Middle Tennessee has been one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last few years but now the Blue Raiders will be facing a major rebuild.
With former head coach Kermit Davis taking the Ole Miss job and new head coach Nick McDevitt coming over from UNC Asheville, the program experienced some major roster turnover this week as four returnees left the program.
Earlier in the week, junior guard David Simmons opted to transfer out of Middle Tennessee after he averaged 17.9 minutes per game for the Conference USA regular-season champions last season.
On Friday, the losses continued, as three more players left the team. Rising junior point guard Tyrik Dixon announced his intention to transfer while the program dismissed guard Antwain Johnson and forward Davion Thomas. Dixon was a valuable floor leader for Middle Tennessee the past two seasons while Johnson, a rising senior guard, would have been the team’s returning leading scorer after putting up 10.3 points per game last week.
Since so much of the successful core of the past three seasons is now gone from Middle Tennessee, it will be on McDevitt to bring in new talent to sustain the recent great stretch of play. The Blue Raiders made two Round of 32 appearances in a row before missing the NCAA tournament last season after winning C-USA’s regular season crown.
The 6-foot-8 forward hasn’t played since Jan. 9 against UAB and reportedly broke the bone in practice. According to Borthick, Phillips will be reevaluated next week and have a clearer timetable for his return.
A sophomore, Phillips was playing 9.9 minutes per game and averaging 1.6 points and 1.9 rebounds per game so far this season.
The Blue Raiders are 10-8 overall and 3-2 in Conference USA so far this season and host Old Dominion on Jan. 22.
Conference realignment has been rampant the last few seasons, and Conference USA is still feeling the effects of it heading into the 2014-2015 season. Gone are East Carolina, Tulane and the league’s lone NCAA tournament team from last year, Tulsa. The conference welcomes in Western Kentucky as its newest member. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine new programs and seven former members since 2013.
At least one thing looks to remain certain in 2014-2015, Louisiana Tech should finish atop the conference standings. The Bulldogs were one of four teams — Tulsa, Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss — to share the regular season title with a 13-3 record. Like previously mentioned, Tulsa left C-USA, Middle Tennessee lost four starters and Souther Miss is starting the Doc Sadler era after Donnie Tyndall accepted the Tennessee position.
Louisiana Tech returns plenty of key contributors, but none more important than head coach Michael White, who was in the conversation for several coaching vacancies this offseason.
The Bulldogs boast the league’s top back court with Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith running the show, Alex Hamilton back as the team’s top scorer and Raheem Appleby, who was sidelined for several weeks last season with an ankle injury. Michale Kyser mans the frontline with his 3.0 blocks per game, and he’ll be an important piece this season, as the Bulldogs’ biggest threat, UTEP, has two talented forwards.
The Miners may have finished fifth last season, but was only a game out of first in the top-heavy C-USA. Tim Floyd’s team is headlined by sophomore Vince Hunter and (12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Julian Washburn (13.1 ppg). Another team looking to make a run at the Bulldogs is newcomer, Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers join the league from the Sun Belt, and have been to two of the last three NCAA tournaments. Ray Harper’s team is aided by senior guards T.J. Price and George Fant — the team’s top two scorers at 15.5 points and 13.3 points, respectively –who will help with the transition against better competition.
Along with Harper, C-USA has three new coaches. Mike Rhoades came over from VCU to take over at Rice while Michael Curry (Florida Atlantic) and Dan D’Antoni (Marshall) join the conference from the NBA sidelines, despite neither of them having college basketball coaching experience.
In: Western Kentucky Out: East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa
PRESEASON CONFERENCE-USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith, Louisiana Tech
The 6-foot-3 guard averaged single-digits (7.8 ppg) last year, but he effected the game in so many other ways. He was second in the nation in assists (7.7 apg), was 10th in the nation with a 3.23 assist-to-turnover ratio, and he was also top 10 in the nation in steals at 2.5 per game. The senior guard was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and is the only returning member of the league’s first-team from a season ago.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE-USA TEAM:
Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech: Another member of Louisiana Tech’s heralded back court. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged a team-high 14.5 points per game last season.
Pierria Henry, Charlotte: The 49ers top scorer from a season ago averaged 12.3 points, grabbed 5.1 boards and dished 5.8 assists per game.
Vince Hunter, UTEP: Hunter is coming off a great freshman campaign, averaging 12.5 points and 6.4 boards per game. Part of a talented front court duo with Julian Washburn.
T.J. Price, Western Kentucky: One of the top newcomers to the league averaged better than 15 points per game over the past two years in the Sun Belt.
With more realignment shake-ups in 2014-15, Conference USA is once again a shifting landscape.
Conference USA has had so many members at this point in their history that the USA part of the name seems rather appropriate.
Gone from the league in 2014-15 are East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa — as those three schools move on to the American Athletic Conference — and joining the league from the Sun Belt is Western Kentucky.
So C-USA now stands at 14 members and the top teams look similar to last season.
NCAA Tournament representative Tulsa is out of the picture but Louisiana Tech, UTEP, and Southern Miss — with new head coach Doc Sadler — are looking like the top three teams in the league.
UAB has some talent in place and Middle Tennessee loses a lot from last season’s strong effort. The middle of the pack of Old Dominion, new face Western Kentucky, Charlotte, North Texas and FIU could go a number of different ways while Rice, Marshall, UTSA and Florida Atlantic round out the league.
Louisiana Tech: Head coach Mike White opted to stay with the Bulldogs after flirting with the Tennessee job and he gets back two of his top three scorers (Alex Hamilton and Raheem Appleby) and one of the nation’s top assist men in point guard Kenneth Smith. White’s teams at Louisiana Tech have been very deep and balanced and this group should be similar.
UTEP: Tim Floyd did a fantastic job of keeping the Miners together in the wake of the FBI scandal last season and with Julian Washburn and Vince Hunter returning — and two new Rivals top 150 recruits — this UTEP team should have plenty of firepower to compete for the top spot in the league.
Charlotte: The 49ers were young last season and went through some growing pains in February. But now that many talented pieces return, Charlotte could be poised for a run up the standings. As long as head coach Alan Major returns from his leave this season, the 49ers should be in good shape.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders lost an all-league player in senior forward Sean Jones and there were plenty of other losses to a senior-laden team as well. It will be tough for them to stay with the league’s elite teams this season.
Southern Miss: The loss of Donnie Tyndall certainly hurts but Michael Craig, Neil Watson, Daveon Boardingham and Jerrold Brooks were four of the Golden Eagles top five players and they were seniors. That leaves new coach Doc Sadler with a lot of questions entering his first season on the job, but he’s won in the league before at UTEP.
Marshall: After back-to-back losing seasons, head coach Tom Herrion was bought out of his contract and the program brought in former player Dan D’Antoni. The 66-year-old D’Antoni is a former NBA assistant under his younger brother Mike but he’s never coached at the Division I level and hasn’t been a head coach above the varsity level in high school. With the team also losing Kareem Canty, the Herd could be in trouble.
FIVE NEW FACES
Doc Sadler, Southern Miss:The former head coach at Nebraska, Sadler gives Southern Miss good name recognition and an experienced head coach after the Golden Eagles lost Donnie Tyndall to Tennessee. Sadler is 149-107 in a head coaching career that includes two years at UTEP and Nebraska for six seasons. Sadler has also coached in Conference USA before as the Miners’ head coach in 2005-06.
Chris Sandifer and Omega Harris, UTEP: Sandifer is the No. 102 prospect in the country according to Rivals.com and the 6-foot-6 wing could give an immediate scoring punch to UTEP next season thanks to his deep range and athleticism. Harris checks in at No. 149 in the Rivals rankings and the 6-foot-2 guard from Oklahoma was a highly productive guard throughout his high school career.
William Lee, UAB:Lee is a big-time athlete at 6-foot-8 and UAB did a nice job to keep this in-state three-star prospect home. Lee threw down a number of highlight-reel dunks in the EYBL with the Alabama Challenge and also rebounded at rim level thanks to his explosive burst off the floor.
Derrick Clayton, Western Kentucky: A native of California, Clayton was one of the breakout performers of the high school season in the National Prep Showcase and he could give the Hilltoppers some immediate scoring punch.
Dan D’Antoni, Marshall: The 66-year-old Marshall alum is a first-time head coach at the college level after working under his younger brother Mike in the NBA for the better part of the last decade. D’Antoni has only been a head coach at the high school level, but it will be intriguing to see if he incorporates some of his brother’s “seven seconds or less” offensive approach to the college game.
There will be another in-season tournament in 2014, with the Emerald Coast Classic taking place this November. On Thursday Global Sports, the group running the event, announced the eight-team field with 2014 NCAA tournament participants Cincinnati and Creighton being the headliners.
“We are extremely excited about being in the Emerald Coast Classic this November,” Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said in the release. “We have been in a number of multi-team events with Global Sports in the past and I am sure that Maury and his staff will put together a tremendous event.”
Also in the four-team group that will meet in the semifinals on November 28 at Northwest Florida State College are Ole Miss and Middle Tennessee. In one semifinal Cincinnati, which won a share of the American Athletic Conference regular season title, will take on Middle Tennessee with Creighton and Ole Miss matching up in the other semifinal.
The tournament concludes November 29, with the semifinal winners meeting for the title and the other two semifinalists meeting in the third place game. Also participating in the event are Eastern Illinois, North Carolina Central (which represented the MEAC in the NCAA tournament), Northern Arizona and Southern.
Middle Tennessee has been one of the best teams in Conference USA this season, with Kermit Davis’ program once again winning 20 games and currently holding a share of first place in the league standings. Four seniors have led the way for the Blue Raiders, with forwards Shawn Jones and Neiko Hunter and guard Kerry Hammonds II all scoring in double figures.
With that group, which includes guard “Tweety” Knight, leading the way Middle Tennessee is well-positioned to earn another postseason appearance. But there’s also the need to build for next season, and Middle Tennessee has added a guard to its rotation for the 2014-15 season.
“I told Jalen he needed to look for a good fit, a school that needed a guard like him, and obviously Middle Tennessee loses (senior Kerry) Hammonds,” Steele’s high school coach, Jody Wright said. “So that’s a winning program that could use an experienced guard like Jalen. And I think he will have a big impact because he’s an SEC-caliber guard that can really shoot it on the perimeter. I think he made a good choice with Middle Tennessee.”
Last season Steele averaged 10.1 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, but a torn ACL meant that he would miss the 2013-14 season. Mississippi State announced that Steele’s career was over, but according to his high school coach the guard is back to full strength.
Steele joins a 2014 recruiting class that already boasted two incoming freshmen and four junior college transfers, with four of those players being perimeter players.