Determining who the very best teams in Conference USA were last year is like trying to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.
Perhaps only Mr. Owl could sort that out in a league that is just way too big because of the chase for football money. It’s a shame, too, because this could be a really good hoops league, but as it was this year, it was impossible to separate the top teams. Not helping the cause was 16-game conference schedule in a 16-team conference (this year’s incarnation after welcoming eight new members), resulting in numerous inequities in who played where as well as who one drew as their lone opponent to play twice.
The top five teams – Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Middle Tennessee State and Texas-El Paso – were all good. The first four tied for the league title at 13-3, while UTEP was one game back at 12-4. The narrow difference among them also was a curse, though, when trying to make a case for any of them as NCAA Tournament contenders.
It’s very possible C-USA could’ve put one or maybe even two more teams in the NCAAs if those five could’ve replaced 3-4 games against the rest of the league with games against each other, allowing for chances at separation at the top. Instead, all were lacking for quality wins and just one of them got in-Tulsa, which finished its C-USA term with a championship before jumping to the American Athletic Conference.
Conference USA can and should do better. A number of its current programs – UTEP, Louisiana Tech, UAB, UNC Charlotte and Old Dominion – have had periods as consistent top 50-75 programs. There’s no reason C-USA can’t have success along the lines of the Atlantic 10, but something about this league just seems to keep that from happening. With the prior exception of Memphis, it’s as if C-USA members collectively drag each other down into a pool of mediocrity. That needs to change for this to become the basketball league it still has the potential to be, even now after how much realignment has hammered it.
|Middle Tennessee State||13-3||24-9|
The Conference USA Tournament consisted of five rounds, the same number as the NIT and just two less than the NCAA Tournament.
Even with so many teams and games, the tourney was rather uneventful. The most entertaining game may have been the final one of the first day, as No. 12 seed East Carolina held off No. 13 Texas-San Antonio 79-76. Akeem Richmond shot 11-for-19 from the field and the three-point line en route to 36 points. No. 14 seed Marshall pulled the only upset that day (63-59 over 11 seed Florida Atlantic) while 10th-seeded North Texas rallied from seven down late in regulation to nip poor Rice 63-62 in overtime.
Second round and quarterfinal games all went according to seed with one minor exception, as No. 9 UNC Charlotte knocked out No. 8 UAB 80-70. No. 7 Tulane also rallied from 13 down in the second half to defeat North Texas 66-61. The top four seeds then advanced to the quarterfinals by an average margin of 16 points, the most notable result being No. 4 Southern Miss dumping tourney host UTEP 64-56.
No. 2 seed Tulsa stopped Middle Tennessee State 76-69 in the first semifinal with James Woodard scoring 19 points, and in the second semi top-seeded Louisiana Tech had a surprisingly easy time in handling Southern Miss 88-70. The final saw the Golden Hurricane take control of a tight game in the second half, holding Tech to 23.3% second-half shooting the last 20 minutes. Woodard scored 27 points to earn the tourney MVP award and Tulsa won its first NCAA bid in 11 years.
Player of the Year: Shawn Jones, F, Sr., Middle Tennessee State
Newcomer of the Year: Chad Frazier, G, Jr., UAB
Freshman of the Year: Vince Hunter, F, UTEP
Defensive Player of the Year: Kenneth (Speedy) Smith, G, Jr., Louisiana Tech
Sixth Man of the Year: Kenyon McNeail, G, Sr., Louisiana Tech
Coach of the Year: Danny Manning, Tulsa
Pablo Bertone, G, Sr., Florida Atlantic
Chad Frazier, G, Jr., UAB
Shawn Jones, F, Sr., Middle Tennessee State
Kenneth (Speedy) Smith, G, Jr., Louisiana Tech
Neil Watson, G, Sr., Southern Mississippi
- Tulsa earned its first NCAA bid since 2003, a long break between appearances for a program that was an NCAA tourney regular in the ’80s and ’90s.
- Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss both reached the NIT quarterfinals.
- UNC Charlotte defeated Michigan to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tourney in November. UAB also scored a huge non-conference win over North Carolina and Louisiana Tech won at Oklahoma.
- East Carolina’s Richmond led NCAA Division I with 4.56 three-pointers made per game, while Louisiana Tech’s Speedy Smith was second nationally in assists (8.0 apg), seventh in steals (2.5 spg) and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.24). Southern Miss senior Watson also was fourth in the nation in free throw percentage (91.7%).
What we expected, and it happened: With eight schools joining the league before this season, it was hard to know much of anything to expect. But Southern Miss remained the closest thing C-USA has had to a reliable steed of late, once again winning 20+ games and this year tying for the regular season title.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: UNC Charlotte came over from the Atlantic 10 and many thought would be at least a solid top half team. The 49ers started the season well with the Michigan win, but in conference play slipped into the mid-pack morass of C-USA.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Old Dominion was a pleasant surprise, rebounding from a five-win disaster in its last year in the CAA to be competitive right away in C-USA. ODU finished best of the pack of teams after the top five and won 18 games overall. Tulsa also surprised, overcoming a number of close losses early to heat up in conference play and earn the tourney title.
Team on the rise: UTEP. Tim Floyd is quietly putting together another formidable program. The Miners had some moments last year, defeating Tennessee and scaring Kansas, return much of their team next year, and Floyd is recruiting well, too.
Team on the decline: Never count out a Kermit Davis team, but Middle Tennessee State looks poised to take a step or two back this year. Four senior starters depart from a program that won 79 games over the past three years, including C-USA player of the Year Shawn Jones.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Membership will change again. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa are out while Western Kentucky is in, putting the league at 14 teams, a more manageable number but still about four teams too big.
On paper, Conference USA doesn’t look as strong at the top as it was this year. Louisiana Tech and UTEP will likely be the favorites, with everyone else slated at least a notch below. Both are experienced and talented and have a chance to make some noise nationally, and no less than the NCAA Tournament should be the goal for both.
Southern Miss should still be a contender to win 20 games, while perhaps UNC Charlotte or UAB take a step this year into the top four. Charlotte in particular returns a ton of experience, but that same experience went just 17-14 last year. Western Kentucky could be a good addition…or could slide into the abyss that seems to strike so many in this league. Last year only five teams finished better than 9-7 in C-USA play, while eight squads were separated by just three games. How many teams are able to separate from the clusters that seem to inevitably form in this conference will determine how far Conference USA can go as a whole.