- Matt Cox
(check out the Conference USA preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Ahmad Caver, Sr., Old Dominion
Coach of the Year: Dusty May, Florida Atlantic
Newcomer of the Year: Charles Bassey, Fr., Western Kentucky
Freshman of the Year: Charles Bassey, Fr., Western Kentucky
1. Equilibrium Ensues
For those that read our Missouri Valley Conference preview, this will sound like a regurgitated storyline paraphrased only slightly differently. For the exception of the conference champion, Old Dominion, and C-USA’s two doormats, UTEP and Charlotte, only three games separated the other eight teams in the final standings. Southern Miss, Western Kentucky, UTSA and Marshall finished in a 4-way tie for second, while North Texas, FAU, Rice and Middle Tennessee each checked in at 8-10 in a 4-way tie of their own for 9th place.
It was a truly a weird year for the C-USA. Preseason favorites underachieved while once thought to be bottom-feeders wildly exceeded expectations, causing a massive logjam in the middle of the standings. This convergence around the mean, combined with a neutral site location for the conference tournament in Frisco, sets the stage for what should be a wild and unpredictable weekend in the Lone Star state.
2. The Beach Boys
Both of the Conference USA Florida-based programs welcomed a new sideline director to the helm this summer. Former VCU assistant Jeremy Ballard took his talents to South Beach to replace Anthony Evans at FIU, while Dusty May took the reins from Michael Curry at FAU just up the road in Boca Raton.
Both Ballard and May rolled up their sleeves and got to work right away on the necessary roster and stylistic reconfigurations. Ballard opted to follow Steve Henson’s blueprint at UTSA by dropping a cinder block on the gas pedal – the Panthers clocked in with the nation’s fastest tempo, evidenced by the lowest average offensive possession length in the entire country at a tick over 14 seconds APL. Turns out taking the restrictor plates off of one the quickest backcourts in the league was the right move, as senior Brian Beard set the table for FIU’s blistering-fast, non-stop transition attack. The high-octane offense translated into a 4-game improvement in the win column, marking the Panthers first finish above .500 in C-USA play since Richard Pitino’s cup of coffee in 2012-13.
Dusty May engineered an equally impressive turnaround with his revitalization of the Owls program, who also notched their highest conference win total since 2013. FAU’s 8-10 record doesn’t stand out as a commendable achievement on the surface, but an injury epidemic kept FAU from ascending into the upper echelon of the C-USA standings. Despite losing an All-Conference caliber wing in Jaylin Ingram in late December and freshman standout Jaylen Sebree just two weeks later, May kept the Owls afloat for the final two months of the season.
3. Keeping up with the ‘Jones’
As the official C-USA prognosticator for the second year in a row, I wrestled with an internal conundrum on where to slot Old Dominion when attempting to nail down my preliminary rankings this summer. On one hand, the Monarchs were waving goodbye to two paint pillars in Trey Porter and Brandan Stith, which figured to be big blows to ODU’s elite interior defense. On the other hand, this was still, well, Old Dominion, a program with an unprecedented level institutional success under the direction of head coach Jeff Jones, who’s shown the ability to ‘plug-and-play’ whoever, wherever, without suffering any drop-off in production.
If only I had listened to the second of those inner voices – in the preseason preview, I pegged ODU to finish in fourth place, citing a concern with the fragile interior rim protectors, none of whom were proven commodities yet. To no one’s surprise, Jones pushed all the right buttons with the lineup rotations, seamlessly interchanging his two twin towers in Elbert Robinson and Dajour Dickens at the 5 to effectively manage their minutes. Jones also benefitted from the rapid maturation of a promising trio of wings – Xavier Green, Aaron Carver and Jason Wade – who will soon be taking over the baton from the Monarchs’ senior leaders Ahmad Caver and BJ Stith.
One of the biggest gimmicks of championship week is the ‘Frisco Disco’, a fitting nickname for the circus the C-USA tournament has become. This will be the second year in a row the league will host its championship at a makeshift venue with side-by-side courts, a cheesy arrangement that looks more like an AAU tournament set-up than a reputable conference tournament gymnasium.
The 12-team format appropriately dispatches UTEP and Charlotte from the field and rewards the top-4 seeds with an opening round bye.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
While ODU won the league outright, one could argue Southern Miss was the best team in the conference over the final six weeks of the season. USM lost just twice during that span, one of which was on the road against an ultra-talented Western Kentucky squad. The Golden Eagles have mastered Doc Sadler’s 4-guard lineup, fueled by an explosive backcourt tandem of Tyree Griffin and Cortez Edwards. Western Kentucky should not be counted out either and the Tops round out the last of the frontrunner triumvirate. All three compiled respectable wins in the non-conference, which should earn any of these three favorites a 14-seed when the bracket is revealed next Sunday.
Dark Horse Team
While taking the team with the third best odds to win may not qualify as a ‘dark horse’, but the Hilltoppers at +260 to cut down the nets might be the best value bet of the tournament. For context, Southern Miss (+200) and Old Dominion (+295) have nearly identical odds, but the Hilltoppers’ are a prime candidate to flip the switch in postseason play. The roster is oozing with talent and an underwhelming regular season performance could’ve been in large part due to the late reintegration of point guard Lamonte Bearden. Since Bearden has been reinserted to the starting lineup, Western Kentucky is 7-3 with one of those defeats coming against a white-hot UTSA team in overtime and the other a narrow 4-point loss at Old Dominion. Granted, the Tops have not improved at the rate I would’ve anticipated, but the beauty of the conference tournaments is that it presents a clean slate and fresh start – the perfect canvas for teams who have underachieved for much of the regular season.
(8) Louisiana Tech defeats (9) Florida Atlantic
(5) UAB defeats (12) Middle Tennessee
(10) North Texas defeats (7) FIU
(6) Marshall defeats (11) Rice
(1) Old Dominion defeats (8) Louisiana Tech
(5) UAB defeats (4) UTSA
(2) Western Kentucky defeats (10) North Texas
(6) Marshall defeats (3) Southern Miss
(1) Old Dominion defeats (5) UAB
(2) Western Kentucky defeats (6) Marshall
(2) Western Kentucky defeats (1) Old Dominion