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Conference USA Tournament Preview: Can North Texas complete the sweep in Frisco?

Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky and others could have something to say about it.

North Texas Athletics

For the third year, Conference USA descends on Frisco, Tex. for one of the country’s most unique league tournaments. And for the first year, it’s the local team that holds the favorite label as the action kicks off.

North Texas is the top seed and regular season champion, and will attempt to sweep the C-USA team hardware at the The Star, the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility and, for the next few days, indoor arena. 12 of the conference’s 14 teams made the field, which will feature a Court A/Court B system that’ll see multiple games taking place at the same time.

Here’s what you need to know.

Bracket

Schedule

First Round (Wed., March 11)

Game 1: No. 9 Florida Atlantic (16-15, 8-10) vs. No. 8 Old Dominion (13-18, 9-9), 7 p.m. (Court A)

Game 2: No. 12 Rice (15-16, 7-11) vs. No. 5 FIU (18-13, 9-9), 7:30 p.m. (Court B)

Game 3: No. 10 UTSA (13-18, 7-11) vs. No. 7 UAB (18-13, 9-9), approx. 9:30 p.m. (Court A)

Game 4: No. 11 UTEP (17-14, 8-10) vs. No. 6 Marshall (16-15, 10-8), approx. 10 p.m. (Court B)

Quarterfinals (Thu., March 12)

Game 5: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 1 North Texas (20-11, 14-4), 7 p.m. (Court A) (Stadium)

Game 6: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 4 Charlotte (16-13, 10-8), approx. 7:30 p.m. (Court B) (Stadium on Facebook Live)

Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs. No. 2 Western Kentucky (20-10, 13-5), approx. 9:30 p.m. (Court A) (Stadium)

Game 8: Game 4 Winner vs. No. 3 Louisiana Tech (22-8, 13-5), approx. 10 p.m. (Court B) (Stadium on Facebook Live)

Semifinals (Fri., March 13)

CBSSN will air both games.

Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 2 p.m.

Game 10: Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner, approx. 4:30 p.m.

Championship (Sat., March 14)

Game 11: Semifinal winners, 8:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

The Favorites

North Texas (20-11, 14-4): The Mean Green locked up their first-ever C-USA regular season title by beating Western Kentucky in an overtime thriller on March 1. That was the hallmark moment, but the title was fueled by a brutally-efficient offense that allowed UNT to go on a 12-1 league run between Jan. 4 and Feb. 15. The Mean Green lost their starting point guard to Gonzaga in the offseason, but added a star in JuCo transfer Javion Hamlet. Their deliberate, efficient offense has been a handful for league opposition all year, but UNT does come in on a slight down note, losing its regular season finale — and scoring just 43 points in doing so — at Charlotte.

Western Kentucky (20-10, 13-5): Talk about a resilient bunch. The always-expectation-heavy Hilltoppers came into the season with arguably the league’s most talented player in sophomore center Charles Bassey, only to lose him to a season-ending injury after nine games. Nonetheless, they regrouped and surged to a 13-win C-USA season behind Taveion Hollingsworth (16.6 PPG) and a small, perimeter-heavy rotation. The junior guard is just two weeks removed from scoring 43 points against Louisiana Tech, and fronts an offense that’s 55th in the country in adjusted efficiency.

Louisiana Tech (22-8, 13-5): Long a metrics darling early in the season, the Bulldogs proved it by rolling a big non-conference win at Mississippi State into a 13-win league campaign. Eric Konkol’s team is the most balanced in the league, posting the best defensive adjusted efficiency and second-best offensive efficiency in C-USA play. Those numbers generally portend success in a tournament setting and LA Tech has a pair of senior guards in DeQuan Bracey and Deric Jean that have won a lot in Ruston. Is this finally the year for a program that has been incredibly consistent the past half-decade, but not captured that elusive NCAA Tournament bid?

The Dark Horses

Charlotte (16-3, 10-8): C-USA is a league seemingly ripe for a dark horse. Nine teams finished between 7-11 and 10-8, giving Frisco a bevy of teams that can compete on any given night. There are strong points for many of them, like Marshall’s recent run of play (winners of four of their last five) or UTSA’s star that could take over the entire event (Jhivvan Jackson). But if we must pick one, how about Charlotte?

Ron Sanchez brought the Tony Bennett flavor to the 49ers, and oversaw a big improvement in his second year, jumping from five to 10 league wins. Charlotte is a stout defensive team (86th in the country in adjusted efficiency) that has grabbed wins recently against the conference’s top teams. They suffocated a great UNT offense into that 43-point outing last week, and outlasted WKU on Feb. 22 in a two-point win that saw five players score in double figures. They’ve got a burgeoning star in freshman forward Jahmir Young, and while they’ve been streaky, do have the final all-important bye into the quarterfinals.

Players to Watch

  • Javion Hamlet, Guard, North Texas
  • Taveion Hollingsworth, Guard, Western Kentucky
  • Jhivvan Jackson, Guard, UTSA
  • DeQuan Bracey, Guard, Louisiana Tech
  • Osasumwen Osaghae, Forward, FIU
  • Bryson Williams, Forward, UTEP
  • Umoja Gibson, Guard, North Texas
  • Tavin Lovan, Guard, UAB
  • Taevion Kinsey, Guard, Marshall
  • Xavier Green, Guard, Old Dominion
  • Jahmir Young, Forward, Charlotte

Prediction

Despite their stumble last week, the stars seem aligned for UNT in the Lone Star state. Hamlet and fellow newcomers Thomas Bell, James Reese and Deng Geu have added depth to a Mean Green team that was surging last year before falling apart in February. This year, they’ve gained momentum behind an elite offense, and should be positioned to cut down the nets. That said, they’ve staged thrilling games with both WKU and LA Tech over the past month, and anything could be on the table in a league with plenty of viable threats.