With a little over a month until the start of the 2016-17 college basketball season, The Daily Dragon previews and ranks all 14 Conference USA schools.

Conference USA had one of it’s worst seasons as a collective whole last year. The combined record of 225-237 was the fewest wins since the 2011-12 season when there were only 12 teams in the conference.

If you read our Ranking The Top 15 CUSA Hoops Non-Conference Games, article we detailed why we felt the conference would improve over the course of the next two seasons.

14. Florida International

2015-16 Record ¦ 7-11 / 13-19

Departures ¦ Adrian Diaz, Daviyon Draper, Tashawn Desir, Ray Rodriguez (Transfer), Nate Brown Bull (?)

Key Returners ¦ Donte McGill

New Additions ¦ Michael Kessens (Grad Transfer/Alabama), Eric Lockett (CC/George Mason), Richard Bivens (CC), Ronald Whitaker (CC), Jay Harvey (CC)

It’s never a good sign when you’re unable to bring in a single freshman. The way Anthony Evans assembled this team makes me think he knows he has to win now, and they’ll worry about building for the future next off-season.

With Adrian Diaz graduating, Evans has brought in a bevy of big men to fill his void. Harvey, Bivens, and Kessens are all 6-foot-9. They’ll be joining returning sophomore 6-foot-9 Hassan Hussein who played just two games last season before breaking his foot.

The Panthers have some size, which has been a similar characteristic of all of Evans’ FIU teams. My biggest concern is once again, they lack a consistent offensive perimeter threat. The Panthers made just 181 3-point shots last season, which ranked next to last in Conference USA.

I struggled ranking FIU last with Kessens, who should be great for them coming in, but felt their lack of returning players and just one proven back court player points to a tough season for the Panthers.

13. UTSA

2015-16 Record ¦ 3-15 / 5-27

Departures ¦ George Matthews, Ryan Bowie, Omer Aksu (Transfer), Garrett Thibodeaux (Transfer), Phillip Jones (Transfer), Christian Wilson (Suspended)

Key Returners ¦ J.R. Harris, Gino Littles, Lucas O’Brien

New Additions ¦ Giovanni De Nicolao, George Wilborn III, Mitar Stanojevic, Byron Frohnen, Bola Alade (Transfer/Oklahoma)

There are so many unknowns for UTSA going into this season. One of few personnel positives they could bring into the season was junior point guard Christian Wilson. Unfortunately, Wilson has been suspended and will not suit up for the Roadrunners this season.

My best guess is Gino Littles will take on the point guard duties, which is not a terrible scenario for UTSA. Gino averaged a little over 31 minutes last season, while dishing out 3.3 assists per game. He’s no Christian Wilson, but he’ll be serviceable.

What got the Roadrunners out of the cellar for me was the continuity they’ll bring in the post. Lucas O’Brien has the skill set to be one of the better post players in Conference USA. At 6-foot-10 O’Brien showed last season he can be a threat from behind the arc hitting 14 3-pointers, which was the same as Christian Wilson. I’m hoping the new staff worked on his frame and confidence over the summer, because improvement in those areas could take his game to another level.

I think UTSA hit a home run with former Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson. He’s fiery, energetic, and most importantly, a fresh face for the program, which was needed. I really love his hire of Mike Peck who has a ton of experience coaching in the NBA D-League focusing primarily on guard development.

If Peck and Henson can get consistent guard play from Little and J.R. Harris, I wouldn’t be shocked to see UTSA climb a spot or two higher than 13th.

In addition to Little and Harris, keep an eye Bola Alade too. Alade managed to find the floor a bit in the NCAA tournament for Oklahoma, which has to be worth something.

12. Southern Miss

2015-16 Record ¦ 5-13 / 8-21

Departures ¦ Kourtlin Jackson, Michael O’Donnell, Jamie Chapman, Keljin Blevins (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Khari Price, Eddie Davis III, Raheem Watts, Quinton Campbell

New Additions ¦ Josh Conley, Clay Weatherspoon, D’Angelo Richardson (CC), Bilal Abdur-Rahim (CC), Anfernee Hampton (CC), Dominic Magee (Transfer/Grand Canyon), Tyree Griffin (Transfer/Oklahoma St)

Things are finally looking up for Southern Miss following two years of sanctions. Doc Sadler will be returning four-out-of-five players from his most frequently used starting lineup from last season, and only lost one player to the transfer market. Southern Miss desperately needed some continuity, and they finally have some.

There’s no doubt the Golden Eagles will miss departing Kourtlin Jackson who many will agree was a grown man playing in a boys conference last season. Jackson dropped 40 points at Marshall in an overtime loss in his final curtain call for Southern Miss.

Sadler and staff will look to senior Khari Price who logged 859 minutes last season, which was 80 more than the next most on the team. He dished out 4.5 assists per game and hit 40 3-pointers.

Aside from the four key returners listed above, there’s a bit of mystery to what the Golden Eagles will look like. I trust Doc Sadler as a talent evaluator, and I think he’ll strike gold with one of these community college players.

11. North Texas

2015-16 Record ¦ 7-11 / 12-20

Departures ¦ Eric Katenda, Carrington Ward (Grad Transfer), Chris Campbell, Todd Eaglin, DeAndre Harris (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Jeremy Combs, J-Mychal Reese, Deckie Johnson, Rickey Brice Jr.

New Arrivals ¦ A.J. Lawson, Ryan Woolridge, Keith Frazier (Transfer/SMU), Bryce Jackson (Transfer/New Orleans), Derall Green (Transfer/Incarnate Word), Shane Temara (CC)

At one point in my drafts I had North Texas as high as sixth due to the talent they have returning. My issue with the Mean Green is Benford’s inability to get consist play from his teams. North Texas was an abysmal 1-12 on the road last season, while performing well at home beating Louisiana Tech, Charlotte, and FIU.

Jeremy Combs could easily end up a first team All-CUSA player. But, there are a ton of moving pieces with this team and I’m not overly optimistic that Benford can make them work together. I’ll be thrilled to be proven wrong because the Mean Green faithful deserve a consistent winner.

With the departure of Eric Katenda, their post anchor, it will be intriguing to see if Rickey Brice Jr. will continue to develop into a dominant center in this conference like many expect him to be. In just 395 minutes last season, Brice Jr. blocked 36 shots and was fourth in team rebounds. Towards the end of last seen, the big man worked himself into the starting lineup, and I expect him to establish himself there this year.

The Mean Green will gain an instant impact player come December when former SMU guard Keith Frazier becomes eligible. The former McDonald’s All-American along side Combs, Reese, Brice Jr., and Johnson give Coach Benford one of the most formidable lineups in Conference USA if they can gel. North Texas might have as high an upside as any team in Conference USA.

10. Florida Atlantic

2015-16 Record ¦ 5-13 / 8-25

Departures ¦ Marquan Botley (Transfer), Soloman Poole, Jackson Trapp, Javier Lacunza, Matthew Reed (Medical)

Key Returners ¦ Ronald Delph, Jeantal Cylla, Adonis Filer, Nick Rutherford

New Arrivals ¦ Frank Booker (Transfer/Oklahoma), Jailyn Ingram, Devorious Brown, Jordan Phillips, Marcus Neely (Trasnfer/UNC-Asheville), Gerdarius Troutman (JC), William Pfister (JC), William Gibbons (JC)

Coach Michael Curry must have been pretty busy in the offseason. He’s brought in three freshman, two transfers, and three JUCOs.

Don’t let the influx of new players fool you, the owls return a solid nucleus that should propel them to what I believe will be one of their best seasons in some time. With Rutherford at point guard and Delph at center, two of the most important positions are covered. I expect Filer and Cylla to also start leaving Coach Curry with just one starting position to fill.

Filling the final starter spot in my opinion will be Frank Booker’s to win, but with so many new guys it’s anyone’s guess. Big man, 6-foot-10 Will Pfister garnered some starter minutes during the Owls preseason Bahamas tour, so we could see Coach Curry go with a two bigs some this season.

If FAU can find some roster stability for an entire season, for once I really like their chances to take a major step forward.

9. Charlotte

2015-16 Record ¦ 9-9 / 14-19

Departures ¦ Joseph Uchebo, Cameron Pappas, Mitch Warner, Bernard Sullivan, Gavin Wilson, Ridell Camidge (Transfer), Curran Scott (Transfer), Cameron Blakley (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Braxton Ogbueze, Andrien White, Jon Davis

New Arrivals ¦ Najee Garvin, Quentin Jackson, Ryan Murphy, Luke Sasser, Bo Blight, JC Washington (CC), Corey Bias (?), Austin Ajukwa (Transfer/Clemson), Hudson Price (TCU/Transfer)

It’s out with the old and in with the new for Charlotte this season. We’ll see a lot of new faces when glancing across the 49ers bench this year. Fortunately for Coach Price, his trio of highly skilled guards will be returning.

Ogbueze, White, and Davis might be the best group of guards in Conference USA. The three accounted for 206 3-pointers and all averaged double-digits in points last season.

As strong as the 49ers are at the guard position, they’re equally as weak at the others. After 6-foot-4 forward Anthony Vanhook, the drop off is significant. However, I will mention that 7-foot Benas Griciunas reportedly had a solid showing during Charlotte’s preseason tour in Canada. Conference USA is one of those conferences where you can win fairly regularly with smaller lineups, so I’m not counting them out.

At some point in the season – and I expect we’ll see it early – freshman Quentin Jackson will make his presence known on the team. The heralded freshman was ranked the 23rd best shooting guard in the country by ESPN coming out of high school last season. There’s little doubt Mark Price has another star guard on his hands, and he is the perfect coach to develop him.

Another player to watch for is Clemson transfer Austin Ajukwa who will be eligible in January.

8. Old Dominion

2015-16 Record ¦ 12-6 / 25-13

Departures ¦ Trey Freeman, Aaron Bacote, Martin Shaw, Nik Biberaj, Payton Pervier, Austin Colbert (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Brandan Stith, Zoran Talley, Denzell Taylor

New Arrivals ¦ Xavier Green, Travis Fields, Khary Mauras, B.J. Stith (Transfer/Virginia), Randy Haynes (JC), Alassane Kah (JC), Keith Pinckney (?)

Monarch fans are going to hate me, but here me out. ODU has a lot of great players on this team. The problem is one of their greatest players of all time just graduated. He may leave the largest void in any team in the entire country.

ODU’s reliance on Trey Freeman was staggering. He played the fourth most minutes in all of college basketball, he ranked first in total field goals made with 323, and ranked first in percentage of team shots taken. He was the offense.

The best defense in Conference USA will once again be ODU, and there’s no one who is going to argue that. The Monarchs have a wealth of scrappy forwards that make life miserable for opposing teams. They all rebound well and possess the ability to score in the paint at will. Unfortunately, that’s about all they have to hang their hat on offensively.

Once again the Monarchs have no perimeter threat. The current ODU roster has made 61 3-point shots. Total. I just don’t see where their offense is going to come from when they face Conference USA teams that can match their size in the post.

As far as the newcomers go, I was anticipating incoming freshman Xavier Green could have a great year for ODU. However, the word is he will be red shirted.

Coach Jeff Jones will once again rely on his stifling defense, but I’m afraid the Monarchs are going to take a step back this season.

7. UTEP

2015-16 Record ¦ 10-8 / 19-14

Departures ¦ Hooper Vint, Tevin Caldwell, Earvin Morris, Victor Mbachu, Broderick Jones (Transfer), Lee Moore (Pro), Tedric Johnson (?), Christian Romine (Transfer)

Key Returners¦ Dominic Artis, Omega Harris, Terry Winn, Matt Willms

New Arrivals ¦ Chris Barnes, Deon Barrett, Tim Cameron, Kelvin Jones, Adrian Moore, Hudson Urbanus, Isiah Osborne (Canada)

Don’t think I ranked the Miners seventh because they are just a middle of the pack team. This is far from the case. Tim Floyd’s squad has just about everything you could want. An experienced senior point guard in Dominic Artis, an experienced big man in 7-foot-1 Matt Willms, and potential all-conference players in Omega Harris and Terry Winn.

So why rank them seventh?

Conference depth.

For the first time in a long time, Conference USA basketball has seven teams who have a clear answer for every positional need. For me, the Miners are ranked last of this group because of their inability to put a complete season together the past few years.

UTEP’s program issues have been a combination of players who probably shouldn’t have left early to test the pro waters, and what appears to be angst from supporters in reference to the current coaching staff.

Program problems aside, Let’s look at what makes UTEP a top half of the conference team.

With the very manageable non-conference schedule UTEP has, there is no reason they shouldn’t have double-digit wins going into conference play.

With the roster UTEP returns, four-out-of-five starting positions should be set in stone — Willms, Artis, Harris, and Winn.

The question mark for me will be the Miner’s depth. Adding six freshman to the roster puts a lot of pressure on the upper classman who do have some experience. Touchet and Flaggert will likely be the first off the bench, and of the freshman, keep an eye on Adrian Moore as I believe he is going to be special for the Miners.

6. Rice

2015-16 Record ¦ 7-11 / 12-20

Departures ¦ Max Guercy, Oliver Xu (?), Amir Smith (Transfer), Nate Pollard (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov, Marquez Letcher-Ellis, Andrew Drone, Marcus Jackson

New Arrivals ¦ Ako Adams, Corey Douglas, Tim Harrison, Robert Martin, Austin Meyer, Addison Owen, Grant Youngkin

I’ve been looking forward to writing this Rice preview for some time. Coach Mike Rhoades has one of the best starting fives in all of Conference USA and I never thought I’d write that about a Rice basketball team.

What makes Rice great centers around my preseason Conference USA Player Of The Year pick in Marcus Evans. I can’t imagine the list of poachers who went after him this summer hoping he’d transfer. He is one of the best players in the country, and he is going to be Mike Rhoades ticket to Rice’s first winning season since 2011-12.

It’s pretty bizarre that there are two schools in Conference USA who have a duo of players who led the country in percentage of team points last season. ODU’s Trey Freeman and Aaron Bacote were first, while Rice’s Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov were second. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Koulechov is really really good, and is not to be overlooked.

Rice will sorely miss Max Guercy’s point guard experience and 5.7 assists per game, but Coach Rhoades has a plug-and-play replacement in senior Marcus Jackson who missed all of last season due to injury. During his junior season in 2014-15 he averaged 14.5 points per game and 2.7 assists. It’s likely Evans and Jackson will split the point guard duty for the Owls, which will make them all the more difficult to prepare for.

I expect Coach Rhoades to look to sophomore forward Letcher-Ellis to improve tremendously following a solid freshman season averaging more than 10 points and 5 rebounds per game. I just hope they were able to add a little more to his very thin frame in the offseason.

5. Marshall

2015-16 Record ¦ 12-6 / 17-16

Departures ¦ James Kelly, Justin Edmonds, Brett Bowling (Transfer), Aleksandar Dozic (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Stevie Browning, Ryan Taylor, Jon Elmore, Austin Loop, C.J. Burks

New Arrivals ¦ Jannson Williams, Ky’re Allison, Phil Bledsoe, Ot Elmore (Transfer/UTRGV), Rondale Watson (Transfer/Wake Forest)

GET READY FOR SMALL BALL!!!

I’m so intrigued by this Marshall team. If I had to guess the starting five today, I’d say the five listed as key returners would be it. That would mean Dan “YOLO” D’Antoni would have 6-foot-5 Ryan Taylor as his biggest player on the court.

SIGN ME UP.

Not only do I think this a great idea, but I think some of the Conference USA team scoring records are in serious jeopardy of being broken this season.

Marshall averaged a bananas 86 points per game last year, and it’s not out of the question for them to average more than 90 this season. The Herd played at the third quickest tempo in the country last season, and I think they’ll kick it into another gear this year and be the fastest paced team in the NCAA.

Obviously the biggest void to fill is replacing James Kelly. He was one of the best players in Conference USA last season, as well as all of college basketball. Given that Marshall will be returning the next six leaders in minutes per game behind Kelly, I’m hopeful that coach D’Antoni won’t let the team take a step back.

4. Middle Tennessee State

2015-16 Record ¦ 13-5 / 25-10

Departures ¦ Darnell Harris, Perrin Buford, Jaqawn Raymond, Joshua Phillips (Transfer), Jacob Ivory (Medical)

Key Returners ¦ Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw

New Arrivals ¦ Tyrik Dixon, Davion Thomas, JaCorey Williams (Transfer/Arkansas), Brandon Walters (JC)

If you were unfamiliar with the current Blue Raider roster you’d think after looking it over they’d more than likely take a step back this season. Losing three starters will no doubt be a challenge for coach Kermit Davis, but he’s the longest tenured coach in Conference USA and is the man who can make it work.

Potts and Upshaw should both be all-conference players this season. Upshaw could very well end up averaging a double-double and Potts will once again be one of the most deadly 3-point shooters in the country.

Junior Quavius Copeland, along with Potts, will have little trouble filling the point guard duties left open by Jaqawn Raymond. In fact, in certain situations I think we’ll see the offense going through Upshaw running the point forward position.

My biggest concern for Middle is replacing two fantastic forwards in Buford and Harris. The combination of Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams and newly eligible 6-foot-10, 265 pound Brandon Walters should prove to be solid replacements once given time to gel. However, what made Buford and Harris so special was their threat in the post as well as behind the arc. Although neither has the size Walters does.

The Blue Raiders have a very manageable schedule through the first seven games highlighted by a home game against Murray State. I’m predicting a starting five of Potts, Upshaw, Williams, Walters, and Simpson who I believe could be a Conference USA title contending roster if all the pieces fit.

3. Louisiana Tech

2015-16 Record  ¦ 12-6 / 23-10

Departures ¦ Alex Hamilton, Leantwan Luckett, Dayon Griffin (Transfer), Merrill Holden (Transfer), Branden Sheppard (Transfer)

Key Returners ¦ Erik McCree, Jacobi Boykins, Derric Jean

New Arrivals ¦ DaQuan Bracey, Jalen Harris, JaColby Pemberton, Oliver Powell, Omar Sherman (JC/Miami)

On paper La Tech has no business being ranked as high as third. That’s on paper though. The Bulldogs will be near the top for me every season because they’ve earned that right. They are going to win seven or eight Conference USA home games every season, which will consistently keep them in the top half of the conference. The Bulldogs simply do not lose in Ruston having won 45-of-7 over the last three seasons.

Per Kenpom.com, departing all-timer Alex Hamilton ran the point 92 percent of the time for La Tech. My guess is Coach Eric Konkol will look to Derric Jean, which he usually went to run the offense when Hamilton was out if the game.

Jean is the real deal having earned significant playing time last season as a freshman on a very talented roster. I believe it won’t take too terribly long before he becomes one of Conference USA’s better point guards if Konkol feels he is best for that role.

You can’t preview La Tech without talking about the beast that is Erik McCree. I might go as far to say he is the best offensive post player in Conference USA going into the season. Most think of McCree as a post only player, but he hit 48 3-pointers last season. He is a serious problem for opposing teams to game plan for. I snubbed him from my Conference USA first team, and I’m all but certain I’ll regret it.

Coach Konkol snagged one of the best incoming freshman in the conference in 6-foot-8, 220 pound Oliver Powell. I picked him as my Conference USA freshman of the year due to how thin the front court was looking coming into the season. However, Konkol found a stud in the JUCO market in 6-foot-9, 250 pound and former Miami Hurricane Omar Sherman. Like McCree, he has the ability to pound in the paint as well as hit from behind the arc. Keep an eye on him to make an instant impact on the team.

2. Western Kentucky

2015-16 Record ¦ 8-10 / 18-16

Departures ¦ A bunch of dudes and head coach Ron Harper

Key Returners ¦ Justin Johnson, Ben Lawson

New Arrivals ¦ Tobias Howard, Marty Leahy, Damari Parris, Marko Stajkovski, Willie Carmichael (Transfer/Tennessee), Jabari McGhee (Transfer/Tennessee), Que Johnson (Grad Transfer/Washington St.), Junior Lomomba (Grad Transfer/Providence), Pancake Thomas (Grad Transfer/Hartford), Lamonte Bearden (Transfer/Buffalo)

Rick Stansbury has built a monster over the course of five months. Since arriving in Bowling Green back in March, Stansbury has done nothing short of assembling one of the most talented transfer-heavy teams I’ve ever seen.

I do have to give former coach Ray Harper some credit here because he did have Carmichael and McGhee, two very talented Tennessee transfers, waiting in the wings.

Though having never all played together, the Hilltoppers have experienced pieces at every single position. I’m predicting Que Johnson to immediately be in contention with UAB’s Nick Norton and UTEP’s Dominic Artis as Conference USA’s best point guard. He’s that good.

I’d expect Pancake Thomas, Willie Carmichael, Justin Johnson, and Jabari McGhee to start along side Que Johnson. However, Junior Lomomba very well could start over McGhee. Either way, you have a six deep rotation that’s as good or better than any in Conference USA.

Really the only thing that will hold back WKU from contending for a Conference USA title would be depth. As I mentioned, their first six are outstanding, but there’s a pretty steep drop off after Ben Lawson.

If Coach Stansbury can get this team to play together, watch out.

Watch out Washington on November 25.

Watch out Missouri on December 3.

Watch out Conference USA.

1. UAB

2015-16 Record ¦ 16-2 / 26-7

Departures ¦ Robert Brown

Key Returners ¦ Everyone not named Nate Darling and Javien Williams

New Arrivals ¦ Nate Darling, Javien Williams, Deion Lavender (Southern Illinois)

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