Although it would be highly unlikely for Conference USA to put more than one team into the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the level of play and competition in the conference could make this a very fun season to watch. Middle Tennessee, which has won the last two automatic bids, must recover from losing 2 of their best 3 players from last season. Although the Blue Raiders will still be right in the mix, up to five other teams enter the season with legitimate NCAA aspirations.
UAB is the pick to win the conference, thanks to the return of Nick Norton and “The Mayor of Blockingham” William Lee. However, UTEP should be right in the picture after an amazing second half turnaround last season and the addition of SMU transfer Keith Frazier. Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Marshall could all contend, along with Western Kentucky, a team whose offseason (thanks to Mitchell Robinson) seemed more like a soap opera than a basketball program. CUSA may once again be a one bid league, but whoever that one team is will make someone very nervous in March, as the conference has advanced a team to the Round of 32 each of the last three years.
Predicted Order of Finish
- UAB – Despite huge hopes last season, the Blazers season fell apart in their very first game when star point guard Nick Norton went down for the season with an ACL tear. He is back this year, and joined by a pair of the best frontcourt players in the league, William Lee and Chris Cokley. With their leader back, UAB has the pieces to win the league crown and return to the NCAA Tournament.
- UTEP – The Miners apparently played two different seasons last year, starting off a dismal 2-13, before turning red hot to end the year on a 13-4 run, including being the only CUSA team to defeat Middle Tennessee. If head coach Tim Floyd’s team can play an entire season the way they played the second half last year, they could contend for the league crown. Leading the way will be the inside-outside combo of guard Omega Harris (over 17 points per game last year) and 7-1 center Matt Willms, who also averaged double digits. The late addition of SMU graduate transfer Keith Frazier could be the piece that puts this team over the top.
- Louisiana Tech – The Bulldogs may have the league’s best trifecta of guards with Jacobi Boykins, Jalen Harris and DaQuan Bracey. However, there are a lot of questions down low, where players like Joniah White will need to step up. If they can get the frontcourt help, La Tech has a strong chance to make the Big Dance for the first time since 1991.
- Middle Tennessee – The backcourt will be strong again, led by Giddy Potts. However, there could be issues low with both JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw gone. Alabama transfer Nick King could be the key to whether this team makes it to the Big Dance for the third straight season.
- Western Kentucky – A team that is next to impossible to predict, the Hilltoppers basically welcome in an entire new slate of players to join star forward Justin Johnson this season. The newcomers include some serious talent though, including Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden at the point and star freshman recruit Josh Anderson. Mitchell Robinson should have been joining Anderson, but a decision to transfer-then stay-then skip school and focus on next year’s NBA Draft left the Hilltoppers without what may have been their best recruit ever.
- Marshall – The Thundering Herd should be a fun team to watch with head coach Dan D’Antoni’s run-and-gun style, plus junior guard Jon Elmore, who averaged almost 20 points per game, back to lead the team. The biggest problem is a lack of much proven depth beyond Elmore and guard C.J. Burks. The good news is that the team has no key seniors, and next season should be the one for fans to key on, assuming Elmore returns for his senior year.
- Charlotte – Jon Davis, Andrien White and Austin Ajukwa give the 49ers a tough three-headed monster on the outside that many teams will be unable to stop, especially because a group of new low-post players should allow everyone to play in their natural positions this season.
- Old Dominion – The Monarchs ranked 330th in the nation in scoring last season, yet still managed to win 19 games, thanks in part to one of the 10 best scoring defenses in the country. They need to find a way to shoot better (310th in shooting percentage, 291st in 3-point percentage and 333rd in free throw percentage) to have any chance to contend this season.
- UTSA – The Roadrunners improved from 5 wins two years ago to 14 last season, and did so thanks in part to a pair of freshmen – Byron Frohnen and Giovanni de Nicolao. Both players should only get better this season, and with a few more talented newcomers added to the roster, this is certainly a program to keep an eye on over the next few seasons.
- North Texas – Grant McCasland coached only one season at Arkansas State, but led the Red Wolves to 20 wins last year. Repeating that type of success at North Texas this year seems unlikely, though he does have a solid backcourt with Ryan Woolridge and A.J. Lawson. The Mean Green only won 2 conference games last season. This year will at least be better than that.
- Southern Miss – The Golden Eagles only won 9 games last season, and leading scorer Quinton Campbell is gone. That simply is not a recipe for success, and should lead to another long season in Hattiesburg.
- Rice – Mike Rhoades did an amazing job over the past few seasons bringing Rice basketball back from obscurity to the verge of a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1970. However, Rhoades is now coaching at VCU, and more players than can be counted on one hand transferred out in the wake of his departure. The Owls are now in complete rebuild mode under new head coach Scott Pera, and it may be a while before they return to the status of contender.
- Florida Atlantic – The Owls only won 10 games last season. Unfortunately, the talent just does not appear to be here and they may be hard-pressed just to match that mark this time around.
- Florida International – The Panthers were 7-24 last year. Their entire starting lineup from that team is gone, and the best returning players averaged just over 5 points per game. Need we say more?