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Conference USA Season Preview: A Conference Flipped Upside Down

After vast amounts of turnover in the offseason, Conference USA welcomes 4 new teams after losing 6 to various conferences.

NCAA Basketball: Middle Tennessee State at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Following the purge of Conference USA over the offseason, the dust settles on the depleted group of teams after losing five of the conferences top six teams in the final standings last season. MTSU remains as the only team from last season with a conference record over 0.500. Losing Florida Atlantic, North Texas, UAB, Charlotte, Rice and UTSA, the conference rebounded with additions of Liberty, Sam Houston State, New Mexico State and Jacksonville State.

To add the to conferences depletion, all but two of the teams in this year’s conference lost their leading scorer in the offseason (Liberty lost Darius McGhee, FIU lost Denver Jones, etc.), now a plethora of transfers will carry the load.

This conference is anyone’s game this season. With so much turnover, there could easily be three to four teams that could end up on top, but sitting at the top to start the season are Liberty and Middle Tennessee St.

2023-2024 Conference USA Preseason Poll:

t-1. Liberty

t-1. Middle Tennessee St.

3. Western Kentucky

4. Louisiana Tech


6. Sam Houston St.

7. Florida International

8. New Mexico St.

9. Jacksonville St.

The Upper Echelon

Liberty Flames

Darius McGhee is gone. After finishing second in the ASUN conference last season behind the efforts of his 22.8 points per game, the Flames will miss the efforts of the star guard. While also losing leading rebounder Blake Preston to Northwestern, Liberty hopes that they can find replacements for the two stat leaders.

Returning to the Flames is Preseason All-Conference Honoree senior Kyle Rode. The 6-foot-7-inch forward was the second-leading scorer on the team last season, averaging 10.9 points. Joining him is former assists leader sophomore guard Colin Porter, along with junior forward Shiloh Robinson and junior guard Brody Peebles.

In the transfer market, the team picked up another floor floor general in Kaden Metheny from Bowling Green (10.7 points per game in 2022-23) and Zander Yates from elite eight team Creighton. With the addition of Metheny, head coach Ritchie McKay will have a touch decision on whether to start him or Porter at the one, since both are under 6-feet.

The most intriguing aspect of this Flames squad is their freshman class. Leading the group is three-star prospect Curtis Blair III, a 6-foot-6-inch guard from Richmond, Virginia, who became the program’s highest-rated freshman recruit in school history after signing in March. Joining him is another 6-foot-5 guard in Jaylen Davis from Richmond, Kentucky, and 7-foot center Kai Yu from Shanghai, China, the latter being a big question mark for a Liberty team lacking size.

Ranked at No. 76 in KenPom to start the season, many are quick to place this team as a surefire conference contender, but it is hard to place them far-and-above the rest of C-USA after losing so much scoring before moving to a conference where games are going to be more difficult than they were in the ASUN. They still bring in enough talent to claim the top spot, but strong WKU and MTSU squads will provide some intense competition.

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

MTSU suffers from the same problems as its upper echelon counterpart. After losing their leading scorer and rebounder (Eli Lawrence and Deandre Dishman), the Blue Raiders scramble to replace the two. Luckily, the team returns two high scorers that are ready for bigger roles. Senior guards Camryn Weston and Elias King return as C-USA Preseason All-Conference Honorees, while senior guard Jalen Jordan will finally be healthy enough to play after missing the past two seasons due to knee injuries.

In the transfer market, the Blue Raiders filled needs, getting senior forward Josh Ogundale from Iowa along with guard Ty Mosely from Mississippi Valley State.

Remaining as the only team in the C-USA that finished with a winning record in the conference last season, MTSU hopes that their strong core of guards and wings can be enough to propel them to the top again.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

It’s hard to believe that after a mass exodus from Bowling Green following the hiring of new head coach Steve Lutz, the Hilltoppers are ranked at the top of the conference. Losing their top three scorers to the transfer portal or graduation, senior guard Dontaie Allen is the only returning starter from the Rick Stansbury era.

While the team lost six players that played over 20 minutes per game, Lutz brings in an army of transfers to fill the gap. Leading the way is senior guard Brandon Newman, who played rotational minutes for the Purdue Boilermakers for three seasons before making his way to WKU. Lutz also brings in two players from his former team, Texas A&M-CC, in senior guards Jalen Jackson and Terrion Murdix, who were both starters for the Islanders last season. The Hilltoppers also add two big men to the team, 6-foot-11-inch senior from Georgia Tech Rodney Howard and 6-foot-8-incj junior from Charleston Babacar Faye.

Being led by two P5 transfers in Allen (Kentucky) and Newman, WKU will be a high-ceiling team in the C-USA if Lutz can organize what essentially is an entirely new roster. If he can replace the scoring from last year with big seasons from either of his two stars, the Hilltoppers have a strong case to reattain their former Conference USA success.

Middle of the Pack

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Isaiah Crawford is back. Being named C-USA Preseason Player of the Year, the 6-foot-6 senior forward was the ninth leading scorer (13.7) in the conference last season while also finishing top-20 in rebounds per game (5.2). The Bulldogs also return key rotational pieces in senior Dravon Mangum and sophomore Jordan Crawford.

As far as transfers, junior Daniel Batcho transfers in from Texas Tech, and as a starter for the Red Raiders, the 6-foot-11-inch forward averaged 7.9 points and 5.9 assists per game on 60.5% from the field. Additionally, senior guard Tahlik Chavez (11.1 points per game 2022-23) transfers in from Charleston Southern and senior Tyler Henry (7.8 points per game 2022-23) comes from Southern Indiana.

As one of the few teams in the conference returning its leading scorer, the Bulldogs sit just outside of the contenders with a high chance to make a move towards the top of C-USA.

UTEP Miners

Lots of returnees to this roster. Leading scorer, senior Tae Hardy (12.8 points per game 2022-23) and leading rebounder, senior Calvin Solomon (9.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game 2022-23) headline the biggest names of that group, while senior Zid Powell transfers in from Buffalo after averaging 13.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 points for the Buffalos.

With Shamar Givance and Mario McKinney Jr as the only notable departments from this roster, the Miners have a competitive roster after finishing second-to-last last season in the conference. Expect a big improvement over last year.

Sam Houston Bearkats

After finishing second in the Western Athletic Conference last season, the Bearkats lose both leading scorers in Qua Grant (14.2ppg in 22-23) and Donte Powers (10.9ppg in 22-23). Now as the only remaining starter from last season, CUSA Preseason All-Conference forward, junior Cameron Huefner leads a much depleted roster into this season.

Aside from Huefner, junior Davin Barnes comes in from Texas Southern to add size and scoring to the Sam Houston backcourt. Barnes averaged 13.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 32.3 minutes per game with the Tigers. Additionally, 6-11 senior Souleymane Doumbia transfers in from TCU after not receiving many minutes with the Horned Frogs in his two prior years with the team.

A severely depleted Sam Houston squad will scramble early to find scoring, but if they can find their identity after losing so much from last season, expect a solid season for the Bearkats.

Bottom Feeders

Florida International Panthers

The loss of Denver Jones to Auburn is going to hurt. Jones averaged a good chunk of the Panther’s points last season, but like many teams have shown in this conference, it could always be worse. While FIU loses Jones and Nick Guadarrama, they return six players that played significant minutes last season, including C-USA steals per game leader, sophomore Arturo Dean (Dean averaged 2.5 steals per game last season), Seth Pinkney (1.3 blocks per game last season) and Petar Krivokapic (40.5% from three in 22-23).

Furthermore, a huge get for the Panthers is junior Jonathan Aybar from North Florida. The 6-9 forward was the Panthers leading scorer in a preseason scrimmage against Florida, scoring 17 points and dropping two threes in 26 minutes on the court.

With the addition of Aybar, the Panthers have a solid chance of finishing toward the middle of the pack in C-USA, but they also have a similar chance to fall to the very bottom with the loss of Jones and Guadarrama.

New Mexico State Aggies

The whole team is gone. Not a single player (or coach for that matter) from last season remains on the team. With the firing of head coach Greg Heiar, new coach Jason Hooten is tasked with picking up the pieces of last seasons team with a 2-16 record in the WAC amid a — let’s say — tumultuous season, and creating some sort of contender in Conference USA. Luckily, the transfer market was ripe for the Aggies.

Headlining a huge class of transfers is Jordan Rawls (senior guard from WKU), Jaylin Jackson-Posey (junior guard from Stephen F. Austin) Brandon Suggs (senior guard from Eastern Carolina), Femi Odukale (senior guard from Seton Hall) and Clarance Jackson (senior from Jacksonville St). A big question mark among the transfers is redshirt junior Robert Carpenter, who has not played since 2021-22 where he averaged 16.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for the Missouri Valley State Delta Devils.

Also among a small class of freshmen are two big names that could be big for a rebuilding Aggie squad. Yaak Yaak from Australia comes in after training at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia, and representing his country at the U19 Basketball World Cup when he was 17. Alongside him is Lewis Duarte, a 6-foot-5 guard who comes in after playing with Overtime Elite and receiving offers from multiple power five schools. They both hope to make a big impact on what looks to be a wild card in C-USA.

Jacksonville State Gamecocks

The Gamecocks will be dependent on the talent of former Xavier guard KyKy Tandy. After sending Tandy to C-USA media day, JSU looks to be confident in the 6-2 senior who was named Big East All-Freshman in 2018-19 before injuries plagued the rest of his time with the Musketeers.

Aside from him, senior forward Juwan Perdue makes his return to JSU after averaging 8.3 points and 6.1 rebounds last season alongside junior Marcellus Bringham Jr. who averaged 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 2022-23. Head coach Ray Harper also welcomes in two other transfers with Ivan Reynolds from CSU-Bakersfield and Matt Mayers from Robert Morris.

Even as the bottom team in the conference, the Gamecocks are definitely not the definitive team at the bottom of the conference. Competition in C-USA this season will be higher than ever, many teams at a disadvantage due to the vast number of departures.