by Joe Caputo
The last time Conference USA was a 2-bid league? 2012, but this year may be the end to that streak. Conference USA has taken a giant step forward in the 2017-2018 season, led of course by recent powerhouse Middle Tennessee State. Following close behind, Western Kentucky and Old Dominion have put together great seasons, and UAB, North Texas, and Marshall have been no slouches themselves. If someone other than Middle Tennessee wins the conference tournament, we may just see CUSA with 2 teams in the dance once again, but for now, let’s try to sort out what will be a great conference tournament.
A League of Their Own
Middle Tennessee – after losing Reggie Upshaw to graduation after last year and the conference improving, the Blue Raiders looked like they may be vulnerable in 2018. They did not waste much time putting an end to that thought. Having already beat both Old Dominion and Western Kentucky on the road, Middle Tennessee is once again the cream of the crop at 11-1 in conference. Giddy Potts is having a tremendous year running the point, and the Raiders are once again led by a slew of other seniors. What many people didn’t realize at the time was that 15-seeded Middle Tennessee that took down Michigan State was a relatively young team, which is why this is now the third straight year Kermit Davis’ bunch finds themselves at the top of the conference. Having won tournament games in back to back seasons, this team is not just a threat in Conference USA, but a team no one wants to see in the big dance. Middle Tennessee should find themselves in barring a disastrous loss or two down the stretch.
Western Kentucky – for a while, it looked like the Hilltoppers also may have an at-large case. Western Kentucky was one of just 2 teams to beat Purdue outside of the Big 10 this season, giving them the signature win they needed. However, a recent slip up to UTSA and an out of conference defeat at the hands of Ohio now has the Hilltoppers needing that all-important auto-bid once again. Former long-time Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury has done a great job in just his 2nd year in Western Kentucky, but WKU has begun to show some weaknesses. Their lack of height and experience may be a problem come tournament time, and it is concerning that the Hilltoppers are not blowing opponents away like they were at the beginning of the conference season. However, this team is absolutely talented enough to make a run at this conference crown. In fact, just making the final, assuming no other losses, may end up being just enough.
Old Dominion – the only problem with the Monarchs’ season to date is they have not been able to win the big one. Their 3 best opponents: Temple, Western Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee, all got the best of them. While Jeff Jones’ team has made quick work of the weaker teams in the conference, they will need to obviously beat the big boys if they want to dance in 2018. Playing at one of the slowest paces in all of the nation, the Monarchs could be a headache for a higher seed if they do indeed make the NCAA Tournament. They value the basketball, defend the heck out of the paint, and rebound well. This well-coached bunch of juniors and seniors know their season is far from over, and I expect them to be one of the toughest outs in this years CUSA tournament.
For more on Old Dominion, check out our interview with head coach Jeff Jones.
The Annoying Ones
North Texas – the hottest of the annoying guys that just do not want to go away just yet, the Mean Green have won 4 of their last 5, with the only loss coming at Middle Tennessee by just 6. Sporadic injuries plagued this team earlier in the season, but after getting everyone together and healthy, North Texas is going to be one tough out in this conference tournament. After coaching just one successful season at Arkansas State, Grant McCasland has come over and coached the heck out of this team, a team that has not lost a conference game all year by double figures. While ultimately I do not think this team has enough experience and talent to win the entire tournament, I will enjoy betting them down the stretch, and cannot help but expect them to take one or more of these top seeds to the wire when the tournament does roll around.
UAB – since a hot start, UAB has underwhelmed of late. While losses at Marshall, Western Kentucky, and Old Dominion weren’t necessarily bad, the Blazers have now lost 5 of their last 8, only beating UTEP, Charlotte, and Rice in that span (2 of which on their home floor). An inability to score the basketball has been the culprit of late, as this team has not cracked 61 points since February 1st at Charlotte. The conference seems to have caught up to what was once a 4-1 UAB squad, but there is still time to turn things back around. Zack Bryant and Nick Norton need to improve their play if this team wants to return to the elite class in this conference.
UTSA – one of the best-kept secrets around, Steve Henson has been absolutely tremendous in his two seasons at Texas-San Antonio. Henson shows his colors as a former Lon Kruger assistant with his team’s fast pace and high scoring attack, but do not sleep on the defense at all. Since conference play began, the Roadrunners have posted a defensive efficiency of 99.3 according to kenpom.com, a number well-below the nation’s average. Still a young team, UTSA does an excellent job of taking care of the ball and cleaning the glass, however they will need to improve their pure halfcourt offensive ability if they want to compete with the big boys. Having already beat UAB and Western Kentucky this season, UTSA cannot be overlooked come March. Look for the Roadrunners to frustrate an early opponent and outperform expectations when all is said and done.
Louisiana Tech – this middle tier is long and dangerous, and here is just another team to be hitting its stride late in the year. Like North Texas, LA Tech has dealt with its fair share of injuries this year, including one to one of their best shooter in DaQuan Bracey, who just is beginning to get back into the flow. Derric Jean has been a rock for the Bulldogs, with moving pieces all around him, and he will be relied upon heavily down the stretch. It is important to note that this is another young team, but having won 5 of its last 7, Louisiana Tech looks like it plans to join many others as a potential nuisance to these top teams looking to maybe even secure an at-large. With all things starting to come together, the Bulldogs are good enough to make a deep run.
Marshall – quite possibly the biggest wild card in the field, Marshall is the only team in the conference to have beaten Middle Tennessee this season. Defense has generally been optional in the D’Antoni family, but Mike’s brother Dan has actually bred a pretty balanced attack this season. This Marshall team plays at the 5th fastest pace in ALL of college basketball, which will make them a nightmare for those top seeds in a tournament with not many days off. However, it remains to be seen whether this style will backfire for the same reason. Marshall does a lot of things right, and not many wrong, leading the conference in free throw shooting while shooting well-above the national average in both 2-point and 3-point percentage. I know it sounds redundant, but the Thundering Herd are yet another team that I would not want to face in this conference tournament at the end of the month.
No Man’s Land
Southern Miss – with their striking home/road splits, Southern Miss cannot be taken seriously as a competitor in this tournament just yet. While they have shown excellent promise at home, the Eagles have been outscored by 12 points per game on the road in conference, which ranks 12th of 14 teams. They play absolutely no defense, which explains the lack of success on the road, posting a 111.6 defensive efficiency in conference, dead-last according to kenpom.com. This coupled with the fact that they just do not do a good job on the boards gives them, in my opinion, just too many weaknesses to overcome. While I can see them winning a first round game, I think the buck stops there for the Golden Eagles this season.
FIU – the Panthers are by no means having a bad season. Picked to finish last in Conference USA, they have been able to get some wins over quality opponents while playing some excellent defense in the process. The problem with Anthony Evans’ squad is simple: they just can’t score. Ranked 12th of 14 teams by kenpom.com in offensive efficiency within the conference, the FIU will not be running any teams out of the gym when the conference tournament rolls around. They have enough defensive ability to hang around in games, but I do not see them as a threat to any of the top teams in the league when push comes to shove.
FAU – it’s very difficult to find a discernible difference between FAU and FIU. Both teams have a similar makeup: they play defense but cannot score. Michael Curry’s crew has been struggling of late, and only really have wins this year over the bottom teams in the conference. Their resume is slightly worse than the Panthers of Florida International, but I think their floor and ceiling is about the same. They rank 328th in the nation in offensive efficiency, which will make it very difficult to keep up with some of the high scoring attacks of the top of the conference. Florida Atlantic will likely be bumped in the first round.
Cover Your Eyes
3 teams, 1 spot.
Uniquely, Conference USA does not allow all of the teams into its conference tournament. Likely due to its large size (most teams of any conference in the country), Conference USA actually eliminates two teams before the conference tournament even begins. As a result, things are a whole lot more interesting at the bottom of the conference as February rolls along.
UTEP – by far the biggest disappointment of the season, UTEP was picked to finish 5th in the Conference USA preseason poll but has mustered just 2 conference wins all year. Not to mention those wins were against FIU and Rice. Texas El Paso is no where close to being a threat in the upcoming tournament. They cannot score, they play average defense at best, and they have not shown any sign of improvement along the way. Currently in the midst of a 6-game losing streak, the Miners will need to have a good showing tonight against Charlotte, a team they are desperately fighting with for the 12th and final spot in the tournament.
Rice – a team that wasn’t supposed to be good and simply isn’t. Rice has had a pretty terrible season, but has recently at least been competitive. They led UAB late in their last game, only to see the lead evaporate, and took both North Texas and FAU to the wire. Rice has played most of its conference road games already, leaving then with 4 of their remaining 6 games at home. That will help as they battle UTEP for this final spot, but the most important game of them all will come March 1 when they host the Miners. I see more promise from this Rice team, and expect them to grab the 12 seed.
Charlotte – it’s been a disaster since day 1 for the 49ers. Losing Andrien White for 5 games in the middle of the season certainly did not help, but this Charlotte team has been awful from the get-go. With just 4 wins against Division 1 opponents all year, Houston Fancher’s team currently is riding a 10-game losing streak. Not only is it a long shot for them to get into the tournament, but it would take a miracle for them to win a game. Maybe next year will bring better luck to the Charlotte 49ers.