Louisiana Tech (10-4, 1-0) brings their high energy, fast paced attack into the Don to face a red-hot UTEP team (10-4, 2-0) who has won six out of their last seven.
The Bulldogs are 3-3 in their last six games, and were outrebounded in their first twelve games, though have won the battle of boards in their last two outings.
One of the main identities the Bulldogs show is intense pressure defense on the perimeter from a handful of schematic angles.
Against Southern Miss. last Saturday, the Dawgs forced 19 turnovers, and have forced at least 15 turnovers in eight games this year. They cashed in on 33 points from Southern Miss' turnovers, 20 of which came in the first half.
Kenneth Smith spearheads the defensive pressure as the Bulldogs will show a ton of full court presses, and traps with the goal of forcing easy transition opportunities in the other direction.
Six times this year Smith has recorded at least three steals, and is one of the most complete guards in the nation, while fellow back court star Raheem Appleby is back to his elite scoring ways after an injury slowed him down last season.
Appleby is coming off a 30 point night against Southern Miss. where he dropped 20 in the first half on six three pointers. He has averaged 20 points a game in their last four, and has scored 20 points in a half five times in his career.
The Bulldogs lost two key back court staples from last year's 29 win team, though 6'6 freshman Xavian Stapleton has brought an extra scoring punch in the past four games.
Stapleton earned C-USA Freshman of the Week this past Monday after scoring 17 points thanks to four three pointers in their win against Southern Miss.
LA Tech shot 38 three pointers in that Southern Miss. game., connecting on 13 of those tries.
While the Bulldogs have one of the best back courts in the conference with Smith, Appleby, and junior Alex Hamilton's consistent ability to light up the scoreboard, the Bulldogs have been pushed around a bit on the blocks.
Murray State transfer Erik McCree was a nice pickup for coach Michael White, though McCree has struggled since their close road loss to Syracuse. McCree has made only 10 out his last 36 attempts from the field, and has only had four or more rebounds twice during that five game stretch.
McCree did have a big 25 point, six rebound night against Louisiana Lafayette, then hit the struggle session after that tilt.
Michale Kyser was billed as a "top five shot blocker in the country" by CTF, and rightfully so.
Kyser had a five game stretch earlier this season where he swatted away 26 shots combined in those five games.
They don't have a consistent back to the basket or face up scorer on the blocks, though do a hell of a job with penetration from the guards using the alley-oop to get their big's easy points. McCree is a guy who has the ability to create his own shot down low, but they don't have a space maker to move a guy like Cedrick Lang out of the paint.
One thing to watch is the backdoor oop that is a staple of this year's LA Tech offensive attack in the half court, and in transition. Kyser finished home three lob dunks in their battle with a much bigger Syracuse team early this season.
As mentioned the Bulldogs have struggled on the boards with -7.1 rebounding margin, though on the flip-side their stellar guard play has them sporting a +5.1 turnover margin.
I would expect LA Tech to go a small and try to out run, and pressure the Miners into turnovers, and traps, here are some keys for a UTEP win.
Three UTEP Keys, and crazy prediction.
Dictate tempo on both ends
LA Tech thrives when playing in the open court, pressing, and jumping passing lanes. The Miners have shown the ability to get out of an offensive slump with defensive pressure using their length and a fast offensive tempo themselves. Though the Miners also have the ability to slow it down and break you down in a half court set. The Miners can hang with LA Tech if the game turns into a track meet, but can either put LA Tech away, or change the game with their ability to grind things out in the paint on both ends. Whoever dictates the tempo will have more opportunities for runs, as I feel this game will be decided on who can sustain more runs, and create more momentum with runs.
Be the smarter, more physical team
UTEP will have to withstand the LA Tech defensive pressure with smart decision making, and can control the paint, and glass with some physicality. UTEP has to efficiently execute their open floor chances with no offensive fouls or turnovers, and extend their defense with a nasty physical presence. Being smart also covers being smart with the physicality. Foul trouble will be factor for either side, and with UTEP being the more physical team, the Miners have to play smart on both ends when trying to out muscle the Dawgs.
Don't let Appleby's scoring become a factor
UTEP had the lucky luxury of not facing Appleby last year, though as mentioned the senior is playing with a chip on his shoulder this season. Appleby is slick, smooth, and has a very high IQ for finding his shot. From watching him this year, Appleby shy's away from contact on defense, and with that I would expect UTEP to face guard him all night with their no catch defensive scheme. Appleby single handedly brought them back within a three point try of a last second win at Syracuse, and the kid has no fear when it comes to the big shot in a big situation. The rest of team feeds off his scoring, and play making, his big scoring games do much more for LA Tech than just make you Steve Yellen style "WOW" at a stat sheet.
This is an important and prideful game for both teams. UTEP may have felt slighted with LA Tech being voted number one in the preseason, and we all had some spirited discussions about who should be number one to open the year. But now Old Dominion is running the table, with UTEP and LA Tech not far behind. We are still in January but with the bracketologists showing two C-USA teams as Big Dance reps early in the year, C-USA just might, maybe, possibly, could become a two bid league this March. Though games like this could decide whether which team becomes the clear number two early in January, and could jet-stream one of these teams into a hot streak into with "favorable" on paper schedules over the next two weeks. Tough to say this game is a bubble game in January, but with the way things seem to be shaking it out this year, this one is a must win for both LA Tech and UTEP.
UTEP doubles up LA Tech in points in the paint and rebounds, and wins by 15 going away.
-UTEP is 7-2 in C-USA home openers..
- The Miners are 56-15 in C-USA home games since joining the league for the 2005-06 season.
- UTEP is 27-10 in C-USA home games under Tim Floyd
- UTEP is 25-4 in Conference USA home games in the month of January, including 14-1 over the last five seasons.
- The Miners are shooting for only their second 3-0 start in C-USA action. UTEP won its first five league games in 2005-06.
-Through the games of Jan. 5, Vince Hunter was tied for seventh nationally in double-doubles (nine), 12th in rebounds (10.3 rpg) and 16th in defensive rebounds per game (6.9). C.J. Cooper was 44th in assist/turnover ratio (2.65). As a team, UTEP was 44th in field goal percentage (.475).
LA Tech Facts
LA Tech is 3-4 on the road this season with wins over Southern Miss, Southern and Northwestern State, and losses to Temple, Louisiana, Syracuse and N.C. State.
- Appleby is second in C-USA in scoring, averaging 17.1 ppg. Junior guard Alex Hamilton is averaging 15.4 ppg and sophomore forward Erik McCree 10.8 ppg.
- Senior forward Michale Kyser anchors the Bulldogs inside with 6.6 rpg and a league-leading 3.2 bpg.
- Senior guard Kenneth Smith is tops in C-USA in assists (7.6 apg) and assist/turnover ratio (2.8), and second in steals (2.2 spg).
- The Bulldogs are first in C-USA in scoring offense (76.4 ppg), blocks (6.1 bpg), steals (8.4 spg), turnover margin (+5.1) and assist/turnover ratio (1.3), and second in scoring margin (+9.8 ppg) and field goal percentage (.455).
- Nationally LA Tech is eighth in turnover margin, 12th in blocks and 30th in scoring offense. Smith is second in assists and Kyser is ninth in blocks.