Conference USA 2017-18 Tournament Preview

- Matt Cox

Season Recap:

Biggest Storylines:

  • 'C-USA Ascends': Not since John Calipari had a mid-major juggernaut at Memphis has the C-USA been this competitive. According to kenpom's conference rankings, the C-USA was the 12th best in the country this year, the league's highest mark since 2012-13 when Memphis and Southern Miss were the class of the conference (coached by two squeaky-clean recruiters in Calipari and Donnie Tyndall). 
  • 'Kermit Maintains his Mastery': Shame on me and all other pundits out there who docked the Blue Raiders in the preseason for the loss of Reggie Upshaw and Jacorey Williams. Doubting Kermit Davis even in the slightest is downright foolish - the dude has won the league 5 of the last 7 years and is on track to take the Blue Raiders dancing for the third consecutive season. His recent success has been fueled by high-major transfer forwards coming down from power-6 leagues with Jacorey Williams (from Arkansas last year) and Nick King (from Memphis / Alabama this season) each asserting themselves as dominant forces in the C-USA from the moment they stepped on the floor. 
  • 'Tempo Translates to Win Tallies': The two fastest teams in the C-USA this season - Marshall and UTSA - found themselves within striking distance of a top-3 finish in the final league standings. Dan D'Antoni's breakneck pace was surprising to no one as the Thundering Herd's non-stop fast break culminated in one of the shortest average possession lengths in the country for the 4th consecutive season.

    On the flip side, Steve Henson caught everyone off guard with his complete stylistic makeover at UTSA. After playing at a reasonably slow tempo in his inaugural season at the helm in San Antonio last season, the Roadrunners played true to their name in 2018 - UTSA's average possession length of 15.6 seconds was the 2nd shortest in the conference and 20th shortest in the nation. Perhaps Henson took a bite out of D'Antoni's playbook because the Roadrunners aren't just 'running', they're also 'gunning' - UTSA enters the C-USA tournament attempting 45% of their shots from the land of plenty with 40% of their points coming by way of the 3-ball.

Tourney Preview

Sooo the C-USA must've procrastinated in locking down a venue for their conference tournament because there's a 0% chance Frisco, TX was on the shortlist of desired destinations. So what we'll have here is a glorified AAU tournament feel with two courts at the same on-site location, which will be held at the Dallas Cowboys practice facility.

What to Watch:

  • Middle Tennessee's quest for an at-large is highly contingent upon what they do this weekend in Frisco. While I'd argue they've done plenty throughout the course of the season to prove their worth as a legitimate at-large candidate - find me another team on the bubble that boasts a 12-1 road record regardless of conference affiliation - the hard truth is that an early exit will likely spell doom for MTSU's at-large hopes.

Who will win:

  • Middle Tennessee: Despite minimal separation amongst the league's top-3 teams - MTSU, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky - the Monarchs and Hilltoppers have to go through each other to reach the title game, which bodes well for Middle Tennessee's odds to reach the championship game. I'll source kenpom's tournament outcome projections for context (see below), but a 21% separation between the 1st and 2nd team to win the title is pretty substantial, especially with all games being held on a neutral floor:

If not them, then...

  • Western Kentucky: A part of me wants to ride with Jeff Jones and the balance of ODU for my 'darkhorse' pick, but the two head-to-head showdowns between the Monarchs and Hilltoppers this season revealed a clear separation in talent. While ODU's defensive prowess consistently shut down inferior C-USA opponents all year long, they could not contain the explosive WKU scoring attack, spearheaded by Lamonte Bearden, Darius Thompson and  Taveion Hollingsworth. The real head-scratcher was how much trouble the Monarchs had slowing down Justin Johnson, especially with their length and physicality at the forward spot in both Trey Porter and Brandan Stith.