The first 20 days of the 2016-17 college basketball season have yielded some highs, lows, and surprises in Conference USA basketball.
I feel like the timing of this article is perfect because Wednesday night had it all.
Middle Tennessee went in to Oxford and built up a 29 point lead on the Rebels in the first half and held on to win 77-62 despite a furious second half Ole Miss rally.
Marshall bounced back from their 41 point trouncing at Ohio St. over the weekend and beat a solid top 100 Ohio team in Huntington 98-88.
FIU’s woes continued as they lost to a mediocre at best Elon squad on the road, 84-81.
The surprise of the night came after most were asleep when La Tech took a really good Cal Bear’s team to overtime before falling 68-59.
If you read my preseason article Ranking The Top 15 CUSA Hoops Non-Conference Games you’ll see that I predicted Conference USA to improve as a whole this season. Twenty days in and the verdict is still out on the prediction’s chances, but alas there is still some hope.
Middle Tennessee’s win over Ole Miss has been the conference’s best win thus far, but all other opportunities have been squandered. UAB has fallen short early in their attempt to adjust post-Nick Norton, and even MTSU has had it’s hick-up against Tennessee State at home.
With all that being said, I still feel like their are many opportunities in the non-conference for Conference USA to strengthen their national perception and ranking among the other 31 this season.
Here are 20 things I’ve observed 20 days in to the season.
- Rice is good. The Owls are 6-1 with three true road wins, which is most in the conference. The three headed monster of Koulechov/Evans/Jackson is all but guaranteed to yield 60 points per game. We’ll see just how good they are Saturday at Texas Tech.
- FIU is bad. The Panthers reeled off a putrid 4-game losing streak that included Stetson, South Alabama, Jacksonville, and Youngstown State. Donte McGill has taken 114 shots, which more than doubles the next most on the team. The emergence of Michael Kessens might be their only saving grace.
- UTSA is no longer terrible. First year coach Steve Henson may not have a lot to wins to show for, but he’s doing all the right things in the rebuild in San Antonio. The Roadrunners are living on the road in the early season and playing competitively. I really like their two freshman Byron Frohnen and Giovanni De Nicalo, and junior forward Jeff Beverly is a stud.
- North Texas is puzzling. Star junior forward Jeremy Combs has missed four straight games, but the Mean Green managed to win three of them in his absence. SMU transfer Keith Frazier is eligible in mid-December and should really elevate the team if Combs is healthy. I have no clue what to expect from the Denton crew moving forward if all the pieces are in place.
- WKU is a work in progress. The starting five for the Tops — Que, Pancake, Johnson, Lomomba, Lawson — are good, but the drop in talent beyond them is troubling. Though I will say, senior forward Anton Waters was really solid in the interior during their Vegas trip. In Conference USA play Stansbury can be successful with this crew, but they’re likely to continue to take their lumps until then. The 19 point drumming at EKU last night was borderline embarrassing.
- Charlotte is a risky bet. The 49ers are going to live and die by the three this season. I expect them to beat some teams they shouldn’t and lose to some they shouldn’t. White, Davis, and Ogbueze have combined for 47 made 3-pointers through six games. Jon Davis is performing like a first team all Conference USA player.
- FAU is for real. Buy stock in the Owls. They have a legit inside and out game and they’re well coached under Michael Curry. Six points separate them from being 6-1. We’ll know a lot more about the Owls in December when the take on Ohio State and Miami, but I won’t be discouraged if they come up short. They are moving in the right direction.
- Marshall is a question mark. Through six games we really don’t know a lot about the Herd. They took care of business the first four games at home then got thrashed at Ohio State by 41. To their credit they recovered well in beating a good Ohio team last night. I’m curious to see how they’ll do as they move into a tough four game mid-major stretch against Eastern Kentucky, Chattanooga, Toledo, and Akron.
- MTSU is the best Conference USA team so far. After sweeping their three games in Nashville over weekend and beating down the Ole Miss Rebels Wednesday night, they’ve cemented themselves as the best team in the conference in the early part of this season.
- UAB is far from dead. The national talking heads have all but deemed the Blazers season to be doomed since the Nick Norton injury. The 3-3 record to start the season hasn’t been ideal, but competitive losses to top 15 teams Kansas and Saint Mary’s are palatable. A win over in-state rival Auburn Saturday and at Memphis the following week would all but wipe away the early season woes.
- Southern Miss deserves a pass. There’s no reason to knock on the Golden Eagles. They’re still recovering from the NCAA violation mess and they’ve yet to play a game with senior Khari Price.
- Old Dominion is scary. I’d be surprised if a Conference USA team breaks 65 against the Monarchs this season. If Caver’s play at the point continues to be steady, watch out. I underestimated how far their defense could take them before the season started. ODU is a legit Conference USA title contender.
- La Tech is flying under the radar. Slowly but surely the Bulldogs are developing into one of the most balanced and versatile teams in the conference. They’re close losses to very good Nebraska, Cal, and South Carolina teams tell me sooner than later they’ll be firing on all cylinders as they break in many new roles.
- UTEP is reeling. Not a lot has gone right for the Miners to start the season. An embarrassing home loss to a feisty Southeastern Louisiana squad combined with Terry Winn leaving the team has the everyone really ticked off in El Paso.
- Jacorey Williams is front runner for Conference USA Player of the Year. The MTSU senior is averaging 21 points per game highlighted by a 31 point night against Toledo. He’s a man.
- Egor Koulechov went off against Incarnate Word. The junior guard/small forward had 35 points, 13 rebounds, and went 6-of-6 from behind the arc on the road Saturday.
- Jon Elmore will flirt with 25 points per game average. He’s currently averaging 21.5 and all signs are pointing towards the Herd relying heavily on him offensively.
- William Lee is on pace to block 100+ shots. The junior forward has 18 through 6 games. Lee blocked 95 shots last season.
- Dominic Artis might average 15/7/7. He’s going to put up some silly numbers this season for UTEP, especially with his supporting cast vanishing one-by-one.
- Conference USA likely will be a one big league again. UAB was the conference’s best shot at an at-large bid, and that’s all but disappeared barring a crazy run. I suppose MTSU still has a shot as well, but either way it’s looking like a long shot once again.