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Thursday Night: Hilltoppers, Leathernecks and Omar Strong

With just 11 games on the schedule nationally, we look at the winners and some of the losers in Thursday night's post-holiday action.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

If you want to know how wide open the Sun Belt race is this season, you have to look no further than Thursday night's results. We have already written off North Texas, no matter how good its best player is supposed to be.

And we have ruled out a deep run by South Alabama now that coach Ronnie Arrow has stepped aside.

But we did like what we had seen from Western Kentucky this season, even if the only time we had seen the Hilltoppers happened to be in a 75-70 loss to Murray State earlier this month. That they were able to hang with one of the best mid-majors in the country said a lot about Western Kentucky, or at least more than what a blowout, turnover filled loss to Virginia Commonwealth did, or the subsequent loss to Louisville.

Western Kentucky moved to 3-0 in the Sun Belt with a 76-63 win over Florida International on Thursday.

The Hilltoppers got 24 points from George Fant, more than doubling his season average, on 9 of 12 shooting. He also added three steals and two blocks in the win. Brandon Harris added a 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the win, that saw Western Kentucky get double-digit scoring from four players, including Kevin Kaspar and T.J. Price off the bench.

Malik Smith scored 20 points for the Panthers.

On to Arkansas State, who got one of the top performances of the night from Ed Townsel. The junior scored 31 points, grabbed six rebounds and grabbed three steals in an 87-70 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

The Red Wolves -- who also own a loss at the hands of Murray State, theirs a seven-point affair -- have played one of the easiest schedules in the country to date. They haven't exactly been on anyone's radar, but then again, they just scored a big win against Louisiana-Lafayette, one of the contenders in the West division since North Texas hasn't exactly lived up to its billing.

The Ragin Cajuns who overall had a decent shooting night, wasted three double-digit scoring efforts off the bench, and a 20-point night from Elfrid Payton, mostly thanks to letting the Red Wolves dominate the rebounding game.

Lafayette's loss leaves Little Rock as the only two-win team in the division heading into the last week of 2012.

What got into Western Illinois? The Leathernecks moved to 3-0 in the Summit League with a 10-point win over Oakland on Thursday night.

Like Arkansas State, Western Illinois has played one of the easiest schedules in the country, one that makes the Red Wolves look like they have played murderer's row. But that doesn't matter if you are cleaning up in the conference, and scoring a win over Oakland -- who probably looks worse than they actually are at this point -- in a nice coup.

The Leathernecks still need to make the swing through South Dakota State and North Dakota State which will put them to the test. But right now, they are the second-best rated team according to the computer, despite the schedule.

Western got 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, from Terell Parks in the win. Adam Link added 16, although he could have had more given that he shot just 10 of 15 from the free throw line. Corey Petros had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Oakland.

And then there is Omar Strong. Oh Omar, why didn't you do this when I saw you on television.

Omar Strong connected for 33 points Thursday is an 83-68 loss to Akron. The night saw him take 25 shots from the floor, including 18 from behind the arc where he made seven.

Texas Southern just kept going to the hot hand, even though he wasn't exactly hot. But it is hard to poo-poo a 33-point night. Madarious Gibbs was the main culprit, dishing out nine rebounds.

The issue for the Tigers really was a lack of size once again. As we saw in the only performance when we could see Texas Southern play against Kansas State, they look like midgets out on the floor.

Zeke Marshall went 6-for-9 from the field and 9-for-11 from the free throw line for 21 points. Demetrius Treadwell did him one better, missing just three shots on his way to 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Despite allowing Texas Southern to grab 12 offensive rebounds, the Zips used their talent and size to pull out the win, dropping the Tigers to 1-12 on the season.

Omar Strong was good, but nothing was going to overcome that.