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Conference USA 2016 Season Recap: Part I

Three years after Memphis's departure, Conference USA still needs a leader.

Jaquan Raymond celebrates during the NCAA tournament last season.
Jaquan Raymond celebrates during the NCAA tournament last season.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After Memphis departed Conference USA at the end of the 2013 season, the remaining programs were jumping for joy. After all, CUSA had long been considered Memphis and everyone else, and the Tigers left on the heels of three conference championships in as many seasons.

Since 2014, CUSA has crowned a new champion each season. Tulsa followed Memphis's blueprint after stealing the title in its final year before joining the Tigers in the AAC. UAB cut down the nets in 2015 and Middle Tennessee State earned its first CUSA title since joining the conference with a defeat of Old Dominion in the finals.

2016 was a roller coaster of a ride in CUSA, with UAB standing at the head of the class throughout the season and a few surprises challenging along the way. Marshall was the biggest surprise of the season, ultimately competing for the league title after an 0-6 start. However, once the Herd opened conference play, it rolled to a 12-6 finish and the 3 seed in the tournament.

Eventual champ MTSU made a late surge leading into the tournament, then eliminated Marshall 99-90 in the semis. But more importantly, the Raiders pulled off the biggest upset of the entire NCAA tournament by dispatching No. 2 Michigan State in the opening round after the Spartans were considered one of the favorites to cut down the nets for the National Championship.

Now the question remains: has the CUSA power made the short trip across I-40 from Memphis in favor of former Sun Belt powerhouse MTSU?

Louisiana Tech continued its strong play in conference, boasting a 16-1 home record and 12-6 mark in CUSA play. While the Bulldogs stayed in the upper fourth of the conference for much of the season, they fell in their final three contests, including an early exit in the quarterfinals to ODU, 68-52.

Charlotte, much like Marshall, had a stagnate start to its season under first-year head coach Mark Price. The 49ers lost eight of their first nine and ended non-conference play at 3-9. Charlotte improved immensely as the season progressed, working a 9-9 record in conference while playing into the quarterfinals before falling to MTSU, 79-61.

UAB was the shocking story of the season after an early exit stripped the Blazers of a trip to the big dance and the field of 68. Playing in their own backyard, the Blazers hit a virtual wall in an 88-77 loss to Western Kentucky. It will be interesting to see what becomes of UAB after losing coach Jerod Haase to Stanford and promoting former associate head coach Robert Ehsan to replace him.

Looking ahead, MTSU will have some serious remodeling to do this season after losing Perrin Buford, Darnell Harris and Jaqawn Raymond to graduation. All three were in the top five in scoring for the Raiders, with all but Raymond averaging double-digit points.

Meanwhile UAB looks poised to return for a strong 2016-17 campaign, losing only leading scorer Robert Brown while returning the next four leading scorers on the team.

Marshall loses only James Kelly from the mix, but that could prove to be a major loss, as the Herd big man became a one-man wrecking ball in CUSA.

While there remain several solid teams in CUSA, it will likely be a single-bid league again next season, with the remainder settling for the NIT and lesser events.