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2013-14 Mid-Major Conference Preview: Conference USA

After undergoing a total makeover, the C-USA is back with a new look featuring several upper-echelon teams that have a serious chance to claim the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

With Memphis gone, can Southern Miss claim the conference title?
With Memphis gone, can Southern Miss claim the conference title?
Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with Conference USA.

For years, Conference USA basketball was synonymous with the Memphis Tigers. Since 2003, John Calipari and Josh Pastner have led Memphis to represent the C-USA in the NCAA Tournament nine times.

The Tigers have fled to greener basketball and football pastures in the new American Athletic Conference, and so have long-time C-USA staples SMU, Houston and UCF.

To compensate, the conference has added Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas San Antonio.

Realignment, am I right?

Entering the 2013-2014 season, the C-USA now features a whopping 16 teams, with about half of those member schools looking to contend this winter and the other half stuck in the middle of a rebuild.

How will it all play out? First up, we have to pay respect to the program that has been chasing Memphis for the past several years.

1. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

Last Year: 27-10  (12-4), 2nd C-USA, NIT 3rd Round

Departures: Dwayne Davis (16.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Jonathan Mills (9.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg)

Key Returners: Jerrold Brooks (10.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.3 apg), Neil Watson (9.8 ppg, 4.9 apg, 2.8), Michael Craig (9.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.5 bpg), Daveon Boardingham (8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg)

Following a very successful ’12-13 campaign, Southern Miss saw Dwayne Davis graduate and sign with the Golden State Warriors and Jonathan Mills graduate too. But coach Donnie Tyndall has four seniors that will likely start in Brooks, Watson, Craig and Boardingham, returning a solid core of the squad that earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT last March. The Golden Eagles led the C-USA in scoring margin at +10.4 points per game last year; they should find themselves near the top of that category this time around as well.

2. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Last Year: 27-7 (16-2), 1st WAC, NIT 2nd Round

Departures: Brandon Gibson (7.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg)

Key Returners: Raheem Appleby (14.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Cordarius Johnson (7.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg), Alex Hamilton (7.8 ppg, 2.7 apg), Kenyon McNeail (7.0 ppg), Kenneth Smith (6.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.0 apg), Michale Kyser (5.0 ppg, 5.3 ppg, 2.7 bpg)

If you couldn’t tell by the Bulldogs’ key returners, Lousiana Tech is bringing back nearly everyone of significance from last season. With Michael White returning 9 members of his 11-man rotation from last season, the Bulldogs have a legitimate chance to have a loud inaugural season in the C-USA. If junior forward Michale Kyser, who averaged 2.7 blocks in just 19.3 minutes per night, can take his game to the next level, Louisiana Tech has a chance to not get snubbed from the Big Dance this March.

3. UAB Blazers

Last Year: 16-17 (7-9), 8th C-USA

Departures: Terence Jones (8.3 ppg, 3.6 apg), Jekore Tyler (7.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg)

Key Returners: Rod Rucker (14.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Jordan Swing (14.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Fahro Alihodzic (9.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Robert Williams (8.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Preston Purifoy (7.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg)

Jerod Haase has five strong seniors to lead the Blazers this season, a veteran core that should be able to take a leap into contention. Rod Bucker and Jordan Swing will be called upon to forge this team to the next level, and their mutual abilities to score and rebound should be enough to overcome the challenge some of the steeper competition the C-USA has to offer. UAB must improve on their defense that allowed a C-USA third-worst 71.2 points per game last year to truly contend for the conference’s crown.

4. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Last Year: 17-16 (8-8), 6th C-USA, CBI 1st Round

Departures: Scottie Haralson (11.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg), Kauri Black (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg)

Key Returners: Rashad Smith (14.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg), James Woodard (12.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.0 apg), Pat Swilling, Jr. (10.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg), D’Andre Wright (8.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.0 bpg), Rashad Ray (7.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Shaquille Harrison (6.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.8 apg)

Second-year head coach Danny Manning is fortunate to return six of his top eight scorers from last season, three of whom averaged double figures. Tulsa only graduated two seniors and has a young core that has a great chance to grow together this season and ultimately be a competitive team for the next three years, with Smith, Woodward, Wright, Ray and Harrison all entering just their sophomore seasons.

5. UTEP Minors

Last Year: 18-14 (10-6), 3rd C-USA

Departures: Konner Tucker (10.1 ppg), Jacques Streeter (7.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Chris Washburn (TR, 4.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg)

Key Returners: Julian Washburn (12.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg), John Bohannon (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg), McKenzie Moore (8.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Cedrick Lang (5.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg),

This offseason was one of obscurity for the UTEP Miners. They unveiled a new court, but also lost assistant coach Greg Foster to the Philadelphia 76ers. Sequentially, Tim Floyd brought in longtime Cal State Northridge head coach Bobby Braswell as Director of Basketball Operations. The Miners also have seen their roster undergo some changes as well. UTEP lost Konner Tucker and Jacques Streeter, their third and fifth-leading scorers from a year ago, respectively, to graduation and dropped Chris Washburn who has transferred to TCU. Floyd still retains his two leading scorers in Julian Washburn and John Bohannon, but they remaining core likely won’t be enough to crack the top five of this conference.

6. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Last Year: 28-6 (19-1), 1st Sun Belt East, NCAA Tournament 1st Round

Departures: Marcos Knight (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Raymond Cintron (8.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg), Bruce Massey (6.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.3 apg), JT Sulton (6.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg)

Key Returners: Shawn Jones (8.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.3 bpg), Neiko Hunter (7.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg), Kerry Hammonds (6.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg), Tweety Knight (4.7 ppg, 2.5 apg)

Kermit Davis‘ Blue Raiders lose four of their top seven scorers that secured an improbable at-large bid to the NCAA Tourney last spring. But what made Middle Tennessee so successful last season was their incredible scoring defense that gave up just 58.1 points per game. With Middle Tennessee returning three savvy veterans in Jones, Hunter and Hammonds, they might still have the capability to lock down on D and be competitive yet again.

7.  Old Dominion Monarchs

Last Year: 5-25 (3-15), 11th CAA

Departures: DeShawn Painter (13.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg)

Key Returners: Dimitri Batten (10.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Keenan Palmore (8.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.0 apg), Donte Hill (8.2 ppg, 4.0 ppg), Aaron Bacote (7.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Richard Ross (7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Nick Wright (6.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg)

After 22 years of excellence in the CAA, ODU stumbled through their final campaign in the Colonial during 2012-13. Towards the end of the nightmare season, Old Dominion fired long-time head coach Blaine Taylor and they limped to the finish line of the season before ending the year 2-2. Building off that end of season momentum, the Monarchs now have a change of scenery, a new coach in Jeff Jones and return six of their top seven scorers. They’ll just have to see major improvements on the defensive end if they want to be a serious threat in the conference.

8. Charlotte 49ers

Last Year: 21-12 (8-8), 8th A-10, NIT 1st Round

Departures: Chris Braswell (11.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg), DeMario Mayfield (TR, 11.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Darion Clark (TR, 6.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg), E. Victor Nickerson (TR, 5.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg)

Key Returners: Pierria Henry (10.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Willie Clayton (8.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Terrence Williams (7.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Denzel Ingram (5.8 ppg)

In 2012-13, the 49ers went a cool 8-8 in a loaded A-10 that sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament. But Alan Major lost four of his top seven scorers from last season, with Chris Braswell graduating and three others departing via transfer. The 49ers still retain some of their top talent in order to have a competitive inaugural campaign in the C-USA, but this squad will struggle to match that sparkling 21-win mark from last season.

9. Florida International Golden Panthers

Last Year: 18-14 (11-9), 3rd Sun Belt East

Departures: Malik Smith (TR, 14.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Cameron Bell (8.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg), Deric Hill (TR, 6.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), Toko Akomolafe (4.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg)

Key Returners: Tymell Murphy (14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Jerome Frink (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Marco Porcher Jimenez (5.1 ppg),

Coach Anthony Evans lost his top three-point shooter and second leading scorer, Malik Smith, to Minnesota. But the Golden Panthers bring back Tymell Murphy, who has a legitimate chance at being one of the top players in the conference and Jerome Frink. The question is whether those two talented frontcourt scorers will be able to overcome the loss of four of their top 7 scorers from last season. Time will tell.

10. North Texas Mean Green

Last Year: 12-20 (7-13), 5th Sun Belt West

Departures: Tony Mitchell (13.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.7 bpg), Roger Franklin (11.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Jacob Holmen (5.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg), P.J. Hardwick (3.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.5 apg)

Key Returners: Jordan Williams (14.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Alzee Williams (11.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg), Chris Jones (9.2 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.6 rpg),

North Texas ranked just eighth in the Sun Belt in scoring last season, tallying 66.2 points per night. And now, Tony Benford loses two of his top three scorers to the professional ranks with Mitchell being drafted by the Detroit Pistons and Franklin heading to Holland. But the Mean Green still return three players who scored more than 9.2 points per game last season and might be able to use their upperclassmen leadership to secure a few wins here and there.

11. Rice Owls

Last Year: 5-26 (1-15), 12th C-USA

Departures: Tamir Jackson (17.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Julian DeBose (TR, 10.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg)

Key Returners: Max Guercy (9.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.5 apg), Austin Ramljak (9.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg), Seath Gearhart (7.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg), Keith Washington (4.3 ppg, 2.1 apg), Ross Wilson (3.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg)

Coach Ben Braun is fortunate to return five of his top seven scorers from last season, but that’s where all of the Owl’s serendipity ends. The two players that are missing from last year’s top seven are Tamir Jackson and Julian DeBose, the team’s two best scorers. Jackon has graduated and is now playing in Europe and DeBose transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. What’s worse is that the Owls scored just 60.5 points per game as a team last year, a rate that ranked worst in the C-USA. That being said, Rice still has the semblance of a roster to win more than one game in conference this season. For the Owls, their sum might just be a touch better than their parts.

12. East Carolina Pirates

Last Year: 23-12 (9-7), 4th C-USA, CIT Champions

Departures: Maurice Kemp (18.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Miguel Paul (13.3 ppg, 7.2 apg), Robert Sampson (TR, 9.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Tyler Armstrong (9.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg),

Key Returners: Akeem Richmond (10.8 ppg), Paris Roberts-Campbell (5.6 ppg), Peter Torlack (5.3 ppg)

Lost their two senior standouts Kemp and Paul, Armstrong also graduated, lost a nightly double-double threat in Sampson to Georgia Tech. Overall, Jeff Lebo lost four of his top five scorers from last season’s club that was second in the C-USA in scoring offense. Leaves Richmond as the only returning double-digit scorer. suddenly has to emerge as a leading scorer. Richmond shot 42 percent from three as a third or fourth option.

13. UTSA Roadrunners

Last Year: 10-22 (3-14), 8th WAC

Departures: Kannon Burrage (17.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Michael Hale III (15.6 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.1 rpg)

Key Returners: Jeromie Hill (13.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Jordan Sims (6.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg)

Brooks Thompson has lost his two leading scorers that combined to score 32.8 of UTSA’s nightly 64.0 points per game average that was second-to-last in the WAC last season. Now, senior forward Jeromie Hill is the lone remaining double-digit scorer from 2012-2013 in San Antonio, but he looks to be a player that is more successful as a third-option than a leading scorer. While this campaign will probably bring many losses for the Roadrunners, it was also have a motif of rebuilding, as Thompson will integrate a talented freshman in Larry Lewis.

14. Florida Atlantic Owls

Last Year: 14-18 (9-11), 5th Sun Belt East

Departures: Greg Gantt (21.2 ppg), Stefan Moody (TR, 15.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Jordan McCoy (5.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg)

Key Returners: Pablo Bertone (9.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Jackson Trapp (5.0 ppg), Richard Morrow (3.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg), Draga Sekelja (3.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg)

The Owls lost their all-time leading scorer in Greg Gantt to graduation and, Stefan Moody, the electric sophomore guard, left the program to transfer to Kilgore College in Texas. Sophomore guard Jackson Trapp, the team’s lone returning starter, and Pablo Certone, a crafty senior guard, will now need to lead the offense. But, if Florida Atlantic struggled to win games in the Sun Belt, they’ll most likely have trouble doing the same in a deeper league.

15. Marshall Thundering Herd (14-16)

Last Year: 13-19 (6-10), 10th C-USA

Departures: DeAndre Kane (TR, 15.1 ppg, 7.1 apg, 4.4 rpg), D.D. Scarver (11.9 ppg), Dennis Tinnon (10.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Nigel Spikes (5.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Robert Goff (4.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg)

Key Returners: Elijah Pittman (16.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg),

Owners of the eighth best offense in the conference last season, Marshall lost five of their top six scorers that combined to averaged 48 of the team’s 69 points per game. It’s hard to fathom, but the Herd truly struggled more on the defensive side of the court in ’12-13, yielding 72.7 points per game. Now, Tom Herrion will have to rely on talented senior forward Elijah Pittman to set the tone for Marshall this year. However, Marshall won’t likely be thundering past many opponents this season.

16. Tulane Green Wave

Last Year: 20-15 (6-10), 9th C-USA, CIT 2nd Round

Departures: Josh Davis (TR, 17.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Ricky Tarrant (TR, 15.7 ppg, 3.6 apg), Jordan Callahan (10.6 ppg. 2.6 rpg), Kendall Timmons (8.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Ben Cherry (TR, 4.4 ppg)

Key Returners: Trevante Drye (4.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg)

Tulane’s undisputed best player from a year ago, Josh Davis, transferred to San Diego State and has been considered by many to be one of the biggest impact transfers in the nation. And, when Davis has been compared by some to Kawhi Leonard, that’s an even bigger loss. Plus, Ricky Tarrant transferred to Alabama as well and the Green Wave graduated two other starters in Jordan Callahan and Kendall Timmons. Ed Conroy only returns one starter in Drye and brings in a large, eight-man freshman class. This is the definition of a rebuilding year.