December 28th, 2017
Even though the temperature in Bowling Green is forecast to dip well below freezing tonight, the action at E.A. Diddle Arena is sure to heat up as the Conference USA basketball schedule begins in earnest. The opening matchup on the beIN SPORTS College Basketball calendar pits the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (9-4) against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (8-5) at 8:00pm ET/7:00pm CT.
LA Tech and Western Kentucky enter the season with high expectations.
The Bulldogs look to build on back-to-back 23-win seasons under third-year head coach Eric Konkol. After finishing last season with a 14-4 conference record - good for second-best in Conference USA - the Bulldogs slipped up in the semifinals of the conference tournament against high-flying Marshall. A Conference USA title would grant Louisiana Tech its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991.
The Rick Stansbury experience has been a whirlwind for Western Kentucky. After a tough 15-17 season last year, fortunes looked up after the Hilltoppers miraculously landed five-star seven-foot recruit Mitchell Robinson in the offseason - only to have him leave the team, come back, and then leave again. Even so, Stansbury has managed to fortify the squad with transfers from Power 5 schools like Virginia and Kansas.
LOUISIANA TECH KEYS TO THE GAME
The straw that stirs the drink for the Bulldogs is their superior guard play. Even after losing stud guard Jalen Harris to transfer, the Bulldogs remain very deep at the position.
Sophomore PG Daquan Bracey runs the show - and what the 5”11 speedster lacks in size, he makes up for in energy. Bracey is averaging 16.0 PPG and is fifth in C-USA with 5.0 assists per game. Senior SG Jacobi Boykins stretches the floor as a consistent shooting threat from the perimeter.
The Bulldogs above-average offense relies on a consistent three point shot (39.4%) and its guards’ ability to penetrate and get to the free throw line. Louisiana Tech is 14th in the NCAA in free throws attempted - the best mark in Conference USA. They have struggled defensively at times this season, but are bolstered by a 7-foot shot-blocking presence in Joniah White and the ability of the guards to close out on threes.
In order to win, Louisiana Tech must: push tempo while limiting turnovers, limit second chances for Western Kentucky on the boards, and challenge the Hilltoppers to make long to mid-range shots.
WESTERN KENTUCKY KEYS TO THE GAME
Though the Hilltoppers lost three starting guards from last year’s roster, they should be impressed with how quickly the team has been able to restock itself with talent.
Senior G Darius Thompson will be making his Conference USA debut tonight. In just 14 games in Bowling Green, he as already inserted himself as a key contributor - leading the team in points, assists and minutes played. Freshman sensation Taveion Hollingsworth has hit the ground running and is already averaging 13.6 PPG on 53% from 3PT. Throw Junior transfer Lamonte Bearden in the mix and you have an imposing backcourt trio that can help carry Western Kentucky.
Part-time tight end Justin Johnson gives Western Kentucky a tough rebounding presence on the inside and the team hopes that with Kansas transfer Dwight Coleby added to the mix, they can boast one of the better frontcourts in the conference as well.
So far, the pieces are fitting together very nicely as all five Western Kentucky starters are averaging double figures in points per game.
Interestingly, the Hilltoppers aren’t taking many three-pointers so far this season, but they have been hitting them at a consistent rate. Despite taking just 15 threes per game (near bottom in the NCAA) they are hitting them at a 37.5% clip - good for third-best in Conference USA. That said, they have been elite at the good, old-fashioned two point shot. They shoot nearly 50% from twos and get 60% of their 77.8 points per game from inside the arc.
For Western Kentucky to win, they must: slow the game down and limit possessions for Louisiana Tech, force turnovers without fouling, and defend the three point shot.
PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech 75, Western Kentucky 82