C-USA PREVIEW: MARSHALL AT UAB

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CONFERENCE USA BASKETBALL: MARSHALL AT UAB

As the college basketball regular season reaches its ultimate conclusion this week, beIN SPORTS will air its final Conference USA matchup of the season on Thursday night. We wrap up the season at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Alabama as the UAB Blazers (17-12 overall, 8-8 C-USA) look to take revenge on the high-octane Marshall Thundering Herd (20-9 overall, 11-5 C-USA) at 8:00 PM ET/ 7:00PM CT on beIN SPORTS USA. The contest is a rematch of last month’s 86-78 overtime thriller where the Herd emerged victorious in Huntington.

Marshall come into Thursday night winners of 6 of their last 7 games despite a tough 79-84 loss at home to third-place Old Dominion last week. With a Saturday road game at back-to-back champion #24 Middle Tennessee looming to end the regular season, a win at UAB will go a long way towards solidifying a bye in next week’s Conference USA Tournament. They currently hold the last first-round bye spot over fifth-place UTSA by a single game with just two games left.

The Herd remains one of the best offensive squads in the country - they rank 10th in scoring (85.7 PPG) and 8th in two-point field goal percentage (57.4%) across college basketball. Junior guards Jon Elmore (22.6 PPG) and C.J. Burks (21.7 PPG) remain the best scoring backcourt in the country - and hold the top two spots in Conference USA.

Ajdin Penava has made multiple appearances in our Conference USA Plays of the Week and has somehow continued his blistering NCAA-leading shot-blocking (4.5 BPG) pace. He leads the nation by nearly a block per game more than the next best shot-blocker on the list, Texas C Mohamed Bamba, a projected top-ten pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. If Penava continues this pace, he will have the most blocks per game by a Division I since former #1 pick Anthony Davis in 2012.

For the home team, it has been tough sledding in conference play this season. UAB entered the season with - and still has - an expectation to compete for a spot in the conference championship. However, after a nice 4-1 start to league play, they’ve lost 4 of their last 6 games. The Blazers sit behind UTSA in sixth-place in the conference and were eliminated from any possibility of a first-round bye after a 25-point blowout loss at home to #24 Middle Tennessee. 

On paper, they should be excellent. On the court, they’ve lost all of their games against the league’s current top-five teams.

With highly-regarded senior forwards Chris Cokely and William Lee set to graduate, and young talent at the guard spots, they have all the signs of a unit that should be able to give opposing teams problems and win a lot of games in Conference USA. If the team was performing better, Chris Cokely - 17.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 57.8% FG - would be in the running for Conference USA Player of the Year.

Second-year head coach Robert Ehsan inherited a very talented bunch after former head coach Jerod Haase left UAB for Stanford. He will be feeling the pressure from Blazer faithful after this season unless the Blazers find a way to turn the tide in these last few games.

Thursday night marks the beginning of UAB’s final homestand of the season - ending with a tough matchup against second-place Western Kentucky. The road ahead will not be easy.

MARSHALL KEYS TO THE GAME

In the last matchup between these two teams, the Thundering Herd was able to control the tempo of the game. As we’ve well documented, the Herd like to play fast. If there is an open three - they’re taking it. If there’s a fastbreak opportunity or a shot early in the shot clock - they’re taking it. 

This forced UAB to play a style of game they’re not totally comfortable with. Both teams hit season highs in field goals attempted in that game. By the time the overtime period came, the Blazers just couldn’t keep up. Marshall outscored UAB 10-2 in the extra period. The more shots are put up in Thursday night’s game, and the faster the pace of play, the more the odds favor the Herd.

The post presence of Penava becomes even more important in games where the opposing team has solid frontcourt players. In the last game, Penava had 17 points, 11 rebounds, 6 blocks and 2 steals. He was a force on both ends of the course. Especially in a game where his frontcourt opponent Cokely went off for 28 points and 14 rebounds, Marshall desperately needed someone that could challenge the UAB bigs on the inside.

Marshall has been outrebounded by 14.6 rebounds in their five conference losses this year. They’re not very big, so they’re not going to win a lot of rebounding battles against teams with size, but they at least need to keep it close.

As the guards go, Elmore and Burks are going to get their points no matter what. Even when their shots struggle, they are very good at getting to and converting from the free throw line. Both are adept at creating for others. However, if one - or both - of the two is having a bad night from the floor, the team may struggle. Elmore has been hot and cold from three this year and Burks, while consistent, is not infallible.

The Herd has not found a reliable offensive option outside of the trio of Elmore, Burks, and Penava. Freshman Jerrod West has been great from beyond the arc - 42.0% on the season - but hasn’t scored more than 10 points since early January. In a tough road test against a talented team, the Herd will need contributions from outside of their usual suspects.

In order for Marshall to win they must:
•Run, run, and run some more
•Challenge UAB in the paint
•Shoot well from the floor 

UAB KEYS TO THE GAME

It’s hard to explain how a team this talented doesn’t have a better record. They rank in the top five in the conference ins scoring offense, rebounding margin, offensive field goal percentage, defensive field goal percentage, blocks, and assists. However, one place where the Blazers have really struggled is their three-point shooting. 

In the month of February, UAB is shooting an abominable 26.1% from the three-point line. They missed 17 of their 18 shots from long range at Middle Tennessee on Saturday. It’s hard not to overstate how bad that is.

The Blazers love to live on the inside - and with good reason. Cokely and Lee are one of the best frontcourt duos in the conference, but without a solid inside-out game, the offense doesn’t work. 

That’s not to say that UAB doesn’t have good shooters. Nate Darling can get hot from deep and carry the Blazers for stretches. Nick Norton has struggled but has proven that he can knock down shots. Lee’s three-point percentages have fallen off a cliff, but he can still stretch the floor and make defenses respect his shot. Offensively, this is something that has to improve or the Blazers may be headed for an early exit in March.

When the Blazers are on their game, they shoot a high percentage from the field, beat you up on the inside, protect the rim, pass the ball extremely well, and have the experience to close out games late. Those performances have not come often enough for UAB fans’ liking this season, but they are one of the teams in the conference that has the ability to beat anybody when it plays up to its potential. Given that they end the season from the comfort of home, we’d expect to see a different UAB team than the one from the past month.

In order for UAB to win, they must:
•Find the stroke from outside
•Bully Marshall on the inside
•Control the tempo of the game

Prediction: Marshall 75, UAB 80

Other Games from Across Conference USA
FAU @ Old Dominion - 7:00pm ET
FIU @ Charlotte - 7:30pm ET
Western Kentucky @ Middle Tennessee - 8:00pm ET
UTEP @ Rice - 8:00pm ET
UTSA @ North Texas - 8:00pm ET