By Kevin Sweeney
Every mid-major conference in college basketball asks itself the same question: “What can we do to put ourselves in position to get at-large bids?” Instead of accepting the status quo, Conference USA decided to think outside the box and will be testing a new scheduling format this season. Working with mid-major supporter and ESPN analyst Mark Adams, the C-USA will do the following:
Within the format, the 14 programs will play each other once and their travel partner twice in the first seven weeks of the conference season. At the conclusion of the seven weeks, teams will be placed in one of three groups based on conference standings through the first 14 games of league action. The teams will be divided into two groups of five (1-5 and 6-10) and a group of four (11-14). During the final three weeks, teams will play within their respective grouping for the last four games of conference play. Home and away games within the groups will be determined by a preset formula.
Once all 18 games have been completed, the top 12 teams based on final league standings will be seeded in the conference tournament. Teams will be guaranteed seeding within their respective group. For example, if a program lands in the second group (6-10), it will seed no higher than six and no lower than 10 in the tournament field.”
PER OFFICIAL CONFERENCE USA RELEASE
While I have no idea if it will work, I credit the C-USA for trying something new. It’s definitely a storyline I’ll be watching.
#1. Western Kentucky
If we know one thing about Rick Stansbury, it’s that he’ll always recruit extremely well. This year is no different, and as a result Stansbury has assembled a roster that would rival that of several high-major clubs. The headline newcomer is 5-star big man Charles Bassey, who reclassified to join the Hilltoppers a year early. He’ll pair with Auburn grad transfer DeSean Murray to form an absurdly talented frontcourt that should consistently maul opponents on the glass. In the backcourt, Taveion Hollingsworth, Lamonte Bearden (SUSPENDED FIRST SEMESTER), Josh Anderson, Austin Peay transfer Jared Savage, and top-100 recruit Dalano Banton creates an extremely deep, versatile, and athletic rotation. This team should spend plenty of time in the Rockin’ 25 Poll this season.
It’s exceedingly rare for a team that won a first round NCAA Tournament game that brings back a pair of 20+ point scorers isn’t picked first in their conference the following year, but that’s where we’re at with Marshall thanks to the talent WKU brings in. Losing unicorn big man Ajdin Penava definitely hurts, as his skillset as a elite floor-spacer offensively while also being one of the nation’s best rim protectors made him an ideal fit for Dan D’Antoni’s analytics-driven system. But with a smooth operator running the show in Jon Elmore and a high-level scoring guard next to him in CJ Burks, I still feel pretty good about the Thundering Herd contending for a conference championship.
#3. North Texas
At this point, it’s obvious that Grant McCasland loves a reclamation project. After doing a stupendous job turning things around in his one year at Arkansas State, McCasland brought similar early success to North Texas, winning 20 games and a CBI title. He gets back a pair of elite guards in Ryan Woolridge and Roosevelt Smart, and sophomore big man Zachary Simmons looks like a breakout candidate. The x-factor here is Umoja Gibson, a high-level shooter with elite vision who missed almost all of his freshman campaign with a broken ankle. If healthy, he can push this team to new heights.
#4. Old Dominion
Perhaps the least-talked-about 25-7 team in the history of college basketball, the Monarchs turned in a terrific 2017-18 despite being overshadowed by MTSU’s dominance, WKU’s talent, and Marshall’s high-powered offense. The early departure of Trey Porter (Nevada) looms large here, as he was a huge part of ODU’s terrific defense a season ago. To replace him, Jeff Jones brings in a pair of high-major imports who have yet to prove much of anything at the college level: Elbert Robinson (LSU) and Dajour Dickens (Providence– awaiting waiver). In theory, both can provide a strong interior presence on both ends of the floor, but it’s hard to count on two unproven players to replace a talent like Porter. The guards should be strong once again, with Ahmad Caver leading the way for Jones’ club. Another 20+ win season feels like a reasonable expectation for the Monarchs.
Relying on freshmen for a significant portion of their scoring, it was a successful year 2 for Steve Henson at UTSA. Jhivvan Jackson is one of the conference’s most exciting youngsters, a high-scoring combo guard who can really shoot the ball and averaged over 18 points per game in less than 26 minutes per contest as a freshman. Paired with Keaton Wallace and Giovanni De Nicolao, that’s a backcourt to be reckoned with. 20+ wins feels more than attainable in San Antonio.
#6. Southern Miss
Doc Sadler’s club flipped the CUSA Tournament on its head this past March, upsetting top-seeded Middle Tennessee State to dash their NCAA Tournament hopes and keep the Golden Eagles’ season alive. And while USM crashed out of the tournament the next round in a fell-fought battle with Marshall, it was the type of win that can allow you to build momentum for the following season. With 3 starters back in the backcourt including do-it-all lead guard Tyree Griffin, Southern Miss finally has some roster continuity as Sadler tries to lead them out of sanctions thanks to violations by former coach Donnie Tyndall. They’ll have to fix their rebounding though, as the Golden Eagles were beaten by almost 8 boards per game last season in CUSA play.
It’s definitely a new-look UAB club this season, with long-time frontcourt running mates William Lee and Chris Cokley graduated and rotation players Nick Norton (Drake), Nate Darling (Delaware), and Deion Lavender (Valparaiso) leaving early for new D1 homes. However, those heavy losses have allowed Rob Ehsan to re-work his roster with an emphasis on athleticism, something that his star Zack Bryant brings tons of. Ryan Boyce was supposed to be the center of an elite recruiting class for the Blazers and would have fit nicely next to Bryant on the wing, but he elected to return home to play for mentor Penny Hardaway at Memphis. It’s still a strong class for Ehsan and his staff, with high-flying guard Tavin Lovan earning high marks early and Tamell Pearson likely to carve out early frontcourt minutes. This Blazer team could surprise with a few good breaks.
#8. LA Tech
It was definitely a disappointing 2017-18 season given the amount of talent this roster had, with Jalen Harris departing midseason and the chemistry never really seeming right. A pair of promising sophomores probably hold the keys to success this season for Eric Konkol’s club, as Anthony Duruji and Amorie Archibald both showed considerable potential in last season’s down campaign. That duo, plus DaQuan Bracey and Derric Jean, forms a solid nucleus for this club. Still, it has to be concerning to see the Bulldogs start to slump after 2 strong years to start the Konkol era, and one has to wonder whether much of his early success should be attributed to the talent left behind by now-Florida head coach Mike White.
Former VCU assistant Jeremy Ballard takes the reigns at FIU after an uninspiring 5-year run under Anthony Evans. Ballard inherits some nice pieces though, including do-everything lead guard Brian Beard and a pair of solid wings in in Trejon Jacob and Willy Nunez. The frontcourt is extremely thin, losing pieces from a unit that already lost the rebounding battle last season. With that, expect the Panthers to implement some VCU-style pressing to accentuate their backcourt depth and minimize the damage of their lack of size.
I’m not sure any first-year head coach did a better job this offseason given their circumstances than Rodney Terry, who surprisingly took the UTEP job to leave a solid Fresno State program. Terry went to work on the recruiting trail, landing some high-upside freshmen and some high-impact transfers (Anthony Tarke, Souley Boum, Bryson Williams) that will make the Miners a force to be reckoned with in the coming years in Conference USA. Not a ton of talent remains from the Tim Floyd era though, making it difficult to project significant year one success despite the high optimism surrounding the program. Adding former Northwestern signee and top-150 recruit Jordan Lathon late should help keep the Miners competitive as they wait out the development of that freshman class and the redshirt year for the transfers.
#11. Middle Tennessee
After a 3-year run of unprecedented success that included a pair of NCAA Tournament wins, Kermit Davis departed for greener pastures at Ole Miss. Former UNC-Asheville head man Nick McDevitt took over, but the change led to the departures of a highly-touted signing class and several other key transfers that have left the cupboard bare. There’s just little if any pure scoring talent on this roster, with UTRGV transfer Antonio Green the only proven shot-maker at the D1 level. Missouri State transfer Reggie Scurry is a grinder who will provide leadership in his only season in Murfreesboro, but he doesn’t really move the needle. The Blue Raiders will need major contributions from JUCO wing Darnell Butler and a late-signing group of freshmen to avoid a brutal season, but long-term help is on the way with transfers CJ Jones (Arkansas) and DeAndre Dishman (Eastern Kentucky) sitting out this season.
The man charged with building this FAU program from scratch is Dusty May, who comes over from Florida and is perhaps flying under the radar thanks to big hires by Charlotte, MTSU, and UTEP. May immediately brought in some high-upside talent, headlined by 3-star wing Jaylen Sebree, late-rising forward Madiaw Niang, and top-100 JUCO guard Cedric Jackson. I’m not sure it’s enough to make much of an imprint on the CUSA standings this year, but I believe the Owls have the right man for the job.
Speaking of right men for the job who might not win a ton in year one, Ron Sanchez takes over at Charlotte as new AD Mike Hill’s first big hire. Sanchez checks all the boxes for me, an experienced recruiter with a flawless reputation around college basketball and a grinder’s mentality perfect for rebuilding a once-proud 49er program. Sanchez didn’t get a chance to make too much of an imprint on the roster this offseason, as he retained a trio of Mark Price signees and didn’t see significant defections. The additions he did make were strong, with a pair of talented guards in Jordan Shepherd (Oklahoma) and Tyler Bertram (reclassified from 2019) redshirting this year. Jon Davis is the key to any success this year, a high-major talent who stumbled through last season after entering with high expectations. A midpack finish isn’t out of the question if Sanchez can instill his defensive concepts and Davis can return to form.
For a second straight season, Scott Pera has to deal with a young roster thanks to lots of roster turnover. On the positive side, he has an exciting freshman class coming in that should lay the foundation for the program he’s building, and TCU transfer Josh Parrish should provide a nice talent injection to a program that needs it. Pera is a well-regarded name in the coaching business who, if given time, can turn Rice into a contender. Just not yet.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jon Elmore– Marshall (22.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.8 apg, .439/.356/.826)
- Ahmad Caver– Old Dominion (14.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 6.2 apg, .408/.349/.667)
- Taveion Hollingsworth– Western Kentucky (13.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.9 apg, .480/.378/.791)
- Jhivvan Jackson– UTSA (18.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, .431/.368/.768)
- Charles Bassey– Western Kentucky (FRESHMAN)
Player of the Year: Jon Elmore (Marshall)
The clear choice here, Elmore has a legit case for best player in mid-major basketball. A triple-double threat every time he steps onto the court, Elmore is the perfect point guard to lead Dan D’Antoni’s offense. He can create his own shot and knock down 30-footers, but also take what the defense gives him and make plays for others. He’s just flat-out special.
Breakout Player: Jannson Williams (Marshall)
I hate to double up teams, but Williams feels like the clear choice for breakout star in the conference. He’ll slot in as a shooting forward with some rim protection abilities in the mold of Penava, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him double (or more) his production from last season.
Newcomer of the Year: Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky)
Jordan Lathon’s presence gave me momentary pause, but Bassey is clearly the best newcomer in the league. A top-10 prospect in his class per most recruiting services, Bassey is an absolute monster on the glass who is simply stronger than almost every C-USA player who will try to guard him this season. He’ll be a double-double machine from day 1.