Tip-off: 8:00, 2/1
The Line: Marshall by 3
A once-promising conference campaign has turned ugly for the Cougars, who have lost three straight games. Still, due to the miracle of Conference USA mediocrity, Houston finds itself just two games back of conference-leading UTEP, Memphis and UAB. The conference-wide rush towards the middle leaves it unlikely that C-USA will be a multi-bid league at NCAA tournament time, making the jockeying for conference tournament positioning of paramount importance. The Coogs truly can't afford to lose tonight's game - a home game against a middling Marshall squad - with so many tough match-ups (including all three previously-mentioned leaders) still left on the schedule.
The heart-breaking loss to ECU did have the silver lining of the reemergence of senior forward Maurice McNeil. After sitting out Houston's January 15th victory over UCF, McNeil had gone three straight games with single-digit points, and five or fewer rebounds, but broke through against the Pirates, tallying his seventh double-double of the season, with 18 points and 13 boards. Marshall's top seven contributors top out at 6'6", so look for McNeil to have another big game.
One important personnel question is whether or not Kirk Van Slyke has got himself out of head coach James Dickey's doghouse. The sophomore forward didn't make the trip to ECU, leaving the Coogs with a rotation of just seven players. The already-shorthanded team can't afford any more losses.
The Thundering Herd are a tough squad to gauge. They suffered early season losses to the likes of Chattanooga and James Madison, their 2-4 conference record includes a home loss to East Carolina, and last-place UCF's only conference win. They are 2-3 in their last five games, but those two wins came over West Virginia and Memphis (by 15).
Marshall has been effective in stopping opponents from shooting the three, holding the other team to a 28.5% mark on the year, including a combined 11-of-43 (25.5%) mark by WVU and Memphis in the Herd's most recent victories. The Coogs have shown this year that they can't beat teams with the inside game alone, so it will be critical for them to get the outside shot going.
Much like the Cougars, the Thundering Herd don't rely heavily on one scorer, but spread the scoring load around. Freshman guard DeAndre Kane (15.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg), junior point guard Damier Pitts (15.3 ppg, 3.8 apg), senior forward Tirrell Baines (12.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and junior guard Shaquille Johnson (10.0 ppg) are the primary contributors.
Marshall is just 3-5 in true road games this year, while Houston is 7-2 against Division 1 opponents at Hofheinz Pavilion, where the Thundering Herd has never won.
If you can't make tonight's game, Dustin will be live-tweeting. Follow at www.twitter.com/scottandholman/