Conference USA looks like it is ready to do the same thing it has been doing for quite a few years now – produce a league with some very good teams at the top and some very bad ones at the time. Perennial power Middle Tennessee may be moving from the former group to the later as the Blue Raiders begin a rebuild under new head coach Nick McDevitt, but keep an eye on Southern Mississippi as a team ready to make the reverse jump and land in the upper division.
At the end of the day, it will be hard for most teams to keep up with Western Kentucky, especially if heralded freshman Charles Bassey is all that has been promised. Last year’s conference tournament champions at Marshall may be the team with the best chance to catch the Hilltoppers, especially with their returning starting backcourt ready to go. Also keep an eye on both Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio, a pair of teams that should be tough outs in the CUSA tournament even if they don’t finish at the top of the league standings.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Western Kentucky – Rick Stansbury continues to work his magic on the recruiting trail as his Hilltoppers welcome in arguably the best recruit in school history – 6-11 center Charles Bassey. Bassey was regarded as one of the top recruits in the entire nation. He will be a force, and has enough weapons around him, such as guards Lamonte Bearden and Taveion Hollingsworth, that the Hilltoppers should not only win Conference USA but could even be in line for an at-large bid should they slip up in the conference tournament again.
- Marshall – How many teams can claim they return a starting backcourt pair that both averaged over 20 points per game last season? Marshall can with Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, the pair that led them to a one point win over Western Kentucky in the CUSA title game and a six point upset win over Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year. The Thundering Herd have a chance to dance again with their dynamic duo leading the way.
- Old Dominion – Despite losing Brandan Stith, Randy Haynes and Trey Porter, the Monarchs still have enough talent to compete for a top spot in the conference. Ahmad Carver and B.J. Stith will lead the way in the backcourt, and head coach Jeff Jones added a ton of size down low with two seven-foot graduate transfers (Elbert Robinson from LSU and Dajour Dickens from Providence).
- Southern Mississippi – This may be the year that Doc Sadler’s Golden Eagles finally break through and show that they are fully recovered from the NCAA sanctions of a few years ago. Virtually every significant scorer from last season’s 16-18 team returns, led by guards Cortez Edwards and Tyree Griffin.
- Texas-San Antonio – The Roadrunners won 20 games last season and have a great chance to improve on that with their star guard Jhivvan Jackson back healthy after suffering a knee injury in February. In a league with some dynamic backcourts, the pairing of Jackson and Keaton Wallace should be able to keep pace with most other teams, which could have UTSA finishing high in the league standings.
- North Texas – The Mean Green cut down the nets last season as the CBI champions, and hope to make some serious noise in conference play this year. They will be led by CBI MVP Roosevelt Smart, who averaged over 20 points per game last year, but probably don’t have enough other pieces around him to contend for the league crown.
- Louisiana Tech – The Bulldogs were disappointing last season, finishing 17-16 overall and tied for 9th place in CUSA. With DaQuan Bracey back at full strength, and the experience gained by younger players who had to fill in last season, Louisiana Tech should be improved somewhat but may still be a year or two away from making a run at the top of the league standings.
- UAB – The Blazers will likely take a step back this season now that William Lee, Chris Cokley, Nate Darling and Nick Norton are all gone. However, they still have Zack Bryant, who averaged over 13 points per game as a freshman and should only improve on that this season. The key will be how well a few other returnees and a handful of talented Juco transfers blend in.
- Florida International – The Panthers have turned to the Shaka Smart coaching tree and brought in Jeremy Ballard to replace Anthony Evans as they hope to find a way to start winning games. Although they have two (three if you count Willy Nunez who only played six games due to injuries) double-digit scoring guards returning, it will probably take a few seasons for Ballard to turn this team into any type of serious contender.
- Middle Tennessee – The head coach is gone. The top five scorers are gone. In other words, new head man Nick McDevitt has his work cut out for him in trying to rebuild Middle Tennessee. He certainly has the coaching ability to do just that but don’t expect any miracles this season.
- UTEP – Rodney Terry has the job of rebuilding the Miners after the team lost 20 times last season. The team’s top two scorers are gone, so it is tough to see the Miners having any serious success this year.
- Charlotte – The 49ers have turned to former Tony Bennett assistant Ron Sanchez to attempt to turn things around after another woeful season last year that landed them dead last in the league standings at 2-16. The rebuild will take time, but don’t be surprised to see a few more wins this year than last.
- Rice – The Owls continue the rebuild this season, though they will have to do so without their top scorer from last year as Connor Cashaw transferred to Creighton. Keep an eye on Ako Adams as a player who could develop into a serious threat this season.
- Florida Atlantic – Former Mike White assistant Dusty May will try to do something that no Division I coach has ever done – have success coaching at Florida Atlantic. With only two players back from last year’s 19 loss team, this is going to be a long first season for May.