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Conference USA: Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky look to remain undefeated

What to watch for in the full slate of Conference USA action on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Mississippi at Old Dominion Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

It is still early in conference play, but it is becoming obvious how the conference is probably going to wind up. For a conference that is in desperate need of at-large bids to the big dance, no one can afford to slip up.

North Texas Mean Green (9-8, 2-2) @ Rice Owls (4-13, 1-3)

Place: Tudor Fieldhouse, Houston
Time: 2:00 p.m. CT
Line: UNT -2.5, O/U: 138.5

Incredibly, the Mean Green are a combined five points away from being 4-0 in conference play. The Mean Green started 2-0 with wins over UTEP and UTSA, but since then have fallen on a last second layup to Charlotte and lost to ODU by three. If the Mean Green can learn to finish games, they could be a dark horse in C-USA action.

For Rice, the Owls are coming off their first win in conference play against Charlotte. The Owls are finally starting to solve their turnover issue after averaging over 20 turnovers a game to start C-USA play.

For UNT, shooting guard Roosevelt Smart is potentially a first team all-conference selection in a league that is filled with talented guards. Smart is averaging 18 points per game and has scored in double digits in each of the first four conference games.

For Rice, the Owls are also led by a talented guard in Connor Cashaw. Cashaw stuck around from last season even though several teammates transferred after coach Mike Rhoades went to VCU. Cashaw is carrying the Owls, leading the team in points (15.9 per game) and rebounds (6.7 per game). The Owls have won four of the last five against UNT and are a slim underdog to the Mean Green today. Look for this game to come down to the wire.

Florida Atlantic Owls (7-9, 1-3) @ UTSA Roadrunners (9-9, 2-3)

Place: UTSA Convocation Center, San Antonio
Time: 2:00 p.m. CT
Line: UTSA -7.5, O/U: 154

The early season hype for UTSA has been brought back to earth. The Roadrunners are a middle of the pack C-USA team. The Roadrunners’ 2-3 start in conference play comes with losses to UNT, Southern Miss and FIU. The two wins are over Rice and a depleted Louisiana Tech squad. For FAU, the Owls finally have some momentum with a road win at UTEP on Thursday.

UTSA’s struggles could stem from young growing pains. The Roadrunners’ Jhivvan Jackson is averaging 18.4 points per game, which is seventh best in the nation among freshmen. Freshman Keaton Wallace is also averaging 12.7 points per game to help lead the way for UTSA. In the past few seasons for C-USA, a few of the traditional powers needed at least one season to gel together as a team and figure out the leaders. UTSA could be dangerous later this season, but some of the losses this early in conference play show that the Roadrunners still need some work.

For FAU, the Owls can complete the Texas road sweep after snapping a six-game losing streak on Thursday against UTEP. Ronald Delph (13.1 points per game, nine rebounds per game) could have a big game for FAU considering his size advantage over UTSA. The Roadrunners play a smaller lineup with most of the players being less than 6’6”, while Delph is 7’0”. The game could be a lot closer than the betting line states.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (10-8, 1-4) @ UAB Blazers (12-5, 3-1)

Place: Bartow Arena, Birmingham, AL
Time: 4:00 p.m. CT
Line: UAB -7, O/U: 144.5

This matchup is a budding rivalry in C-USA. Louisiana Tech is 4-3 against UAB since joining C-USA. During last season’s regular season game in Birmingham, a brawl broke out that ended with the entire Tech bench being ejected and the game ending in a 5-on-4 scenario. The two teams met again in the C-USA tournament with the Bulldogs getting the revenge win. Today’s game doesn’t look as good on paper, but the bad blood still remains for the players from last season.

The Bulldogs are 1-4 in conference play, their worst start since joining C-USA. UAB is riding a three-game win streak thanks to strong play by senior Chris Cokley (17.4 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game) and freshman Zack Bryant (14 points per game). UAB is currently a seven-point favorite, the highest the spread has been for both teams since La Tech joined the conference.

If the Blazers want to win, they will have to shut down Jacobi Boykins and DaQuan Bracey. The two are both averaging around 15 points per game and are the only players averaging double figures for the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs need to take advantage of UAB’s lacking three-point defense. The Blazers allowed Southern Miss to hit 15 three-pointers on Thursday and Louisiana Tech has the second-best three-point percentage in the conference (38.7-percent). This game could be another battle.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles (9-9, 2-3) @ Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (12-4, 4-0)

Place: Murphy Athletic Center, Murfreesboro, TN
Time: 5:00 p.m. CT
Line: MTSU -14.5, O/U: 138.5

Southern Miss is coming off a loss on the road to UAB on Thursday. The Golden Eagles trailed by double digits for the majority of the game, but did not quit late in the game. The Golden Eagles nailed 15 three-pointers in the game and could not miss down the stretch. For MTSU, the Blue Raiders trounced Louisiana Tech by double digits on Thursday after Nick King posted his third straight double-double.

Southern Miss is 0-5 all-time against MTSU, with an average margin of defeat of 13.2. The Golden Eagles can build off the loss against UAB if they continue to shoot as well as they did against the Blazers. Tyree Griffin and Kevin Holland both made five three-pointers each and combined for 38 points.

Something to note in this game is MTSU’s use of zone defense. Southern Miss struggled early against UAB’s 1-3-1 defense and 3-2 defense in the halfcourt. Kermit Davis likes to run the 1-3-1 defense, so this could be a struggle for the Golden Eagles. The Golden Eagles have not faced a beast like King yet this season. Giddy Potts had a strong start to C-USA play, but fell off against La Tech finishing with only four points. This game should be a breeze for MTSU, but the Blue Raiders have struggled against lesser opponents so far in C-USA play.

Marshall Thundering Herd (12-5, 3-1) @ Old Dominion Monarchs (12-4, 3-1)

Place: Ted Constant Convocation Center, Norfolk, VA
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Line: ODU -6, O/U: 150

C-USA’s highest scoring offense is heading to C-USA’s best defense. Marshall comes into this game averaging 88 points per game, while ODU is holding opponents to just 62 points per game. This game could go a in a number of directions.

If this becomes an offensive track meet, take Marshall. If the game is slowed down to a controlled pace, take ODU. The Monarchs may be the favorite, but Marshall has won four out of the last five games in this matchup.

For Marshall, C.J. Burks picked up the slack for the Herd on Thursday after Ajdin Penava was out with an injury. Burks led the team in scoring against Charlotte with 33 points and was aided by point guard Jon Elmore who finished with 19 points. Penava is expected to be back in the lineup today and the Herd will definitely need him against this hungry Monarch defense.

For ODU, the Monarchs have their fair share of offensive power players. Four of ODU’s players average double figures, led by B.J. Stith who is averaging 15.1 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game. This game could also be closer than the betting line.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (12-5, 4-0) @ Charlotte 49ers (5-10, 1-3)

Place: Halton Arena, Charlotte
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Line: WKU -12, O/U: 152

This game could get ugly very quickly. Charlotte was able to hang around with Marshall on Thursday, but only because the Thundering Herd aren’t known for their defense. Jon Davis finally had his breakout game on Thursday for the 49ers, finishing with 38 points in the loss. WKU is rolling into Halton Arena with an undefeated conference record and a win at ODU on Thursday.

WKU has two new players that could make a major difference down the road this season. Josh Anderson and Moustapha Diagne were both cleared to play by the NCAA in the last week. Anderson was cleared after NCAA questioning about his high school coursework. Diagne has been waiting to play since transferring from Northwest Florida State Community College in 2016. Diagne was originally a Syracuse Orange recruit in 2015, but didn’t want to sit out his freshman season in Syracuse. These additions are huge for a team that already has five players averaging double figures. Charlotte will not be able to score as easily in this matchup, and it shouldn’t be close for the Hilltoppers.

Florida International Panthers (8-9, 2-2) @ UTEP Miners (6-11, 1-4)

Place: Don Haskins Center, El Paso, TX
Time: 7:00 p.m. MT
Line: UTEP -4.5, O/U: 137

FIU has shown a lot of fight in the past few weeks. After an opening conference win over rival FAU, the Panthers lost in a nailbiter to MTSU, showed toughness in a loss to UAB and emerged with a close win at UTSA on Thursday.

For UTEP, it has been quite the opposite. The Miners are coming off a loss to FAU and have lost five of their last six games. Based on the view from some fans, interim head coach Phil Johnson has lost this team and there could be many more desolate nights in El Paso this season.

UTEP will have their hands full with FIU’s Brian Beard Jr. and Trejon Jacob. Jacob is averaging a team-high 16.5 points per game, while Beard is averaging 15.5 points per game and has had 17 assists in the last two games combined.

For UTEP, the Miners need to gain consistency. Keith Frazier still leads the team in points, averaging 13 points per game, but he has only played in one of the last four games due to a personal matter (zero points). Guard Omega Harris has scored in double digits in his last three games, but forward Matt Willms has only hit double digits in one of his last four games. Newcomer Isiah Osborne provided a spark for the Miners to start C-USA play, scoring a season-high 25 points against La Tech. The sophomore followed that with a four-point performance in a loss to FAU. UTEP is favored, but I can’t imagine too many bettors picking the Miners in their current situation.