Georges Niang, William Lee
UAB's William Lee (AP Photo)

Conference USA Preview: Look out for UAB this year

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Conference USA.

This version of Conference USA is not as strong as the Conference USA of old, the one that featured the likes of Marquette, Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville, but while much of the league falls under the ‘mid-major’ label these days, there’s still enough talent at the top of the conference to throw a scare into some of the big boys.

Take, for example, UAB. The Blazers last season finished just a game above .500, but after a dreadful start to non-conference play, Jerod Haase’s group turned it on in the league. They went 12-6 in CUSA, won the league’s tournament title and knocked off Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Oh, and they return everyone from last year’s group, including leading scorer Robert Brown and William Lee, who will be one of this season’s break out stars.

A major reason for UAB’s late-season surge was Lee, who did not truly get healthy until late-January. A 6-foot-9 combo-forward, Lee can block shots, score around the rim and make plays on the perimeter. He’s got a chance to be a star this season, and he makes UAB a really dangerous mid-major.

But he may not even be the best player in the conference, as Old Dominion returns reigning CUSA Player of the Year Trey Freeman. Freeman was a major reason that the Monarchs were able to beat LSU, VCU, Richmond and Georgia State last year in addition to reaching the semifinals of the NIT. The Monarchs also return Aaron Bacote, and while they lose their starting front line, there will be some promising big bodies available. East Carolina transfer Brandon Stith could post double-double numbers while Denzell Taylor was sixth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage last season.

The consensus from those around the league is that UAB and ODU, in some order, will be the team to beat this season. But there are a number of teams that will have a shot at finishing in that No. 3 spot.

Middle Tennessee State returns the majority of their roster from a season ago. The team’s leading returning scorer is power forward Reggie Upshaw, but the name to watch out for is Perrin Buford. Buford, a JuCo transfer, scored in double-figures in 10 of his last 12 games and averaged 14.1 points over his final eight.

UTEP returns just one healthy player from their top six from last season — Earvin Morris — but it’s who they add that keeps Tim Floyd’s club in the mix for the top five. Oregon transfer Dominic Artis will likely take over point guard while top 100 freshman Brodericks Jones and JuCo addition Lee Moore will be counted on for big years.

If Aaron Cosby can return to being the player he was as a sophomore at Seton Hall, Western Kentucky should have a chance to finish in the top six. But that was three years and two teams ago. Louisiana Tech not only lost ‘Speedy’ Smith and Raheem Appleby, but head coach Mike White left for Florida as well. New head coach Eric Konkol will be relying heavily on Alex Hamilton this year.

The two x-factors will be Marshall and Rice. The Owls returns a veteran back court and adds a key transfer in Egor Koulechov as they will look to build on the momentum from a strong close to the season. Head coach Mike Rhoades is a Shaka Smart disciple.

The same can be said for the Thundering Herd, who started the year 2-15 against Division I opponents but, in league play, won seven out of ten at one point. Dan D’antoni, Mike’s brother, plays an uptempo, gun-slinging style, adds a number of shooters and brings back Ryan Taylor.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule


  • Favorite: “Most will say UAB because they’re coming off of that tournament win, but I like Old Dominion, too. They have best guard group in the conference. Defensively, they’re really hard to score on and physically tough. Trey Freeman is the best point guard and leader in the league. It will come down to whether [Brandon Stith] can replace what they lost up front.”
  • Sleeper: “Rice. I think they have a chance to finish in the top couple spots. Marcus Jackson and Max Guercy are a veteran back court, and with the addition of Egor Koulechov from Arizona State, if he’s really good they’ve got a chance to be really good. Mike Rhoades has done a really good job, and last year they got better as the year went on. If they continue that momentum, look out.”
  • Star to watch: “UAB’s William Lee. He’s the best NBA prospect. The last month of the year, he was as good as anyone in the league. He’s a 6-foot-9 combo-forward that’s athletic and has three-point range. Given his versatility and his talent level, he could have a breakout year.”


Freeman was the best player in the conference last season, and after a full offseason of improvement, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be anything other than the same this year. Freeman is a scoring point guard that can breakdown a defense, but he’s also capable of making plays for his teammates. He’s the reason ODU has a real shot at unseating UAB at the top of the league.


  • William Lee, UAB: Lee, a 6-foot-9 combo-forward, averaged 11.9 points, 8.1 boards and 2.3 blocks while shooting 44.4 percent from three over the last 12 games. He wasn’t healthy until February, either.
  • Robert Brown, UAB: Brown was UAB’s star in March, averaging 18.2 points in five postseason games. The fifth-year senior is the engine that makes their offense run.
  • Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech: The lone returnee from last season’s dynamic back court, Hamilton should see an uptick in his total numbers this year.
  • Ryan Taylor, Marshall: Taylor averaged 14.1 points, 8.6 boards and 2.8 assists for the Thundering Herd last season playing the Draymond Green role in their uptempo offense.



1. UAB
2. Old Dominion
3. Middle Tennessee State
5. Western Kentucky
6. Louisiana Tech
7. Rice
8. Marshall
9. Florida Atlantic
10. Florida International
11. Charlotte
12. North Texas
13. UTSA
14. Southern Miss

SEC Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Willie Cauley-Stein (Getty Images)
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source: Getty Images
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Kentucky vs. The Field has been a popular debate among college basketball for much of the season, but first, the Wildcats have to get out of the SEC Tournament. At 31-0, John Calipari’s team is the heavy favorite to win the auto bid and it will be interesting to see if Kentucky continues its trend of playing well in big games on national television.

As long as Kentucky stays healthy and fully engaged, there’s no reason they shouldn’t win in Nashville.

Arkansas is the only other top-25 team in the SEC and the Razorbacks are coming off of a late loss against LSU as they’ve faltered a bit down the stretch. But the Razorbacks feature the SEC’s Player of the Year in sophomore Bobby Portis and he’s been fantastic during SEC play.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

From there, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are still fighting for NCAA Tournament bids and/or better seeding. The Aggies and Tigers, in particular, could use a win or two to help get them into the field of 68 while Georgia and Ole Miss could use some wins to get out of the near double-digit seeding range they currently sit.

Some other dangerous teams lurk in the lower seeds as Vanderbilt is playing much better late in the season after some close losses and Florida has enough talent to at least put a scare into Kentucky if they play in the quarterfinals and the Wildcats have an off-night.



MORE:’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 11-15

Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville

Final: March 15, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Kentucky

Like there was any doubt? The Wildcats have rolled to a perfect 31-0 record before heading to Nashville to begin the postseason and it seems as though Kentucky plays even better when the game has national significance. Defensively, Kentucky can be as dominant as any team in the country, and offensively, they have so many different weapons and ways to get shots that they’re tough to stop.

And if they lose?: Arkansas

The Razorbacks benefited from only facing Kentucky once in the SEC and they’re the only team in the conference to be consistently featured in the top 25 during league play. Led by third-team All-American Bobby Portis, the Razorbacks have been more consistent away from home this season and can intimidate teams with their athleticism on both ends of the floor. But can Mike Anderson’s team bounce back from a 3-2 end of the conference season that also included some narrow wins?

Other Contenders

  • Georgia: Besides being swept by South Carolina and losing to Auburn at home, the Bulldogs have been rather strong in SEC play and have only lost to the conference’s top-four teams outside of that. Plus, Mark Fox’s team has actually given Kentucky a real test this season.
  • LSU: The road win at Arkansas to end the season was a big one and sophomore Jarell Martin is playing tremendous down the stretch. The Tigers are certainly talented enough to make a run in the postseason if Jordan Mickey is healthy and playing at full speed.

Sleeper: Vanderbilt

The Commodores are surging down the stretch and the experienced pieces are finally gelling with the freshmen. Sophomore big man Damian Jones has generated some early NBA buzz while freshman guard Riley LaChance is one of the most underrated freshman among power conferences in the country. As a team, Vanderbilt shoots 39 percent from 3-point range, and if they get hot, they can be tough to stop.

SEC Player of the Year: Bobby Portis, Arkansas

A third-team All-American, Portis was the most important individual player on any team in the SEC this season. Averaging 17.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on good shooting splits (56% FG, 42% 3Pt, 74% FT), the 6-foot-11 sophomore scored in double figures in all but one game this season as the Razorbacks’ go-to guy. In SEC play Portis played even better, as he averaged 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while also blocking 2.8 shots a game in league play.

SEC Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky

Kentucky has answered every question about its use of one-and-done players and the platoon system this season by dominating opponents and playing mostly selfless basketball. Calipari is a huge reason why. The head coach has gotten nine McDonald’s All-Americans to put aside ego for the greater good of the bigger picture (a national title) and the result has been one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory.

First-Team All-SEC:

  • Portis
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky – An first-team All-American, the junior center is the country’s best defensive player, covering an incredible amount of ground on the perimeter while also protecting the rim as well as anyone in the nation.
  • Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky – The potential top-3 pick in the NBA Draft has played his best ball down the stretch. The freshman center only plays an average of 20 minutes a game but has at least 12 points in eight of his last 11 games.
  • Josh Richardson, Tennessee – It’s hard to imagine how bad Tennessee basketball would have been this season without Josh Richardson. The senior used a great 2014 NCAA Tournament as momentum for a tremendous senior year.
  • Jarell Martin, LSU – Coin flip between Martin and sophomore teammate Jordan Mickey based on numbers. Mickey has many more blocks, but Martin has been huge down the stretch, including 27 points in a road win at Arkansas that might have saved LSU’s season.

Second Team All-SEC:

  • Jordan Mickey, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Devin Booker Kentucky

CBT Prediction: Kentucky stays unbeaten entering the NCAA Tournament and beats Georgia for the title.

Big 12 Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Bryce Dejean-Jones, Kelly Oubre Jr.
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source: AP

It was another year in which the Big 12 clobbered each other in conference play and we can’t really get a feel for how good this league is going into the postseason. When you also consider that conference champion Kansas ended the regular season without Cliff Alexander (eligibility concerns), Perry Ellis (sprained knee) and Brannen Greene (suspended) and this Tournament looks wide-open.

That notion is aided by the fact that each team in the tournament has to win at least three games to win the championship. The Big 12 Conference Tournament doesn’t feature double and triple byes like some conference tournaments. Only the bottom four teams have play-in games for the right to play in the quarterfinals.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

Coming off of the win over Kansas, Oklahoma is riding high and the Sooners are the No. 3 seed with the conference’s Player of the Year in Buddy Hield. The junior guard is one of the best two-way players in the country and Oklahoma has Final Four ability if they get rolling. No. 2 seed Iowa State will also be a team to track, but they could get a tough game against Texas in the quarterfinals.

And you can’t forget about Baylor and West Virginia, who matched up in the quarterfinals and are both ranked in the top 20. Even teams like Oklahoma State and Kansas State could string together a few games and make a run in this tournament.



MORE:’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 11-14

Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City

Final: March 14, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Kansas

The Jayhawks managed to win the Big 12 for the 11th consecutive season and they stayed closed with Oklahoma despite missing Cliff Alexander, Perry Ellis and Brannen Greene. Kansas likely gets Greene back for the Big 12 Tournament and point guard Frank Mason III will be key for the Jayhawks.

And if they lose?: Iowa State

The Cyclones have a high-octane offense, led by Georges Niang and can put up points in a hurry against nearly any team in the country. The question becomes how the Cyclones play away from Hilton Coliseum? Iowa State was mediocre on the road this season and also lost neutral-court games to Maryland (in Kansas City) and South Carolina. Can they stay consistent enough on the defensive end to win three tough games?

Other Contenders

  • Oklahoma: A darkhorse Final Four candidate before the year, the Sooners are led by All-American Buddy Hield and have plenty of scoring punch in their own right.
  • Baylor: The Bears are one of the biggest surprises in the Big 12 and have so many versatile players that matchups that they can throw on the floor.

Sleeper: Texas

The Longhorns finished 8-10 in the conference but have enough talent to win the tournament if they can continue the mini two-game winning streak they’re riding. While many of the Big 12’s other teams are comfortably in, the Longhorns could really use some more wins for some more breathing room.

Deeper Sleeper: Kansas State

Bruce Weber’s team might be below .500 but they swept Oklahoma and own wins over Kansas and Iowa State and sophomore guard Marcus Foster can still get hot and carry an offense.

Big 12 Player of the Year: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

One of the best two-way wings in the country, Hield coupled good scoring numbers (17.4 ppg, 42% FG, 38% 3PT) and a solid presence on the defensive end. A second-team All-American, Hield also averaged 5.5 rebounds per game and 1.4 steals per contest.

Big 12 Coach of the Year: Scott Drew, Baylor

You can also make a strong case for Bob Huggins at West Virginia, but he was returning a Player of the Year candidate in Juwan Staten. Baylor’s ascension into the top-25 this season seemed even more surprising than West Virginia’s and the Bears did a great job of finding new go-to players and rebuilding a talented frontcourt.

First-Team All-Big 12:

  • Hield
  • Rico Gathers, Baylor – A second-team All-American, Gathers averaged 11.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting. The forward also contributed 1.2 steals and 1 block a game.
  • Georges Niang, Iowa State – Another tough and efficient season for the junior forward as he averaged 15.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting tremendous splits (47% FG, 41% 3PT, 79% FT).
  • Perry Ellis, Kansas – The junior could miss the Big 12 Tournament with a sprained knee but he averaged 14.2 points and 7 rebounds per game on 47 percent shooting during a great season.
  • Juwan Staten, West Virginia – Battling some injury this season, the senior was still great, averaging 14.5 points, 4.6 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.

Second Team All-Big 12:

  • LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State
  • Taurean Prince, Baylor
  • Monte Morris, Iowa State
  • Kenny Chery, Baylor
  • Frank Mason III

CBT Prediction: Oklahoma rides the momentum of the win over Kansas and wins the Big 12 Tournament.