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2014-15 Conference USA Post-Mortem

July 24, 2015 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

UAB coach Jerod Haase didn’t receive votes for any national coach of the year awards this year. He should have.

In fact, Haase wasn’t even named the coach of the year in Conference USA-that honor went to Louisiana Tech’s Michael White after leading his team to a second straight league title. It is hard to find a team in the country that improved more from the start of the season to the end, though, than UAB did. Given that plus the chaotic circumstances swirling around his school, there was not a coach in the country who did a better job than Haase did in making the Blazers one of the terrific (if unsung) stories of the season.

UAB was an exceptionally young team, with 10 of its 13 players freshmen and sophomores, and it showed in a 4-9 start to the season that included blowout losses to Wisconsin and North Carolina and home losses to Louisiana-Monroe, South Florida and Illinois State. Come conference play, though, the Blazers turned it around, and in fact were just a game out of the league lead before losing their final two regular season games.

The Blazers then marched through the conference tournament as the fourth seed to win the league’s NCAA bid. A trip to the Big Dance was already more than enough for a team that was just 16-15 entering the C-USA tourney, especially at a school dealing with campus-wide tumult after football was dropped in controversial fashion in November and the school’s future in Conference USA was in question. UAB wasn’t done, though, shocking Iowa State in the first round of the NCAAs as a 14 seed in one of the biggest upsets of the tourney.

UAB’s NCAA Tournament victory was its first in 10 years and also the first by a Conference USA school not named Memphis since 2005, when Louisville and Cincinnati also won games. C-USA was an almost entirely different entity then-UAB, UNC Charlotte and Southern Mississippi are the only teams in the league now that were then, and Charlotte took a detour to the Atlantic 10 in that time. In that regard, the Blazers’ NCAA success took on added significance for their conference, which from this view is an unrefined diamond with a host of historically strong basketball programs that has struggled to put it all together in recent years.

The rise of UAB coincided with an improved Conference USA, even if the power ratings may not have shown it. Old Dominion continued its rapid ascent under Jeff Jones and could’ve (should’ve?) been picked for the NCAA Tournament instead of another middling major. The Monarchs still advanced to the NIT semifinals. Louisiana Tech had its second straight outstanding year in C-USA and made it to the NIT quarterfinals. UTEP also was a solid NIT team and Western Kentucky was a good addition, challenging for the title and winning 20 games in its first year in the league.

The conference as a whole, though, was strictly average or less in Division I in the conference RPI ratings (17th according to CBSSports.com), so there is still work to be done. As UAB has now shown, though, that work can be done, which is good news for the league.

Final Standings:

C-USA Overall
Louisiana Tech 15-3 27-9
Old Dominion 13-5 27-7
Texas-El Paso 13-5 22-11
Western Kentucky 12-6 20-12
Alabama-Birmingham 12-6 20-16
Middle Tennessee State 9-9 17-17
Texas-San Antonio 8-10 14-15
Florida International 8-10 15-17
North Texas 8-10 14-17
Rice 8-10 12-20
UNC Charlotte 7-11 14-17
Marshall 7-11 11-21
Southern Mississippi 4-14 9-20
Florida Atlantic 2-16 9-20

 

Conference Tournament
With membership dropping from 16 teams to 14, the Conference USA tournament was mercifully shortened from five rounds to four, with 12 teams participating. The tourney also was held in Birmingham, Ala., which undoubtedly was a boon for UAB in its postseason run.

Middle Tennessee State almost upstaged UAB in the tourney before running out of gas and falling to the Blazers in the final. Kermit Davis’s Blue Raiders struggled with consistency all season, but sixth-seeded MTSU edged No. 11 Charlotte 63-60 in the first round and then knocked out No. 3 Old Dominion 59-52 in the quarterfinals and No. 2 UTEP 53-50 in the semifinals.

UAB’s run to the final was no less impressive, starting with a taut 53-52 win over No. 5 Western Kentucky in the quarterfinals in which neither team led by more than six the entire game. The Blazers then eliminated top seed Louisiana Tech 72-62 in overtime, recovering in the extra session after squandering a 16-point second half lead.

The championship game was close for the first 10 minutes before UAB took control behind red-hot shooting. An 11-0 run late in the first half gave the Blazers control, and Middle Tennessee never recovered when the hosts shot an incredible 14 of 19 in the second half before missing three shots in the final minutes. UAB led by as many as 22 and won 73-60 for its first Conference USA tourney championship.

The entire tournament featured seven games decided by seven points or less or in overtime. No. 10 Florida International scored a 57-54 win over 7 seed Texas-San Antonio in the first round before falling 83-71 to UTEP in the quarterfinals. Rice also made a nice run from a 9 seed, blowing out No. 8 North Texas 82-54 before giving Louisiana Tech all it could handle in a 70-64 quarterfinal loss. Western Kentucky defeated 12 seed Marshall 59-45 in the other first round game.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Kenneth (Speedy) Smith, G, Sr., Louisiana Tech
Freshman of the Year: Torin Dorn, G, UNC Charlotte
Newcomer of the Year: Trey Freeman, G, Jr., Old Dominion
Defensive Player of the Year: Julian Washburn, F, Sr., UTEP
Sixth Man of the Year: Chris Cokley, F, Fr., UAB
Coach of the Year: Michael White, Louisiana Tech

All-Conference Team
Trey Freeman, G, Jr., Old Dominion
Jeromie Hill, F, Sr., Texas-San Antonio
Vince Hunter, F, So., UTEP
T.J. Price, G, Sr., Western Kentucky
Kenneth (Speedy) Smith, G, Sr., Louisiana Tech

Season Highlights

  • UAB won its first conference tournament title since the 1987 Sun Belt tourney. Like the Blazers’ championship this year, that one also was won at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, now known as Legacy Arena.
  • Louisiana Tech advanced to the NIT quarterfinals for the second straight year, while Old Dominion made its second NIT semifinal appearance in 10 years. It also marked the second straight year C-USA has placed two teams in the NIT’s final eight
  • Old Dominion got off to a 13-1 start to join the Associated Press Top 25 Poll on Jan. 5, ODU’s first appearance in the AP poll in school history
  • La. Tech’s Speedy Smith ranked fifth in the nation in assists per game (7.5), while Florida International’s Adrian Diaz was seventh in blocks (3.0 bpg).

What we expected, and it happened: Louisiana Tech once again was at the top of the conference, leading the league wire-to-wire in the regular season.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought Southern Miss would find a way to stay near the top of Conference USA, but that didn’t happen as almost everything that could’ve gone wrong did for new coach Doc Sadler.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Texas-San Antonio and Rice both made nice jumps up from the bottom of C-USA to the middle of the pack. The Owls in particular were a tough out in the first year under Mike Rhoades and appear to have a bright future.

Teams on the rise: UAB, Rice. It sure seems like the sky is the limit right now for the Blazers after such a young team was among the final 32 remaining in the NCAA Tournament. The Owls were in literally every single game they played last year, with not a single one of their losses by more than 14 points and 11 of them by single digits. They’ll miss Seth Gearhart but return the bulk of their key contributors.

Teams on the decline: Southern Mississippi, UNC Charlotte. The Golden Eagles’ descent last year was swift, and it will take some time to recover. Mark Price was a splashy hire at UNCC, but the 49ers as a whole were an enigma the past couple years.

2015-16 Conference Outlook
UAB will enter 2015-16 as a heavy favorite in Conference USA. The Blazers also will almost certainly be a chic national darkhorse, not surprising when a team returns all five starters and all but one player from its rotation. As it often is in such cases, it’s advisable to tap the brakes before setting expectations too high-this is a squad that lost 15 games after all, and didn’t make much of a dent in a very beatable UCLA team in the second round of the NCAAs-but UAB surely will deserve the attention it should receive coming into the season. Robert Brown is one of the more underrated players in the country, and William Lee could be a star. It should also be noted that the Conference USA tournament will return to Birmingham again in 2016, an added bonus even if the Blazers struggle more than expected.

Who is best equipped to challenge UAB? Despite losing some of its inside beef, Old Dominion should be tough again because Trey Freeman will compete for conference player of the year honors. Middle Tennessee State should be improved with most of its players returning, and it’s hard to imagine the Blue Raiders being so up and down again.

Louisiana Tech, UTEP and Western Kentucky all lose star power and will need newcomers to play big roles. The Bulldogs will no longer have Speedy Smith plus leading scorer Raheem Appleby, though double-figure slashers Alex Hamilton and Erik McCree are still around. Vince Hunter departed the Miners after two seasons, and in all four of Tim Floyd’s top five scorers are gone. The Hilltoppers lose their heart and soul in T.J. Price plus George Fant, who scored more than 30 ppg between them.

As for the rest, keep an eye on Rice, which could certainly move into the first division with even modest improvement. Florida International has one of the top shot-blockers in the country in Adrian Diaz, and it will be intriguing to see what the Panthers do in the third year for coach Anthony Evans. North Texas is another team that could emerge from the mid-pack muck that included six teams separated by one game last year. Don’t be misled about the importance of the bottom teams, though, for it is the bottom of C-USA that will determine how far the league rises (or falls) in the power ratings, and will directly impact the postseason seeding of its champion in the NCAA Tournament. As exciting as UAB’s win over Iowa State was, the league would be all too glad if it can avoid another 14 seed in the Big Dance.

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