By Kevin Sweeney
The biggest story in college basketball this week is 5-star center Mitchell Robinson’s decision to transfer from Western Kentucky just a few weeks after arriving on campus in July. The move sent shockwaves throughout the country, and while the story that most national media will cover will be where Robinson will land next, I’ll be focusing on the impact it has on Conference USA. The top of the C-USA is now (if it wasn’t already) one of the most wide-open and exciting races in college basketball for the 2017-18 season, with several talented teams at the top duking it out for the top spot and likely the league’s only NCAA Tournament bid. So, I decided to take a look at the top contenders in the C-USA and make my early pick for conference champion.
Key newcomers: Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo), Darius Thompson (Virginia), Dwight Coleby (Kansas), Jordan Brangers (#3 JUCO player), Josh Anderson (4-star 2017 recruit), Moustapha Diagne (4-star JUCO player)
Key departures: Pancake Thomas (graduation), Que Johnson (graduation), Anton Waters (graduation), Junior Lomomba (graduation)
Key returners: Justin Johnson (14.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg)-will join team in January after playing for WKU football team.
It’s almost an entire roster of newcomers for Rick Stansbury’s club, but boy, are the Hilltoppers talented. Even with the devastating departure of Robinson, WKU has the best roster in the conference, whether it be proven D1 commodities like Bearden (13.7 ppg, 4.2 apg at Buffalo), Thompson (6.2 ppg at Virginia), and Coleby (5.6 mpg at Kansas), or highly-touted prospects like Brangers, Diagne, and Anderson who’ve never played D1 basketball. The big question is whether a team with that many new faces can come together and knock off more experienced teams like UAB, MTSU, and Louisiana Tech. The frontcourt minus Robinson is the biggest concern for me, as Johnson and 3-star Robinson Idehen won’t be able to play until January. Johnson’s effectiveness after a full football season is unknown, there isn’t much depth up front as it is. Stansbury will have to get creative with smaller lineups, especially if Johnson struggles to return to his typical form.
The Hilltoppers certainly have the pieces to win this conference, but their inexperience makes them one of the most fascinating teams to watch in all of college basketball this season.
Key newcomers: Zack Bryant (2-star 2017 recruit), Luis Hurtado (3-star 2017 recruit), Makhtar Gueye (3-star 2017 recruit), Jalen Perry (2-star JUCO prospect)
Key departures: Dirk Williams (graduation), Hakeem Baxter (graduation), Denzel Watts (graduation)
Key returners: William Lee (13.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 bpg), Chris Cokley (12.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Nick Norton (8.9 ppg, 5 apg in 2015-16)
Last season for the Blazers was derailed by injury, as a torn ACL for the point guard Norton plagued year 1 of the Robert Ehsan era in Birmingham. However, with Norton back and Bryant, who the UAB staff is incredibly high on, joining the fray, those point guard issues shouldn’t be a problem this season. With that pair of playmakers returning to help compliment one of the best mid-major frontcourts in Lee & Cokley, it seems more than possible that the Blazers could jump from 7th all the way to the top of the C-USA this season.
Middle Tennessee State
Key newcomers: Therren Shelton-Szmidt (2-star 2017 recruit), TJ Massenburg (2-star 2017 recruit), James Hawthorne (2-star JUCO prospect), Nick King (Alabama)
Key departures: Jacorey Williams (graduation), Reggie Upshaw (graduation), Xavier Habersham (graduation)
Key returners: Giddy Potts (15.3 ppg), Tyrik Dixon (5.6 ppg), Brandon Walters (4.9 ppg)
MTSU may not have the talent that UAB or WKU has, but the Blue Raiders bring back C-USA Player of the Year candidate Giddy Potts and a few other good contributors from last season’s championship campaign. Key will be the development of Brandon Walters, a load inside who really came into his own late last year, and Tyrik Dixon, a sure-handed PG coming off an excellent freshman campaign. Still, it won’t be easy to replace Williams and Upshaw, who were almost unstoppable last season. The x-factor for this Blue Raider team is grad transfer Nick King, a former top-50 recruit who never reached his potential in his first 3 collegiate seasons at Memphis and Alabama. If Kermit Davis can tap into that potential, he could be the piece that puts MTSU over the top in the C-USA.
Honestly, any of these 3 teams could easily win the conference for the reasons I mentioned. It wouldn’t surprise me if it came down to a tiebreaker to see who gets the #1 seed in the conference tournament. Before the Robinson departure, I was all-in on Western Kentucky. Now, I’m rolling with UAB. Adding a pair of ball-handling guards in Norton and Bryant gives the Blazers a much scarier look offensively. Lee is the best big man in the conference, and his numbers should get a big boost from having guards who can get him better looks.
Who do you think will win Conference USA this season? Comment below or send me a tweet (handle is @CBB_Central).