Two old friends, two defensive minded teams that are playing their best basketball, but only one spot for the one shot at a NCAA Tournament appearance quickly sums up the narrative between Middle Tennessee and UTEP.
The end of the story should have no plot twists though, this one could come down to who gets the final defensive stop or run of the game.
Six seed Middle Tennessee did a brilliant job of keeping third seed Old Dominion out of the paint, just like they did to UTEP back in late January, to smother the bubble hopes and dreams for the Monarchs in the quarterfinal.
Much like the last match up with Middle Tennessee, UTEP shot lights out and matched a season high 61 percent shooting from the field in their quarterfinal win against FIU.
The Miners were 12/16 from three point land and cashed in on 18 points off ten Middle Tennessee turnovers in the first tilt in the Don, posting the rare UTEP feat of an 80 point scoring game.
One of the biggest takeaways from UTEP's quarterfinal win over FIU was the play of Omega Harris.
Yes UTEP's senior leaders were big factors and pillars of consistency, but the efficient, fearless guard play out of the Miners' freshman point guard was key in sending FIU back to Miami.
Showing no nerves in his first big time conference tournament appearance, Harris hit every shot he took, and stuck his nose in the chest of one of C-USA's leading scorers, making every one of Dennis Mavin's scoring chances a challenge.
UTEP set a Conference USA Tournament record with their 61 percent shooting from the floor, and tied a tournament high with 10 blocks against FIU.
Once again Earvin Morris led a first half run, while Julian Washburn provided steady guard play, and defended pretty much everyone who checked in for FIU like the best defender in mid-major basketball is supposed too.
UTEP also played with the sense of urgency that has been missing to start games for most of the year, the Miners played hard, smart, and spirited for a full 40 minutes which is always a key with this group.
Middle Tennessee was at something of a cross road point after losing three straight in the middle of February, but the Blue Raiders finished strong even with a few hard fought battles in the loss column along the way, but have took their defense to another level in their two tournament games.
Over the past month only one opponent has reached the 70 point plateau against Middle Tennessee, while the Blue Raiders held both Charlotte and Old Dominion to 14 points less than their season scoring average in their first two C-USA Tournament outings.
With their tough pressure defense, heart, and an emerging match up problem scorer, MTSU's battle tested finish to the regular season has paid off.
Kermit Davis admitted after the ODU win that JUCO transfer Perrin Buford struggled to start the year, but the tough to match up with swing guard/forward has become a reliable scoring option for MT.
Buford is averaging 16.4 points per game in his last five, including a 29 point output in their triple overtime road loss to UAB on Febuarary 28th. He has reached double-figures in seven of his last nine games, and will be key in CTF's defensive game-plan with either Vince Hunter or Julian Washburn likely to be assigned to the 6'6 Buford.
The Blue Raiders leading scorer is Reggie Upshaw who is a swing/post type of player who can slash, or stop and pop with the jumper, and is also match up problem for UTEP.
Upshaw is also MT's leading rebounder, and has taken it another level in his last five averaging 9.5 boards in his last five, and 7.0 per game on the season. His ability to get to the free throw line has to be a concern with UTEP's aggressive defensive schemes, and foul trouble worries.
The 6'7 sophomore recorded a 15 point, 11 rebound double-double in the first match up back in El Paso and also lived at the free throw line, guard Jacquez Rozier was the other Blue Raider to reach double figures with 12 points via 6/9 shooting.
Jaqawn Raymond is also a very capable perimeter scorer for Middle. A streaky scorer and shooter, Raymond is 3/15 from the field in the tournament, but finished the regular season with a 7/10 showing from the field for a season high 20 points, and had a big game in the conference semifinals last year against Tulsa.
Three point shooting earned Middle Tennessee guard Giddy Potts a spot on the conference's All Freshman team, but Potts is 4/15 from three in the tournament averaging 25 minutes in the two games.
Middle Tennessee has struggled with zones against taller teams (see UTSA game), UTEP struggled guarding the one-on-one drive against them in the first game, so I would expect the CTF bag of defensive tricks to make an appearance.
A deep rotation with athletic defenders, and the' CTF-esque changing of defense's is what Kermit Davis uses as identities, and things that help Middle Tennessee break out of scoring droughts, and will help disguise their defensive match ups against the taller Miners.
The biggest match up could be on the sidelines between Floyd and Davis, but if UTEP can light up the nets, this one could be all Miners.
But no denying the heart, grit, and lunch pale Middle Tennessee will bring to the table Thursday afternoon, welcome to middle of March college basketball where anything can happen.
|Who?||#2 UTEP Miners (22-9) vs. #6 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (18-15)|
|Date/Time||Friday, March 13th, 2:00 p.m. Mountain Time|
|Location||Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama|
CBS Sports Network
|Series Record||UTEP leads 2-0|