Texas-El Paso Miners (14-4, 3-1 Conference USA) at Houston Cougars (9-6, 3-1)
Tip-off: 7:00 PM, 1/22
The Line: UTEP by 5
For the second time this week, the Cougars will face off against a Conference USA foe, with a share of the lead in the conference at stake. Houston beat Tulsa at home on Wednesday in front of the rowdiest crowd this year. On Saturday, the Cougars and Miners, two of the four teams with 3-1 conference marks, go head-to-head. (The other two, UAB and Memphis, also play one another today.)
The two teams look very similar, featuring a shooting guard who can light it up from outside and leads the team in scoring (Adam Brown for the Coogs, Randy Culpepper for the Miners), a point guard scoring about 8 points with about 5 assists per game (Zamal Nixon for Houston, Julyan Stone for UTEP), another winger who has come on strong after an inconsistent start (Darian Thibodeaux in the red and white, Christian Polk in the blue and orange) and a rotation of big men down low.
Both teams have shot very well from beyond the arc, and done a very good job of preventing opponents from scoring from three-point land. Both team have been mediocre from the charity stripe, and at taking care of the basketball.
So where are the possible X-factors that could mean the difference between these two teams tonight?
-Home-court advantage. The Cougars have lost just once within the friendly confines of Hofheinz Pavilion this year, and really fed off of the first good student turnout of the season on Wednesday. With school back in session, another good showing from the students could help out the home team.
-Who guards Stone? The Miners' point guard has a full six inches of height over Nixon. His size has actually allowed him to be UTEP's leading scorer. Nixon might see time on the diminutive Culpepper, but will Brown, Thibodeaux or Alandise Harris be able to stay in front of Stone?
-Harris and Kirk Van Slyke, aka the match-up problems. Neither player has consistently made a huge impact this year, but both have proven to be big match-up problems for opponents on occasion. With as evenly as these teams are matched, if the Miners can't find an answer for Harris' size and strength, or Van Slyke's height and outside shooting, the scales may tilt towards Houston.