Western Kentucky (10-5) at Arkansas-Little Rock (8-7)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, January 3, 8:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Jack Stephens Center (5,600) -- Little Rock, Arkansas. Television: ESPN3.com. Home Record: WKU 7-0, UALR 7-1. Away Record: WKU 2-3, UALR 0-5. Neutral Record: WKU 1-2, UALR 1-1. Conference Record: WKU 4-0, UALR 2-2. Series Record: Western Kentucky leads, 34-10.
GAME NOTES: The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers try to remain the only unbeaten team in Sun Belt Conference action as they invade the Jack Stephens Center for a league bout against the Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans.
After suffering three straight losses to Murray State (75-70), Virginia Commonwealth (76-44), and Louisville (78-55), the Hilltoppers got back on track by defeating FIU (76-63) and North Texas (70-64) to improve their overall record to 10-5. WKU has yet to fall to a conference rival in four league games, which gives it a 4-0 SBC record for the first time since 2005-06. Coach Ray Harper's team is thriving due to its defensive intensity that is limiting opponents to 64.5 points per game, which is the second lowest mark among SBC schools. WKU is also doing an excellent job cleaning the glass as it ranks 56th in the nation and first in the league in rebounding margin (+5.9).
Steve Shields and the Trojans will attempt to end their three-game losing slide that dropped them to 8-7 overall and 2-2 in SBC action in this one. UALR was handed a 79-70 loss by Louisiana on Saturday as it was denied its first true road win of the season for the fifth time. The team will be happy to return home, where it is 7-1 on the season. The Trojans and Hilltoppers are both scoring 67.9 ppg, but UALR owns a slightly higher scoring defense average of 65.7 ppg.
Western Kentucky increased its all-time series lead over UALR to 34-10 in last season's SBC Conference Tournament where the Hilltoppers downed the Trojans, 68-63.
The Hilltoppers are being led by sophomore guard T.J. Price this season. The 6-foot-4 off guard is fifth among SBC players with 15.2 points per contest, which he is accompanying with 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Price poured in a team-best 16 points his last time out to help it get past North Texas. George Fant (14 points, seven rebounds) and Teeng Akol (13 points, six rebounds) also reached double-figures while Brandon Harris showed off his versatility by scoring nine points, grabbing nine boards, and dishing out six assists. Akol also made his presence felt by swatting five shots. Senior guard Jamal Crook (14.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) will continue to miss action due to a leg injury, but Fant has really stepped up his play to make up for his teammate's absence with 16.3 ppg over his last three games.
UALR has a much more balanced attack that features seven different players with scoring averages above six points per game. Junior forward Will Neighbour is pacing the squad with 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The native of England recorded his third double-double of the season his last time out by scoring 17 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the Trojans' loss to the Ragin' Cajuns. Freshman guard Josh Hagins came off the bench to chip in a career-high 14 points, but no one else reached double figures for UALR. Freshman guard John Gillon is the team's second-leading scorer with 11.3 ppg.
This matchup features a pair of evenly matched teams, but WKU enters with all the momentum. UALR is currently tied for first place in the West Division standings with Arkansas State and Louisiana, which makes a turnaround in this one crucial. However, the Hilltoppers are playing with a lot of confidence after enduring a difficult non-conference slate. Akol's ability to frustrate Neighbour with his shot blocking will be a key to success for the visitors.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Western Kentucky 61, Arkansas-Little Rock 58
01/03 10:43:04 ET