Over the past two seasons Conference USA has seen it’s overall win/loss record worsen. It’s no coincidence that two seasons ago is when the current 14 Conference USA teams played their first full season together.
In 2014-15 Conference USA went 234-222, and in 2015-16 they went 225-237. Continuing to drop in total wins would be potentially more palatable if the strength-of-schedule (SOS) was going up. The unfortunate truth is the SOS has continued to drop since realignment in 2013-14 with 2015-16 being the weakest in the 19 previous Conference USA seasons.
So what’s the problem? Why is the SOS and wins continuing to drop each year?
Among many variables, the most impactful has been coaching. Since 2014, Conference USA has had nine head coaching changes — Rice, UTSA, Southern Miss, FAU, UAB, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Charlotte, and Marshall.
Of the five teams who have not had a change at the top, none have won the regular season title.
It’s worth noting that UAB and Louisiana Tech’s coaches moved on to better positions, while the others were removed. Regardless, coaching changes almost always result in roster instability and ultimately, losses.
I’m here to tell you all that there is good news.
Conference USA should, over the next two seasons, begin to right this sinking ship. I can’t honestly say I’m confident in all the current coaches, but let’s just say things are looking up everywhere but Miami, Denton, and El Paso.
In addition to the influx of better coaches, for whatever reason – luck, magic, what have you – the 2016-17 non-conference schedule is setup with a good amount of winnable marquee games for the top half, and manageable games for the lower half.
So how did Conference USA perform in out-of-conference play last season?
Against marquee/power teams and top 50 teams, Conference USA, as a whole, had three quality wins — UAB’s home win over Stephen F. Austin (Top 50), Louisiana Tech’s road win over Ohio State, and Middle Tennessee’s neutral court win over Auburn.
The wins over Auburn and Ohio State are nice for water cooler talk, but statistically they aren’t with the Tigers finishing #213 and the Buckeyes finishing #80 in Kenpom.com‘s ratings.
As you can see, Conference USA has been pretty dumpy of late in the non-conference. This year the conference has the opportunity to significantly improve it’s reputation and ranking, which was 26th out of 32 last season. I’m hoping for the best, and will highlight 15 games I believe are winnable for the conference.
Top 15 Non-Conference Games
15. Rice at Texas Tech ¦ December 3rd
- Head-to-Head: 24-62, Texas Tech
- 2015-16 Records: Rice 12-20, Texas Tech 19-13
This is Rice’s best team since the Morris Almond days. The Owls are noticeably thin in the interior with Andrew Drone and scrappy forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis, but they make up for it a with a super productive back court. Marcus Evans will be my pick for pre-season Conference USA player of the year, and he’ll have the luxury of playing aside returning senior Marcus Jackson who missed last season due to injury. Evans will also have fellow stat-stuffer Egor Koulechov who finished sixth in scoring last season in the conference. Tech loses their two most productive players in Gotcher and Williams, and will be breaking in former Little Rock coach Chris Beard. I’m flying with the Owls on this one.
14. Marshall at Pittsburgh ¦ December 28th
- Head-to-Head: 0-4, Pittsburgh
- 2015-16 Records: Marshall 17-16, Pittsburgh 21-12
I’m going after teams with first year coaches here at the beginning of the list. Former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings is far from wet behind the ears, but I smell blood in the water. By late December last season Dan D’Antoni finally got the Herd rolling behind senior James Kelly. Kelly is now playing in Europe, and the keys are in the hands of guards Jon Elmore and Stevie Browning. What the pair lack in stature, they make up for in swagger. This confidence is a direct reflection of their seasoned coach. Dan is due for a big win, and why not over an ACC team returning the majority of their best players. Go Herd!
13. Oregon State at Charlotte ¦ December 3rd
- Head-to-Head: 0-1, Oregon State
- 2015-16 Records: Charlotte 14-19, Oregon State 19-13
This was an easy pick for me. When you lose a player named, Gary Payton you’re bound to take a step back the next season. GP2 was the heartbeat and life blood of the Beavers; however, they will be returning the next two most productive players, so the cupboard won’t be empty by any means. The 49ers lose one of the most dominating interior players in the country in Joseph Uchebo, but Mark Price is loaded at the guard position. Ogbueze, White, and Davis can score in bunches, and this game being at home gives me some hope Mark Price can grab his first signature non-conference win.
12. UTEP / Wake Forest, Charleston Classic ¦ November 17th
- Head-to-Head: 1-1
- 2015-16 Record: UTEP 19-14, Wake Forest 11-20
Tim Floyd and Danny Manning. This should be fun. Danny and his Tulsa Hurricane’s beat the Miners the two times the met between 2012-2014. I have no real statistical or match up reason to give you all here, but, I think Tim Floyd is going to go all-in this season and win some important games. Okay, I lied. As far as match-ups go, the Miners will have the more experienced roster, especially at the guard position, and Wake will be without their double-double averaging forward Devin Thomas who is trying to make it in the NBA. Picks up in Chucktown!
11. Western Kentucky at Missouri ¦ December 3rd
- Head-to-Head: 0-0
- 2015-16 Record: WKU 18-16, Missouri 10-21
The Tigers took their lumps last season. They were young (340/351) and it showed. They’ll be hosting one of the oldest and most experienced squads in all of college basketball when the Hilltoppers come to town. Though WKU will just be about a month in with new coach Rick Stansbury, I feel he’ll have his team playing at a very high level despite likely 4-to-5 of his starters being new to the team. The Tops are loaded.
10. Louisiana Tech at South Carolina ¦ November 11th
- Head-to-Head: 0-0
- 2015-16 Record: Louisiana Tech 23-10, South Carolina 25-9
The Bulldogs are one of those programs that I just assume will win a marquee game in non-conference play. Mike White and Eric Konkol haven’t recorded fewer than 23 wins in a season since 2011-12, and they’ve loved matching their high-pressure defense against the big boys. Though I think La Tech has a better shot knocking off Nebraska for their marquee win, I believe a win over top 50 South Carolina is not only possible, but will be better on paper. The Gamecocks will be losing first team All-SEC player Michael Carrera, but will return senior point guard Sindarius Thornwell. Speaking of point guards, the Bulldogs lose an all-timer in Alex Hamilton, but will have senior forward Erik McCree to anchor the squad. McCree will be nipping at Rice’s Evans heels all season in pursuit of Conference USA player of the year.
9. UAB / Saint Mary’s (Vegas) ¦ November 27th
- Head-to-Head: 0-0
- 2015-16 Record: UAB 26-7, Saint Mary’s 29-6
This will be a match-up of two of the most experienced teams in college basketball. Both will be looking to reach the NCAA tournament after reaching the NIT last season.
8. Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee ¦ December 8th
- Head-to-Head: 2-11, Vanderbilt
- 2015-16 Record: Vanderbilt 19-14, Middle Tennessee 25-10
I would not be shocked to see MTSU favored in this game by tip. Both squads will look a little different having lost seniors who have played major rolls in each team’s recent success. I’m not sure how Kermit Davis is going to account for 7-foot-1 Luke Kornet who has an NBA ready inside and out game. We are talking about Kermit Davis though. He’s the best coach in the state. Good luck Bryce Drew.
7. Old Dominion / Louisville, Battle 4 Atlantis ¦ November 23rd
- Head-to-Head: 0-1, Louisville
- 2015-16 Record: Old Dominion 25-13, Louisville 23-8
The Monarchs are due. ODU hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent or any marquee team since defeating #14 VCU and LSU in 2014. Despite losing Trey Freeman who was pretty much their entire offense, I like the way ODU matches up with Louisville. Defense travels, and Jeff Jones always has a defense. Disregard the fact that Louisville will be bigger at nearly every position. The Monarchs have won more than 25 games each of the last two seasons without a player listed over 6-foot-9. If I’m not mistaken, UCF was the last Conference USA team to win a game down in the Bahamas. The Stith brothers are going to change that trend.
6. UAB at Memphis ¦ December 10th
- Head-to-Head: 10-36, Memphis
- 2015-16 Record: UAB 26-7, Memphis 19-15
What more can you say about this game other than “It’s about d*mn time”. Memphis has absolutely owned this series having won the last 15 games in the rivalry. Times have changed though. Tubby Smith is now at the helm and he has a thin, but reasonably talented team to work with highlighted by the Lawson brothers in his first year. UAB is deep, experienced, and would love nothing more than to have a reason to party on Beale Street post game. The Blazers should be favored and have an opportunity to win in Memphis for the first time since 1999.
5. Auburn at UAB ¦ December 3rd
- Head-to-Head: 11-7, UAB
- 2015-16 Record: Auburn 11-20, UAB 26-7
Revenge is a dish best served on a Saturday in December, hours after the SEC football championship game. The Blazers would love nothing more than a little pay-back from their 1-point loss in Auburn last season, while possibly stealing a little spotlight from the teams playing in Atlanta earlier that day. I’ll break down the match-ups later, but trust me when I say this, the Auburn team that will step foot in Bartow Arena this winter will be significantly more talented and deeper than last year’s team.
4. Middle Tennessee at VCU ¦ December 17th
- Head-to-Head: 3-2, Middle Tennessee
- 2015-16 Record: Middle Tennessee 25-10, VCU 25-11
This will be an interesting rematch following last year’s game in Murfreesboro that the Rams won after taking a late lead. The Blue Raiders had a firm hold on Will Wade’s team for the majority of the second half before wilting with four minutes to go. I’m worried about Middle’s ability to contain the beast that is VCU’s Mo Allie-Cox with the departure of Darnell Harris and Perrin Buford. It’s just tough to beat a Kermit Davis team twice. The Blue Raider’s will have the best player on the court in Reggie Upshaw, and that might just be enough for them to walk out of Virginia with a win.
3. Louisiana Tech at California ¦ November 30
- Head-to-Head: 0-0
- 2015-16 Record: Louisiana Tech 23-10, California 23-11
I cannot wait to see Erik McCree in the paint against 6-foot-11 Ivan Rabb and 6-foot-9 Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee. This will be a grown man’s game. I can see it now … Konkol is going to pressure the heck out of whoever Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin is replacing Tyrone Wallace and Jaylen Brown with as the team’s primary ball handler. Remember this article when the Bulldogs beat a likely ranked Cal Bear squad in the early part of the season.
2. UAB at Texas ¦ December 21st
- Head-to-Head: 0-0
- 2015-16 Record: UAB 26-7, Texas 20-13
Shaka Smart hasn’t forgotten the time his VCU team lost to UAB in Birmingham after being up 65-53 with five minutes left in the game. I’m sure he got over it quickly though after that team made a run from the First Four to the Final Four back in 2011. This late December pairing of Texas and UAB should look very similar to an NCAA tournament first round game.
1. UAB / Kansas, CBE Hall of Fame Classic ¦ November 21st
- Head-to-Head: 1-2, Kansas
- 2015-16 Record: UAB 26-7, Kansas 33-5
The Blazers will have the edge in the experience department, and that’s about it. I ranked this game first not because this is a UAB fan site, but because of the opponent. Anytime a Conference USA team can actually say they have a chance on paper to beat Kansas, you have to take notice. The two teams have interesting history that you can read about more in the article below.