32×32: 2020-21 Conference USA Preview

Conference USA’s wide geographic spread makes playing during the pandemic a bit more challenging than what other leagues deal with. Having teams everywhere from Virginia to West Texas without the capability to just hop on a charter whenever you want like high-majors do makes pandemic basketball challenging. As a result, the C-USA switched things up and became one of many leagues doing two games at a single site each weekend. The coaching depth in this league continues to improve, and I’m excited about the future of this league. Let’s dive in:

  1. Western Kentucky – Charles Bassey’s season-ending knee injury in a December win over Arkansas put a significant damper on things, but an undersized Hilltopper team without its man in the middle still fought to win 20 games in 2019-20. Now, the star big man is back healthy and can be added back to a core full of experienced and productive pieces. The top six in Rick Stansbury’s rotation figure to five fourth-year players and Bassey, as transfers Kenny Cooper (Lipscomb) and Luke Frampton (Davidson) figure to play big roles in their first years in the program. Cooper was the missing piece last season after failing to receive a waiver to play right away – he’s a steady point guard who plays with great pace and is a willing distributor. His presence frees up Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson to play in attack mode at all times, and each are known for their ability to get to the rim and draw fouls. Stansbury found success last year playing Carson Williams as a small-ball 5 last season, and while Bassey’s presence will likely push Williams back to the 4, it provides the Hilltoppers another option to keep defenses off balance. Williams is a physical player, is great around the rim, and does a great job picking his spots. The core here is really, really impressive, and if Bassey comes back at full strength this group will be very tough to stop.
  2. North Texas – Grant McCasland and staff did an unbelievable job last season, leading UNT to its best finish in the KenPom era behind an offense that was one of the most efficient in mid-major basketball. The guy leading that offense is back for one more year: Javion Hamlet was one of the best point guards in the country after joining the Mean Green from the JUCO ranks. He’s an elite shot creator for himself and others and is a great decision-maker with the ball. For an offense that operates almost entirely in the halfcourt, having as good a distributor running the show as Hamlet is huge. The big departure from last season’s CUSA-winning club is Umoja Gibson, a high-volume shooter who helped buoy an offense that was one of the nation’s best from beyond the arc. Bench sniper DJ Draper was also an unsung presence, hitting 49% from deep off the bench. The likely replacement for Gibson and Draper’s sharp-shooting ways is JUCO guard Mardrez McBride, who shot a ridiculous 52.9% from deep last season at USC Salk. McBride’s presence will be critical as a secondary ballhandler and shooter. Continued growth from big man Zachary Simmons will also be big as one of the few frontcourt presences on the roster.
  3. UAB – Moving on from Rob Ehsan after a 19-win campaign was a bit surprising to many onlookers, but UAB has high expectations for its men’s basketball program and almost certainly upgraded in the coaching department this offseason with the hiring of Andy Kennedy. An alum of the program, Kennedy won over 60% of his games at Ole Miss before being let go last offseason. The knock on Kennedy in Oxford was always his inability to get over the hump and bring in top talent, but he consistently found undervalued talent and did more with less. Those traits will serve him well at UAB, where he’ll likely be able to have his pick of the mid-major talent in the region and develop them. The transfer-heavy group he threw together on the fly this spring gives the Blazers a fighting chance to win this season: Kennedy bolstered his backcourt with a pair of experienced mid-major guards in Michael Ertel (16.2 ppg at Louisiana-Monroe) and Quan Jackson (13.6 ppg, 2.6 spg at Georgia Southern) and added a likely starter at center in 7-footer Trey Jemison (Clemson). Adding Ertel and Jackson to a backcourt that already featured three talented returners in Tavin Lovan, Jalen Benjamin, and Tyreek Scott-Grayson gives Kennedy the type of guard unit that he loves, creating tons of floor spacing for guys to attack. The future is bright too: I’m very high on freshmen Rongie Gordon and Terrell Ard as future contributors, and Gordon could earn significant time in year one. Expect Kennedy to consistently have the Blazers near the top of the C-USA during his time in Birmingham.
  4. Charlotte – Grant McCasland certainly earned the C-USA COY award last season, but Ron Sanchez deserves tons of praise for the growth he oversaw in year two with the 49ers. Sanchez’s club doubled its win total from 2018-19 and certainly set the tone for an impressive future in the Queen City. The Tony Bennett disciple has recruited at such a high level since taking over, and those gains are starting to get rewarded with building blocks like Jordan Shepherd and Jahmir Young. Young is well on his way to stardom – you have to love his poise and playmaking ability, and he just has a knack for making big shots when needed. This freshman class might be his best yet, headlined by physical playmaking forward Jared Garcia and impressive two-way wing Jackson Threadgill. We know the 49ers will defend, though protecting the rim has been an issue and bigger minutes for Milos Supica likely won’t help there. Is there enough juice here to win big in Shepherd’s senior season? 20 wins seems like a good target, which would be just the second such finish for the program since 2008. Either way, you have to love the direction of the program under Sanchez (and the entire athletic department under fantastic young AD Mike Hill).
  5. UTEP – Perhaps the league’s biggest wild card, the Miners crashed and burned last season after entering with incredibly high expectations for the second year of the Rodney Terry era. Chemistry issues were evident, leading to a near-revolt at the midyear mark. And despite turning around to win their final four conference games a season ago, six players who began last season on the roster transferred out for new D1 homes. Could a housecleaning help reset things? Rodney Terry certainly has to hope so, and there’s certainly enough talent here to be optimistic. Despite poor guard play, Bryson Williams was one of the league’s best players down low, and he figured to have a massive senior season with the offense still running through him. The biggest move of the offseason was without a doubt adding Oklahoma transfer Jamal Bienemy, a big point guard who was best as a glue guy at the high-major level but has all-league potential in the C-USA. Bienemy’s presence eases the load on Souley Boum, a solid shot creator but not good enough running the show to lead a high-level offense. Xavier transfer Keonte Kennedy should also give the backcourt a lift, making that unit as a whole significantly better than last year’s group. If Terry can command the locker room and get the pieces to click together, this group will be a factor in the conference race. If not, questions have to start emerging about where this program is going long-term.
  6. Marshall – The Thundering Herd present plenty of intrigue in the preseason as the team essentially running back from a season ago. Taevion Kinsey is a special, special talent, an uber-athletic wing who improved drastically as a playmaker last season. He’s on track to compete for a C-CUSA POY award and potentially earn some NBA buzz before his career is done in Huntington. But this was a different team last season when Andrew Taylor joined the fray at the semester break: after starting 2-6 against D1 competition, the Thundering Herd finished 14-9 to build real momentum into the offseason. Taylor didn’t light it up, but adding another capable ballhandler and creator to Kinsey and Jarrod West in the backcourt is huge in an offense that relies so heavily on guards being able to generate offense in space. Having three experienced players like that is a dream scenario for Dan D’Antoni, and D’Antoni also has a pair of bigs that cause mismatches in floor-spacing unicorn Jannson Williams and monstrous post presence Iran Bennett. The underrated part of each guy’s game is the ability to protect the rim, a big reason the Herd had by far their best two-point defense of D’Antoni’s career. Adding a last line of defense is huge for a team that plays incredibly fast and often has had to win shootouts in the D’Antoni era.
  7. UTSA – Can the Jhivvan Jackson/Keaton Wallace dynamic duo lift the Roadrunners out of C-USA purgatory? The senior duo certainly hopes so after a very disappointing junior campaign in San Antonio, though they do get some reinforcements at the forward spot. Cedrick Alley joins from Houston and should make a big impact: he’s very versatile, capable of hitting outside shots, and plays with an intensity on defense that comes with being schooled by Kelvin Sampson for the last three years. Alley was a part-time starter on the 33-win UH team in 2018-19 before falling somewhat out of favor last season. Well-traveled wing/forward Eric Parrish also could wind up being one of the bigger additions in the conference – a skilled playmaker who was expected to have a huge role at Nevada after a big JUCO year before leaving Reno prior to ever playing a game. A Jackson/Wallace/Parrish/Alley quartet is appealing, and sophomore big man Jacob Germany could be in for a sophomore jump. But regardless of how dynamic Jackson and Wallace can be scoring the ball, UTSA won’t be a serious contender until they figure out the defensive end. Bringing in a veteran like Alley with experience on a great defense helps, but it takes buy-in from all thirteen guys to take that step forward. If they do, this ranking will look too low come March.
  8. Louisiana Tech – It felt like Eric Konkol’s club had as good a chance as any before COVID shut conference tournaments down in March. The Bulldogs were the only team in the conference to finish in the top 100 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings and had a veteran group that played well together. Konkol will have to navigate the graduations of three key starters in DaQuan Bracey, Derric Jean, and Mubarak Muhammed. Bracey was a fantastic 4-year starter in Ruston who did a terrific job taking care of the ball and shot close to 45% from deep last season, while Jean was a steady two-way guard and Muhammed was an unsung hero thanks to his efficiency around the rim and terrific energy on the glass. In some ways, Muhammed may be the hardest to replace – only one rotation big in Andrew Gordon returns, and while he had impressive on-off splits last season, jumping from 10 minute energy guy to starer is a challenge. The backcourt should still be deep: Kalob Ledoux and Amorie Archibald were both excellent last season, and there’s potential for the likes of JaColby Pemberton and Isaiah Crawford to step forward on the wings. JUCO import Jace Bass could add some firepower off the bench as well.
  9. Old Dominion – It was always expected to be something of a rebuilding year, but the Monarchs put together their worst season of the Jeff Jones era thanks to an offense that simply could not put the ball in the basket with enough regularity. Questions about that unit won’t vanish with a roster that mostly runs it back, though sturdy defense and strong rebounding should keep ODU competitive in 2020-21. The biggest departure is Aaron Carver, who wasn’t much of an offensive threat but brought great defense and rebounding to the frontcourt. The growth of Kalu Ezikpe and addition of grad transfer Austin Trice should help mitigate that loss – Trice in particular is a good roll of the dice as a former highly-rated JUCO recruit who didn’t get a ton of run at Kansas State before sitting out last year at Portland State. Trice brings a similar edge on the glass that Carver did and should keep the Monarchs rolling on the boards. But can a quartet of returning double-figure scorers in the backcourt provide consistent offense? Getting more efficient play from wings Xavier Green (37% FG%) and AJ Oliver (33% FG%) is a must. D2 grad transfer David Strother adds a steady shooter (40% from 3 at UNC Pembroke) and ballhandler to the mix.
  10. Middle Tennessee – Nick McDevitt needs to get things turned around sooner rather than later before the Kermit Davis era becomes more distant memory than recent past. To do so, he’ll look to a deep group of transfers to get things rolling, with five transfers eligible to play their first game for the Blue Raiders and a sixth (Jared Jones – Northwestern) waiting on approval. A revamped backcourt will be built around a pair of former leading scorers at the mid-major level, with Jalen Jordan (14.8 ppg, 42% 3PT% at St Francis NY) and Dontrell Shuler (17.9 ppg at Charleston Southern) providing some high-level firepower alongside physical two-way wing Jordan Davis (9.8 ppg at Dayton). Add in returners in Donovan Sims and Jayce Johnson, and that’s certainly enough guard depth to make things interesting. There was plenty of excitement in Murfeesboro about finally getting DeAndre Dishman eligible last season, but the EKU transfer suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team’s first international trip game and never got the chance to shine. He and potentially Jones would make a very intriguing frontcourt, in addition to high-upside Elias King, who joins the fray from Mississippi State. I’m a believer in a lot of these transfers, but it’s hard to let last season’s 8-23 debacle escape the mind. Let’s see if McDevitt can get these new guys to buy in on the defensive end and get the Blue Raider program back rolling again.
  11. FIU – Winning 39 games in two seasons is an accomplishment at any mid-major, but it’s the best two-year run in program history at FIU and should earn Jeremy Ballard a great deal of credit. Replicating that success in year three may be a challenge with the departure of three senior starters. The biggest departure is Osasumwen Osaghae, whose breakout senior season up front was a gamechanger for the Panthers. Osaghae was 7th nationally in block rate, 4th in true shooting percentage, and was among the best in the conference at getting to the line. For a team that already struggled on the glass and was mediocre otherwise on the interior, losing his presence is a massive blow. Graduations of steady wing scorers Devon Andrews and Trejon Jacob also complicate things. The positive news is the return of point guard Antonio Daye, who led the team in assists last season and is a good point-of-attack defender. Daye needs to take care of the ball better running the show in this ball-screen-heavy offense, but look for him to take on a huge role this season. The additions of JUCO guard Javaunte Hawkins and UT-Arlington grad transfer Radshad Davis should help.
  12. FAU – Dusty May has finished above .500 in each of his first two seasons in Boca Raton, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of direction as to where this thing is going long-term. Leading scorer Jailyn Ingram is a nice piece to have back, though he failed to replicate his blistering 2018-19 start in his first year back after injury. Getting back to that early 2018-19 form would be huge for the Owls as they try to compete in the C-USA. Minnesota transfer Bryan Greenlee seems like a strong waiver candidate, and he could solidify the point guard position if eligible to play right away. A four-man freshman class needs to provide some long-term juice to build a core for the future, and growth from younger players like Kenan Blackshear and Carrington McCaskill also seems big. Ingram can keep the Owls out of the cellar this year, but FAU needs to find some building blocks long-term.
  13. Southern Miss – With just one senior on the roster, USM seemingly enters a two-year window to try to move out of the C-USA cellar in year two under Jay Ladner. Losing starting point guard Gabe Watson to Tulane is a fairly significant blow: Watson was the team’s leading scorer, and running more offense through junior Jay Malone doesn’t seem like a recipe for efficient offense. But the return of a pair of double-figure scorers in Tyler Stevenson and LaDavius Draine is a nice start, and I’m bullish on three highly-touted JUCO imports in raising the ceiling for this group. Dynamic scoring guard Tae Hardy (Pearl River CC) could take some point guard duties, while wing Justin Johnson (South Georgia Tech) brings high-level athleticism on the wing and physical forward DeAndre Pinckney (Broward) is great around the basket. I could see all three guys starting for the Golden Eagles and helping Ladner put together the type of aggressive, attacking group on the floor he loved at Southeastern Louisiana. Upward mobility here seems possible if they get the type of production from Hardy, Johnson, and Pinckey that I think they might.
  14. Rice – Each year, I spend my few hundred words about Rice lamenting Scott Pera’s inability to hold onto talent for their entire careers, and this season is no exception. Losing star wing sharpshooter Trey Murphy to Virginia and skilled forward Drew Peterson to USC makes it so challenging to move up the standings at all. Replacing your top five scorers on a yearly basis isn’t a sustainable way to build a program. Looking at the guys they do have, Texas Tech transfer Malik Ondigo should provide a steady presence in the frontcourt after sitting out last season, and watch out for waivers for Riley Abercrombie (Boise State) and Travis Evee (VMI). I’m particularly bullish on Evee, the 2019-20 SoCon ROY who showed a penchant for making tough shots and flashing limitless range from beyond the arc. I’m also high on freshman point guard Noah Hutchins, who was a productive player on the EYBL circuit last summer for the Albany City Rocks alongside high-major recruits like Symir Torrence (Marquette), Andre Jackson (UConn), and Myles Wilmoth (Butler).

All-Conference First Team:

  • Javion Hamlet (North Texas)
  • Jhivvan Jackson (UTSA)
  • Taevion Kinsey (Marshall)
  • Bryson Williams (UTEP)
  • Charles Bassey (WKU)

Player of the Year: Javion Hamlet – The defending C-USA POY deserves this preseason love, even with Charles Bassey back healthy. Hamlet is one of the nation’s best point guards, and he does such a great job of keeping his team together down the stretch in close games. He’s the epitome of a winner and the reason the Mean Green are as in good a shape as anyone to win this conference. Check out his interview with Brandon Goble and The Live Period Podcast here, it’s awesome.

Breakout Player: Isaiah Crawford (Louisiana Tech) – There aren’t a ton of traditional breakout candidates in the conference this season, but Crawford is incredibly intriguing. Crawford is a long, athletic wing/forward who scored in double figures six times in sixteen games to open his career before going down with a season-ending ACL tear in January. There should be plenty of minutes available for him and his upside is sky high if he comes back fully healthy.

Newcomer of the Year: Jamal Bienemy (UTEP) – Like I wrote in my UTEP preview, I think Bienemy was one of the bigger mid-major coups of the Spring. I was a big believer in him as a high-major contributor even after not taking the step forward many expected last season, and I was surprised to see him drop to the mid-major level when he hit the portal this spring. Bienemy can defend 3-4 positions in the MM game, he’s good with the ball and is capable getting to the rim. If he hits outside shots consistently, watch out. The duo of him and Bryson Williams should be tons of fun in El Paso.

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