Southern Miss now has a strong conference competitor in UTEP which seems to be peaking just at the right time. The Golden Eagles are 21-3, 8-1 in conference play and have won seven consecutive. It’s their best start since 1960-61 when they began the season 22-2.
But, it’s quite the same for the Miners as they are now 18-6, 8-1 and have won eight straight. What’s more impressive is that they’re winning on the road. Their 63-49 win at Old Dominion last Saturday propelled them to a 4-0 conference start, their best since 1956.
Louisiana Tech is waiting in the wings with an overall record second to Southern Miss at 20-5. The Bulldogs are 8-2 in conference play, have won five of the last six and are 6-0 in conference home games. This Saturday they will host the 7-16, 2-8 Rice Owls.
TOP THREE WATCH YOUR BACK
Don’t go to sleep on Middle Tennessee and Tulsa just yet. Like Louisiana Tech, both are waiting in the wings and both are in contention.
Middle Tennessee has won five in a row, three on the road. Shawn Jones was the leading scorer in three of those with 22, 20, and 25 points, respectively. The Blue Raiders average 73.8 points per game while holding opponents to 63. Interestingly enough, their next two games will be at the Murphy Center against Tulane and league leader Southern Miss on Thursday and Saturday.
Tulsa is also in the fight. Rice gave the surging Golden Hurricane all they could muster Saturday night. However, it was defense, athleticism, and shots made down the stretch by Tulsa that sent the Owls to their eighth conference loss of the season, 66-56.
Rice actually held the lead for most of the first half and was ahead 23-18 with 3:16 remaining. However, the Tulsa defense shifted into fourth gear and made it difficult for the Owls to manage a basket down the stretch.
“Anytime you hold a team like Tulsa down to 25-27 points at the half, they’re shooting 37 percent at the half, that’s two good starts for our team defensively, three, counting the UTEP game going back,” said Rice head coach Ben Braun.
Rashad Smith, James Woodard, and Brandon Swannegan led the Golden Hurricane with 18, 15, and 10 points, respectively. Sophomore guard Max Guercy led the Owls with 17 points, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals.
Tulsa is now 11-12, 6-3 and will host 13-11, 2-7 East Carolina on Thursday. Tulsa is 4-1 in conference home games; its lone loss was to UAB back on Jan. 25.
WHAT TO WATCH
It’s really starting to sizzle at the top with Southern Miss, UTEP, and Louisiana Tech all jockeying for position. Southern Miss picked a fine time to have two road games against tough opponents, UAB and Middle Tennessee. Those will not be cakewalks. Middle Tennessee is a conference contender looking for that signature win, and UAB needs a momentum shift.
The Blazers are 14-9, 3-6 in conference and had high expectations going into the season that continue to remain high. They are 11-2 overall at Bartow Arena, but have only defeated UTSA and Old Dominion in two of their four conference home games.
The Golden Eagles are 3-1 on the road with wins over North Texas, Old Dominion, and East Carolina. They lost at Tulsa back on Jan. 12. So, beating Southern Miss would be a huge boost for UAB with only five games remaining on its schedule after the weekend.
Southern Miss, on the other hand, can’t afford a loss with Louisiana Tech hosting Rice at Thomas Assembly on Saturday. Second place UTEP plays host to 12-12, 4-5 FIU on Thursday and 9-15, 4-5 FAU on Saturday. The Miners are 4-1 in home conference games.
Don’t miss a minute of the action as CSS will televise Southern Miss - UAB on Thursday night beginning at 9 p.m. ET. The replay will air Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET.
But, the must-see game takes place at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro on Saturday as Middle Tennessee will host those same Golden Eagles. CSS will have the tipoff starting at 1 p.m. ET.
Speaking of Middle Tennessee, it will host 13-11, 5-4 Tulane on Thursday which will keep the team from looking ahead to Southern Miss. The Green Wave have won four of their last six and are 2-3 in road conference games. The Blue Raiders are 17-7, 7-2 in conference and 4-1 in conference home games.
The Thursday slate also includes Old Dominion at North Texas and FIU visits UTSA.