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The madness of Conference USA is at it again

Six of Conference USA’s nine teams are over .500, setting up for a great tourney in Huntsville in March

NCAA Basketball: Liberty at Louisiana State
Shiloh Robinson has played significant minutes for Liberty.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2023-24 season, Liberty and Middle Tennessee were picked as the Conference USA preseason favorites. Now, three weeks into conference play, the Flames (2-3 in conference) and Blue Raiders (0-4 in conference) round out the bottom of the standings. It’s going to be a wild two months leading up to the conference tournament in Huntsville, Ala., with every team still having an opportunity to win out.

(Teams placed in order of preseason poll)

Liberty Flames (2-4 conference, 13-8 overall)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. 11-4 heading into the new year, the Flames now sit at 13-7 after dropping three games in a row to start conference play, the most costly coming at home to KyKy Tandy and the Jacksonville State Gamecocks.

Despite being second in the conference in team offense and first in team defense, the Flames have underperformed since starting in their conference. Since an OT loss to Louisiana Tech on Jan. 14, the Flames have taken two easy home wins versus FIU and conference-leading Sam Houston.

With an opportunity to get revenge in a battle against JSU in Jacksonville, Liberty flamed out once again to tie themselves for the worst record in the conference heading into February.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (2-4 conference, 8-13 overall)

Coming into the season, the Blue Raiders were assumed to be one of the teams to beat in a contested conference this season. As one of the few remaining teams from the old C-USA, Middle Tennessee started off their season looking like a true contender before tragedy struck. Star senior guard Camryn Weston suffered an ACL injury in the Blue Raiders’ OT win over Stephen F. Austin.

From there, without the help in the scoring column from their highest returning scorer, MTSU has struggled to put points up in contests this season. Sitting in last place in the conference in scoring average, Middle Tennessee has been able to contend with talented teams like UAB, Western Carolina and Louisiana Tech. In the eight games the Blue Raiders have played that have been decided by less than 10 points, just two have seen MTSU score over 70 points since the loss of Weston.

Starting off conference play 2-4, the Blue Raiders rely on an emerging Jestin Porter to revive what has been a slow season, and after a 30-point performance in MTSU’s first win in-conference over Jacksonville State, Porter is averaging 19.8 points per game against C-USA opponents. Look for him as a bright spot that could make this team dangerous in March despite the rough start.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (3-3 conference, 14-6 overall)

Don McHenry has been a blessing for Steve Lutz’s first Hilltopper team as head coach. Averaging 14.8 points per game, leading the team this season, the junior transfer from the University of Hawaii-Hilo has been a big upside for this WKU team that has just about met expectations this season.

With the second-best overall record in the conference, the Hilltoppers have a chance to make noise in March if they can clean up on the defensive side of the ball. While first in the conference in team offense (80.6 points per game), they are the second-worst defense in C-USA, allowing 75.1 points per game this season.

Even though a plethora of Lutz’s new players have outperformed themselves this year, not all have me expectations. With former Kentucky transfer Dontaie Allen underperforming this season, averaging 8.2 points per game on 38.9% shooting, his improvement may be necessary if the Hilltoppers wish to win out in Huntsville.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (5-1 conference, 15-6 overall)

In our preview of C-USA in the preseason, we placed the Bulldogs just below the upper echelon of teams with the ability to move up behind the play of senior Isaiah Crawford and junior transfer Daniel Batcho. Now, with the best record in the conference, they have done exactly that.

Despite a rough stretch going into conference play, the Bulldogs rebounded following their loss to Sam Houston, picking up wins over Liberty, Middle Tennessee, Jacksonville State and UTEP to tie the Bearkats for the top conference record.

Behind the scoring of Crawford (17.4 points per game against conference opponents) and Batcho (14.8 points per game against conference opponents), Louisiana Tech has solidified itself as the clear favorite to win out in Huntsville.

Still undefeated at home, the Bulldogs have played close games at No. 25 New Mexico (lost 74-65), Colorado State (lost 81-73) and Grand Canyon (lost 73-70). With this ability to compete with top teams, Louisiana Tech also makes a case to be a dangerous giant killer in March Madness given they win the conference.

UTEP Miners (2-4 conference, 11-10 overall)

After starting off the season hot, the Miners have fallen back to Earth a bit, sitting at 11-10 overall on the season behind an improved season from senior Tae Hardy (15.3 points per game). A win at home versus Western Kentucky highlights their conference play so far, and since the Miners have lost two consecutive road battles to conference-leading teams Louisiana Tech and Sam Houston.

When at home, UTEP shines with only two losses on the season in the Don Haskins Center. On the road, the Miners fall to 0-7 on to away crowds, giving them the second-worst record in C-USA when playing against an opposing crowd. Their win over California in the SoCal Challenge remains as their only win away from home.

Sam Houston Bearkats (5-1 conference, 12-9 overall)

After overcoming some speed bumps to start the season, the Bearkats have reached their peak form in conference play. Tied for the top conference record, juniors Lamar Wilkerson (15.0 points per game) and Davon Barnes (13.9 points per game) have jumpstarted Sam Houston’s first season in C-USA after many thought that they would have some growing pains after losing so much of their roster to the portal last season.

The Bearkats have a tough stretch to start the month of February on the road at Western Kentucky, FIU and Jacksonville State, and as college basketball has shown us this season there will be no easy games on the road in conference play. Coming out of that road trip with at least two wins will be vital for Sam Houston if they truly want to cement itself as a conference contender.

Florida International Panthers (2-4 conference, 7-14 overall)

While the Panthers sit at last place in the conference with little potential to finish first overall, they have held down their home court just as well as other C-USA teams this season. Still undefeated at home in conference play, FIU sits as a strong bottom team.

A massive upside for the Panthers on the defensive end is sophomore guard Arturo Dean, who averages 3.9 steals per game on the season (leads the country). His ability to create fastbreak opportunities off steals has led to the development of the second-best offense in C-USA, with FIU averaging 76.2 points as a team per game.

Additionally, senior Javaunte Hawkins has been a welcome surprise for the team, his emergence as a star for the team being a big reason for their two wins in conference play (he scored 20 points in both wins).

New Mexico State Aggies (3-3 conference, 9-12 overall)

Despite coming into the season with low expectations, the Aggies have started off conference play strong with a good balance of scoring across their entire roster. Nine different players have led a game in scoring for NMSU this season.

The most notable standouts for the Aggies have been senior Jordan Rawls (8.5 points and 4.2 assists per game) and senior forward Femi Odukale (11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game), but that doesn’t mention junior forward Robert Carpenter, junior guard Christian Cook, senior forward Kaosi Ezeagu, junior guard Jaylin Jackson-Posey, and many other players that play substantial parts in head coach Jason Hooten’s lineup.

In a conference that has shown a large amount of parity up to this point, the Aggies have just as much of a chance to win out in March as any of them.

Jacksonville State Gamecocks (3-3 conference, 11-10 overall)

Kyky Tandy is good at basketball. Leading the conference in points per game (19.0), the 6-foot-2 senior guard has led the team in scoring in 17 out of the team 21 games played this season and only has two games where he hasn’t scored in double figures (and in those two he scored nine).

Aside from Tandy’s stardom, junior guard Quincy Clark (8.4 points and 2.6 assists per game) and senior forward Juwan Perdue (8.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game) have been key contributing factors to what has been an overachieving Gamecock squad. With two wins over Liberty and a win on the road at Tarleton State, JSU is tied for the most road wins in C-USA this season.