FRISCO, TX — This game feels like it was inevitable. The two best teams in the conference, at least in terms of talent and experience, are meeting up in a the final.
Both squads knew they were likely to meet at some point and only Old Dominion has flirted with an early exit. The Monarch’s week-long tendency to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat has brought drama and entertainment to #HoopsAtTheStar but it does not portend a good matchup vs a Western squad that has locked up their opponents fairly easily.
While the USM semifinal was a little tougher than the quarterfinal vs UNT, WKU locked up the Golden Eagles late and won the game going away.
ODU’s win probability graph looks like the a rollercoaster with a dramatic drop. Both Tech (quarters) and UAB (semifinal) have had great chances to put the game away before ODU caught a break and made a clutch bucket.
The algorithm guys have not quite quantified a clutch play, but people can see a shot fired tentatively and one that is launched with confidence. Ahmad Caver and Xavier Green came up big and took shots unafraid when the time came to win the game.
League Player of the Year BJ Stith has struggled, but he got some huge basketball plays in the final five minutes of the semifinal vs UAB. Big players coming up big. A WKU coach entering the sideline said as much when Stith hit a big three late.
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Kenpom has the WKU offense ranked 5th and the ODU defense ranked 5th. He has the ODU offense ranked 6th and the WKU defense ranked 4th.
These teams have played twice, with ODU winning both at home. In February, ODU won 67-63. Western had a brief three-point lead with 1:25 remaining but that quickly evaporated. Xavier Green hit six threes to lead ODU with 22 points. Tavieon Hollingsworth had 17 on 6/7 shooting while Charles Bassey and Josh Anderson struggled.
In January, Western jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first 7-minutes before blowing it. ODU led 58-51 by the 7:58 mark of the second half. Caver and Stith overcame early struggles to score 18 and 19 respectively. Xavier Green struggled but Dajour Dickens was big with 9 points in 15 minutes. Hollingsworth had 19 on 5/9 shooting, Bassey was big with 18 and 10 but had five turnovers. Dalano Banton played a lot, while Lamonte Bearden played only 8 minutes.
Ahmad Caver lost his head-to-head matchup with UAB’s Zack Bryant. The Blazer guard attacked all night and were it not for some missed free throws, we would be discussing his matchup with Hollingsworth right now. As it was, Caver came up big when it counted. He had a huge three to spark the final run, created a chance for BJ Stith to get a put-back, and hit two free throws that made the lead just 1.
There is a good argument that Caver should have won the Player of the Year award, and he has a good argument for winning the Tournament POY if he can produce in this one.
Tavieon Hollingsworth had a great game against UNT, but struggled a bit vs USM. By struggle I mean he had 17 points on 5/14 shooting with a couple of big buckets in the second half.
BJ Stith and Caver have struggled at times, but Xavier Green has been solid and something like a go-to player.
ODU’s Dickens assorted big men will have to see what they can do inside vs Bassey and hope they can keep him from dominating. At one point he was responsible for 7 of the 8 points WKU scored — two buckets and one assist for a three pointer. He is a handful, and if ODU is not careful, overthinking about him will open up opportunities for others.
Getting their shots and running their sets is paramount. WKU has been locked in defensively these last two games. NT’s Umoja Gibson and USM’s LaDavius Draine were both targeted by the staff to shut down with success. Xavier Green is likely to receive the same kind of treatment.
Stith, the player of the year, has to have a better outing for his squad’s chances. The Monarchs have stepped up when it has mattered most. This is the type of game where the whole 40 will matter a little more.
WKU had a relatively easy game against UNT, a squad with limited offensive effectiveness and a little battle against a game, senior-laden USM. The Toppers were a little more vulnerable in that game, but leaned on their defense and their length to get second and third chances. Bassey was huge against Rowe and won that matchup.
WKU is playing the better basketball right now and both kenpom and Haslemetrics have them winning this thing — only just.
Prediction: WKU by 2.