You probably woke up this morning thinking, “Hmm, I really need to know five things about the Sun Belt Conference Championship before I can safely deem it a successful Monday.” Ok, “need” may be a strong a word. Nonetheless, here are 5 things that make tonight’s Sun Belt Conference title game between Florida International and Western Kentucky at least interesting:
1. Well, well, well, look who we have here. Yep, in case you couldn’t have guessed it based on the picture above, FIU’s head coach is none other than Richard Pitino (someone now please make the obligatory Eric Bledsoe transcript release joke). In Pitino’s first year as the front man for the Golden Panthers, he’s “guided” (Hey, I mean how much credit can I give him, he’s using Isiah Thomas’s players!) FIU to an 18-13 record and their first ever Sun Belt Conference title game (this according to the Sun Belt Conference Media Guide, yeah, I dug deep). All jokes aside, Pitino has done a pretty good job coaching up a team that won eight games total last season, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to win tonight. As is generally the case in March, this game could come down to the final (15) seconds (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You know what they say, like father, like son, right?).
2. So who’s FIU’s guy? Well, during the regular season their best player was a fella by the name of Tymell Murphy (I swear, when you follow college basketball you learn a new first name or a new spelling every day). Murphy is averaging 14.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, but has been relatively quiet thus far in the tournament as he is only averaging 9.5 points and 4 rebounds per game. So who has stepped it up? Look no further than the sharp-shooting guard Malik Smith. Smith has been on fire these last few games, averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting 11-16 from beyond the arc so far in the tournament. Smith’s success dates back further than this tourney, though, as he has been averaging over 18 points per game since late February while shooting over 47% from deep. If he plays well again tonight, then the Golden Panthers could be dancing.
3. Now to the Hilltoppers. For the second straight year, Western Kentucky has turned it on late to give themselves a chance for back-to-back trips to the big dance. Last season, WKU won their last six games en route to the NCAA tournament, and this season, they’ve won six of their last seven going into tonight’s showdown with Florida International. Regardless of whether they win or lose tonight, the late season hot streaks are a testament to the fantastic hire WKU made in Ray Harper. Even without last season’s best player, and friend of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Derrick Gordon (who transferred to UMass), Coach Harper found a way to get it done.
4. If the Hilltoppers are going to win tonight, then they are going to need a big game from sophomore guard TJ Price. Price does a little bit of everything for the Tops, as he averages 15.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game on the season, but more importantly, he’s playing his best basketball of the season right now. Last night, in a 58-56 win over Arkansas State, Price had 24 points on 8-20 shooting, including the game winner with 19 seconds to play to keep Western’s season alive. Price, if your memory has left you, dropped 21 on the Cats last season in the first round of the NCAA’s, so the kid can ball if you haven’t figured that out yet.
5. Alright, so who’s going to win and put on their dancing shoes? Well, the two split a pair of meetings this year (holding serve at home, if you will), and WKU currently stands as a 2.5 point favorite. Both teams have played well down the stretch, but only one of these teams has been here before. So I’m taking the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in a fantastic game that could come down to, say, the finals 15 seconds (sorry, those jokes are never going to get old). Look for Price to make a big shot down the stretch to give Western the 65-63 win. And just remember, I’m never wrong. Ever.
6. Ok, I’m throwing a bonus number out there because of something I just noticed. ESPN lists Kawaun Jakes (Western Kentucky’s starting quarterback that did this to our football team) on Western’s basketball roster. I’m not sure if he’s actually on the team because it says he has played zero minutes on the year, and ESPN has had a penchant for box score glitches over the years (remember those Jon Hood phantom fouls last season?). But anyways, I thought it was weird.