Western Kentucky (13-13) at FIU (13-12)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, February 16, 7:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: U.S. Century Bank Arena (5,000) -- Miami, Florida. Television: ESPN3.com. Home Record: WKU 9-3, FIU 8-3. Away Record: WKU 3-8, FIU 5-9. Neutral Record: WKU 1-2, FIU 0-0. Conference Record: WKU 7-8, FIU 8-8. Series Record: Western Kentucky leads, 29-5.
GAME NOTES: A pair of teams entrenched in the middle of the Sun Belt Conference East Division standings get together in Miami on Saturday night, as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers tangle with the FIU Panthers.
Both teams come in with nearly identical records, WKU at 13-13 overall and 7-8 in conference, and FIU at 13-12 on the season and 8-8 against league foes. Both are well off the pace set by first-place Middle Tennessee (14-1), and it will be nearly impossible to even pass second-place South Alabama (12-4) as the jockeying for SBC Tournament seeding comes down the home stretch.
The Hilltoppers will try to stop a two-game losing streak in this clash, as they lost to both Arkansas State (67-49) and Florida Atlantic (84-78) in the last week. WKU is just 3-8 in true road games this season.
The Panthers are also trying to put the brakes on a two-game slide, as they fell on the road at North Texas (77-67) and Troy (69-61) over the last seven days. FIU is surely happy to be back in Miami though, as it has won eight of its 11 homes games this season.
Western Kentucky has dominated the series with FIU, winning 29 of the previous 34 meetings. The two teams met on the Hilltoppers' home floor back on Dec. 27, 2012 and it was WKU that prevailed in a 76-63 final. George Fant paced the home team with 24 points, while the visitors got a 20-point effort from Malik Smith.
Fant was high man for WKU in its recent loss to FAU, scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. T.J. Price tallied 17 points despite shooting just 6- of-22 from the floor, which included a 2-of-13 showing from 3-point range, Kevin Kaspar added 12 points and Aleksejs Rostov chipped in 11 for the Hilltoppers, who connected on only 39.7 percent of their field goal attempts and missed 18 of their 23 long-range bombs. A 19-of-26 performance at the charity stripe kept them in the game, but the Owls drained nearly 60 percent of their total shots, including nine treys, and went 23-of-28 at the foul line. FAU was guilty of 19 turnovers, off which WKU scored 24 points. Price heads a list of three double-digit scorers for the Hilltoppers, netting 14.0 ppg, and he is joined by Jamal Crook (12.5 ppg) and Fant (12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Western Kentucky averages 65.7 ppg while allowing 65.3 ppg, and the team has really struggled from long distance (.298), as well as at the free-throw line (.660).
Poor shooting and shaky defense cost the Panthers dearly in their recent outing against Troy, the team hitting only 38.7 percent of its field goal attempts, 26.7 percent of its 3-point tries, and 55.6 percent of its free throws. Conversely, the Trojans were successful on nearly 50 percent of their total shots, and they went 13-of-17 at the stripe. Cameron Bell came off the bench to score a team-high 12 points, and he also paced the club with five rebounds, while Jerome Frink tacked on 11 points, and Tymell Murphy finished with a line of 10 points, five assists, four boards and two blocks. Murphy continues to spearhead FIU's offensive attack, netting 15.3 ppg (the fifth- highest average in the conference). Smith (13.8 ppg) and Frink (10.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg) have also been solid contributors, but no other player scores more than 7.7 ppg, thus the team as a whole checks in at 69.5 ppg while its average yield sits at 70.6 ppg. The Panthers are currently in the red with regard to rebounding margin (-3.4), but they on the plus-side of the ledger in turnover differential (+2.8), goading the opposition into nearly 18 miscues per outing.
This Sun Belt battle features two evenly-matched teams, so the obvious edge goes to the Panthers at home. Still, don't be surprised if the Hilltoppers are right there in the end, with a shot to steal the win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: FIU 69, Western Kentucky 67
02/16 12:59:21 ET