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Conference USA preseason rankings: Western Kentucky and Marshall lead a crowded conference

Talent at the top should lead to a competitive season.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament Final-Marshall vs Western Kentucky Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Thundering Herd, Hilltoppers, Monarchs, Mean Green or Roadrunners -- all great nicknames, but also teams positioned to enjoy the most success in Conference USA this season.

Marshall dealt Wichita State a haymaker in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and that was after dispatching off Western Kentucky for the league tournament title. Needless to say, it was a memorable March for Conference USA.

Now the focus turns to this season, and can Roosevelt Smart and North Texas take the league by storm? Will Rick Stansbury continue his success at Western Kentucky and grab that elusive NCAA Tournament bid? Can Dan D’Antoni and Marshall continue to be national darlings?

Better buckle up for a wild 2018-2019 in Conference USA.

1. Western Kentucky (27-11, 14-4 CUSA, Lost to Utah in NIT semifinals)

The Hilltoppers were dealt a crushing one-point loss to Marshall in the CUSA Tournament finals, and that meant a consolation trip for Western Kentucky to the NIT. At least the HIlltoppers made the most of it, making it to Madison Square Garden before being dispatched by Utah.

This year, Rick Stansbury returns and he’ll have Lamonte Bearden and Taveion Hollingsworth both back to plug into the starting lineup. Josh Anderson and Jake Ohmer return as key rotation pieces, and the Hilltoppers also landed Desean Murray, a graduate transfer from Auburn, during the offseason. Oh, and Stansbury landed top-tier recruits Dalano Banton and McDonald’s All-American Charles Bassey, a 6-foot-11 wrecking machine in the middle who averaged 19.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.9 assists during his final season in high school.

2. Marshall (25-11, 12-6 CUSA, Lost to West Virginia in second round of NCAA Tournament)

Back at his alma mater, Dan D’Antoni’s fourth season at Marshall was a magical one. Despite a fourth-place finish in the league during the regular season, the Thundering Herd mowed down the CUSA Tournament field, including Western Kentucky in the finals.

Marshall wasn’t done there, though. An upset of Wichita State prolonged Marshall’s season an extra few days in Boise before losing to West Virginia with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

The Thundering Herd lost Ajdin Penava and Milan Mijovic from last year’s team, but Jon Elmore (22.7 points per game last season), C.J. Burks and Jarrod West all return.

3. Old Dominion (25-7, 15-3 CUSA)

Jeff Jones’ sixth year at ODU will be buoyed by senior guard Ahmad Caver, one of the nation’s top point guards last season. Caver led Conference USA in assist-to-turnover margin (3.03), and he was second in CUSA with 6.2 assists per game. He also reeled in 2.3 steals per game, good enough for second in the league.

Senior guard B.J. Stith also returns, and some key reserves back this year include a pair of forwards, sophomore Xavier Green and junior Aaron Carver.

4. North Texas (20-18, 8-10 CUSA, Beat San Francisco to win CBI championship)

Get to know the name Roosevelt Smart. As a sophomore last season, the 6-3 guard set the school record for 3-pointers made (133). He also was fourth in the league at points per game with 19.5.

It’ll be Grant McCasland’s second year as coach, and he’ll also have Ryan Woolridge back to plug into the starting lineup. Sophomore forward Zachary Simmons is also back and ready to man the middle for the Mean Green.

5. Texas-San Antonio (20-15, 11-7 CUSA, Lost to Sam Houston State in CIT quarterfinals)

After spending so many seasons alongside Lon Kruger, Steve Henson is doing Lon Kruger-like things in San Antonio. The Roadrunners took a giant leap forward last season, qualifying for postseason play in the CIT.

Boosting UTSA’s outlook is the return of four starters from last year’s team. Senior forward Nick Allen, sophomores Keaton Wallace and Jhivvan Jackson and juniors, Bryon Frohnen and Giovianni De Nicolao, all return to bolster UTSA’s standing in Conference USA.

6. Louisiana Tech (17-16, 7-11 CUSA)

Expectations could be raised for the Bulldogs this season, Eric Konkol’s fourth in Ruston, Louisiana. A handful of players that appeared in the starting rotation return, headlined by junior guard DaQuan Bracey, who averaged 12.4 points per game last season.

Senior guard Derric Jean, junior forward Oliver Powell, sophomore forward Anthony Duruji and sophomore guard Armorie Archibald all figure to see an increase in minutes, too.

7. Southern Miss (16-18, 7-11 CUSA)

In five years in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Doc Sadler’s teams have gone a combined 36-81. But the Golden Eagles could be in store for a big season, building off the massive upset of Middle Tennessee State in the conference tournament last season.

Southern Miss has a wealth of experience returning, highlighted by senior guard Cortez Edwards who averaged 16.6 points per game. Three other seniors, Dominic Magee, Kevin Holland and Tyree Griffin, will also rejoin Edwards in the starting lineup this year.

8. UAB (20-13, 10-8 CUSA)

The Blazers didn’t substantially ascend the Conference USA standings, going from seventh in 2016-2017 to sixth in 2017-2018, but they finished seven games above .500 in Rob Ehsan’s second season. Now Ehsan will have to retool after losing Chris Cokley and Nick Norton from last year’s roster.

This season, the Blazers will rely on sophomore guard Zack Bryant, the lone returning starter. Senior forward Lewis Sullivan could provide valuable minutes after being a key reserve last year.

9. Middle Tennessee State (25-8, 16-2 CUSA, Lost to Louisville in second round of the NIT)

The Blue Raiders garnered plenty of discussion about an at-large bid into last year’s NCAA Tournament, considering wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss came before an impressive run through league play. However, a quarterfinal loss to Southern Miss in the conference tournament transformed into a NIT berth instead.

The loss to Louisville in the NIT Tournament was also Kermit Davis’s last during his 16-year run with the Blue Raiders. With Davis now at Ole Miss, Nick McDevitt takes over after a successful five-year run as UNC-Ashville’s head coach. McDevitt, though, will find the Blue Raider roster relatively bare with no starters back. Seniors, James Hawthrone and Karl Gamble, do return after logging minutes off the bench last year. Reggie Scurry, a transfer from Missouri State, could log heavy minutes, too.

10. FIU (14-18, 8-10 CUSA)

One thing first-year coach Jeremy Ballard will inherit is a club that was masterful at takeaways last season. The Panthers led Conference USA with 7.6 steals per game, and they also limited their turnovers to 11.1 per game, good enough for third in the league.

Junior guard Trejon Jacob and senior guard Brian Beard Jr. are two returning starters from last year, and other key contributors back include junior forward Osasumwen Osaghae, senior forward Michael Douglas, junior guard Willy Nunez Jr. and sophomore guard Isaiah Banks.

11. UTEP (11-20, 6-12 CUSA)

Tim Floyd retired and in comes first-year coach Rodney Terry, most recently the head coach at Fresno State for the past seven seasons. Terry takes over a UTEP team that ranked last in the league in several categories last season -- assists per game, free throws made, scoring offense and steals per game.

Senior forward Paul Thomas returns alongside sophomore guard Evan Gilyard in an effort to rejuvenate the Miners program. A large group of incoming freshmen also give UTEP a fresh outlook moving forward.

12. Florida Atlantic (12-19, 6-12 CUSA)

Dusty May takes over as coach after serving as an assistant at Florida for three seasons. He’ll inherit a club that ranked 329th nationally in field goal percentage.

Jailyn Ingram, 6-7 junior forward, is the lone returning starter from last season. Senior guard Anthony Ager is the only other familiar face to return with the roster enduring almost a complete makeover with 12 newcomers, including 6-10 junior forward Aleksander Zecevic, who last played at Scotland Performance Institute.

13. Charlotte (6-23, 2-16 CUSA)

The 49ers’ Conference USA affiliation worked wonders under Bobby Lutz during the early 2000s, including four NCAA Tournament trips in a five-year span from 2001 to 2005. And after minimal impact in the Atlantic 10, Charlotte is back in Conference USA and about to embark on its sixth year in the league.

Last year’s campaign saw Charlotte finish last in the league and Mark Price was removed as coach. Enter Ron Sanchez who served as an assistant at Virginia for almost a decade before getting his shot as a head coach. Sanchez will have the services of three starters returning from last year’s roster -- senior guard Jon Davis, senior center Jailan Haslem and junior forward Najee Garvin.

14. Rice (7-24, 4-14 CUSA)

It wasn’t long ago Scott Pera was a high school basketball coach. But stints as an assistant at Arizona State, Penn and Rice eventually led to Pera becoming Rice’s head coach. Now he’ll enter his second season after the Owls struggled to accumulate victories last season.

Junior guard Ako Adams and junior forward Robert Martin return from last year’s starting lineup, and graduate transfer from Penn, Dylan Jones, joins the Owls as a 6-8 forward.