By Kevin Sweeney
Conference USA has been the home of the biggest bracketbuster in college basketball each of the past two years. 2 years ago, it was 14 seed UAB upsetting 3rd seeded Iowa State. Last year, Middle Tennessee pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history, winning as a 15 seed over 2 seed and popular national champion pick Michigan State. These 2 teams still have many of the contributing pieces from those cinderella runs, and many other C-USA teams are also very capable of making a run in March Madness.
- Middle Tennessee State
- Western Kentucky
- Old Dominion
- Louisiana Tech
- North Texas
- Southern Miss
Champions: UAB- Incredibly, 7 players who played on the 2014-15 team that shocked the world are still with the team this season. Last season’s team had high expectations and won 26 games in the regular season, but faltered in March, dropping a quarterfinal game vs. Western Kentucky and their first round NIT game vs. BYU. They bring back every player who averaged more than 5 minutes per game last season except for leading scorer Robert Brown, but with frontcourt duo Chris Cokley and William Lee, one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball, still in tow, there shouldn’t be much of a talent dropoff. They do lose head coach Jerod Haase, who took the Stanford job in the offseason, they made a strong hire by elevating assistant coach Robert Ehsan to head coach. With this much talent, I have no doubt that UAB will be one of the best mid-majors in the country this season.
Dark Horse: Western Kentucky- The rise of the Western Kentucky program this offseason has been fascinating to watch. After hiring Rick Stansbury, the former Mississippi State head coach who was most recently an assistant at Texas A&M, the Hilltoppers immediately became a factor on the recruiting trail. They somehow found their way into second place in the Malik Newman sweepstakes before landing commitments from a 5 and a 4 star prospect for the 2017 class. While this season may seem like a rebuilding one, Stansbury has also positioned the Hilltoppers to be competitive this season, too. They return star forward Justin Johnson, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season, and bring in a multitude of high-impact transfers, including graduate transfers Pancake Thomas (Hartford) and Que Johnson (Washington State), as well as a pair of Tennessee transfers in Jabari McGhee and Willie Carmichael, and Providence transfer Junior Lomomba. There are certainly a lot of new faces at WKU, but I believe that the pieces will come together and form a contender in the C-USA.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Reggie Upshaw-Middle Tennnessee State
- F: William Lee-UAB
- F: Erik McCree-Louisiana Tech
- G: Giddy Potts-Middle Tennessee State
- G: Marcus Evans-Rice
Player of the Year: Giddy Potts- Potts was relatively unknown to college basketball fans until his excellent performance helped MTSU pull off the shocking upset of Michigan State in March. However, his game has been speaking for itself ever since he arrived at Middle Tennessee State. One of the best shooters in college basketball, Potts hit a ridiculous 51% of his 3-point attempts last season, the best mark in the NCAA last season among qualifiers. He has the ability to go off at any time, putting up a 29 point outburst last season by shooting 7-8 from downtown. Potts and teammate Reggie Upshaw, a force in the paint, compliment each other perfectly, with Potts stopping opposing teams from playing zones and Upshaw creating open looks for Potts with inside-out passing. If Potts builds on what was an outstanding sophomore season, MTSU should have another special season.
Newcomer of the Year: Keith Frazier (North Texas)- Frazier could be a huge x-factor for the Mean Green. Frazier left SMU midseason last year after being found to be at the center of the NCAA investigation that led to last season’s postseason ban for the Mustangs. Eligible starting in December, Frazier’s shooting and scoring ability makes him a player that could push the Mean Green over the top. Frazier averaged in double digits each of the past two seasons for SMU, one of the top 25 teams in the country both years. It is rare for a mid-major to be able to add such an impact transfer, but Frazier elected to return to the Dallas area, where he grew up, to finish his career at UNT. Frazier, combined with forward Jeremy Combs, who averaged a double-double last year, as well as guards J-Mychal Reese & Deckie Johnson, could create a dangerous core for UNT.