Western Kentucky (8-5) at South Alabama (6-7)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, January 2, 6:05 p.m. (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Mitchell Center (10,041) -- Mobile, Alabama. Television: ESPN3.com. Home Record: WKU 7-1, USA 6-1. Away Record: WKU 1-4, USA 0-4. Neutral Record: WKU 0-0, USA 0-2. Conference Record: WKU 0-0, USA 0-0. Series Record: South Alabama leads, 33-31.
GAME NOTES: Sun Belt Conference action tips off on Thursday night, as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers head into the Mitchell Center to take on the South Alabama Jaguars.
WKU had been a winner of three straight games before closing out its non- conference slate with a 79-74 loss at home to Ole Miss on Monday. The Hilltoppers are an impressive 8-5 on the season, although they have not fared well on the road with losses in four of five games.
South Alabama has been largely disappointing through the first two months of the season at 6-7, which includes back-to-back losses to Arkansas on Dec. 21 (72-60) and New Mexico State on Saturday (82-64). The good news for the Jaguars in this one is that they have defended their home floor well, going 6-1 in Mobile.
The Jaguars hold a slight 33-31 advantage in the all-time series with the Hilltoppers. WKU won two of three versus South Alabama last season, including the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship Game, 62-59.
Although WKU managed to open up a 14-point lead over Ole Miss in the first half of its most recent game, the Rebels went on a furious run at the end of the opening stanza to take a 3-point lead into intermission and held on from there. The squad shot a modest 40 percent from the field on the evening and were ultimately done in by committing a game-high 18 turnovers. T.J. Price shined in the setback with 26 points, while tying a career-high with six 3- pointers. George Fant was a factor in the paint with 13 points and 14 rebounds and Trency Jackson chipped in with 11 points.
The Hilltoppers actually get outshot from the field by their opponents this season, 43.8 percent to 41.1 percent, but they are still able to register a +2.8 scoring margin by draining 7.4 3-pointers per contest and winning the battle on the glass with a +3.6 rebounding margin. Price is the leading scorer with 17.1 ppg, with most of his damage coming from beyond the arc (40-of-101). Fant brings 14.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg and more than a block and a steal per game to the table, while Jackson (13.2 ppg) has been a big addition after missing the first eight games of the season.
South Alabama shot 43.1 percent from the field its last time out, but it struggled on the other end of the floor, allowing NMSU to drain a blistering 63.5 percent of its shots from the floor on its way to the 18-point setback. Augustine Rubit finished with a team-high 11 points and eight rebounds, but he was just 5-of-15 from the field. Antoine Allen netted 10 points in the setback, while Aakim Saintil and Mychal Ammons added nine points apiece.
Even though the Jaguars shoot field goals at a lackluster 40.4 percent efficiency this season, they are still able to score more points (72.5 ppg) than their opponents (68.2 ppg) by boasting positive margins in the turnover (+0.2) and rebounding battles (+2.7). They also play outstanding defense on the perimeter defense, allowing just 4.1 long-range buckets per game at 27.7 percent shooting. Rubit is unquestionably one of the conference's top forwards with 17.3 ppg and 9.5 rpg, while showing surprising range from beyond the arc (13-of-27). Allen puts up 10.3 ppg, and Ammons joins Rubit in the frontcourt with 10.1 ppg and 7.5 rpg.
WKU has been the more impressive team this season, but with the Hilltoppers struggling on the road and the Jaguars nearly perfect at the Mitchell Center, expect South Alabama to get off to a 1-0 start in the league.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Alabama 72, Western Kentucky 70
01/02 10:34:28 ET