Western Kentucky a Reliable Underdog at MTSU in CUSA Showdown

Rainman M.

Thursday, March 1, 2018 6:04 PM UTC

Thursday, Mar. 1, 2018 6:04 PM UTC

Newly ranked Middle Tennessee (No. 24) hosts Western Kentucky and is favored to clinch Conference USA's regular-season title with a win tonight. WKU, one game back, has other ideas.

Thursday College Basketball: Western Kentucky vs. Middle TennesseeFree NCAAB Pick: Western Kentucky +4Best Line Offered: Heritage

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When these teams met on Jan. 20 -- a 66-62 MTSU SU road win and cover -- WKU displayed its typical strengths but underachieved in other regards. The Hilltoppers were strong inside the arc in terms of drawing fouls and two-point defense, while still being competitive enough at rebounding. WKU attempted 31 free throws, nearly twice as many as MTSU, and ranks first in CUSA in proportion of free throws attempted. Its strong interior defense, CUSA's best in terms of opposing two-point percentage, also forced the Blue Raiders to attempt more threes. WKU could rebound well enough by making rebounding easier for them by forcing lower-percentage shots.

The key for WKU (22-7 SU, 18-9 ATS) will be to limit MTSU's two leading scorers, forwards Nick King and Giddy Potts. They combined for two-thirds of MTSU's scoring in the first meeting, with King leading all scorers with 28 points. WKU's interior defense is led by center Dwight Coleby, who ranks 85th in block percentage and is a major reason Western Kentucky's defense is CUSA's third-best in the category. The Hilltoppers' interior defense hasn't achieved its ranking by bullying only the no-names in its weaker conference; it has held the likes of athletic Wisconsin center Ethan Happ to 17 points on 7-for-12 two-point shooting.

The Hilltoppers held MTSU's other three starters to a combined 10 points. MTSU guard Antwain Johnson, the team's third-leading scorer, normally attempts more shots inside the arc. But against WKU he attempted more threes than twos and managed only two points. If MTSU has to rely so strongly on King again, history indicates trouble because it has failed to cover its last two games when King attempted more than 20 field goals. So not only is WKU capable of limiting King, but 24th-ranked MTSU (23-5 SU, 15-10 ATS) will also need to prove it can rely on its other players.

One major figure who underachieved in the first matchup is Western Kentucky small forward Darius Thompson. Thompson is tied for the team lead with 14.8 points per game but mustered only four against the Blue Raiders with a KenPom offensive rating of 77. In five games away from home against KenPom top-100 teams, Thompson produced an offensive rating of more than 120 in four of them and 100+ in all five. For instance, he was quiet at home vs Old Dominion with 11 points but produced 24 at ODU. The former Virginia Cavalier is the conference's eighth-best three-point shooter by percentage and has converted six of his last eight three-point attempts on the road. Thompson is surely stoked for this game, which will be a homecoming for him.

Overall, WKU thrives inside the arc, ranking first in CUSA in two-point shooting percentage. Coleby ranks 156th in the category. Western Kentucky is normally ball-secure and will also be focused on avoiding another 15-turnover debacle. What undermined the Hilltoppers was a seven-minute stretch to end the first half in which its offense hit an anomalous funk, committing turnovers and bricking makable shots. WKU figured out MTSU and outscored MTSU the rest of the way.

WKU's effort wasn't enough then, but it will be tonight. The Hilltoppers -- and not just Thompson -- thrive in the underdog role, achieving a 5-0 ATS record when their opponent is favored. That's the situation in this spot on the college basketball odds board, and the Hilltoppers will have the Raiders feeling blue in our NCAAB picks.

That said, watch out for MTSU in March. The Blue Raiders are a potential giant-killer in the NCAA tournament (Michigan State fans might not want to watch this video):

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