Two basketball tradition rich programs, two hot teams, but only one third place spot is up for grabs Thursday night when ODU and UTEP battle for the third seed in the C-USA Tournament next week.
“It ought to be a great atmosphere in here on Thursday,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We’ve got a very physical team that is playing so well coming here. They hammered us last year. They just won by 20 at UAB [on Feb. 11]. It will be a supreme test for our guys. I’m glad that we’re playing them at a time when we’ve got some confidence, because we are playing well right now.”
UTEP is playing well, as is Old Dominion who comes in on a four game winning streak, and has also won seven of their last nine games.
One of those wins was an 83-62 dismantling of UAB which started their streak in where every one of their last four wins has been by a double digit margin.
Old Dominion leads C-USA in scoring defense (60.6 ppg), field goal percentage defense (.397) and rebound margin (+6.0). ODU is fourth in the country in scoring defense.
The Monarchs are led by a trio of sophomores – guard Ahmad Caver (13.6 ppg), forward Zoran Talley (11.6 ppg) and guard B.J. Stith (10.6 ppg). Junior forward Brandan Stith is averaging 10.1 ppg.
Caver has been a big part of the recent stellar play by the Monarchs. The point guard is averaging 17.8 points per game in his last four games, and he's dished out eight assists in three of the four games.
UTEP's lack of power forward depth could be exposed against guys like Talley, Brandon Stith, and Denzell Taylor. All three are shooting over 45 percent, presumably from inside or around the paint.
Stith has the second highest block percentage in C-USA, and he shoots 51 percent on his two-point attempts. Talley had a rough night against WKU last Saturday, but was 20-for-30 from the field in the previous three games combined after going 0-for-8 against WKU.
Senior guard Jordan Baker is another guy UTEP will have on their scouting report despite the dip in his production this year. Baker is second on the team in made three-pointers behind Caver, as they provide 77 percent of ODU's three-pointers this season.
UTEP shot a season high 67 percent from the field against FIU last Saturday, but attacking the paint might be difficult against the Monarchs.
ODU runs a complicated man-to-man defensive scheme, in where UTEP will have to patient which has actually been a strength during UTEP's streak.
UTEP's five game win streak makes it the sixth time the Miners have owned a five game or longer win streak since joining C-USA.
Omega Harris has been super-efficient as of late, going 6-for-8 from 3-point land in his last three games. Harris is just 38 points away from 1,000 points in his UTEP career.
Dominic Artis is the first player in school history to tally 400 points, 150 rebounds, 150 assists and 50 steals in a season. He is one of only four Conference USA players to achieve the feat. The others are Cincinnati’s Kenny Satterfield (2000-01), UAB’s Paul Delaney III (2006-07) and LA Tech’s Alex Hamilton (2015-16).
Artis became the second player in the country to reach those milestones in 2016-17, after UCLA star Lonzo Ball.
UTEP's X-factors will be scoring production from Matt Willms, rebounding from Paul Thomas, and 3-pointers from Jake Flaggert and/or Trey Touchet.
Willms is averaging 11.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, Thomas has led UTEP in rebounding a team-leading 12 times this season, Flaggert led Conference USA in charges drawn (18) last season, and is back at it in 2016-17 with a team-leading 28 in 28 games.
Touchet has turned up his offensive production just a bit going 7-for-14 from long distance in his last seven games, and scored 12 points last Saturday against FIU.
Thursday's game will have a playoff/tournament feel as this marks the most important game of the season for UTEP. A season in where a third place finish was a long shot just two months ago.
“These kids are playing their hearts out,” he said. “No team in this country has been through more adversity and is playing better than we are at this point of the season. I think our fans would be proud of these kids and the spirit that they have brought to themselves. They are a fun group right now, and they have been fun in the locker room after these wins.”
Keys to a UTEP win
- Keep Willms, and Paul Thomas out of foul trouble
- Make some 3-pointers
- Get off to a quick offensive start
- Pressure ODU's guards past the 3-point line
First to score 60 wins?
ODU is 12-1 when they hold their opponents to under 60 points, and the Miners have allowed just 62.3 points per game during this 11-2 stretch in the past 13-games.
Both teams were playing solid defense, but both teams have also found offensive consistency over the past couple of weeks.
Whoever executes their easy chances: layups, free throws, open 3's, loose balls, will earn the third seed with a hard fought win.
ODU has the depth, UTEP has the heart, should be a close game with hopefully a large UTEP crowd.
UTEP has been playing well, but ODU's defense, and depth squeaks out a win.
Old Dominion by 4…..