Conference USA is used to making an early splash on the national stage, and Tuesday’s college basketball opening night was no exception. While some teams in the league have big question marks due to coaching changes and key players leaving, others are looking to claim the conference crown and be the next team to spoil someone’s dance in March.
Here’s what happened:
A Shocker in Wichita
Louisiana Tech 71 Wichita State 58
Louisiana Tech went on the road and did something that not many have done in recent years, beating the Wichita State Shockers on their home floor. Entering this season, Wichita State had won their last 22 home openers and won 72 of their last 75 home games. The Bulldogs got off to a slow start early but gained a double-digit lead in the first half and held a 10-point lead at the break. Wichita State made a late run, but had to resort to fouling to prevent time from running off. The Shockers didn’t do themselves any favors by shooting 11-26 from the free throw line (42%) in the game. The Bulldogs were led by Daquan Bracey, who finished with 16 points and Amorie Archibald, who ended with 14 points and nine rebounds. The Bulldogs came away with a big win that will earn some respect in the rest of their non-conference schedule and going into conference play.
Woes in Washington
Washington 73 Western Kentucky 55
Conference USA runner up Western Kentucky took on the No. 25 Washington Huskies on the road to start their season. The game went back and forth in the first half with both teams leading by as many as nine. The two teams continued to trade baskets until midway through the second half when Washington’s Noah Dickerson gave the Huskies six straight points and extended the lead to double digits. The Huskies kept the foot on the gas pedal and cruised to a 73-55 win. WKU has a lot to look forward to with the arrival of freshman Charles Bassey, who finished with a double-double (11 points, 12 rebounds) before fouling out. WKU was without two key players in this matchup, Auburn transfer Desean Murray and Lamonte Bearden. Murray was suspended for a violation of team rules, while Bearden (11.8 PPG in 2017-18) is ineligible for the first semester of the season. If the Hilltoppers can stay out of trouble and stay on the floor, this team could compete with just about anyone in the country come March.
UAB 75 Mercer 67
In a battle of former NCAA Tournament Cinderella teams, the Mercer Bears traveled to Birmingham to face a UAB squad that has plenty of new faces on their roster. The Blazers are replacing four starters from last year’s team, but still have offensive weapon Zack Bryant and talent coming off last year’s bench. The Blazers got off to a slow shooting start in the first half before cranking up the half court defense that led to 14 Mercer turnovers in the opening period. These turnovers led to fast break opportunities and gave UAB a nine-point lead at half. In the second half, the Bears clawed their way back to within six with the help of back-to-back layups by Djordje Dimitrijevic. But UAB guard Jalen Perry caught fire from long range and extended the Blazers’ lead to 15 late. UAB held on to get the eight-point win. The Blazers had some ups and downs in the game, but you could possibly blame that on first-game jitters and still trying to gel together. This team could be better than most predicted.
Old Dominion 67 Navy 44
ODU has been known for its defense under coach Jeff Jones and it showed on Tuesday night. The Monarchs held the Midshipmen to just 25 percent shooting from the floor and 23 percent from deep. Three Monarchs finished with double figures, led by senior Ahmad Caver’s 24 points. Halfway through the second half, Navy cut the ODU lead to 40-37, but the Monarchs closed out the game well on both sides, ending on a 27-7 run. The Monarchs are predicted by many to finish in the upper half of the conference, but behind the likes of Marshall and Western Kentucky. Losing key players Trey Porter and Brandon Stith last season hurts, but the leadership of Caver and 12 points from sophomore Xavier Green are promising going forward. ODU will now go on the road to face Saint Joseph’s on Friday.
Chattanooga 80 Charlotte 69
The Ron Sanchez era at Charlotte did not start on a good note as the 49ers fell to the Mocs at home. Despite trailing Chattanooga by double digits for most of the game, Charlotte did cut the lead to seven with just under four minutes remaining. The Mocs extended the lead again late and came away with the win. Chattanooga was led by Donovann Toatley who finished with 17 points. Thomas Smallwood, a transfer forward from UAB, scored 14, and Kevin Easley ended with 13. The bright spot for Charlotte continues to be senior guard Jon Davis, who finished with 34 points. If Davis can get a supporting cast, the 49ers can turn things around.
Taking Care of Business
Just by looking at some of the games, you might think that a lot of Conference USA teams were still working on their exhibition opponents. UTEP came away with a 90-63 win over UT-Permian Basin after leading by four at half. Southern Miss defeated Southeastern Baptist College, 111-66 behind five Golden Eagles scoring in double figures. North Texas got a win over Angelo State, 89-55, with the help of 32 points from redshirt freshman Umoja Gibson. Rice beat St. Leo by a final of 80-64. Middle Tennessee started the Nick McDevitt coaching era on the right foot with a win over Lees-McRae, 91-69. They may not be primetime games, but certain CUSA teams have had hiccups in the past with losing to small teams like these.