Samford (11-16, 8-8 SoCon) at Western Carolina (12-17, 6-10 SoCon)
Samford heads to Western Carolina this evening for a key SoCon North Division tilt, as the Bulldogs look to remain in contention for their first SoCon North Division crown, as well as the school's first-ever top-two finish in the SoCon's North Division since joining the league in 2008.
To get closer to that goal, the Bulldogs must overcome what has been a feisty Western Carolina club as of late, and a team the Bulldogs dropped a 75-71 decision against back in December at the Pete Hanna Center. Both the Bulldogs and Catamounts enter the matchup coming off impressive victories, with Western Carolina having pulled off a 78-76 overtime win at Elon on Saturday, while Samford held off a pesky Furman team, 55-49, at the Pete Hanna Center on Saturday afternoon.
The Bulldogs and the Catamounts will be meeting for just the ninth time in series history, with Western Carolina holding the commanding 6-2 all-time series edge, which includes a 4-0 all-time series edge in Cullowhee. Samford comes into the contest continuing to be red-hot as of late, as Jimmy Tillette's Bulldogs have won seven of their last 10 games entering tonight's showdown.
Continuing to lead the way this season for the Bulldogs have been sophomore sharp-shooting center Drew Windler (13.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and impressive freshman post performer Tyler Hood (10.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG). Both Hood and Windler are so impressive in the Princeton-style offense with their ability to step out and hit the three-point shot. Windler led the Bulldogs in the win over Furman with 18 points, while Hood was able to chip in 11 points. Windler, the team's 6'9" center, continues to be the team's most proficient outside shooter having connected on 52-of-123 triples (42.3%) this season. Windler led the Bulldogs with 20 points in the four-point loss in Birmingham back on Dec. 1.
The Samford backcourt will include Raijon Kelly (8.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG), Jeffery Merritt (8.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG) and Will Cook (7.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG) . All three players are tough matchups in the backcourt, as all three have good size, with wing guards Cook and Kelly going 6'4", while point guard Merritt is 6'6". Merritt is a savvy point guard and will be making his 39th straight start on Thursday night against the Catamounts. Cook finished in double figures the last time these two met, as he posted 12 points in the losing effort.
Off the bench, the Bulldogs will employ the services of athletic guards Brandon Hayman (3.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG), Devin McNeil (3.9 PPG, 1.6 RPG) and Kaylin Johnson (2.9 PPG, 1.1 RPG), while senior veteran Matthew Friday (3.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG) is the most accomplished player in the front court coming off of Jimmy Tillette's bench. McNeil, a freshman guard, had one of his best performances to date the first time these two met, scoring 19 points in the meeting between the two back in early December. Samford's 8.3 three-point field goals made per game leads the Southern Conference and ranks among the Top 20 nationally.
Western Carolina enters this evening's contest in search of its third straight win when it takes to the floor against the Bulldogs on Thursday evening. The Catamounts still have a realistic shot at the No. 3 seed if they can get the victory over the Bulldogs tonight, as a win tonight would give WCU the season sweep of Samford. Like Tillette, Larry Hunter has implemented many of the same Princeton offense principles into the Catamounts' offensive approach.
The Catamounts enter the crucial North Division tilt continuing to be led by senior forward/guard Harouna Mutombo (13.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG), who is winding down his career in the Purple and Gold. Mutombo led four Catamounts in double figures the first time these two teams squared off this season, posting 18 points.
The WCU backcourt will be comprised by point guard Keaton Cole (11.9 PPG, 1.6 RPG), and wing guards Brandon Boggs (10.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and Trey Sumler (12.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG) will round out the starters in the backcourt for WCU. Cole continues to be one of the league's most prolific perimeter shooters, having connected on a league best 91 triples this season, averaging 3.1 made threes per game. Boggs is maybe the most athletic player in the starting five for the Catamounts, and he is the team's best on-the-ball defender.
Tawaski King (7.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who has been playing some of his best basketball late in the season, will round out the starting five for Hunter's Catamounts. He struggled a bit early on the season in his full-time role with some big shoes to fill, having to replace talented veteran center Richie Gordon coming into the campaign, who had graduated. King is coming off a 13-point, nine rebound effort in the win at Elon on Saturday. The top players off the bench for Western this season have been Kenneth Hall (1.4 PPG, 2.2 RPG) and James Sinclair (2.0 PPG, 1.7 RPG) in the backcourt, while Preston Ross (4.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG) has been the first player off the bench in the front court this season.
For a team that has struggled for much of the season, Western Carolina is playing like a team that many thought would compete for a North Division title for a third-straight season, and with the tournament returning to Asheville next week, this momentum could help make the Civic Center a great atmosphere for the Catamounts next Thursday. Catamounts will complete the season sweep of the Bulldogs in Cullowhee tonight.
FINAL SCORE PREDICITION: WESTERN CAROLINA 68, SAMFORD 62