won't mean anything if Matt Willms, and Cedrick Lang don't get back to the high defensive level of effecting shots and rebounding they were at just a few weeks ago. A Hooper Vint sighting or two will also be key if VH is limited.
Like CTF usually does on the road, pounding and protecting the paint will be emphasized, but they cannot allow George Fant to become a factor on the offensive boards.
Fant averages 8.4 rebounds per game, but also averages 3.8 offensive rebounds per game. The 6'6, 250 pound senior has put together an impressive string of six straight double-doubles during WKU's seven game win streak.
Blowing past Fant off the dribble almost never happens, and he has shown the ability to step out and knock down 14-17 foot jumpers in the Toppers four around one look on offense.
Coach Floyd on WKU:
"Western is a team that has the best offensive rebounder in the league, a young man that we tried to recruit in Fant. He's a senior, a veteran big body rebounder, defender and scorer. And they have the leading scorer in our league in T.J. Price, who we also tried to recruit. He just wears it out from the three-point line, but he can also post and put it on the floor. The transfer from Butler also plays, the transfer from Texas Tech also starts. It's a veteran team, a team that can win our league, and their record indicates that at 5-0."
What seemed to get WKU on this recent roll was a close loss to Louisville.
With a veteran savvy core of producers, WKU has came back from double digit deficits in two of their last three wins, and fought back from a 17 point first half hole to defeat Ole Miss on the road early in the OOC slate, and also fought through a slow start and first half deficit to take down then 25th ranked Old Dominion early in the conference schedule..
Led by the three point assassin known as T.J. Price who averages 17.8 points per game and ranks 15th in the nation in the three point field goal percentage. WKU is second in the C-USA is scoring, and their style of offense just wears teams down, even if they are trailing and appear to be drowning.
Price's back court mate Chris Harrison-Docks is a former Butler transfer and does a good job of protecting the ball, and running the show. Harrison-Docks has been struggling from the field in their last two games, going 4/15 from the field, and was forced into five turnovers last Saturday against FIU.
UTEP likes to take away the opponents top scorers, but WKU has four legitimate guys who can fill it up.
One of my favorite WKU players is the consistent and left handed Trency Jackson.
Jackson shoots over 40 percent from both the field and from three, but has struggled in his past three games going 4/19 from the field.
Price is WKU's second leading rebounder, statistically exposing the lack of production WKU has in the front court.
Matt Willms will see a clone of himself in WKU's 7'1 sophomore Ben Lawson, though only one other player in freshman reserve forward Justin Johnson averages more than four rebounds per game outside of Price and Fant.
The old cliche' of 40 full minutes has to be UTEP's mantra in this one, along with the Haskins' adage of good defense and rebounding can travel anywhere. UTEP has to be solid in getting a hand in the face of shooters in transition, WKU gets their three point shooting a roll when they are forcing turnovers and getting looks in transition off of those momentum changing chances.
Most of the same core of players have been around to see UTEP win 12 of their last 13 C-USA road games in where the Miners are allowing just 56.9 points per game, and shoot close to 50 percent themselves with a commitment to getting the ball inside, and defend you once they get off the bus.
One streak will end or have a blemish, while another one will blaze forward with loads of momentum.
Defensive wins championships, but WKU's offense can wear you down and can defend too, this game has classic battle written all over it.
A-Rod's opening line: WKU -3
|UTEP Miners at Western Kentucky
|Thursday, January 22nd, 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time
|E.A. Diddle Arena, Bowling Green, Kentucky
Fox Sports Networks
|WKU leads 1-0, last meeting 1969