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UTEP at Rice Game Preview

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NCAA Basketball: North Texas at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In a battle for the coveted top four standing in the C-USA race, Rice and UTEP meet up in a huge game Saturday evening in Houston.

UTEP coming off an overtime win against North Texas will try to continue their surge, as will the Owls who come in on a five game win streak. Both teams are in a four way tie for third place, and both teams are playing some of their best basketball of the season.

Rice is led by the top guard combo in the league in Egor Koulechov and Marcus Evans.

UTEP can argue they too have an elite backcourt with Dominic Artis who led UTEP past the finish line on Thursday, and the explosive Omega Harris.

Koulechov is averaging 18.7 points per game, and 8.7 rebounds per game and is also shooting 47 percent from 3-point land taking 121 attempts this season.

Evans has averaged 24.4 points per game during Rice's five game win streak. The duo is one of only six schools in the country who have two players averaging at least 18 points per game on the season.

Rice is one of the more efficient teams in the country when it comes to shooting and scoring, ranking 21st nationally in efficient field goal percentage according to Ken Pom.

The Owls will run a ton of NBA style actions, with Evans and Koulechov the main features who can drive, dish, or fire away from long distance. They both have a knack in getting to the free throw line, and both shoot over 75 percent from the line.

UTEP's Paul Thomas produced a career night on Thursday with 23 points, and 14 rebounds, and his production is always key for the Miners.

Thomas will be matched up with fellow Houstonian Marquez Letcher-Ellis. The former four-star prospects have similar styles, but Thomas has been more consistent production wise and his effort in the paint is a difference making aspect for UTEP.

Going back to the 2014-15 season, Rice guard Marcus Jackson was putting up numbers comparable to Damian Lillard, but an injury kept him off the floor last season.

Jackson is just as capable as the combo of Koulechov and Evans even though is scoring production has tapered off during Rice's win streak.

UTEP's biggest advantage will be a productive Matt Willms as the Owls do not appear to have a big man capable of slowing down Willms.

Rice allowed 34 points in the paint against a bigger FAU team last weekend, but the Miners best defense against the efficient Owls could be a patient offense which pounds the paint, and hopefully puts the Owls in a foul trouble situation.

The C-USA race for the top four seeds in the conference tournament is wide open, and both UTEP and Rice can take a huge step forward, or a huge step back after Saturday's huge matchup.

Matchups to Watch

  • Koulechov-Evans vs. Artis-Harris
  • · Letcher-Ellis vs. Paul Thomas
  • · Matt Willms vs. Rice's defensive game plan
  • · Rice's depth vs. UTEP's depth

Keys to a UTEP Win

  • · Control the tempo
  • · Make free throws
  • · Stay out of foul trouble (Willms, Thomas, Artis, Harris)
  • · Don’t allow anyone to have a huge game outside of Koulechov and Evans

Prediction

How far has this UTEP team improved since the 12-game losing streak?

That's been the main question over the past month or so and UTEP fans will receive the full answer after Saturday.

UTEP made a ton of defensive mistakes against North Texas, and if happens on Saturday, a comeback plus an overtime win will be pretty difficult due to the way Rice can fill it up.

I expect some defensive mishaps to be cleaned up, but Evans and Koulechov will get theirs, the question will be can UTEP get three or four in double figures if they are unable to slow down the Owls.

Should be a close game, but UTEP needs to shoot at a high percentage to win this one in my opinion.

Rice by 5…