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Weekend Preview: Conference titans meet, from the America East to Mountain West

We’re nearing the halfway point of conference season

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

After a week off, the weekend preview is back, and if you haven’t noticed, things are starting to get serious in college basketball. The calendar will soon flip to February and conference schedules are nearing the midway point. The season just goes by too fast. It’s not fair.

Without further adieu, let’s dive in.

5 games to watch

New Mexico at Nevada, Sat., 4 p.m., CBS Sports

It seems like every game down the stretch in the Mountain West is going to have major implications. This one is no different. The Lobos sit just half a game behind the Wolf Pack for first place in the conference, and a win could represent a major shift of power. New Mexico’s best non-conference win is against in-state foe New Mexico State, but the Lobos have won four in a row in the Mountain West, winning at Colorado State and Boise State along the way. More below on who is fueling Nevada.

Chattanooga at East Tennessee State, Sat., 4 p.m., ESPN3

UNC Greensboro is in first place in the Southern Conference with a 7-2 record. Behind the Spartans, three teams are at 6-2: East Tennessee State, Chattanooga, and Furman. In a league so jumbled, it’s possible that SoCon Tournament positioning could come down to tie-breakers, making this matchup all the more important. ETSU has already lost to Furman and Greensboro.

Louisiana Tech at Middle Tennessee, Sat., 6 p.m., ESPN3

We’ll get into Louisiana Tech’s odd circumstances below, but suffice it to say that the Bulldogs need to be at (or near) full strength if they want to pull the upset on the road. Seven of Middle Tennessee’s eight wins in Conference USA have come by double digits and the Blue Raiders have not lost in over a month. Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw, and Jacorey Williams have become an unequaled force in the conference.

Vermont at Stony Brook, Sat., 7 p.m., ESPN3

At what point do people admit that despite playing in the America East, Vermont is a darn-good team? The Catamounts have passed every conference test and have no true bad losses on their resume. Their visit to Stony Brook this weekend may be deceptively tough — the Seawolves aren’t even a top-200 KenPom team, but are rolling and sit only a game behind Vermont in the America East.

New Orleans at Stephen F. Austin, Sat., 7 p.m., ESPN3

Johnson Coliseum will be the Lumberjacks’ biggest weapon on Saturday as they take on league-leader New Orleans. Despite struggling overall this year, Stephen F. Austin has lost just once at home, and play in one of the toughest gyms in the nation. A win would suddenly put the Southland Conference title within reach for the Lumberjacks.

4 Players to watch

Erik Thomas, New Orleans

Quick: name the three best players in the Southland. No, I know you can’t. That’s fine. But get to know Thomas. He has his Privateers at 7-1 in the conference behind 58 percent shooting and he ranks among the league leaders in true shooting percentage and rebound percentage.

Marcus Marshall, Nevada

Raise your hand if you expected Nevada to become appointment television this year. Marshall and teammate Cameron Oliver have turned the Wolf Pack into legitimate contenders, maybe favorites, to win the Mountain West. Marshall is a senior who has scored in double figures in every game he has played this year, including at least 25 points in four of his last five games.

Tyler Hall, Montana State

Hey, it’s not often that we talk about the Big Sky on here. But the Bobcats have won four in a row behind a series of offensive outbursts from Hall. His most recent triumph: a 31-point performance in a double-overtime win against Idaho on Thursday. He played 47 minutes.

Ike Smith, Georgia Southern

Georgia Southern is rolling and its sophomore duo of Tookie Brown and Smith is a big reason why. Greg wrote about them more as a team yesterday, and it’s certainly worth a read. Smith has emerged as one of the leading scorers in the country, posting 19.9 points per game and shooting over 50 percent from the field and 53 percent from three.

3 Storylines to follow

Thursday night fallout

By now you’ve seen the weirdness that was the end of the UAB-Louisiana Tech game Thursday night. If you haven’t, a brawl resulted in mass ejections, and game-long (or morsuspensions will follow. That could loom large in the Conference USA race as the Bulldogs visit conference frontrunner Middle Tennessee on Saturday. UAB seems better suited for suspensions at this time, with a game against cellar-dweller Southern Miss on Saturday, before facing also-dreadful UTEP next Thursday.

Conference unbeaten

The number of undefeated teams in conference play continues to dwindle, and a few of them — Middle Tennessee included — get tough tests this weekend. Vermont (7-0 in the America East) plays at Stony Brook, which has won seven out of eight behind the emergence of freshman Akwasi Yeboah. In the Colonial, UNC Wilmington (9-0) can’t afford to look past a tough William & Mary team on Saturday ahead of its upcoming rematch with College of Charleston next week.

Mountain West mess

With the way the Mountain West is beating up on itself, it’s starting to look more likely that it will be a one-bid conference for the second year in a row. Nevada, the only team with any sort of at-large shot, faces a tough New Mexico team at home on Saturday. Elsewhere, Boise State visits Wyoming and Colorado State plays at San Diego State. The top five teams in the league are all within a game of each other as we near the midway point of conference play.

2 Questions we have

Can Stephen F. Austin challenge in the Southland?

What a weird question to be asking. But the Kyle Keller Era got off to a rough start, complete with the Lumberjacks’ first home loss in eons and a 3-9 start against Division I competition. Thankfully for Stephen F. Austin, the Southland is not a strong conference and SFA has won four out of five games in league play. The Lumberjacks play first-place New Orleans on Saturday with a chance to assert themselves as major league contenders.

Can Fordham continue to cause chaos in the Atlantic 10?

Fordham is not a good team; let’s get that out of the way. The Rams have already lost to Sacred Heart and Manhattan. But they’ve somehow won at Davidson and UMass, and at home against VCU. Davidson returns the game on Saturday, and another loss to the Rams would put the Wildcats two-games below .500 in the Atlantic 10. It would also, somehow, vault Fordham into the top half of the league.

1 more unbeaten

Gonzaga keeps crawling closer to a perfect season. This week, the Bulldogs took care of Portland and San Diego in a pair of blowouts to improve to 21-0. Next up is a visit to Pepperdine, the worst team in the West Coast Conference. It’d be shocking if the Bulldogs aren’t still undefeated at the end of the weekend.

KenPom’s unbeaten probability: 46.6%