Last year, Middle Tennessee gave Conference USA a name on the national stage. The 15th seed took on the 2nd seed Michigan State, who was also favorites to make a run for the Final Four and the National Championship. Middle Tennessee has to thank Western Kentucky though. The eighth seed Hilltoppers knocked out C-USA overall one seed UAB out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals, setting up the perfect scenario for the Blue Raiders.
MTSU then did the improbable, defeating Michigan State 90-81 to become the eighth 15th seed ever to defeat a 2 seed. MTSU has all the capabilities of making it the big dance once again but it won’t come without a challenge in what should be another exciting year of basketball in Conference USA.
C-USA Preseason Power Rankings
The Blazers claimed the C-USA regular season championship last season, only to unexpectedly fall to Western Kentucky in the C-USA tournament quarterfinals. But there is good news for the Blazers. They return two big forwards in 6’8" junior Chris Cokley, who averaged 13.1 points and six rebounds last season; and 6’9" junior William Lee, who also averaged double digits with 10.6 PPG and also grabbed six boards a game.
The Blazers also return their top assist and steals man from last season. Despite the letdown in the conference tournament, UAB is still the team to beat in the C-USA in 2016-17.
2. Middle Tennessee
The good old bracket-busting Blue Raiders. The 15 seed took down 2 seed Michigan State last spring in the NCAA Tournament. Yours truly had MSU going all the way, cutting down the nets at the end of the season and as you know, my bracket dreams were crushed on day one.
However, MTSU was a solid force in the regular season last year. The Blue Raiders seemed unstoppable besides a stretch where they lost three of four in conference games. MTSU has their top two scorers, top rebounder, and top assist man returning this season. It’ll be another close season but the Blue Raiders have the chance to pass up UAB and take over the C-USA.
WE ARE, MARSHALL! Sorry, I had to. The Thundering Herd notched double-digit conference wins last year. Problem is though, Marshall struggled to beat the top tier teams in the C-USA, such as UAB, Middle Tennessee, and LA Tech. But there is good news, three of Marshall’s top four scorers are coming back, with only James Kelly departing. But how Marshall will fare will solely depend on their performances against top C-USA teams
4. Old Dominion
Last season, Old Dominion was three points away from reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Monarchs missed a layup late in the C-USA Tournament Championship that would’ve sent the game to overtime, but Brandan Stith’s layup missed and sent the MTSU Blue Raiders to the big dance instead. ODU is without two players from last year that accounted for 35 PPG for the Monarchs. As such, Old Dominion will have to rely on younger players for scoring and consistent defensive play and this could cause a drop-off in wins from last season.
5. Louisiana Tech
La. Tech was in the running for the C-USA last year. The Bulldogs had a solid and relatively consistent regular season, finishing four games behind the first place Blazers of UAB. But the Bulldogs fell in the conference tourney, losing to Old Dominion by double digits. LA Tech returns two of their top four scorers, one of which is a guard and a forward. They will have to fill the void left by top scorer, senior Alex Hamilton, who averaged nearly 20 PPG last season. The Bulldogs should still find themselves in the upper half of the C-USA standings.
6. Western Kentucky
WKU is an odd one. The Hilltoppers finished last season 18-16, going 8-10 in conference play. But WKU made a small surprise run in the conference tournament. As the eighth seed in the tourney, they defeated ninth seed North Texas to advance to the quarterfinals. In the quarters, Western Kentucky beat one seed UAB 88-77. But they lost in the semifinals to fifth seed Old Dominion. WKU beat the likes of UAB, LA Tech, and Middle Tennessee during the season, but the Hilltoppers couldn’t stay consistent down the stretch.
Justin Johnson, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, returns for his junior season. WKU also has two foreign freshmen joining the squad this year, which are from Serbia and Australia. Also, fans can’t forget about 7’1" senior Ben Lawson from England. WKU has the potential to make a run this season.
The Miners finished last season with a 10-6 record in conference, which isn't too shabby but still leaves room for improvement. They are without Lee Moore and Earvin Morris Jr., who averaged almost 30 PPG for UTEP. But the Miners still have two guards who averaged double digits in Omega Harris and Dominic Artis.
Forward Terry Winn, who led the team in rebounds and averaged 10.0 PPG, is also back. This team is similar to Marshall. They have the talent to compete with the top C-USA teams, but weren’t able to find ways to beat them last season. Gotta beat the likes of UAB, Middle Tennessee, and LA Tech to dominate this conference.
Last year, Charlotte had an outstanding six players average over 10 PPG. However, the 49ers allowed nearly 80 PPG to opposing teams. That highly potent offense also failed to show up on multiple occasions against UAB, Middle Tennessee, and company. Charlotte retained three of those top six scorers for the 2016-17 season but it will be an uphill climb if they want to make their mark on the C-USA this season.
9. North Texas
Without a doubt, North Texas was a disappointment last season. The Mean Green had two stretches during the season in which they lost five or more games in a row. They finished ninth in the standings and then bowed out of the tournament after losing to eighth seed Western Kentucky.
Lucky for the Mean Green, they had a young roster last year. Half of their roster is made of freshmen and sophomores, along with only three seniors. With leading scorer Jeremy Combs back along with a more experienced squad, the Mean Green are looking to improve on their 12-20 record from last season and have the ability to do so.
10. Florida International
FIU was just not very good last season. They had two separate five-game losing streaks and seemed to only be able to beat the cellar dwellers of the C-USA. Their two leading rebounders also graduated this past spring and are out of eligibility. But senior guard Donte McGill is set to lead the squad, along with Alabama transfer Michael Kessens.
FIU is definitely in a rebuilding scenario, as they have nine total transfers on the team. Don’t set your expectations for the Panthers too high this season but also don't be shocked if they start to slowly climb in the standings
Rice is another one of those teams in Conference USA that couldn’t find their groove in the 2015-'16 season. The Owls had three streaks in which they had lost four or more consecutive games, including a stretch mid-season where they lost 10 of 13 games. Marcus Evans was the high point for the Owls, averaging 21.4 PPG. He was also named the College Basketball Madness C-USA Preseason Player of the Year.
However, Rice hasn’t done a great job of building around Evans recently. Eight of the 16 players on the team are freshmen, so unless the freshies can make a big impact, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Rice finished lower in the C-USA once again this year.
12. Florida Atlantic
FAU went 8-25 last year. They had a nine-game losing streak along with a five-game losing streak about a month later (if you couldn’t tell, I’m having a little fun with these losing streaks, oops). They had two players average double-digit points per game, in Adonis Filer and Ronald Delph, who both averaged roughly 10.5 points. But they didn’t receive much help otherwise on offense and it’s likely to be another rough year for the Owls.
13. Texas-San Antonio
UTSA is the youngest sibling of the C-USA. They have only been in the conference since the 2013-'14 season and are still that little brother that everyone likes to pick on. The Roadrunners finished dead last in C-USA last season, going 5-27 overall and 3-15 in conference. The Roadrunners are a solid rebounding team and if they can play lockdown defense and improve the offense under head coach Steve Henson, the Roadrunners have a chance to improve on that horrendous record from last year and maybe slowly start turning some heads in the C-USA.
14. Southern Mississippi
At this point, it’s like I’m repeating myself. The Eagles had some extensive losing streaks and just lost, a lot, going 8-21. Their only player who scored over 10 PPG is now gone (he was also their lead assist and steals guy). Be prepared for the Golden Eagles to dwell in that cellar once again this season. They’ll be in a battle with UTSA to see who doesn’t finish last in the conference.