The Metro Conference doesn't boast traditional big names of college basketball. But Thursday's showdown between its top two teams, Tulane and North Carolina-Charlotte, could be one of the bigger games of the year.
Besides climbing in the national rankings, the winning team will greatly enhance its chances at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. The Metro has no automatic selection this year.
If nothing else, it should be entertaining. The teams are averaging a combined 168 points a game.
Tulane (18-2, 6-0), ranked No.
14, plays an up-tempo game and usually forces its opponents to run _ especially when the Green Wave's second line, the "Posse," applies full-court pressure.
22 UNC-Charlotte (16-4, 4-1) might be able to handle Tulane's relentless defense more effectively than the other Metro teams. The 49ers often use a three-guard alignment of Henry Williams, James Terrell and Delano Johnson.
"Anytime you can put three guards on the floor against pressure, it helps," UNC-C coach Jeff Mullins said. "All three are shooting the three pretty well and all make pretty good basketball decisions, and that's what you have to do against their pressure: make good basketball decisions."
However, Tulane coach Perry Clark might not have his team press as much as usual.
Against the University of South Florida last week at the Sun Dome, he was concerned that the Bulls' three-point shooters (Radenko Dobras and Derrick Sharp) might beat the trap, hit some three-pointers and get the crowd going.
"We like to dictate tempo, but whenever you go on the road, you have to be concerned about the other team going on a tear," Clark said. Tulane has won all three of its Metro road games (at Louisville, Virginia Commonwealth and USF) in overtime.
No place like home: USF will seek to snap a two-game losing streak Thursday against Louisville in the Sun Dome. Tulane coach Clark called the Bulls' home court the "most hostile" he's faced and said USF is "10 to 12 points" better there.
"I've never played any place that was easy," said Louisville coach Denny Crum, whose Cardinals beat the Bulls 60-47 at Freedom Hall. "I thought they were tough as nails here. But we've had some good road wins."
Good, you say? Let's see. At Kansas. At Louisiana State. At Xavier.
Accolades: For the second time in three weeks, Southern Mississippi senior forward Clarence Weatherspoon was named the Metro player of the week. In two games, including one against South Florida, Weatherspoon had 47 points, 23 rebounds, three blocked shots and six steals.
"Not only has he played the best basketball of his career, but he's been a tremendous leader," Southern Mississippi coach M.K. Turk said.
_ BRIAN LANDMAN