By Kevin Sweeney
The C-USA tried a new scheduling system in 2018-19 in an attempt to maximize at-large bids: the pod system. The gist: the final four games of the C-USA schedule were decided based on the standings, with teams playing teams from their own tier to ensure the top teams avoid bad losses and ideally gain resume wins. It didn’t really work as had planned, but that was mostly just due to the league not having at-large caliber teams. The pod system will continue into year two and should create some fun games down the stretch of conference play in what should be a better league.
#1. Western Kentucky– Point guard play doomed the Hilltoppers in 2018-19– Lamonte Bearden was suspended for part of the season and ineffective at other times, leaving the Hilltoppers unable to feed star big man Charles Bassey with as much volume as was necessary. That problem should be solved, assuming Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper gets his waiver to play right away. Cooper simply needs to be a proficient distributor, with Bassey dominating the paint and a bevy of talented wings capable of taking over a game. For the first time in the Stansbury era, it feels like the Hilltoppers have some semblance of roster continuity. That could be bad news for the rest of the C-USA.
#2. UTEP– Year one of the Rodney Terry era was a rough one, but it was clear from the second he took the job that it would be a multi-year build. Terry took the Eric Musselman route in rebuilding through the transfer market and hit the jackpot, landing Bryson Williams (Fresno State), Anthony Tarke (NJIT), Souley Boum (San Francisco), and others to go along with the Miners’ returning core that features young talents like Jordan Lathon and Efe Odigie. Integrating all these new parts and keeping them all happy will be a tremendous challenge, but it’s a good problem to have as a coach. If everyone comes together: watch out.
#3. UAB– Zack Bryant is one of the biggest under-the-radar stars in college basketball, a high-level athlete wired to score who improved as a playmaker in 2018-19. Now, Bryant might have a legit co-star, as buzz out of Birmingham is that Makhtar Gueye continues to improve as he enters his junior campaign. Gueye is an intriguing piece, possessing the ability to protect the rim and score both inside and out. Few teams will be as athletic as the Blazers, but some growth in the shooting department will be necessary for Rob Ehsan’s group to contend for a conference title.
#4. North Texas– After a 16-1 start, things fell apart for the Mean Green down the stretch, with an offensive collapse exacerbated by an injury that kept Ryan Woolridge injured or ineffective for much of the stretch run and chemistry issues contributing to a 5-11 finish to the season. McCasland has reloaded his roster despite the loss of Woolridge, with a trio of impact newcomers in dynamic point guard Javion Hamlet, shot-making wing James Reese, and skilled big man Deng Geu all capable of playing a big role. McCasland is a terrific defensive coach, but the Mean Green have to be better on the offensive end come conference play.
#5. UTSA– We all know the Roadrunners will be able to put up points in bunches, few duos anywhere are better than Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace at putting the ball in the basket. The question: can Steve Henson’s team be more than a gunslinging bunch playing shootout after shootout? Losing Gio De Nicolao will hurt– he was a steady hand at point guard who was far more important to the success of this unit than the box score might suggest. The Roadrunners also lack an interior presence, which will make dealing with the size that Western Kentucky and UTEP bring to the table difficult.
#6. Old Dominion– Jeff Jones finally got over the hump and brought the Monarchs to the NCAA Tournament in 2018-19, but he’ll have lots of work to do to repeat as champs in 2019-20. Conference POY BJ Stith and high-level point guard Ahmad Caver both graduate, leaving behind close to half of the team’s scoring from last season. Caver’s void will most likely be filled by JUCO guard Malik Curry, who averaged over 21 points and 6 assists at Palm Beach State last season, and Clemson import AJ Oliver will help on the wing. Still, the Monarchs’ calling card will be on defense: ODU was in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense last season.
#7. Louisiana Tech– Anthony Duruji transferring out of the program this offseason crippled the Bulldogs’ title hopes– his athleticism and defensive versatility was huge Eric Konkol’s group. Still, the Bulldogs have a deep, talented stable of guards headlined by DaQuan Bracey and buoyed by the return of Exavion Criston and the addition of McNeese State transfer Kalob LeDoux. The x-factor (if eligible) could be West Virginia transfer Andrew Gordon– an elite recruit out of JUCO who could provide a much-needed inside presence.
#8. Florida Atlantic– Despite inheriting a rebuilding job and seeing his roster rocked by injuries, Dusty May somehow found a way to finish above .500 in his first year on the job. That bodes well for his future in Boca Raton, especially if talented forward Jailyn Ingram can return to 100% after a knee injury ended his season in 2018-19. Ingram was among the league’s best before going down– a highly skilled four-man averaging almost 19 points and 9 rebounds in his 10 games last season. If talented center Karlins Silins can continue his growth, the Owls could have one of the league’s best frontcourts.
#9. Florida International– Every Shaka Smart disciple has his own style: while Jamion Christian and Mike Rhoades were grinding out games last season, Jeremy Ballard took over at FIU and had the Panthers playing at the fastest tempo in America. The Panthers rode that “warp speed ahead” ideology and terrific lead guard play from Brian Beard in ball screens to a 20-win season. Replacing Beard will be a massive challenge for an offense that relies on quick decisions from its lead ballhandler– sophomore Antonio Daye should step up, and JUCO guard Blake Furcron will add shot-making to a wing unit that already featured Trejon Jacob and Devon Andrews. Up front, Ballard has prioritized athleticism, landing the likes of shot-blocking extraordinaire Dimon Carrigan and St John’s import Sedee Keita this offseason. 20 wins may be a tough act to follow, but the Panthers won’t be an easy out.
#10. Charlotte– I’m still a huge believer in Ron Sanchez, and I think the 49ers will show some improvement in year two. A pair of impact transfers in Jordan Shepherd (Oklahoma) and Drew Edwards (Providence) should provide steady backcourt play, and Sanchez has recruited extremely well, landing a 2019 class that features some potential long-term cornerstones. Another year to establish the pack line defense should help as well.
#11. Marshall– All the discussion about how fast FIU played may have distracted from the #Danalytics going down in Huntington, where the Thundering Herd played the 3rd-fastest in the nation last season. The problem: this year’s car lacks a proverbial engine, as the graduations of Jon Elmore and CJ Burks could put a damper on things offensively. I’m a believer in any D’Antoni team’s ability to put the ball in the basket, and I absolutely love Taevion Kinsey’s game, but there’s just too much uncertainty in the backcourt to feel good about the Herd entering the season.
#12. Middle Tennessee– Nick McDevitt inherited a mess at MTSU, with the roster gutted in the post-Kermit Davis era despite all the recent success in Murfreesboro. Arkansas transfer CJ Jones should take some of the burden off Antonio Green to score points, but losing EKU transfer DeAndre Dishman to a season-ending injury during the team’s international trip was just crushing. I think McDevitt will get things going, but it’s going to take time.
#13. Rice– For the first time in the Scott Pera era, the Owls have some kind of roster continuity. Excluding the tough loss of Quinton Millora-Brown to Vanderbilt, Pera kept the roster together, including talented young guard Chris Mullins. The talent level isn’t where it needs to be just yet, but continuity alone should help keep the Owls out of the cellar.
#14. Southern Mississippi– Doc Sadler walking away to join the Nebraska staff was a surprising and disappointing move for USM fans, given how Sadler had so gracefully built the Golden Eagles back up after NCAA sanctions from the Donnie Tyndall era rocked the program. Alum of the program Jay Ladner steps in, and will have his work cut out for him: it will be incredibly difficult to replace Tyree Griffin and Cortez Edwards.
All-Conference First Team:
- Zack Bryant (UAB)
- Jhivvan Jackson (UTSA)
- Keaton Wallace (UTSA)
- Bryson Williams (UTEP)
- Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky)
Player of the Year: Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky)
Bassey’s return to school for his sophomore year may have surprised some, but it’s certainly exciting for the Hilltoppers. I can’t imagine the rest of the conference is quite as thrilled to see him back. Bassey was unstoppable when he caught the ball in the paint last season, shooting 77% at the rim per T-Rank in his freshman campaign. He’d be a load for most high-major teams to deal with, let alone C-USA foes.
Breakout Player: Taevion Kinsey (Marshall)
Kinsey is a name to remember around the mid-major world. The 6-5 wing can absolutely fly and is dynamic at the rim, shooting 67% on 2-point tries as a freshman. If he can fully iron out his outside shot, he has NBA upside. I’m fascinated to see how he looks as the centerpiece of the Marshall offense in 2019-20.
Newcomer of the Year: Bryson Williams (UTEP)
Convincing Williams to follow him from Fresno State was a massive coup for Rodney Terry. Williams had major interest from elite programs, but decided to head to El Paso, where he’ll pair with Efe Odigie to make a very dangerous frontcourt. The spacing in such an arrangement may be shaky, but Williams’ ability to play either the 4 or the 5 should give Terry lots of lineup versatility. The Miners could be the nation’s most improved team in 2019-20, and Williams is a big reason why.