Conference USA Preview: UAB and Middle Tennessee try to keep shocking the world

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Nobody respected Conference USA entering last season’s NCAA tournament and it helped contribute to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee’s shocking upset of Final Four contender Michigan State. The Blue Raiders followed in the footsteps of UAB after the Blazers’ win over Iowa State and both teams will once again be in the mix for what will likely be the league’s only tournament bid. But besides the top two contenders, there are a lot of talented teams in the equation this season.

It will be NCAA tournament or bust for preseason favorite UAB as they fell short of the Big Dance after falling to Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Tournament. The Blazers have a new coach in former assistant Robert Ehsan, but they return five starters from a 26-win team — including three all-league players. Middle Tennessee lost some key pieces from that tournament team but sharpshooting guard Giddy Potts and senior forward Reggie Upshaw return along with an intriguing graduate transfer in Arkansas forward JaCorey Williams.

The Stith brothers will lead the charge for Old Dominion as forward Brandan Stith returns after averaging nearly a double-double per game. He’s joined by Virginia transfer and younger brother Bryant Stith and all-freshman selection Zoran Talley to form an intriguing nucleus that could contend immediately. Dan D’Antoni brings back four scorers to a high-scoring Marshall team that went 12-6  in league play. The trio of Jon Elmore, Ryan Taylor and Stevie Browning can put up a ton of points but the Thundering Herd have to get stops to be among the league’s elite.

Western Kentucky will be fascinating under new head coach Rick Stansbury. While Stansbury is generating headlines for his Class of 2017 recruiting efforts, the team he’ll put on the floor this season includes some talented graduate transfers including Pancake Thomas (Hartford), Que Johnson (Washington State), Junior Lomomba (Providence) and Willie Carmichael (Tennessee). Those newcomers with returning forward Justin Johnson make for a talented team. Louisiana Tech loses talented point guard Alex Hamilton, but they get all-conference forward Erik McCree back along with guard Jacobi Boykins. Miami transfer Omar Sherman and the return of injured guard Qiydar Davis could be the key to the Bulldogs’ season.

Four starters are back for North Texas including the potent trio of Jeremy Combs, J-Mychal Reese and Deckie Johnson. The Mean Green also get former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier (SMU) after first semester, but they have to be more consistent to beat the league’s top teams. UTEP will have to replace some key pieces but Dominic Artis, Omega Harris and Terry Winn are returning double-figure scorers. If the Miners can get more consistent play from their frontcourt, they could be a sleeper in this league. Rice has a potential league Player of the Year candidate in high-scoring sophomore guard Marcus Evans and he’ll receive help from guard Marcus Jackson this season as Jackson returns from injury.

Charlotte is still very young and perimeter-oriented by all-freshmen guards Jon Davis and Adrien White are back along with senior guard Braxton Ogbueze. Florida Atlantic has four starters back as they boast one of the league’s most productive front courts. FIU has senior guard Donte McGill back but no other returning player averaged more than eight points per game. UTSA has a new coach in former Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson as he inherits some talented pieces including the backcourt trio of Christian Wilson, J.R. Harris and Gino Littles. Southern Miss is finally finished with its two-year postseason ban but the roster still has a long ways to go to be competitive again.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: William Lee, UAB

The reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, Lee is a pogo stick forward who is one of the best shot blockers in the country. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged 2.9 rejections per game last season in only 24.8 minutes per contest to go along with 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. Lee also shot 49 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range as he projects as the league’s best long-term prospect. If Lee sees more minutes this season he could be among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots as he’s trying to get the Blazers back to the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM:

  • Marcus Evans, Rice: Coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 21.4 points per game and won C-USA Freshman of the Year honors, Evans will try to improve his three-point shooting (30 percent).
  • Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee: Before his starring role in the win over Michigan State, Potts shot a national-best 50 percent from three-point range while averaging 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
  • Chris Cokley, UAB: A productive sophomore campaign saw the 6-foot-8 Cokley averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor as he had some big games against good teams.
  • Reggie Upshaw, Middle Tennessee: The 6-foot-7 senior burst into the national spotlight with his postseason performances as he won C-USA Tournament MVP and scored 21 in the upset of Michigan State.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Conference_USA

PREDICTED FINISH

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