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Conference USA preview: It’s the last chance to stop Middle Tennessee, while others fight for position

The Blue Raiders should have the conference locked up, but there’s plenty more competition.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Mississippi at Old Dominion Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The above tweet says it all. With the season winding down, that’s where we stand. Here’s how it could change:

At the top, Middle Tennessee is all but assured at least a regular season title with a two-game lead over Louisiana Tech with three games left to play:

at UAB (Sunday)
Florida International (March 2)
Florida Atlantic (March 4)

The pursuit of second place had the drama zapped out when Louisiana Tech took care of the Florida duo in Ruston this past weekend. The Bulldogs now have a two-game lead and own the tie breaker over Old Dominion with three games left. They should be favored in each.

Speaking of the Monarchs, Jeff Jones' Old Dominion team is getting hot at the right time behind the emergence of sophomore point guard Ahmad Caver. In blowout wins over UAB and Charlotte, Caver scored 40 total points, hit eight threes, and handed out 16 assists. The Monarchs thrive behind their deep front line, but it's been the steady play of guards Caver and B.J. Stith that has propelled them toward the top of the standings in February. Don't be surprised to see Jones' physical brand of Monarch basketball make a deep run at the conference tournament again this year.

Madness In The Middle

Something interesting to consider: Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, UTEP, and Rice have played the 14th, 10th, 11th, and 13th-easiest conference schedules respectively per KenPom.com. Conversely, Marshall, UAB, and Western Kentucky have played the fifth, third, and the toughest overall schedules. That’s not necessarily to say that scheduling has affected the standings, but it's something to consider as the last two weeks play out. No matter how that happens, it seems there are eight or nine teams who could make some serious noise in the conference tournament. It's as deep a field as Conference USA has had in years.

Week 9 In Conference USA

At this point of the conference season, road wins are tough to come by, but vital in pursuit of the coveted top four spots. It’s certainly not likely that Louisiana Tech will go 0-2 on its road swing at North Texas and Rice, but it's not totally unthinkable either; the Bulldogs have lost in Denton to inferior Mean Green teams each of the past two seasons. North Texas is coming off a confidence-building win over UTSA last Saturday and a near upset of UTEP in overtime last Thursday. On Saturday, Louisiana Tech will be faced with matching its young point guard, DaQuan Bracey, against three of the best guards in Conference USA in Marcus Jackson, Marcus Evans, and Egor Koulechov. If the Bulldogs escape this week with a clean sheet, they'll be further strengthening an NIT-or-better-type of resume.

Marshall, UTEP, and Western Kentucky will all be hitting the road for two-game swings as well, and all the matchups are such that predicting a winner would be foolish. That competition in the middle of the pack is part of what has made Conference USA a better league overall this season. Teams are winning by double-digits at home, then losing to the same team by double-digits on the road. This isn't a great formula for building a conference that regularly gets two bids to the NCAA Tournament, but the competition is certainly entertaining.

UAB has the luxury of sitting back until Sunday's game against Middle Tennessee while the teams ahead of the Blazers beat each other up. Rob Ehsan's squad needed this week off badly after three consecutive double-digit losses. Don't count out the dragon squad just yet, as they won't have to leave Birmingham again until potential postseason play. UAB would love nothing more than to spoil Middle Tennessee's chance to lock up the conference title.

Thursday (All times Central)

UTEP at Florida Atlantic | 6 p.m. | cusa.TV
Western Kentucky at Charlotte | 6 p.m. | N/A
UTSA at Florida International | 6 p.m. | cusa.TV
Southern Miss at Rice | 7 p.m. | cusa.TV
Louisiana Tech at North Texas | 7 p.m. | cusa.TV
Marshall at Old Dominion | 7 p.m. | bein Sports

Saturday

Southern Miss at North Texas | 2 p.m. | cusa.TV
Marshall at Charlotte | 5 p.m. | American Sports Network
UTSA at Florida Atlantic | 6 p.m. | cusa.TV
UTEP at Florida International | 6 p.m. | cusa.TV
Western Kentucky at Old Dominion | 6 p.m. | ESPN3
Louisiana Tech at Rice | 7 p.m. | cusa.TV

Sunday

Middle Tennessee at UAB | Noon CT | CBS Sports Network