No. 24 Middle Tenn., W. Kentucky meet for C-USA supremacy (Mar 01, 2018)
The current 10-game win streak that has vaulted Middle Tennessee into the Top 25 began with a Jan. 10 win over Western Kentucky.
On Thursday, the No. 24 Blue Raiders host a rematch with the second-place Hilltoppers at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., with Conference USA supremacy on the line.
Middle Tennessee (23-5, 15-1 C-USA) leads Western Kentucky (22-7, 14-2) by a game with two to play and can clinch the outright regular-season conference title with a win Thursday.
"That's why we do this stuff," Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis told WGNS radio. "You've got your archrival. I would think this place will be sold out. They've got a great team ... a great RPI game, and the whole nation will watch.
"I just think it can't get any better for Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky."
The Blue Raiders, No. 25 in the RPI as of Wednesday morning, have played their way into the at-large-bid discussion for the NCAA Tournament.
More than 9,700 fans packed the Murphy Center (a season high) on Saturday to watch Middle Tennessee rout UAB 79-54.
"I told my team, 'With more success comes more motivation,'" Davis told the (Murfreesboro) Daily News Journal on Saturday after his team's first game as a ranked team. "We played like a Top 25 team tonight."
The Hilltoppers (53rd in the RPI) likely need to win next week's C-USA tournament to get a bid, but they broke a second-place tie with Old Dominion on Saturday by thrashing the Monarchs 88-66.
Western Kentucky shot at least 55 percent for the fifth straight game, its longest such streak since late in the 1978-79 season when Gene Keady was the Hilltoppers' head coach.
"We've got great rhythm and chemistry," Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said Monday on his weekly radio show. "I always say rhythm and chemistry this time of year is really important, and our guys have that."
As of Wednesday morning, Western Kentucky was eighth in the nation in field-goal percentage at 50.2, but it shot 43.9 percent -- including 1 of 9 from 3-point range -- in the first meeting against Middle Tennessee.
"We know we're going to the best team in the league. Until someone beats 'em, Middle Tennessee's the best team in the league," Stansbury told WBKO-TV. "But I know we'll have a bunch of guys get on that bus Thursday afternoon with one of the most important things you can take on the road. What is that? Confidence. Confidence this time of year is a very potent thing. And our team has a lot of it.
"They feel good about each other. Those guys on that bench they feel good about their roles they've got and couldn't be a better part of the year to have that feeling right now."
Western Kentucky will try to limit Middle Tennessee's Nick King, who scored 28 points -- most of them late in possessions -- in the first meeting.
"King scored 20 points with 10 seconds or less on the shot clock," Stansbury said. "Think about that. Twenty of his 28 came with 10 seconds or less on the shot clock. Nine of those points came as buzzer-beaters on the shot clock.
"That ain't going to happen this time. That ain't happening."
King, a 6-foot-7 graduate transfer from Alabama, is 19th in the nation in scoring at 21.5 points per game.
The Blue Raiders wrap up their regular season with a home game against fourth-place Marshall on Saturday. The Thundering Herd handed Middle Tennessee its only conference loss, 73-63 on Jan. 18 in Huntington, W.Va.
Western Kentucky plays at UAB on Saturday, while Old Dominion, which trails the Blue Raiders by two games, finishes with home games against Florida Atlantic (Thursday) and Florida International (Saturday).