One To Watch: Lamar at Abilene Christian

With Big 12 conference play starting, it was tempting to pick one of those matchups to highlight this week. But there's going to be plenty of time this year to talk about the conference that contains most of the state's top teams, and the most enticing matchup — TCU vs. No. 25 Texas on Friday — features a pair of teams I've written about extensively already.

Instead, let's zag a little and talk about a really fun Southland matchup that you can catch on ESPN3 at 1 p.m. on Saturday as the Lamar Cardinals (6-5 overall, 2-0 in Southland play) visit the Abilene Christian Wildcats (10-1, 2-0).

The Wildcats were the preseason favorites in the conference, receiving 14 of the 26 first place votes. But one of those remaining votes went to the Cardinals, and while they didn't fare nearly as well in non-conference play as ACU did, they still look like a team that could make noise now that conference play has arrived.

Let's set the stage some:

Abilene Christian ranks 30th in points per game so far this season at 76.4 per game, with a Her Hoop Stats offensive rating of 101.9, which ranks 61st. The team has the nation's highest free throw rate and are 14th in percentage of points coming from behind the arc. As a team, the Wildcats shoot 36 percent from three, with a pair of high-volume shooters both making over 40 percent of their shots, with Breanna Wright making 3.1 per game on 44.9 percent shooting and Dominique Golightly draining 2.6 per contest at 43.9 percent. Five players on this team take at least four threes per game.

The Wildcats need this kind of perimeter-oriented, high-ceiling offense because the defensive end hasn't been so kind to them. Out of 351 teams, ACU's Her Hoop Stats defensive rating ranks 259th. They've allowed at least 60 points in six of their seven games against DI opponents, and their 10-1 record is definitely bolstered by wins over teams like Howard Payne and McMurry. That's not to say ACU's start is any kind of illusion, but it's worth noting that the only team they've faced that's currently over .500, Oklahoma, beat them by 13.

For Lamar, the story's a little different. Just 4-5 against DI teams, Lamar's faced some incredibly tough opponents, losing to Oklahoma State, NC State, and Baylor. They lost to an above .500 Lousiana team and by one to a Cal Poly team that they should have beat. Lamar has more of a signature win than ACU does, with a win against a 7-4 Idaho team that ranks in the top 150 in RPI.

Lamar's offense has been bad. 327th in points per game. 300th in offensive rating. But they've been a solid, midpack defensive team that also has a couple of capable shooters in Amber Vidal and Angel Hastings. Against weaker competition than they've faced so far, the Cardinals offense should perform better — it's hard to look good on paper when you had to play a Baylor team that held you to 28 points, and they've now scored 60 or more in three consecutive games (all wins).

The Cardinals seem to be coming into their own right now, and this has the makings of a game that's going to tell us a good bit about the top of the Southland in 2020. Will Abilene Christian's offense run through teams in conference play, or can a solid Lamar defense slow the game down and grind out a win?

This is shaping up to be a strong year for Texas teams in the Southland. Aside from ACU and Lamar, all the other teams that started conference play 2-0 are from Texas as well: Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and Sam Houston State. Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word haven't fared as well, but the battle for the conference title is definitely shaping up like one that will go through the Lone Star state, so give this game a watch and then keep your eyes peeled for how these teams all match up as the season rolls along.

Other Games To Watch

FRIDAY

TCU at No. 25 Texas

Iowa State at Texas Tech

SATURDAY

Western Kentucky at Rice

No. 6 Baylor at Oklahoma

SUNDAY

No. 1 UConn at SMU

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