By Kevin Sweeney
Conference USA is definitely one of the league’s I’m looking forward to watching the most this season. There are just so many intriguing storylines to follow, whether it be Western Kentucky in the post-Mitchell Robinson era, Middle Tennessee State trying to stay at the top after a pair of Cinderella runs in March Madness, and so much more. There are several teams that I think could be really dangerous at the top of the C-USA. The only thing holding it back is the lack of overall conference depth, as the bottom of the league once again appears extremely weak.
- UAB- Last season was derailed after PG Nick Norton saw a knee injury end his season in the opener, but with Norton and highly-regarded freshman Zack Bryant giving the backcourt an immediate boost, the Blazers are my team to beat in the C-USA.
- Middle Tennessee State- The Blue Raiders do lose a pair of stars in Jacorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw, but Giddy Potts returns for Kermit Davis’ club along with some talented guys ready to make the next step. The x-factor may be Alabama transfer Nick King, a former top-50 recruit who has yet to truly find his stride at the Division 1 level.
- Western Kentucky- Definitely the hardest team to place at this point, simply because we have absolutely no idea how all of this is going to come together. That said, the Hilltoppers have a ton of talent even without Robinson or Jordan Brangers, and while the chemistry may be a concern, experience shouldn’t be (4 starters will be on their 4th or 5th year of college).
- Louisiana Tech- Kind of the forgotten man in this title hunt, LA Tech should be as dangerous as anyone. Jacobi Boykins is an excellent wing scorer, and point guard DaQuan Bracey is coming off a freshman campaign in which he was 4th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
- UTEP- 4 starters return for the Miners from a sneaky-good 12-6 conference slate a season ago, including star guard Omega Harris. They also add talented former SMU guard Keith Frazier to the mix to provide another scoring option. Point guard play is a question mark, but I’m pretty high on Evan Gilyard to take over as a full-time PG for UTEP.
- Charlotte- Charlotte has an NBA-caliber talent in point guard Jon Davis. However, frontcourt play was absolutely awful for the 49er’s a season ago. A lot of pressure will be on JUCO big man Jailan Haslem to solidify the center spot for Mark Price’s club. If he can, watch out.
- Old Dominion- We all know Jeff Jones’ club will play excellent defense, but being able to produce efficient offense was an issue a season ago. For me, much of that comes down to the play of point guard Ahmad Caver, a steady distributor and the Monarchs’ leading scorer who shot just 36% from the field a season ago.
- Marshall- Pretty much the exact opposite of ODU, Marshall is going to have no problem putting points on the board this season. Still, the frontcourt depth really concerns me, especially with the late transfer of Terence Thompson (Wake Forest).
- UTSA- A lot departs for the Roadrunners from a season ago, but they do have a pair of promising sophomores in Byron Frohnen and Giovanni De Nicolao to build around.
- Rice- Things looked so promising for Rice until Mike Rhoades left. Then, Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov, Marcus Jackson, and Marqueze Letcher-Ellis all transferred. Scott Pera will do a good job there, but it looks like a rebuild to me.
- Southern Miss- Former 4-star guard Dominic Magee joins the Eagles after bouncing around for his first 2 seasons of college. If he can capture that potential everyone saw as a prep Champrecruit, he could give Sotuhern Miss a much-needed boost.
- North Texas- I loved the hire UNT made this offseason in Grant McCasland, who did a great job turning around Arkansas State in his only season in Jonesboro. This year is likely a rebuilding one, but the future looks bright.
- Florida Atlantic- Losing a pair of rotation players in Nick Rutherford and Jeantal Cylla certainly hurts, but FAU could definitely climb into the middle tier of the standings if sophomore combo forward Jailyn Ingram blossoms into the star I think he can be.
- Florida International- It’s going to be flat-out ugly this year for FIU. The Panthers lose their top 5 scorers from a team that finished 3-15 in conference play last season.
It was definitely a tough call, but I’m rolling with the Blazers at the top of the C-USA. They already have one of the best mid-major frontcourts in the country in Chris Cokley and William Lee, but the return of Norton and the addition of Bryant gives them firepower and playmaking ability that they just didn’t have a season ago. Norton was one of the better and more steady playmakers in the conference, a solid shooter who makes the right play and doesn’t turn it over. Bryant, who had visits in the works to multiple high-major programs before pledging to the Blazers, is a super-athletic guard who can play either guard position. One coach told me this summer he’d be the second best freshman in the conference behind only the since-departed Mitchell Robinson. Combine that with the fearsome pairing of Cokley and Lee, and it’s not hard to see why I think this UAB team has a chance to be special.
Dark Horse: Charlotte
Year 3 of the Mark Price era begins with reason for optimism, as the 49er’s have one of the best players in the conference in Jon Davis and a solid core around him. What really killed Charlotte a season ago was frontcourt play, as they were severely undersized all year, which took a toll on their defense and rebounding efforts. However, with the continued development of Najee Garvin and the addition of the aforementioned Haslem, that facet should improve. I really believe this Charlotte team has a chance to make some noise.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Jon Davis (Charlotte)
- G: Jon Elmore (Marshall)
- G: Giddy Potts (Middle Tennessee State)
- F: Justin Johnson (Western Kentucky)
- F: William Lee (UAB)
Player of the Year: Giddy Potts- This award could definitely wind up in Davis or Elmore’s hands, especially if their teams can register top-5 finishes. Still, I’m going with Potts, the senior guard who introduced himself to the college basketball world when he helped lead the Blue Raiders past Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. With Williams and Upshaw graduating, Potts will be the clear alpha-dog offensively, and i expect him to post huge numbers in his senior season.
Breakout Player of the Year: Tyrik Dixon (MTSU)- Another guy who stands to see his role increase, Dixon was rock solid for the Blue Raiders as a freshman running the show for an NCAA Tournament team. Now, he’ll be asked to do a bit more scoring, and I believe he’ll thrive in that increased role. Dixon is an all-league trajectory in my opinion.
Newcomer of the Year: Lamonte Bearden (Western Kentucky)- Bearden, who began his career with a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in 2 seasons at Buffalo, joins Rick Stansbury’s club in hopes of making them C-USA contenders. He’s lightning-quick in the open floor and tough to stop off the bounce. If he has improved as a jump shooter, Bearden will be impossible to stop.