8. Charlotte

I consider Coach Mark Price’s first year at Charlotte pretty successful overall. A 9-9 finish in conference play is by definition a mediocre record, but it’s an improvement over the 7-11 finish form the season prior. The 49ers followed up their improved conference record with a win over a very hot Rice team in the CUSA Tournament before falling to the eventual tournament champion MTSU.

The more I’ve had time to study Charlotte’s roster, the more I’m beginning to buy into this team. I had ranked Charlotte ninth in my CUSA Basketball 2016-17 Rankings and Team Previews and I’m starting to lean more towards thinking I’ve underestimated Coach Mark Price’s team.

The 49ers return 4-of-5 of their most frequently used lineups over their final five games. The missing piece is without a doubt the biggest of the group, center Joseph Uchebo. Big Joe was a walking double-double and ranked in the top 10 in total offensive rebounds in the NCAA.

Charlotte’s offense should run through guards Braxton Ogbueze and Andrien White who accounted for 176 3-pointers last season, while both shooting better than 40 percent. Many of those good looks behind the arc were attributed to Uchebo’s offensive rebounding ability.

With the departure of Uchebo, will Charlotte find a serviceable option in the interior? Can Charlotte continue to average more than 78 points per game without their elite offensive rebounder?

9. Rice

If you sleep on Rice, you’re going to get burned. Like the tweet above says, Rice is still young but they are deep. Coach Mike Rhoades loses just one starter in point guard Max Guercy, but the team should regress little with redshirt junior Marcus Jackson returning after sitting out last season due to injury.

Rice’s 12-20 (7-11) record is a bit deceiving due to the Owls losing their last four games of the season after having won four straight. Coach Rhoades team sort of fell apart late, which could be attributed to being one of the youngest teams in the country. His young, talented players are another year older and will be led by the best player in Conference USA, Marcus Evans.

If you follow Conference USA basketball closely, or even casually, you’re likely well aware how talented the sophomore Marcus Evans is. Not only was he the top freshman scorer in the nation last season, he also made the Conference USA all defensive team. He can do it all.

The justified fuss over Evans often overshadows just how great 6-foot-5 junior guard Egor Koulechov and 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Marques Letcher-Ellis were for the Owls last season. Koulechov logged the most minutes on the team, scored more than 500 points, hit 80 3-pointers, and led the team in total rebounds. As a freshman Letcher-Ellis averaged 10.2 points per game while blocking 36 shots and averaging just 21.5 minutes per game.

Will Marcus Jackson be a serviceable replacement point guard? Can Rice finally finish better than .500 in conference play?

10. North Texas

I’m not quite as high on North Texas as other’s in the media are and it has little to do with their roster. In fact, in my opinion, Coach Tony Benford has underutilized the talent he has had the past two seasons.

The Mean Green will be one of the older team’s in the country this season. They are the only Conference USA team that returns all five of their most frequently used starting lineups. Not only should they benefit from roster continuity, in December SMU transfer 6-foot-5 guard Keith Frazier will become eligible. The nearly unanimous opinion is that he’ll be an instant impact player in Conference USA.

With the addition of Frazier, North Texas now has a first six that is as talented as any in Conference USA. Junior forward Jeremy Combs will be making his case for first team All-CUSA, and Rickey Brice Jr. could prove to be the best center in the conference by seasons end. But, like I mentioned with WKU, it doesn’t matter how talented all the pieces are if they don’t fit together.

Will Coach Tony Benford capitalize on one of the most talented North Texas team’s in some time? Can Keith Frazier be the star in this conference many expect him to be?

11. Florida International

I picked FIU last in my preview and apparently the Conference USA voters know something I don’t. Coach Anthony Evans is rolling the dice with a quick fix roster filled with JUCO’s and a graduate transfer. There are no freshman on this team. The only proven returning player on the current roster is senior guard Donte McGill.

I’ll admit it’s possible I could be proven wrong and these guys Coach Evans brings in could prove to be diamonds in the rough. It’s a risky move to say the least. Of the new arrivals, Alabama graduate transfer 6-foot-5 forward Michael Kessens, is the only one with proven Division 1 basketball ability. The Panthers are going to need it.

FIU over the past few seasons has been built around departing center Adrian Diaz. He leaves Miami with many school records and leaves nearly as a big a void as Alex Hamilton and Trey Freeman left with La Tech and ODU. The Panthers also lost forward Daviyon Draper who was the perfect physical bruiser forward counterpart to Diaz.

Can Donte McGill and Michael Kessens carry the load for FIU?

12. Florida Atlantic

As low as I am on FIU, I’m conversely as high on FAU. Coach Michael Curry is rebuilding this program the right way. This off-season he brought in three freshman, two transfers, and three JUCO’s, which will be needed after losing three starters.

It seems a little crazy to be high on a team that lost three starters. Upon closer look at the most frequently used lineup for the Owls over their last five games, you’ll see they used just one player from that group. Yes, FAU went 1-4 during that stretch. But, they pushed UAB to the brink during the last regular season game and whipped UTSA at the CUSA Tournament using the lineup that includes returners Ronald Delph, Jeantal Cylla, Nick Rutherford and Adonis Filer.

If Coach Curry can strike gold with one or two of the JUCO players in addition to solid contribution from Oklahoma transfer Frank Booker, the Owls should improve on their five conference wins last season.

Can the Owls win double-digit games for the first time since 2013-14 after losing three starters? Will center Ronald Delph continue to develop into one of the more dominate interior players in Conference USA like FAU needs him to be?

13. Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles are another program, like FAU, that is moving in the right direction. I can say with confidence Southern Miss will be very competitive in Conference USA as soon as next season having witnessed first hand the toughness Coach Sadler’s team possesses in their loss to UAB last season.

If you’ve followed along through this article up to this point, you’ll see I live to reference the last five most frequently used lineups. The wins and losses don’t tell the whole story of this sampling. In Southern Miss’ case, they will be returning 3-of-5 of this group from last season — Khari Price, Raheem Watts, and Quinton Campbell. This is something Coach Sadler can build off of.

Losing Kourtlin Jackson, their only double-digit scorer, will take some adjustment. I think sophomore guard Cortez Edwards, along with senior guard Khari Price, can supplement what they lose from Jackson.

Coach Sadler will likely start Price, Watts, Campbell and Michael Ramey who are all seniors.

Could the Golden Eagles – behind senior experience – continue to make strides forward?

14. UTSA

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.

Half of the Roadrunner’s roster are either freshman or sophomores. There’s no doubt this will truly be a rebuilding transition year for first year head coach Steve Henson.

Despite losing 3-of-5 of their starters, it’s possible UTSA could improve on their 5-27 record behind seniors JR Harris and Lucas O’Brien.

Will Steve Henson be able to right the ship his first year at the helm? Will an unexpected player lift the team up this season?