Its always going to mean something when LA Tech and UTEP meet on the hardwood.
Both schools have great basketball histories, and have been the main powerhouses of the newly formed C-USA the past two seasons, but no LA Tech, UTEP match up even going back to the WAC days is bigger than Thursday's tilt.
One game to figure out who is the outright first place leader in the C-USA standings, one game to settle the score of whose league it is this year, and one game for the veteran leaders of each team to inch a little closer in hanging a banner in their gym.
What happened back in El Paso in January was simple, LA Tech came out with a better game plan, and much more energy and smothered UTEP.
"We were defended at a high level by those guys. And whether or not we can respond and play better offensively will be a big key in this game," Coach Tim Floyd said. "They had not been a great rebounding team when we saw them and they matched us on the glass, killed us there. They just really beat us in every phase of the game."
Despite shooting 21 percent in the final twenty minutes, UTEP held LA Tech to under 60 points, although shot 1/7 from the free throw line, and only saw four field goals go down in the final 17 minutes.
The pregame talk last match up was LA Tech's lack of depth and production coming off the bench.
Freshman guard Xavian Stapleton has emerged as an efficient option the past couple of games as he is 7/16 from three in the past five games for the Bulldogs. LA Tech still averages just 16.9 points per game from the bench, has been held to single digit scoring production off the bench six times this year.
LA Tech of course has the big four in Alex Hamilton, Kenneth Smith, Raheem Appleby, and Michale Kyser.
Hamilton is having another stellar mid-to-late season charge. He has averaged 16.6 points per game in his last five, including a 29 point output against Charlotte.
One of the more difficult players in the league to guard, Hamilton accounts for almost 30 percent of LA Tech's free throw attempts, he also made 20 free throws in a game against Middle Tennessee back January 17th.
The guy who will always give you problems when facing LA Tech is the Rajon Rondo clone Speedy Smith, but the guy who wore out the Don Haskins Center nets was Raheem Appleby.
UTEP started the game with Cooper shading, and denying Appleby any touches, but over the past few games Julian Washburn has become a candidate for defensive player of the year again which could/should mean Washburn v Appleby.
Just like everyone who wore a red jersey against Old Dominion, Appleby struggled going 4/20 from the field, but the recent struggles are nothing new for Appleby. In his past five games Appleby has shot 18/53 from the field.
LA Tech shot a cold 32 percent against Old Dominion, and went 3/26 from behind the three point line.
UTEP will have to hold LA Tech to under 65 points if they want to win on the road, but with the way UTEP has been defending as of late, its not a stretch, but against LA Tech who has 26 straight at home it will be a great challenge.
The Bulldogs haven't lost a conference game at home since 2012.
"I think that we have had a really good road mentality," Floyd said. "And every game on the road, you'd better be jacked up. You'd better not be afraid, you'd better not be scared. And I don't think our guys will be. I think we have to play with poise though, and that's a key word. You have to not get outside of yourself and make sure you take care of the ball. But at the same time, use that energy that you have on the glass and defensively."
Tim Floyd's bunch is peaking on both ends of the floor, and have been very balanced on offense, not relying on Vince Hunter to make things happen much like the stretch of games during the first LA Tech, UTEP meeting.
The Miners scoring balance could be the difference in this one, UTEP was still trying to find themselves back when the teams met in El Paso, and now the Miners know who they are.
It was good to see Omega Harris have a nice floor game against UTSA, though Harris, C.J. Cooper and Earvin Morris will have to be able to consistently hit shots in this one to give UTEP a chance.
With Matt Willms available, UTEP can be a bit more aggressive in protecting the paint, but LA Tech proved they can hit shots, and move the ball around for good looks if UTEP packs it in. Even with Willms back, protecting Cedrick Lang, and Vince Hunter from foul trouble should be a concern against LA Tech's aggressive style.
Erik McCree killed UTEP on the perimeter with a pair of daggers from deep, he also grabbed six rebounds, and was problematic to guard on the drive in the first match up. McCree poured in 26 in their loss to UAB, and is becoming a reliable source of production for the Dogs, and a guy who will be hard to match with at times.
Taking care of the ball is UTEP's main key and best defense for a win.
LA Tech's offense gets going when they turn you over, and they have the athletes to finish and change momentum in the open floor.
The Bulldogs have a +5.1 turnover margin on the year, and have forced a +10 turnover margin in eight games this year, teams are averaging 16.3 turnovers a game this season against LA Tech.
That will be a challenge for C.J. Cooper, and UTEP's other ball handlers to not allow LA Tech's defensive pressure to be a factor, and a crippling point that the Dogs have put on teams all year long. LA Tech forced 28 FIU turnovers back on February 14th.
40 minutes, two NCAA Tournament caliber teams, and a regular season conference championship on the line, strap in folks.
A-ROD's opening line: Pick em
|Who?||UTEP Miners (18-7, 11-3) at Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (21-7, 12-3)|
|Date/Time||Thursday, February 26th, 6:00 p.m. Mountain Time|
|Location||Thomas Assembly Center, Ruston, Louisiana|
Fox Sports 1
|Series Record||UTEP leads 9-8|