Written By: Dave West (@Godsavetheham)

The first weekend of CUSA Men’s basketball is in the books. Here’s how the conference standings look after the first 9 games:

UTEP 2-0 Wins over Rice and North Texas

Louisiana Tech 1-0 Win over Southern Miss

UAB 1-0 Win over Middle Tennessee State

ODU 1-0 Win over Charlotte

FIU 1-0 Win over FAU

Marshall 1-0 Win over WKU

North Texas 1-1 Win over UTSA and lost to UTEP

UTSA 1-1 Lost to North Texas and win over Rice

MTSU 0-1 Lost to UAB

WKU 0-1 Lost to Marshall

Southern Miss 0-1 Lost to Louisiana Tech

Charlotte 0-1 Lost to ODU

FAU 0-1 Lost to FIU

Rice 0-2 Lost UTEP and UTSA

Blazer Bloggin’ is going to take you through each team and provide some insight on their personnel, out-of-conference play, and projected conference performance. We’ll be referencing Ken Pomeroy’s RPI ratings and statistics for each team.

 

UTEP

Coach: Tim Floyd

Out-of-Conference Record: (8-5)

Best Win: Southern Illinois, RPI: 115

Worst Loss: Norfolk St., RPI: 233

UTEP comes into conference play with one representative on the CUSA Preseason All-Conference Team in 6-4 Senior Guard Earvin Morris. Morris is averaging 12.1 PPG with his best performance coming against Colorado State at the Corpus Christi Coastal Challenge where he tallied 28 points.

The Miners lost arguably their best player and current NBA-DL Reno Bighorn, Vince Hunter. However, they gained an outstanding transfer from Oregon, Dominic Artis. Artis is averaging 12.3 PPG with his best performance coming against UT-Rio Grande where he tallied 21 points and hit 7 three-pointers.

Omega Harris, a 6-3 Sophomore Guard, is leading the Miners with 14.8 PPG through their first 15 games. It’s worth noting UTEP has 11 players averaging more than 10 points per game. The Miners have clearly played deep into their roster but have had trouble finding consistent play down low. Hooper Vint, a 6-11 Senior Center, has been their go-to-guy in the paint. He’s averaging 24.5 minutes per game and 10.5 points per game. Beyond Vint, the Miners have had little contribution from their other interior players. 7-1 Junior Center Matt Willms has only played in two games and Brodricks Jones, a 6’10 Forward, has only played in six.

UTEP, much like most other teams in Conference USA, will rely heavily on their guards and forwards to control the perimeter as well as in the interior. Coach Floyd is as seasoned as they come and will without a doubt put out a tough defensive team despite their size.

Prediction: The Miners will finish in the top half of the league. A regular season title is not likely, but I wouldn’t rule them out to upset someone in Birmingham at the conference tournament as long as they have Floyd as the coach.

 

Louisiana Tech

Coach: Eric Konkol (First Year)

Out-of-Conference Record: (11-2)

Best Win: Ohio State, RPI: 53

Worst Loss: Ole Miss, RPI: 80

It only takes a quick glance at Tech’s schedule to see they have been the most impressive so far in CUSA. Tech comes into the season with back-to-back conference regular season championships and could be in the discussion to win another. Even more impressive, Tech just won their 39th home game in a row at the Thomas Assembly Center. The Arizona Wildcats are the only team in the nation with a longer win streak.

Tech’s win over Ohio State in Columbus has been one of the few bright moments for the conference as a whole in out-of-conference play. Along with that win, Tech defeated UT-Arlington (RPI: 63) who has collected 3 top 100 RPI wins themselves. As impressive as the wins over Ohio State and UT-Arlington have been, the blowout losses against Memphis and Ole Miss on the road are hard to look past. Tech and UAB are the only teams in CUSA to win 3 true road games out-of-conference.

Alex Hamilton and Erik McCree were both named to the CUSA Preseason All-Conference Team. Hamilton was the 4th wheel to Tech’s historic trio that graduated last year — Kyser, Appleby, and Smith. The Bulldog trio broke nearly every record in La Tech basketball history. Fortunately for 1st year Coach Konkol, he was not left with an empty pantry when Mike White left to be Florida’s new head men’s basketball coach. Midway through the season, Alex Hamilton is a near lock for CUSA Play of the Year. Hamilton is averaging 18/6/6 (Points, Rebounds, and Assists). They only other player in the country with those numbers is pre-season All-American Ben Simmons at LSU. Erik McCree is the ultimate counter-part to Hamilton. He is scoring at nearly the same rate (17.3) as Hamilton and is giving Konkol a lot of minutes with 31.1 per game.

Mike White’s token defensive pressure has picked up right where it left off with Coach Konkol’s current team. The Bulldog’s are forcing 9.4 steals per game (11th in the Nation) and 16.79 turnovers per game (17th in the Nation). What Tech lacks in size they make up with their full court pressure and long wing-spanned guards and forwards.

Prediction: Expect the Bulldogs to be in contention for their 3rd straight CUSA Regular Season title in a row and a run to at least the CUSA Tournament semi-finals in Birmingham. However, don’t be shocked if Tech’s amazing home streak is snapped this season. The Bulldog’s host ODU, UTEP, UAB, and MTSU.

 

UAB

Coach: Jerrod Haase

Out of Conference Record: 10-3

Best Win: Georgia St., RPI: 87

Worst Loss: Auburn, RPI: 149

2015 was a season of highs and lows for the Blazers. UAB’s success in the CUSA Tournament and the NCAA Tournament has been written and talked about at length. It was the months prior to March that were much more tumultuous for the young squad. When the Blazers left their home, Bartow Area, the road did not bode them well. A road record of 2-6 with losses at FAU, Rice, and North Texas left Coach Haase knowing little about how his team would perform when leaving Birmingham. Fortunately for the Blazers, they won nine of their CUSA home games. That streak has continued into the 2015-2016 season and is now at 16.

UAB joins La Tech with 2 players on the CUSA Preseason All-Conference Team in Senior Guard Robert Brown and Sophomore Forward William Lee. If the voters were asked to vote again at this point of the season, Sophomore Forward Chris Cokley and Sophomore Guard Nick Norton could easily take their place or join them on the list. Cokley is averaging 15.2 PPG and shooting a scorching 62 percent from the field. It’s worth noting that the reigning CUSA 6th Man of the Year did not become a starter until the sixth game of this season. The Blazers primary ball-handler, Nick Norton, is second in the nation in assist to turnover ratio (5.75) only behind Pitt’s Senior Guard James Robinson (6.09). Overall, the Blazers have eight players averaging more than 15 minutes per game making them the deepest team in the conference.

Prediction: It’s going to be a tall task for CUSA teams to match the Blazers’ size, depth, and experience. UAB’s boasts the 2nd bests scoring defense in CUSA and will field the 10th best shot blocking team in the nation against what will usually be smaller teams. Anything short of a regular season title and a conference tournament title would be a disappointment for Coach Haase’s squad.

 

Old Dominion

Coach: Jeff Jones

Out-of-Conference Record: 7-6

Best Win: Rhode Island, RPI: 64

Worst Loss: William & Mary, RPI: 110

ODU came into the season as the only other team to be picked by analysts and media members to win CUSA along with UAB. The Monarchs have one player on the CUSA Preseason All-Conference Team, Senior Guard Trey Freeman. Freeman is getting off to a great start averaging 16.7 points per game, while playing nearly 100 minutes more than the next Monarch. He’s been asked to do more given the injuries ODU has incurred this year. Guard Ambrose Mosley and Forward Brandan Stith have missed nine and six games respectively. If the Monarchs had the fortune of health as say UAB or La Tech, they most certainly would have performed better in out-of-conference play.

Alongside of star Guard Trey Freeman is fellow Senior Guard Aaron Bacote. The pair often play at the same time but either can effectively run the point position. Bacote is averaging 15.4 points per game and has made a team high 15 three-pointers. With this pair on the court, the Monarchs will be competitive in every CUSA game they play. Only second to La Tech’s current home streak, ODU has won 32 in a row. The Monarchs will put that streak to the test when UAB, MTSU, and UTEP visit the Convocation Center this year.

Prediction: It’s uncertain when the Monarch’s will get back Mosley and Stitch. With their lack of depth and performance thus far, it’s hard to see the Monarch’s being able to compete for a regular season or conference tournament title. With that being said, ODU will have a chance in every game they play as long as Trey Freeman is in the lineup.

 

Florida International

Coach: Anthony Evans

Out-of-Conference Record: 6-7

Best Win: Tennessee Martin, RPI: 230

Worst Loss: Stetson, RPI: 301

You’ll be hard pressed to find another team who depends on a player more than FIU does Senior Forward Adrian Diaz. Along with Diaz’s CUSA Preseason All-Conference Team nomination, he’s won the CUSA Player of the week three times already this season. Diaz leads the nation in total blocks (52) and leads CUSA in FG percentage (65.3 percent) and blocked shots per game (3.77). Diaz also has compiled five double-doubles this season which is tied for first in CUSA.

The Panthers are led by their two Senior Forwards, Diaz and Daviyon Draper, along with Junior Guard Donte McGill. All three players are averaging double figures in points and over 30 minutes per game.

Prediction: FIU could finish in the top seven of the conference as long as Diaz can continue his defensive dominance and stay out of foul trouble. Diaz has recorded four or more fouls in seven of the Panther’s first 14 games. A championship run in Birmingham in March isn’t likely, but don’t be surprised if FIU wins a game or two. Last year they beat UTSA on a half court shot to advance to the quarterfinals.

 

Marshall

Coach: Dan D’Antoni

Out-of-Conference Record: 4-9

Best Win: Western Kentucky, RPI: 170

Worst Loss: Ohio, RPI: 145

Most would look at the Herd’s 4-9 record and assume this team is lacking in talent and will finish at the bottom of the conference. Look closely at their schedule and you’ll see the average RPI of their opponents is 89, which is best in CUSA. Marshall started off the season 0-6 but has since won five of their last eight games.

Coach Dan D’Antoni is the older brother of 4-time NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni. The brothers both played collegiate basketball at Marshall in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The future is very bright for the Herd as long as D’Antoni is at the helm of his alma mater.

Marshall has proven to be a powerful offensive basketball team through the first 14 games. The Herd has scored more than 80 points seven times this season, which is second only to La Tech in CUSA. Marshall’s 94 points versus WKU was the most points the Hilltoppers have allowed in conference play since joining CUSA.

The leader of the Herd’s offense is Senior Forward James Kelly who is averaging 17.9 PPG. Kelly went off and scored 38 points (most in CUSA) against Wyoming in Las Vegas in December. The Herd also has CUSA’s leader in three-pointers made (43) and three-pointers per game (3.31) in Junior Guard Austin Loop.

Prediction: Marshall is still trying to find its identity defensively. Coach D’Antoni has implemented his self-termed defense “organized chaos,” which the Herd is still implementing. Marshall could finish in the top seven and maybe even top five if they can continue their offensive success. The Herd has a huge upside and could surprise a lot teams in February and in Birmingham this March.

 

North Texas

Coach: Tony Benford

Out0-of-Conference Record: 5-8

Best Win: Sam Houston St., RPI: 192

Worst Loss: Troy, RPI: 241

After a mediocre out-of-conference performance, the Mean Green looks to get back on track in CUSA play. North Texas is one of four teams who have played two conference games through January 3. A win over UTSA on the road and a loss to UTEP on the road put the Mean Green at 1-1.

North Texas is led offensively by Junior Guard J-Mychal Reese with 14.5 PPG and 4.2 APG. North Texas is second behind UAB in FG percentage at 48.2 percent. Along with Reese, Sophomore Forward Jeremy Combs has been a big contributor offensively. He’s averaging 13.3 PPG and grabbing 9.7 rebounds per game. Combs has recorded three double-doubles through 15 games.

Prediction: The Mean Green will be hard pressed to break out of the bottom four or five teams. The best case scenario would be finishing near .500 and grabbing a win in the first round of the CUSA tournament in Birmingham.

 

UTSA

Coach: Brooks Thompson

Out-of-Conference Record: 2-11

Best Win: Rice, RPI: 275

Worst Loss: Texas-Permian Basin, RPI: NR

Losing to two sub-300 RPI teams and non Division 1 team was not the start Coach Thompson was looking to have. One of the best players in Roadrunner history, Aussie Forward Jeromie Hill, graduated last year and left a void in their offense and interior defense. Hill racked up 819 points in his two seasons in San Antonio.

Fortunately for UTSA, Senior Guard Ryan Bowie has been unstoppable offensively scoring 18.4 PPG through the first 15 games. Bowie has recorded a CUSA leading seven double-digit games. He’s hit more than four three-pointers three times this season. UTSA’s next game at UAB will give Bowie an opportunity to score more than 20 points for the fourth game in a row.

Prediction: It’s hard to imagine UTSA finishing anywhere other than near the bottom two or three teams in CUSA. They lack size, experience, and frankly, coaching. Brooks Thompson will likely be out after this season if the Roadrunners continue their current losing trend.

 

Middle Tennessee State

Coach: Kermit Davis

Out-of-Conference Record: 8-4

Best Win: Belmont, RPI: 105

Worst Loss: Murray St., RPI: 197

The Blue Raiders are led by seasoned head coach Kermit Davis who has been at the helm since 2002. Davis recorded his 250th win as the MTSU head coach during the CUSA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Birmingham, Ala. last March.Coach Davis has the third most career wins (396) out of the active CUSA coaches, trailing only Old Dominion’s Jeff Jones (410) and UTEP’s Tim Floyd (440). In the late 1980’s, Davis became a head coach for the first time at Idaho University when then head coach Tim Floyd left for New Orleans.

MTSU returns one of the more experienced teams from last year’s CUSA Men’s Championship finals run. The Raiders return six of the 10 top minutes per game (MPG) players from a year ago. The Raider’s placed one player on the CUSA Preseason All-Conference Team in Junior Forward Reggie Upshaw. At 6-foot, 7-inches Upshaw is leading the team in rebounds (8.2.), double-doubles (4), and is second in PPG (14.4). His stellar rebounding abilities can be attributed to his skill in leaping that won him the Tennessee State High School high jump state title his senior year.

The Blue Raiders were one of the most balanced offensive teams a year ago. Not a single player on their 15 man roster was averaging double figures in points. This year, MTSU has three players averaging in double figures led by Sophomore Guard Giddy Potts (14.8). Through January 6, Potts is still the leading scorer for the Blue Raiders even after missing the last four games due to an academic suspension. It’s not certain when Potts will return, but it is clear MTSU’s success in conference play will hinge on his eligibility.

Prediction: If Potts becomes eligible in January, The Raider’s could be a dark horse to compete for a regular season and a conference tournament title.

 

Western Kentucky

Coach: Ray Harper

Out-of-Conference Record: 8-5

Best Win: Stony Brook, RPI: 64

Worst Loss: Drake, RPI: 212

The Hilltoppers are in then their sescond season as a CUSA Men’s Basketball member after finish 12-6 in their inaugural season. The Hilltoppers dropped their quarterfinal matchup at the CUSA Basketball Tournament to host UAB by one point, 53-52. Coach Harper will be going through a transition this year after six of the nine players playing the most MPG for the Hilltoppers are no longer with the team due to graduation or suspension. Despite their massive turnover, WKU is still third in scoring in CUSA and second in Total Blocks and BPG.

Offensively, the Hilltoppers boast a conference best 75.6 percent two-point field goal percentage. Justin Johnson is 13th in the nation in FG percentage (64.7) and is joined in the top 15 with FIU’s Adrian Diaz (65.3) and UAB’s Chris Cokley (64.1). Johnson and Diaz also lead CUSA in double-doubles with five each.

Prediction: The Hilltoppers still have enough talent and good coaching to keep them in the top half of the conference. With their ability to block shots and shoot from a high percentage, they could even break in to the top five.

 

Southern Miss

Coach: Doc Sadler

Out-of-Conference Record: 3-8

Best Win: North Dakota St., RPI: 144

Worst Loss: William Carey, RPI: NR

The Southern Miss Golden Eagle’s are in their second year of their self imposed post-season ban. Coach Sadler’s roster is depleted and it may take years before the Golden Eagle’s recover from the penalties incurred during former Coach Donnie Tyndall.

Few positives can be taken from Southern Miss’ first 12 games. The Golden Eagles lost to NAIA William Carey in November and only has two Division 1 wins. The loss to William Carey is the first time a CUSA team has lost to an NAIA team.

One of the few bright spots for The Golden Eagles this season came on December 6 when they defeated a top 100 RPI team North Dakota St. at home. Southern Miss was able to win by controlling the boards and shooting 50 percent from the field.

Prediction: It’s likely The Golden Eagle’s will only win one or two conference games this year. As stated before, Southern Miss is serving a post-season ban and will not be able to participate in the CUSA Championship in Birmingham this March.

 

Charlotte

Coach: Mark Price

Out-of-Conference Record: 3-9

Best Win: Furman, RPI: 230

Worst Loss: Campbell, RPI: 286

Charlotte is second only to Marshall in terms of their out-of-conference strength of schedule. The Niners took their lumps early losing to Michigan by 55 in the Battle 4 Atlantis. In addition to Michigan, the Niners have faced Syracuse, Georgetown, Miami, and Washington. Despite their record, Charlotte has shown some signs of improvement most recently in a loss to Georgetown by three points.

First year Niners coach Mark Price is a familiar name to followers of the NBA. Price was a 4-time all-star during his 12 year career. Coach Price is the predecessor to Alan Major who had the Niners in position to be successful both of their first two seasons joining CUSA but could not get above .500 in conference play.

Offensively, Charlotte’s top two scores, Andrien White (11.3 PPG) and Braxton Ogbueze (11.2), are both shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. Pitt transfer Senior Center Joseph Uchebo is also coming along nicely with 9.5. PPG and 8.8 RPG.

Prediction:  Four or five wins for the Niners would be a pretty decent first year for Mark Price. If Uchebo continues to get comfortable in Coach Price’s scheme, Charlotte could potentially upset one of the top tier CUSA teams and possibly even win a game in Birmingham in March.

 

Florida Atlantic

Coach: Michael Curry

Out-of -onference Record: 2-11

Best Win: Miami OH, RPI: 230

Worst Loss: Warner, RPI: NR

Coming off a 9-20 finish last year, FAU Head Coach Michael Curry was hoping to get the 15-16 season off to a good start. Unfortunately, the Owls have only gotten worse. FAU joins Southern Miss and UTSA as teams to lose to non Division 1 schools this season.

The Owl’s leading scorer and rebounder, 6-foot, 9-inch Center C.J. Turman, was dismissed from the team in late December. In his absence, FAU will be severely undersized with no player listed on their roster over 6-foot, 9-inces.

Prediction: The Owls won nine games last season and will struggle to match that this year, especially with the dismissal of Turman.

 

Rice

Coach: Mike Rhoades

Out-of-Conference Record: 5-8

Best Win: New Mexico, RPI: 103

Worst Loss: UTSA, RPI: 336

The Owls are led this year by one of the nation’s most prolific scoring duos. Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov have combined for 565 points through 15 games. The pair have accounted for 48 percent of the field goal attempts by Rice this season. Evans is first in CUSA with 19.5 PPG and Koulechov is third with 8.1.

Rice’s signature win in out-of-conference play came over New Mexico on the road when one of the Lobos called a time out they did not have in the final seconds of regulation. The Owls went on to hit their technical foul free throws and won the game.

Prediction: With a scoring duo like Rice has, the Owls have a chance at winning any game they play in CUSA.  Rice came away with a win in Birmingham at the CUSA Championship last year and should be able to match that or, possibly go even further come March.

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