(Compare to our preseason preview here)
Notable Storylines from the season:
1. Middle Tennessee Momentum – As an encore to their bracket-shattering upset over March darling Michigan State, the Blue Raiders ripped through the C-USA to the tune of a 17-1 league record while also adding nice non-conference wins over CAA champ UNC-Wilmington on a neutral floor, Vanderbilt in Murfreesboro, and at Ole Miss. Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams was a force the day he became eligible (had 21 and 5 in the season opener), and the team’s triumvirate of Williams, Reggie Upshaw, and Giddy Potts formed a complementary group that was damn near impossible to guard for the rest of the C-USA.
2. UAB Loses Its PG – UAB was thought to be a top contender for the conference crown by both myself and the media (in fact, they were picked first), but suffered a major blow in their season opener as floor general Nick Norton tore his ACL. Deion Lavender did his best to fill in, but an outstanding mid-major frontcourt in Chris Cokley and William Lee was ultimately wasted as the Blazers floundered to a 9-9 finish in conference under new coach Robert Ehsan.
3. Bold…Too Bold – I went out on a thin, precarious limb when I predicted the Marshall Thundering Herd to win the league regular season title, and lo and behold, that limb snapped quickly and I’m lying at the base of the tree like Derek in Stepbrothers. The Herd played even worse defense than last year, adopting the “turnstile” strategy of ushering opponents to the rim (14th-highest percentage of shots taken at the rim, per hoop-math.com) – never a good plan, but especially not when you don’t have much rim protection at all. The offense remained fun – Jon Elmore + shooters is a stat-nerd-friendly equation – but you have to at least try to stop the other team from scoring.
4. Tim Floyd is a Phoenix – UTEP’s coach basically died in the non-conference (the Miners started 1-13 against D1 opponents), to the point that my colleague Matt Cox predicted him midseason as the next coach to be fired, only to rise from the ashes of his flaming hot seat and guide the Miners to a 12-6 league finish. They were also the only team to topple the Blue Raiders juggernaut. This was about as schizophrenic of a season as I’ve ever seen – they were 217 in KenPom to start the year, fell all the way to 319th on January 21st, and finished 207th. What the hell.
The appropriately-hashtagged #AllDayCUSA kicks off in the AM hours on Wednesday, as all games are played at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, and it would be really hard to play two games at the same time at night (think of the chaos!!!!!). It’s the standard 12-team tournament format, meaning league dregs FIU and North Texas won’t be participating. That’s a major bummer to gamblers, as fading both squads was a pretty profitable strategy – the two went a combined 20-28 ATS on the year.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
Middle Tennessee is the clear best team, and most bracketologists (including your esteemed author) believe they’ll still get an at-large bid if they lose in the semis or finals (as long as it’s not to someone horrendous - think 10 or 11 if they win the league, maybe First Four if they don't). That means bubbly squads in the Power 6 and beyond are massive Blue Raider fans this week/weekend, because a two-bid C-USA could mean Iowa or Kansas State is dropped into the NIT basketball testing lab instead of playing in Dayton in the First Four.
Plenty of teams to mention here, but I’ll stick to two (not Marshall – I’m over that team! And this isn’t being played in Huntington). Old Dominion is a stalwart defensive and rebounding team, dragging you into the back alley and forcing you into a brutal physical fight. Their weapon of choice? Bricks, and lots of them. This team can’t shoot from any distance (bottom 50 in the nation in threes, twos, AND free throws), instead relying on the age-old “volleyball on the glass” strategy to thrive on second-chance points (that’s my Twitter handle! Follow me @2ndChancePoints!). Ahmad Caver has been a revelation, though, and the team’s style plays well in a tournament setting when things tend to tighten up. A little deeper in the field, Rice could be a dangerous squad thanks to its terrifying shooting prowess. Their main lineup features four gunners and rangy, rim-running athlete in the middle; Egor “the Mad Russian” Koulechov is a matchup nightmare for opposing four men. They narrowly lost to Middle Tennessee at home in early January, and them or UTEP would present a tough test for MTSU in the semis.
(8) Western Kentucky defeats (9) UTSA
(5) Rice defeats (12) Southern Miss
(7) UAB defeats (10) Charlotte)
(11) Florida Atlantic defeats (6) Marshall
(1) Middle Tennessee defeats (8) Western Kentucky
(5) Rice defeats (4) UTEP
(2) Louisiana Tech defeats (7) UAB
(3) Old Dominion defeats (11) Florida Atlantic
(1) Middle Tennessee defeats (5) Rice
(3) Old Dominion defeats (2) Louisiana Tech
(1) Middle Tennessee defeats (3) Old Dominion
The Blue Raiders just have too many weapons for the rest of the league to keep up with, and Kermit Davis earns another bid to the tournament. This time, though, it won’t shock many people to see them win a first round game (maybe as a 10 seed? Though I think 11 is more likely as Power 6 teams get additional big wins in conference tournaments and the committee continues to dump on mid-majors). I don’t really want to test the committee on whether MTSU will make it if they falter in the tournament – last year’s “F you” to Monmouth is to raw at this point. Go Blue Raiders.