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2016-17 Conference USA Post-Mortem

June 22, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Now that’s the way to build on a program-defining moment.

After stunning Michigan State as a 15 seed in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Middle Tennessee State could’ve faded into obscurity and been for all intents and purposes a one-hit wonder, a nice program making a brief national cameo. Instead, the Blue Raiders didn’t just fade, they were considerably better, and certainly the story of the 2016-17 season for Conference USA.

Middle Tennessee built on arguably the greatest moment in the school’s basketball history with what was likely the best season in school history. The Blue Raiders won 31 games, drubbing a couple SEC teams along the way, blew through C-USA for regular season and tournament titles, and won a game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. The latter put them among an elite group of just 15 schools to win at least one NCAA tourney main draw game each of the last two years.

Kermit Davis has built a sturdy program at MTSU, one that continues to take strides towards being a regular national contender. The Blue Raiders have done it with their own style, too, with deep, unselfish teams offensively that play excellent defense, including a patented 1-3-1. Middle Tennessee also had some star power this year, though, with veterans Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts, plus Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who became the Conference USA Player of the Year.

The Blue Raiders’ NCAA Tournament win also marked the third straight year a C-USA team won a game in the tourney from a double-digit seed. That track record, plus MTSU’s methodical win as a 12 seed over Minnesota of the Big Ten, in which the Blue Raiders looked every bit the better team, make it appropriate to ask: when will Conference USA’s champions start to get some respect in the postseason?

That MTSU likely would not have received an NCAA tourney at-large bid if it had lost to Marshall in the tourney final (selection committee members can contend that wasn’t certain, but the 12 seed said it all) should scare almost any college basketball fan. Leaving out the Blue Raiders (while putting in a 16-loss Vanderbilt team as an 8 seed that MTSU pounded by 23 points) would’ve been quite possibly the biggest travesty in the history of tournament at-large selection, and the surest sign yet that the selection committee has been corrupted by autonomy and television’s engineered divide between five conferences and the rest. At the bare minimum, it would’ve been a complete slap in the face of the conference.

Of course, there’s no doubt Conference USA has done some of this to itself. The league continues to spiral down the RPI drain-down to 23rd at the end of this year, according to CBSSports.com data. That’s unacceptable for a league sponsoring Division I-A (FBS) football, and right now even the MAC and Sun Belt are well ahead of C-USA on the hardwood. There are still too many teams struggling mightily, and for every Marshall or Texas-San Antonio that takes a step forward, there’s a UAB or Florida International falling backward.

Perhaps no team summed up the frustration that has been C-USA’s situation in recent years better than UTEP. The Miners-a team expected to finish in at least the middle of the league, if not better-had an awful non-conference season, losing to the likes of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Mississippi State, Northern Arizona, Northwestern State and SE Louisiana-at home-and in all getting off to a 2-13 start. Tim Floyd’s team had all the markings of having a disastrous season. Instead, UTEP rallied, winning 12 of their final 15 games to tie for third in the league, including a win over Middle Tennessee that could’ve shorted the Blue Raiders’ NCAA tourney chances.

Bad UTEP was much like the bottom of Conference USA in recent years, but good UTEP was more than respectable, a tough out against anyone. C-USA needs more of the latter from all its members, less of the former.

Final Standings:

C-USA Overall
Middle Tennessee State 17-1 31-5
Louisiana Tech 14-4 23-10
Old Dominion 12-6 19-12
Texas-El Paso 12-6 15-17
Rice 11-7 23-12
Marshall 10-8 20-15
Alabama-Birmingham 9-9 17-16
Western Kentucky 9-9 15-17
Texas-San Antonio 8-10 14-19
UNC Charlotte 7-11 13-17
Florida Atlantic 6-12 10-20
Southern Mississippi 6-12 9-22
Florida International 3-15 7-24
North Texas 2-16 8-22

Conference Tournament
The Conference USA tournament returned to Birmingham one more time, but any thoughts that host school UAB might make a run from its No. 7 seed were shut down by the tourney’s second day. The Blazers topped 10th-seeded Charlotte 74-73 in the first round, but were eliminated in the quarterfinals by No. 2 Louisiana Tech 69-57.

First-round winners No. 5 Rice (86-75 over 12 seed Southern Mississippi) and Texas-San Antonio (56-52 over No. 8 Western Kentucky) also were eliminated in the quarterfinals, with UTSA falling to top seed Middle Tennessee State 86-70 and Rice knocked out by No. 4 UTEP 86-76. The fourth first-round winner, though, became one of the stories of the tourney. Sixth-seeded Marshall eliminated No. 11 Florida Atlantic 89-74 to open the event, and then stunned No. 3 Old Dominion 64-63 in the quarterfinals. The Thundering Herd was not done, either, hitting 19 three-pointers in a 93-77 destruction of Louisiana Tech in the semifinals to move to the doorstep of their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1987.

Marshall’s shooting certainly made it a real threat to win the whole tourney, but in the end C-USA’s best team all season reigned as well in March. Middle Tennessee drubbed UTEP 82-56 in the semifinals, and the experienced Blue Raiders finally shook Marshall late in an 83-72 victory for their second consecutive league tourney title. Giddy Potts scored 30 points and was named the tournament MVP as MTSU shot 53.6%. The top seed also disrupted the Thundering Herd’s long-range gunning, holding Marshall to 10-for-32 from behind the arc. Middle Tennessee never trailed and finally pulled away late, as the stubborn Herd was still within five with less than seven minutes left.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 JaCorey Williams, F, Sr., Middle Tennessee State
Defensive Player of the Year: William Lee, F, Jr., UAB
Freshman of the Year: DaQuan Bracey, G, Louisiana Tech
Newcomer of the Year: JaCorey Williams, F, Sr., Middle Tennessee State
Sixth-Man of the Year: Zoran Talley, F, So., Old Dominion
Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee State

All-Conference Team
Jon Elmore, G, Jr., Marshall
Marcus Evans, G, So., Rice
Egor Koulechov, G/F, Jr., Rice
Erik McCree, F, Sr., Louisiana Tech
JaCorey Williams, F, Sr., Middle Tennessee State

Season Highlights

  • Middle Tennessee State set a school record for wins with 31, appeared in the top 25 coaches poll for the first time in school history and won a game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. The Blue Raiders also had the conference’s four best regular season non-conference wins, including a win at UNC-Wilmington and routs of SEC teams Vanderbilt and Mississippi.
  • C-USA fielded one of the nation’s top offensive teams and one of its best defensive teams. Marshall ranked seventh in NCAA Division I in scoring (85.6 ppg) and eighth in three-pointers per game (10.2), while Old Dominion was fifth in scoring defense (61.2 ppg) and 20th in field goal percentage defense (40.0%).
  • Florida International guard Donte McGill ranked third in the country in free throw shooting (92.9%), while Louisiana Tech’s DaQuan Bracey was fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.51) with 193 assists and just 55 turnovers-as a freshman.
  • Florida Atlantic had one of the bigger upsets of the season, going to Ohio State and knocking off the Buckeyes 79-77 in December.

What we expected, and it happened: Middle Tennessee State was excellent again, something that is becoming the norm under Kermit Davis. Rice also showed big improvement in the third year under Mike Rhoades.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought Old Dominion was one of the darkhorse teams in the country, and the Monarchs seemed to validate that for much of their early-season Battle 4 Atlantis game against Louisville, leading most of the way. Poor free-throw shooting doomed ODU in that game, though, and would continue to in a number of others throughout the season.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: No one expected UAB to fall from the top of the league to smack into the middle of the C-USA pack. Some of the blame for that unquestionably goes towards point guard Nick Norton tearing an ACL in the Blazers’ first game of the season. Also, Marshall continued to improve under colorful Dan D’Antoni, whose teams bombed away with impunity.

Team on the rise: Western Kentucky. An easy choice. The Hilltoppers are going to be a chic pick for a breakthrough by many as long as Rick Stansbury continues to lure talented recruits that rarely give a Conference USA program the time of day.

Team on the decline: Rice. It was fun while it lasted, but the Owls lost their coach, and then lost most of their team, immensely frustrating for a program that has struggled more than not for decades and at a top-notch academic institution, no less. Blame the double whammy of coach mobility and players’ transfer addiction.

2017-18 Conference USA Outlook
Under most circumstances, whether Middle Tennessee State can make it three in a row would be the top story to follow in C-USA next year. The Blue Raiders lose two of their stars in Williams and the valuable Upshaw, but still bring back super sniper Potts. Tyrik Dixon will have a year under his belt at the point, 6-foot-10 Brandon Walters showed signs of being a breakthrough player late last year, Antwain Johnson had a huge game in the NCAA Tournament against Butler, and Edward Simpson is the epitome of an MTSU player, unselfish to the max. Even if they can’t duplicate their massive success of this year, it’s not hard at all to envision the Blue Raiders winning 23, 24 games again and getting to the NCAAs.

Undoubtedly, though, the team that will pique the interest of many will be Western Kentucky, with a fab recruiting class led by top recruit Mitchell Robinson, the likes of which rarely make it to Conference USA. Add in some impact transfers plus returnee Justin Johnson-a second team all-conference pick-and there will be some, maybe even many predicting greatness for the Hilltoppers already next year. We’ll see. It’s quite a jump from 15-17 to the NCAA Tournament. (Late note: it was recently announced Johnson will play for WKU’s football team this year, and won’t rejoin the basketball team until December or January, if at all)

Besides those two, some usual suspects need to be watched. Eric Konkol is putting his signature on Louisiana Tech a little more each year, and while Erik McCree is a big loss, the Bulldogs aren’t going away. Old Dominion will be Old Dominion, again slowing it down, protecting the ball and pounding the boards. Ahmad Caver, Zoran Talley and B.J. and Brandan Stith are a significant core; if the Monarchs can shoot a little straighter, they certainly can win the league.

Elsewhere, UAB still has William Lee and Chris Cokley for another year, and also should get back point guard Nick Norton from injury. That’s a strong nucleus, but the Blazers are young besides them, though. Marshall and UTEP also bear watching, with the three-point bombing Thundering Herd led by Jon Elmore and the Miners with Omega Harris leading a veteran team. Marshall will miss Stevie Browning, Austin Loop and Ryan Taylor (combined 41.4 ppg), though, especially Taylor’s 8.4 rebounds per game on a team that already struggled on the glass, and UTEP lost do-everything Dominic Artis.

Texas-San Antonio will be intriguing to watch after a nice debut by Steve Henson. As for the rest…they can start by helping the conference reduce its bad losses. Conference USA teams had a whopping 30 losses out of conference against teams ranked 200 or below in the RPI, again, an inexcusable number (for comparison, the MAC and Sun Belt had 33-combined).

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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