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2014-15 Conference USA Team-by-Team Preview

Conference USA in 2014-2015 will be about what's returning (especially at LA Tech and UTEP) but also about what is gone. Tulsa leaves the conference after winning the conference tournament last year. Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee lose a ton of players, while USM also lost Head Coach Donnie Tyndall to Tennessee. Star players Sean Obi, Chad Frazier, and Kareem Canty all left their teams in search of better opportunities.

Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sp

Despite all the turnover, the league should be very competitive. Louisiana Tech and UTEP return their top players after successful runs a year ago. Western Kentucky, Charlotte, and Old Dominion are all veteran teams that will contend for a conference championship.

There are some exciting freshmen joining the league this season and new coaches with winning backgrounds. After losing so much talent from last season, the conference should still be solid across the board.

1.       Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Last Year: 29-8 (13-3), t-1 CUSA, NIT Quarterfinals

Departures: Kenyon McNeail (11.0 ppg), Cordarius Johnson (7.4 ppg), Jaron Johnson (9.1 ppg), Chris Anderson (11.7 ppg)

Key Returners: Kenneth Smith (7.8 ppg), Raheem Appleby (11.2 ppg), Alex Hamilton (14.5 ppg), Michale Kyser 7.0 ppg)

Year four under Head Coach Michael White brings nothing but optimism for Louisiana Tech. After winning 56 combined games the last two seasons, the Bulldogs are searching for something more. With four veterans returning from last year's NIT run, the pieces are in place for Tech to go far.

Still there are question marks for White and his team. He has to incorporate nine newcomers into the fold to go along with the four returning starters. UTEP, one of the few teams to beat the Bulldogs last year, also returns a strong squad. White added plenty of length and athleticism with the new guys, led by 6'8" Murray State transfer Erik McCree.

Speedy Smith's game winner against Iona:

2.       UTEP Miners

Last Year: 23-11 (12-4), 5th CUSA, CBI

Departures: John Bohannon (11.9 ppg)

Returners: Julian Washburn (13.1 ppg), Vincent Hunter (12.3 ppg), C.J. Cooper (9.6 ppg), Cedrick Lang (6.5 ppg)

UTEP had a great chance to make the NCAA tournament last year. The Miners had a loaded roster and the conference tournament was held in El Paso. An early win over Tennessee and a four point loss to Kansas showed early in the season that the Miners were going to be good, but they fizzled late in the year.

Now the Miners return All-Conference level forwards Vincent Hunter and Julian Washburn as well as Head Coach Tim Floyd. Of the five teams at the top of Conference USA a year ago, only LA Tech and UTEP return their coach and their key players. Tulsa moved on to the American and USM and MTSU lost a majority of their players.

UTEP dismissed three key players last season and that left them shorthanded at guard. This contributed to the Miners poor finish last season. Floyd brought in guards who can help, especially Omega Harris from Oklahoma. Harris is a highly recruited 6-2 guard from Oklahoma that should start from day one.

3.     Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

20-12  (12-6) 2nd Sun Belt

Key losses: Brandon Harris (5.8 ppg), Caden Dickerson (4.7 ppg), O'Karo Akamune (4.1 ppg)

Returners: T.J. Price (15.5 ppg), George Fant (13.3 ppg), Trency Jackson (10.2 ppg), Chris Harrison-Docks (9.9 ppg)

After finishing second in the Sun Belt last season, Western Kentucky joins Conference USA and immediately jump into the discussion as a contender. The Hilltoppers return four starters, led by Louisiana native T.J. Price. The 6'4" wing led the team in points and assists a year ago and also grabbed 4.4 rebounds per game. WKU will rely on Price to lead them on both ends on the floor.

Another senior, 6'4" George Fant, led the team in blocks and rebounds and was also second in scoring. Trency Jackson is a third senior who averaged double figures after transferring from Texas Tech. Jackson is a streaky scorer, but if Head Coach Ray Harper can get more consistent scoring from the 6'2" guard, the Hilltoppers could compete for a title in their first year.

4.      Charlotte 49ers

17-14  (7-9) t-8th CUSA

Key losses: Denzell Ingram (9.1 ppg), Shawn Lester (11.9 ppg)

Returners: Pierria Henry (12.3 ppg), Willie Clayton (10.8 ppg), Terrence Williams (10.5 ppg), Mike Thorne (9.1 ppg)

Charlotte was a solid team last season, finishing at 7-9 in the conference. They return four starters, and they would have returned their sixth man, Shawn Lester, who was their second leading scorer. Lester left the team in October. Having five players return that averaged over 9 points per game would have been very valuable to Head Coach Alan Major, but four of them will do just fine.

6'4" senior guard Pierria Henry leads the way for the 49ers after averaging 5.8 assists and 5.1 rebounds in addition to leading the team in scoring. Juniors Willie Clayton (6'9") and Mike Thorne (6'11") give the 49ers a huge presence up front. The two combined for 19.9 points and 15.6 rebounds a game last season. Charlotte is one of the few teams that will be able to matchup inside with UTEP.

5.       Old Dominion Monarchs

18-18  (9-7) 6th CUSA  CBI Semifinals

18-8 (9-7) 6th CUSA  CBI Semifinals

Key loss: Dimitri Batten (11.0 ppg)

Returners: Aaron Bacote (15.5 ppg), Keenan Palmore (9.9 ppg), Richard Ross (9.9 ppg), Denzell Taylor (4.4 ppg)

Jeff Jones led Old Dominion to an 18-18 start last season, his first as the Monarchs head coach and their first as a member of Conference USA. The Monarchs finished sixth place in the conference and they return four starters.

6'2" guard Trey Freeman averaged 15.6 points per game at Campbell two years ago.  The junior guard joins 6'4" Aaron Bacote, who led the team in scoring last season. Bacote and Freeman give Jones two options to score from the perimeter, a luxury he did not have a year ago.

Old Dominion was small a year ago with 6'6" Richard Ross and 6'7" Denzell Taylor both returning inside. The Monarchs did bring in some help to shore things up in the frontcourt. 6'7" junior college transfer Javante Douglas and George Mason transfer Jonathan Arledge (6'9" senior) will certainly help. If the new guys can mesh with the team by January, Coach Jones might have himself a team to reckon with down the stretch.

6.       Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

24-9  (13-3) t-1 CUSA

Key Losses: Shawn Jones (14.2 ppg), Neiko Hunter (13.2 ppg), Kerry Hammonds II (12.3 ppg), Tweety Knight (6.9 ppg)

Returners: Jaquan Raymond (6.5 ppg), Reggie Upshaw Jr. (6.4 ppg), Marcus Tarrance (5.2 ppg)

Kermit Davis knows how to win; he has over 300 wins in his career. He replaced four starters a year ago, mostly with junior college players, and still won 24 games and a share of the Conference USA regular season. Davis returns three players, Jaquan Raymond, Reggie Upshaw Jr., and Marcus Tarrance, who all played key roles for the team a year ago.

Once again Davis went the juco route, bringing in guard Devante "D.J." Jones and 6'7" forwards Darnell Harris and Perrin Buford. Can Davis work his magic and get Middle Tennessee back in the mix for a conference championship? He's done it before and I wouldn't bet against him. One freshman he did bring in is highly touted guard JaQuel Richmond from Greensboro, NC. Richmond was rated as the 35th best point guard in the country by ESPN.

7.       North Texas Mean Green

16-16 (6-10) 11th CUSA

Key Losses: Alzee Williams (11.1 ppg), Chris Jones (7.5 ppg), Vertrail Vaughns (7.3 ppg)

Returners: Jordan Williams (12.0 ppg), Colin Voss (7.3 ppg), T.J. Taylor (7.0 ppg)

North Texas returns 6-6 Jordan Williams and 6-7 Colin Voss this season, but the optimism surrounding the program stems from the new guys. J-Mychal Reese, a transfer from Texas A&M, is hopeful to be eligible to play sooner than later this season. The 6-1 guard played in six games last year for the Aggies and is expected to take over point guard duties for the Mean Green.

6-7 forwards Jeremy Combs from Dallas-Carter and Muhammed Ahmed from Gillette Community College join 6-7 forward Greg Wesley from Arlington, TX, who sat out last season as a redshirt. UNT will have plenty of size and athleticism to work with, the key will be putting everyone together. Junior College guards Todd Eaglin, DeAndre Harris, and Carrington Ward round out the rotation.

8.    Southern Miss Golden Eagles

29-7 (13-3) t-1st CUSA  NIT Quarterfinals

Key Losses: Michael Craig (11.3 ppg), Neil Watson (10.9 ppg), Daveon Boardingham (10.0 ppg), Aaron Brown (10.0 ppg), Jerrold Brooks (9.6 ppg)

Returners: Matt Bingaya (5.5 ppg), Jeremiah Eason (5.5 ppg)

After winning 48 games and two straight postseason appearances in two years at UTEP, Doc Sadler returns to Conference USA almost a decade later with much more experience under his belt. Sadler won over 100 games at Nebraska before being fired in 2012. He spent the last two years at Kansas and Iowa State, where he worked on refining his game plan.

It's a total rebuild for the 54 year old Sadler; Southern Miss lost almost everybody. He returns 6-5 Matt Bingaya and 6-7 Jeremiah Eason up front and he brings in junior college guards Rasham Suarez and Dallas Anglin, who both played for two of the top junior college programs (College of Central Florida and College of Southern Idaho) in the country. Rounding out his rotation will be a challenge, but the Golden Eagles should be talented enough and well coached enough to be a tough matchup in Hattiesburg and they should finish as a middle of the road Conference USA team.

9. Florida Atlantic Owls

10-22 (5-11) t-12 CUSA

Key Losses: Pablo Bartone (19.0 ppg), Dragan Sekelja (4.8 ppg)

Key Returners: Marquan Botley (11.3 ppg), Justin Raffington (10.1 ppg), Jackson Trapp (8.7 ppg), D'Andre Johnson (6.4 ppg), Kelvin Penn (4.2 ppg)

Florida Atlantic returns just about everyone from a 10 win team and they seemed to be improving as the year went on. The Owls won 7 of their first 12 games starting January 1st, before losing their last 7 games of the season. However, the one guy they did lose was their best player, Pablo Bartone.

NBA veteran Michael Curry comes in as head coach after a career where he is best known for his time playing and coaching for the Detroit Pistons.  Curry brings in Maceo Baston II from Country Day High School in Detroit, a 6-5 forward whose dad played at Michigan. Another 6-5 newcomer is Traevis Brown, is a local product who was a highly regarded prospect. Their best newcomer is 6-9 C.J. Turman, a post player from Georgia. Turman was committed to Tennessee before a coaching change and is a huge addition to FAU.  If Curry can put his stamp on this team quickly, they should win more games than they did last season.

10.  UAB Blazers

18-13 (7-9) t-8 CUSA

Key Losses: Chad Frazier (17.7 ppg), Rod Rucker (10.9 ppg), Fahro Alihodzic (8.8 ppg), Robert Williams (8.6 ppg)

Returners: C.J. Washington (13 ppg), Denzell Watts (3.5 ppg)

UAB was going to be a contender in Conference USA this year. The Blazers won 18 games last season and they were going to return their two leading scorers. Chad Frazier left the team in July, and now the Blazers are destined to be a middle of the road team again this season. Head Coach Jared Haase finds himself in an unexpected rebuilding year, but he does have plenty of talent to work with.

6-8 forward C.J. Washington does return as well as 6-2 guard Denzell Watts, who was a much better player as his freshman season went on and he gained experience. 6-9 freshman William Lee, Alabama's Mr. Basketball, should give the Blazers a huge boost inside next to Washington. The future is bright in Birmingham, Lee joins fellow freshmen forwards Chris Cokley (6-8) and Lewis Sullivan (6-7) in the frontcourt.

11. Florida International Panthers

15-16 (7-9) t-8 CUSA

Key Losses: Tymell Murphy (16.6 ppg), Rakeem Buckles (13.7 ppg), Jerome Frink (8.4 ppg)

Returners: Dennis Mavin (11.8 ppg), Cody Mann (5.9 ppg), Jason Boswell (3.2 ppg), Dominique Williams (3.0 ppg)

Florida International has five players coming back with experience, but only one player started last season. The starting lineup should 6-0 Cody Mann, 6-3 Dennis Mavin, 6-6 Jason Boswell, 6-6 Dominique Williams, and 6-10 Adrian Diaz. Diaz is a former Kansas State Wildcat while Mann originally suited up for Colorado State. Another transfer, fifth year senior Kris Gulley, comes in from Long Beach State and could start at small forward if Head Coach Anthony Evans decides to go with a bigger lineup.

FIU should take a step back this year because they lost so many players. It will be interesting to see how well Evans can recruit as he tries to move up the ranks in Conference USA. He did bring in three big forwards in 6-7 junior Daviyon Draper and 6-9 freshmen Hassan Hussein and Larry Dennis. The trio will be counted on to provide solid play off the bench behind Diaz and Williams.

12.  UTSA  Roadrunners

8-22 (4-12) t-14

Key Losses: Devon Agusi (12.2 ppg), Jordan Sims 10.5 ppg), Hyjii Thomas (9.3 ppg)

Returners: Keon Lewis (12.6 ppg), Phillip Jones (7.2 ppg), Kaj-Bjorn Sherman (4.4 ppg)

There is reason for optimism in San Antonio, Head Coach Brooks Thompson has help coming in. Leading scorer Keon Lewis returns and he is joined by two players who sat out last season. 6-8 forward Jeromie Hill missed last season with an injury, but he was an All-Conference player in the Southland Conference. Larry Lewis, Jr. is a point guard from Phoenix, AZ that redshirted this past season.

6-10 freshman James Ringholt will join fellow Australian Hill in the frontcourt, as well as 7-0 sophomore Kaj-Bjorn Sherman. 6-6 Phillip Jones returns too and he led the team in rebounds and blocks last season. So with both of the Lewis's at guard and plenty of size, the Roadrunners should be a much improved team in 2014-2015.

13.   Marshall Thundering Herd

11-22 (4-12) t-14

Key Losses: Kareem Canty (16.3 ppg), Chris Thomas (12.7 ppg)

Returners: Ryan Taylor (12.8 ppg), Shawn Smith (7.6 ppg), TyQuane Goard (6.3 ppg)

Like Michael Curry, Dan D'Antoni is a new coach with NBA experience. The Marshall grad returns to his alma mater in hopes of rebuilding the basketball program. D'Antoni also has plenty of high school coaching experience, but none in college. His NBA pedigree should help him recruit well.

Marshall lost its top two players, guard Kareem Canty and Chris Thomas, but they have a lot of size to work with. 6-6 forards Shawn Smith and Ryan Taylor return, as well as 6-7 TyQuane Goard, 6-9 Cheikh Sane, and 6-9 J.P. Kambola, who sat out last season with an injury.

6-5 freshman Alexsa Nikolic and 6-9 freshman Milan Mijobic come in from Serbia and will help right away. Mikolic will handle the point guard duties. Marshall will be thing on the wings, but if Nikolic can handle the point guard role, they have plenty of size to work with.

14. Rice Owls

7-23, (2-14) 16th in Conference USA

Key Losses: Sean Obi (11.4 ppg), Austin Ramljak (11.6 ppg), Keith Washington (7.7 ppg)

Returners: Max Guercy (9.3 ppg), Seth Gearhart (6.8 ppg), Marcus Jackson (6.7 ppg)

The Owls lose three of their top four scorers from a year ago after finishing last in the conference. The biggest loss was Sean Obi, a promising freshman who transferred to Duke. New Head Coach Mike Rhoades will miss having Obi as a building block, but the former VCU assistant will implement an up tempo game that Obi might have not fit well in anyway.

Rhoades brings back three players with good experience in 5-9 Max Guercy, 6-3 Marcus Jackson, and 6-7 Seth Gearhart. Like UTSA, FAU, and UAB, there is reason for to believe in future success at Rice. 7-1 Nate Pollard, nephew of former NBA player Scot Pollard, joins the team. 6-7 Maurice Rivers was one of the better prospects coming out of Atlanta, GA. It might take a year of growing pains for Rhoades to get off the ground, but Rice should be more competitive going forward.