After being largely ignored and certainly disrespected throughout the regular season, Conference USA made the biggest noise on the first weekend of the postseason with Middle Tennessee State’s 90-81 victory over second-seeded Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Despite their 21 wins in the regular season and three in the conference tournament, the Blue Raiders were rated no better than a No. 15 seed as the league’s only NCAA representative. Regular-season champion UAB, a 26-game winner at the time at-large invitations were issued, had to settle for the NIT.
It was the fourth consecutive season that the C-USA has been a one-bid league when it came to the NCAA tourney. Not since the 2012 event has there been as many as two C-USA teams in the NCAA field.
Part of that is the ever-changing makeup of the league itself. One of the two teams in the 2012 tourney was Memphis, which now competes in the American Athletic Conference. Tulsa and Houston, also now in The American, have represented the C-USA since 2010.
But mostly the league didn’t exactly distinguish itself in non-conference play in 2015-16. Regular-season champ UAB had losses to mediocre Auburn and Illinois teams (the latter by 14 points on a neutral court). Middle Tennessee had losses to Murray State, VCU, Georgia State, and South Dakota State, and Old Dominion lost to William & Mary (which did win at North Carolina State), Georgia State, and to Richmond by 16.
Marshall started the season with six consecutive defeats. Louisiana Tech lost only twice in November and December, but one was a 26-point drubbing at Memphis, the other a 19-point whipping at Ole Miss.
And those were the top five finishers in conference play.
UAB set the tone of the conference race early. The Blazers started off January by winning their first seven C-USA outings. By the time of their first league loss at Western Kentucky on Jan. 28, Middle Tennessee had lost twice and Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion three times each.
Marshall also had just one conference loss at that point, but the Thundering Herd then dropped their next two games, the first a three-point loss at home to UAB.
That win over the Herd put the Blazers in a commanding position in the league race, and though they didn’t roll over everybody (among their wins were an overtime affair at hapless Southern Miss, four-point squeakers over Marshall and Western Kentucky, and a three-pointer at Florida Atlantic), the Blazers wound up winning the conference by three games.
They then lost at BYU 97-79 in the NIT, the consolation prize for regular-season champions who lose their conference tourneys. In other postseason tourneys, Old Dominion beat Tennessee Tech, UC-Santa Barbara, and Oakland to win the Vegas 16 and Louisiana Tech lost to East Tennessee State also in the Vegas 16.
UAB 16-2 26-7
Middle Tennessee 13-5 25-10
Marshall 12-6 17-16
Louisiana Tech 12-6 23-10
Old Dominion 12-6 25-13
UTEP 10-8 19-14
Charlotte 9-9 14-19
Western Kentucky 8-10 18-16
North Texas 7-11 12-20
Rice 7-11 12-20
Florida International 7-11 13-19
Florida Atlantic 5-13 8-25
Southern Miss 5-13 8-21
UTSA 3-15 5-27
It didn’t take long for the league tourney to take an unexpected turn.
Despite playing the 13-team event in its hometown, regular-season champion UAB bowed out in its first game, losing 88-77 to No. 8 seeded Western Kentucky after getting a bye to the quarterfinals. No. 4 seed Louisiana Tech, which also had earned a bye, lost to No. 5 Old Dominion 68-52 on the same day.
Of the four teams with byes, only No. 2 seed Middle Tennessee and No. 3 Marshall held serve in the quarters with wins over No. 7 Charlotte and No. 6 UTEP, 79-61 and 87-85, respectively, to advance to the semis.
Earlier, Florida Atlantic had opened the tourney in Birmingham with an 82-58 win over UTSA in a match of 12-13 seeds (Southern Miss sat out because of a self-imposed post-season ban). The next day Western Kentucky knocked off No. 9 North Texas 84-76, Old Dominion disposed of Florida Atlantic 72-46, No. 7 Charlotte beat No. 10 Rice 77-67, and UTEP eliminated No. 11 Florida International 85-77 to set up the quarterfinal matchups.
In the semis, Old Dominion ended Western Kentucky’s run 89-77 and Middle Tennessee bumped off Marshall 99-90.
After the two high-scoring semifinals, the championship game between Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion turned into a low-scoring affair with both teams struggling from the field before Middle Tennessee survived 55-53 to earn C-USA’s automatic NCAA bid.
The Blue Raiders, who had shot 58.5 and 54.7 percent their first two games, hit only 36.5 percent in the final but won by holding the Monarchs to just 35.7 percent.
Junior forward Reggie Upshaw earned tourney MVP honors after averaging 17.7 points and 8.0 rebounds in the three games with eight assists, five steals, and four blocked shots. His two free throws with 2.9 seconds left provided the Blue Raiders with the decisive points as the Monarchs failed to get off a shot in the remaining time.
Player of the Year: Alex Hamilton, Sr., G, Louisiana Tech
Freshman of the Year: Marcus Evans, G, Rice
Newcomer of the Year: James Kelly, Sr., F, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year: William Lee, So., F, UAB
Sixth Man of the Year: Dirk Williams, Sr., G, UAB
Coach of the Year: Jerod Haase, UAB
Alex Hamilton, G, Sr., Louisiana Tech
James Kelly, F, Sr., Marshall
Trey Freeman, G, Sr., Old Dominion
Marcus Evans, G, Fr., Rice
Robert Brown, G, Sr., UAB
- Middle Tennessee put five players in double figures (Reggie Upshaw with 21, Giddy Potts with 19, Darnell Harris with 15, Perrin Buford with 15, and Jaqawn Raymond with 11 in engineering the 90-81 upset of second-seeded Michigan State in the NCAA tourney. The Blue Raiders shot 55.9 percent from the field in becoming just the eighth No. 15 seed to notch a win in the national tourney.
- The Blue Raiders weren’t the only C-USA tourney to enjoy post-season success. Old Dominion held on to beat Oakland 68-67 in the final of the inaugural Vegas 16 tourney with Troy Freeman earning MVP honors in the event, which actually fielded eight teams.
- UAB averaged 6.1 blocked shots per game to finish second in the nation in that category. The Blazers finished with a school-record 202 blocks for the year with sophomore William Lee leading the way with an average of 2.88 blocks per game, eighth in Division I statistics.
- Three players bettered the league record for rebounds in conference games and a fourth tied the former high in the 2015-16 season. Charlotte’s Joseph Uchebo finished with 239 rebounds in 18 conference games, North Texas’ Jeremy Combs with 205 in 17 league outings, and Marshall’s James Kelly with 188 in 18 games. Brandan Stith of Old Dominion ended up with 186 in 18 C-USA outings to match the record Cincinnati’s Kenyon Martin set in 16 games in the 1999-2000 season.
- UAB finished 16-0 at home and will take a 25-game winning streak at Bartow Arena into the 2016-17 season.
- Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman accounted for four of the league’s top 10 scoring performances, including the top spot with his 42-point outburst against Western Kentucky in the conference tourney. He scored 38 against Charlotte, 37 against Marshall, and 33 against Rice. His career high entering the season was 28 points as a freshman at Campbell University.
What we expected, and it happened: With five starters returning from a team that won its first C-USA tourney title a year earlier, UAB was a heavy favorite to win the regular-season championship, garnering 11 first-place votes from the 14 conference coaches in the preseason. The Blazers backed up that prediction on their way to a school-record 26-win season.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Rice looked poised to make a nice run in 2015-16 after returning several key players from a team that had lost 11 games by single digits the season before and adding the eventual C-USA Freshman of the Year in guard Marcus Evans. But the Owls lost their first three conference games and six of their first seven in C-USA play and were limping again at the finish. They lost their last three games of the regular season and lost by 10 points to Charlotte in their only conference tourney appearance.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Nobody gave Middle Tennessee much of a shot at No. 2-seeded Michigan State, a team many were picking to win it all, in their first-round NCAA matchup. But the Blue Raiders pulled the NCAA tourney shocker with a 90-81 victory over the Spartans.
Team(s) on the rise: Western Kentucky. Looking long term here. New coach Rick Stansbury made Mississippi State a consistent competitor in the SEC (293 wins, 11 post-season appearances in 22 seasons) and likely won’t take long to get the Hilltoppers back to where they are accustomed to being. He has two of his top three scorers back from a WKU team that knocked off regular-season champ UAB in last season’s C-USA tourney.
Team(s) on the decline: Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles are still digging their way out of the sordid mess former coach Donnie Tyndall left behind, though the Eagles, who remain on NCAA probation as well as facing scholarship cuts over the next three years, will have their self-imposed postseason bans of the last two years lifted.
2016-17 Conference USA Outlook
Unlike a year ago, when UAB was a heavy favorite to capture the race, which the Blazers did by a comfortable three-game margin, Conference USA looks to be a much more competitive affair in 2016-17.
Though coach Jerod Haase has moved on to Stanford, his successor, former assistant Rob Ehsan, will have four starters returning from a team that set a school record for wins (26), conference victories (16), and road wins (10). Leading scorer Robert Brown (14.0 average) departs, but all-conference performers Chris Cokley (13.1), William Lee (10.6), and Nick Norton (8.9) as well as C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Dirk Williams (9.3) return.
Middle Tennessee welcomes back its top two scorers in Giddy Potts (14.9) and Reggie Upshaw (13.7), but loses two other double-figure scorers in Perrin Buford (12.0) and Darnel Harris (11.7).
Marshall loses its top scorer and rebounder with the departure of James Kelly (20.1, 9.6) but returns its next six scorers, including three-Jon Elmore (15.2), Ryan Taylor (14.2), and Stevie Browning (12.8)-who averaged in double digits. Elmore also averaged 5.8 rebounds a game.
Coach Jeff Jones has some rebuilding to do at Old Dominion with the loss of Trey Freeman and Aaron Bacote but will have Brandan Stith, an all-defensive team performer, and Zoran Talley, all all-freshman team selection, as well as starter Denzell Taylor back.
Louisiana Tech loses C-USA Player of the Year Alex Hamilton but gets back a pair of double-figure scorers in Erik McCree (16.2), a second-team all-conference selection, and Dayon Griffin (11.3).
Of the remaining teams, the two with the best chance of making some noise in 2016-17 are Rice and UTEP.
The Owls actually were expected to fare better than the 12-20, 7-11 marks they set this past season, but maybe the prognostications were just a year off. They welcome back their top five scorers, including Marcus Evans (21.4) and Egor Koulechov (16.7). Evans was a unanimous selection for C-USA Freshman of the Year and Koulechov scored 535 points, a school record for a sophomore.
The Miners return four double-figure scorers, including their top point-getter, Lee Moore (15.4) and their two three rebounders in Terry Winn (6.4), Moore (5.4), and Dominic Artis (5.1).
Three new coaches join the league. In addition to Ehsan at UAB, former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury takes over at Western Kentucky and former Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson takes the reins at UTSA.