If you had to pick two schools that have been the most dominant over the past few years in Conference USA, you'd probably wind up with these two. The Memphis Tigers aren't quite Memphis without John Calipari's recruiting skills, but they're still a very solid team. Meanwhile, the former WAC doormat UTEP Miners saw their fortunes turn around since Billy Gillespie rejuvenated them. They've won 20 games in six of their last eight seasons, and have three tourney appearances to show for it.
These two teams met just once in the regular season, and boy was it ugly. UTEP pasted Memphis at the Don Haskins Center by 27 points. The good news for the Tigers is that it was just one game. The bad news is that this morning, they're still going to be in the Don Haskins Center. Hosting the tournament is a big reason most experts thought UTEP would win the championship, and they've certainly done nothing to disprove that idea so far.
Both of these teams rely on their sterling defense first and foremost, so don't look for the score to get too out of hand. The pace will mask it some, but I'd guess the winning team is in the mid-to-upper 60's when the game ends. UTEP really shines when it comes to experience: Out of their six main rotation players, four are seniors, one is a junior, and only one is a freshman. Memphis has a little deeper rotation, but Will Coleman and Charles Carmouche are the only upper classmen that play very often. Everyone else is a freshman.
For Memphis to compete in this game, they'll need to do two things: shut down all-Conference USA first teamer Randy Culpepper, and pound away inside. Memphis is one of the leagues worst teams when it comes to three-point shooting percentage: they made just 31.6% of their threes on the year. So they'll need to penetrate early and often, which probably calls for a gameplan focused around freshman forward Tarik Black.
Ultimately it's really hard to envision UTEP losing this game. They've got experience, they've got the home crowd, they've got a more well-rounded team, and they've got a 27-point blowout as evidence that they can handle Memphis. It's not an impossible task for the Tigers today, but if they're going to win they need to physically dominate and intimidate the smaller Miners. The game starts at 10:30 CT and airs on CBS. So grab yourself some breakfast and tell the kids to watch cartoons in their room.
8 East Carolina Pirates 64 vs.
9 Central Florida Knights 50
5 Southern Miss. Golden Eagles 63 vs.
12 Tulane Green Wave 47 11 Houston Cougars 87 vs. 6 Marshall 97
10 Rice Owls 58 vs.
7 SMU Mustangs 57
1 UAB Blazers 70 vs.8 East Carolina Pirates 75
4 Memphis Tigers 66 vs.
5 Southern Miss. Golden Eagles 63
3 UTEP Miners 77 vs.
6 Marshall Thundering Herd 65
2 Tulsa Golden Hurricane 81 vs.
10 Rice Owls 72
3 UTEP Miners 66 vs.
2 Tulsa Golden Hurricane 54 8 East Carolina Pirates 56 vs. 4 Memphis Tigers 76
3 UTEP Miners vs. 4 Memphis Tigers -- 10:30 AM