Conference USA Preview: Is Middle Tennessee State still the team to beat?

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
0 Comments

Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Conference USA has been a one-bid league the past few seasons but the league has also been vastly underrated in the national landscape. Case in point: C-USA has three consecutive seasons with a NCAA tournament win, even though all three teams were high double-digit seeds.

Middle Tennessee remains the darling of the league following two straight appearances in the Round of 32. Talented forwards JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw have moved on but C-USA Player of the Year candidate Giddy Potts is back on the perimeter along with promising sophomore point guard Tyrik Dixon. Transfers have been an important part of roster-building for the Blue Raiders and former Alabama wing Nick King will be a valuable wing scorer for this team as well. If Brandon Walters can become a productive piece in the middle then Middle Tennessee should once again be a huge threat in league and postseason play.

With a ferocious perimeter back in the fold, hopes are high that Louisiana Tech can make a leap after last season’s second-place finish. The sophomore backcourt tandem of DaQuan Bracey and Jalen Harris are both back after strong freshman seasons while senior wing Jacobi Boykins is a big-time shooter and Player of the Year threat in the league. If the Bulldogs get a solid contribution from its frontcourt, led by center Joniah White, they could be a major contender.

Old Dominion defended at an elite level last season but they had a tough time with consistent offense. The good news is the Monarchs return some serious talent in point guard Ahmad Caver and brothers Brandon and B.J. Stith. Wake Forest transfer Greg McClinton is an intriguing addition and the freshman class, including redshirt Xavier Green and shooter Micheal Hueitt Jr. could help put up points.

With one of the league’s best frontcourts, UAB will once again be a dangerous team in C-USA. Two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year William Lee returns for his senior season along with double-figure scorer Chris Cokley. If point guard Nick Norton returns to form from a torn ACL, the Blazers should be a threat at the top of the standings. UTEP was the only C-USA to beat Middle Tennessee last season as they went 13-4 to close out the season. Senior guard Omega Harris is a big-time scorer while senior big man Matt Willms returns after leading the conference in field goal percentage.

Things looked really good for Western Kentucky when they had five-star center Mitchell Robinson, but he’s gone and the team lost its most talented player. Rick Stansbury still brings in a ton of transfers as Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo), Darius Thompson (Virginia) and Dwight Coleby (Kansas) are all joining the roster. Conference Player of the Year threat Jon Davis returns at guard for Charlotte but the 49ers need to get more out of an unproven frontcourt. Guard Andrien White and wing Austin Ajukwa also return to form a veteran core.

Marshall is another solid team in an emerging league as they’re coming off of a 20-win season. Player of the Year candidate Jon Elmore is back at guard while athletic guard C.J. Burks is another player to watch. The rest of the scoring on from the Thundering Herd will come from mostly new pieces. Rice was gutted by transfers when former head coach Mike Rhoades left for VCU but junior Connor Cashaw has a chance to emerge as a go-to threat. Senior transfer A.J. Lapray brings perimeter shooting while the freshman class has some talented additions.

UTSA took a gigantic step forward in head coach Steven Henson’s first season and he adds more reinforcements to try to make an additional leap in the second season. The backcourt of sophomores Byron Frohnen and Giovanni De Nicolao could put up a lot of points. Scholarship reductions are starting to get lifted at Southern Miss, meaning the Golden Eagles should have more depth in the coming seasons. Jack-of-all-trades guard Cortez Edwards returns and sophomore big man Tim Rowe should help if he can stay healthy. 

Florida Atlantic lost seven players to transfer as they need to find more consistent help around senior guard Gerdarius Troutman. College of Charleston transfer Payton Hulsey is an intriguing addition who could help. New head coach Grant McCasland leads the charge at North Texas as the Mean Green are hoping the promising backcourt of Ryan Woolridge and A.J. Lawson continues to grow. FIU is hoping to improve on last season’s disappointing campaign but head coach Anthony Evans, who could be coaching for his job, saw most of last year’s roster leave.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee

A senior shooting guard who can create his own shot against most defenses, Potts is a 42 percent career three-point shooter capable of knocking them down from all over the floor. A key piece in the Blue Raiders making it to the Round of 32 the past two seasons, Potts is experienced veteran and a reliable scorer.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM

  • Jon Elmore, Marshall: Putting up big numbers in D’Antoni’s high-octane offense, Elmore averaged 19.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest as a sophomore.
  • Jon Davis, Charlotte: An ironman junior who played 35 minutes a game last season, the 6-foot-3 Davis put up 19.6 points, 4.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
  • Jacobi Boykins, Louisiana Tech: Making C-USA’s all-defense team while improving his all-around offense, the 6-foot-6 senior averaged 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season.
  • William Lee, UAB: Perhaps the league’s best long-term talent, the 6-foot-9 senior is springy enough to block shots and skilled enough to knock down perimeter shots.

PREDICTED FINISH

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