The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Florida International Golden Panthers face off in the 2013 Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship on Monday night with a trip to the NCAA tournament at stake. The two teams met twice in the regular season, with each grabbing a victory on their home floor.
FIU reached the title game by knocking off No. 1 Middle Tennessee. The Golden Panthers lost twice to the Blue Raiders in conference play, but rose up with a 61-57 win on Sunday night to earn its first-ever trip to the Sun Belt Championship.
WKU is far more experienced in this situation. By defeating Arkansas State on Sunday, the Hilltoppers notched their 13th trip to the conference title game. Western Kentucky beat North Texas to take home the crown last season, the eighth time it had done so in school history.
The Hilltoppers may rely heavily on their offensive rebounding prowess in this year's championship game. Western Kentucky was the best at grabbing its own misses in conference play, nabbing 38 percent of offensive rebounding opportunities. The last time WKU faced FIU, it was able to pull in 40 percent of its errant shots.
WKU's George Fant will be the man to watch on the offensive glass. His 10.4 offensive rebounding percentage was 10th in the conference, and he grabbed four last time out against FIU.
When Fant crashes the boards, it will most often be in search of a missed shot from T.J. Price. The guard is Western Kentucky's most voluminous shooter and primarily works from long range. A whopping 52 percent of Price's field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, where he is efficient. Price has hit on 37 percent of his threes this season.
Florida International's primary aim will be to take the ball away from Price before he ever gets a shot off. The Golden Panthers were best in the Sun Belt at forcing turnovers, creating them on 26 percent of possessions in league play. FIU looks to make mistakes happen, as it also led the conference by stealing the ball 14 percent of the time.
Sophomore Deric Hill is Florida International's most frequent thief. He finished second nationally in steal percentage, getting one on six percent of possessions while he is on the floor.
When Hill ends a possession for the opposition, he'll most often be looking to get Tymell Murphy the ball. The 6'5 junior is effective on the inside, hitting on 61 percent of his twos. Murphy was FIU's most efficient offensive player this season, while taking the highest percentage of shots. He lit it up against Western Kentucky this year, scoring 34 points on 13-of-21 shooting combined in the two matchups.
The game is likely to be close. Kenpom essentially predicts a toss-up, with Florida International holding the slimmest of advantages. Western Kentucky could make up for Florida International's forced turnovers by grabbing a few extra chances on the offensive glass, meaning the two teams' strengths may even out.
In the two prior meetings this season, the team that shot the best came out victorious. With the two teams so evenly matched, it will likely come down to that again. Look for the school with the best day from the outside to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.