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Conference USA Tournament Preview: Can anyone stop the Hilltoppers?

The Conference USA Tournament starts on Tuesday evening.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 22 Saint Mary’s at Western Kentucky Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Just like the Ford Center come March, Conference USA was split into two this season. Two separate divisions, that is.

In the East, Charles Bassey finally had a healthy season and man was it fun. The potential league player of the year averaged 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game while not even playing 30 minutes per game. He also set the record for the most C-USA Player of the Week honors at seven. Also notably in the East, FIU had to drop out of the tournament on Monday afternoon because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols.

In the West, a three-horse race went down between Louisiana Tech, UAB, and North Texas. The Bulldogs from Ruston came out on top, but the Blazers finished out Andy Kennedy’s first season at his alma mater strong with a sweep against last season’s champion, UNT.

Along with all of this, UTEP gave Kansas a run for its money last week, snapping the Miners' four-game winning streak.

You just have to be hot at the right time come March.

Bracket

Schedule:

Note: All games in Frisco, Texas. All times are Eastern.

Preliminary Round (Tue., March 9), ESPN+

Game 1: No. 7W Southern Mississippi vs No. 6W Rice, 8 p.m.

Second Round (Wed., March 10) ESPN+

Game 2: No. 5E Charlotte vs No. 4W UTSA, 6:30 p.m.

Game 3: Game 1 winner vs No. 3E Marshall, 7 p.m.

Game 4: No. 5W UTEP vs No. 4E Florida Atlantic, 9:30 p.m.

Game 5: No. 6E Middle Tennessee vs No. 3W North Texas, 10 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Thur., March 11) Stadium

Game 6: Game 2 winner vs No. 1E Western Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.

Game 7: Game 3 winner vs No. 2W UAB, 7 p.m.

Game 8: Game 4 winner vs No. 1W Louisiana Tech, 9:30 p.m.

Game 9: Game 5 winner vs No. 2E Old Dominion, 10 p.m.

Semifinals (Fri., March 12) CBSSN

Game 10: Game 6 winner vs Game 7 winner, Noon

Game 11: Game 8 winner vs Game 9 winner, 3 p.m.

Finals (Sat., March 13) CBSSN

Game 12: Game 10 winner vs Game 11 winner, 9 p.m.

The Favorite:

Western Kentucky (18-6, 11-3): Rick Stansbury has created a powerhouse in Bowling Green, and it has shown this season. They began with a victory over Memphis and then went on to beat the eventual SEC champion, Alabama, in December.

The success has revolved around his two stars, Bassey and Taveion Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth has been a constant in the Stansbury era, starting every game since he has landed on the hilltop. This season, he is averaging an impressive 14.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. As mentioned above, Bassey has been a beast.

As shown with their victories in the non-conference, the Hilltoppers could pull off a little run come March. Hell, even if they lose in the conference tournament, they have a resume that could get them in the at-large conversation.

The Dark Horses:

UAB (21-6, 13-5): Former Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy has come to his alma mater and built them back into a successful program. After beginning the season 7-0, the Blazers have essentially dominated the league outside of Louisiana Tech, all through defense. If you look at the Blazers’ KenPom page, the defensive half is all impressively green. Scoring 73 points per game doesn’t hurt either.

Marshall (15-6, 9-5): If it weren’t for Bassey, Taevion Kinsey would be the clear frontrunner for C-USA player of the year. Not only does he average 20 points per game, but he shoots an amazing 54.2 percent from the field. Along with all of this, the Thundering Herd have some really good wins on their resume and an amazing coach to back them in Dan D’Antoni.

Louisiana Tech (20-6, 12-4): The Bulldogs have won seven of eight and have done it with a bevy of young players. Kenneth Lofton Jr. is one of the frontrunners for Freshman of the Year in the league, averaging 11.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He is already listed as a “go-to-guy” on KenPom. His elder, sophomore Isaiah Crawford, leads the team with 11.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. They might be young, but they’re the hottest team in the league. A run in this tournament could lead to long-term dominance in the C-USA.

North Texas (13-9, 9-5): Last season, the Mean Green won the regular season title. They weren’t able to do it again, but they have the pieces for a tournament push.

The Long Shots:

Old Dominion (15-7, 11-5): Jeff Jones has had underdog teams make runs before. Malik Curry has had a very underrated season averaging 15.6 points per game, and Kalu Ezikpe has really grown at 10.5 points per game. Along with all of this, the Monarch split their series with Marshall, UAB, and Western Kentucky all once this year. They’ll have to reel off another big three wins, this time in a row.

Florida Atlantic (12-9, 7-5): Although the opponents aren’t all that impressive, the Owls are on a four-game winning streak and are the hottest team in C-USA. Jailyn Ingram and Michael Forrest are two of the most underrated players in the league and will have their chance to shine.

Charlotte (9-15, 5-11): The 49ers have a great mix of players. Their problem is that they’ve lost eight straight games.

UTSA (14-10, 9-7): When Jhivan Jackson and Keaton Wallace are on, they have the deadliest backcourt in mid-major basketball. Now can they reel amazing performance in consecutive games? Doubtful, but there is a chance.

UTEP (12-11, 8-8): The Miners nearly just beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. Along with this, they won four-in-a-row before that matchup. They have shown they have some fight.

Players to Watch:

Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky (17.6 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 61.1% FG%)

Taveion Hollingsworth, Western Kentucky (14.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 43.1% FG%)

Malik Curry, Old Dominion (15.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 44.5% FG%)

Taevion Kinsey, Marshall (20.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 54.2% FG%)

Jarrod West, Marshall (12.2 PPG, 6.0 APG, 45.0% FG%)

Jahmir Young, Charlotte (18.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 43.1% FG%)

Isaiah Crawford, Louisiana Tech (11.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 49.3% FG%)

Kenneth Lofton Jr., Louisiana Tech (11.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 57.1% FG%)

Tavin Lovan, UAB (12.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 54.2% FG%)

Quan Jackson, UAB (10.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 46.3% FG%)

Javion Hamlet, North Texas (14.4 PPG, 4.1 APG, 44.0% FG%)

Jhivan Jackson, UTSA (20.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 48.3% FG%)

Keaton Wallace, UTSA (16.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 41.1% FG%)

Souley Boum, UTEP (18.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 38.0% FG%)

Bryson Williams, UTEP (15.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 48.1% FG%)

Quincy Olivari, Rice (16.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 41.2% FG%)

Travis Evee, Rice (14.3 PPG, 2.4 APG, 41.0% FG%)

Max Fiedler, Rice (10.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 68.0% FG%)

Prediction:

There will be small upsets littered throughout the bracket, but Western Kentucky will come out on top over North Texas in the title game.