(Photo: HerdZone.com, automated caption is incorrect)

As I’m writing this article on Monday December 26, Conference USA men’s basketball is 82-85 with seven games left before the start of conference play. If you choose the safe bets between now and Friday, Conference USA will most likely be 86-88.

While that may be nearly statistically identical to last season, let me be the first to tell you the conference has improved significantly.

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C-USA standings through December 31, 2015

Take a long look at that warlock — it’s ugly. Conference USA finished non-conference play 82-89 last season with just two wins over Power 5(6) teams. MTSU over Auburn and La Tech over Ohio State.

Conference USA has more than doubled that total this season with five (so far).

  1. Middle Tennessee over Ole Miss
  2. Old Dominion over St. John’s
  3. Florida Atlantic over Ohio State
  4. Middle Tennessee over Vanderbilt
  5. Charlotte over Oregon State

While the wins over power schools has been great for these programs and the conference overall, they aren’t what has exclusively brought the non-conference win total and perception up from last season.

What we’ve seen is the improvement of some of the lower tier teams due to coaching and frankly, better players.

Here’s how each team compares to last season’s non-conference play.

UTSA and FAU both have doubled their win total from two to four and each have a home game left to play.

North Texas didn’t regress, finishing 6-6 again.

Southern Miss finished with three wins again (yuck).

Charlotte improved by three wins.

ODU can improve by a game (eight wins) with a win over William & Mary on Thursday.

Middle Tennessee improved by two wins.

Marshall improved by three wins with a game at Pitt left to play Wednesday.

Rice was the big winner as they improved their win total by five.

La Tech, UAB, UTEP, WKU, and FIU all failed to match or eclipse their win totals from last year by the start of conference play. The good news is three of the five listed will likely approach 10-plus conference wins.

With all that being said, let’s have a look at the players that in my opinion have played their way into the conversation of earning Conference USA post season awards midway through this season.

Player of the Year ¦ Jon Elmore, Marshall

Freshman of the Year ¦ DaQuan Bracey, La Tech

Defensive Player of the Year ¦ William Lee, UAB

Coach of the Year ¦ Michael Curry, FAU

Newcomer of the Year ¦ Michael Kessens, FIU

6th Man of the Year ¦ Marquez Letcher-Ellis, Rice

C-USA First Team

Jon Elmore ¦ Marshall

Leads C-USA in points per game (21.0) and is tied for first in assists (82)

JaCorey Williams ¦ MTSU

Fifth in C-USA in points per game (18.0) and has 4 double-doubles

Egor Koulechov ¦ Rice

Fourth in C-USA in points per game (18.5) and is shooting 60 percent from three (33-of-55)

Eric McCree ¦ La Tech

Seventh in C-USA in points per game (17.8) and has 6 double-doubles

Jon Davis ¦ Charlotte

Second in C-USA in points per game (19.9)

My Preseason Picks: Reggie Upshaw, William Lee, Que Johnson, Chris Cokley, Marcus Evans

C-USA Second Team

Marcus Evans ¦ Rice

Brandan Stith ¦ ODU

Jacobi Boykins ¦ La Tech

Reggie Upshaw ¦ MTSU

Giddy Potts ¦ MTSU

My Preseason Picks: Erik McCree, Jeremy Combs (missed games due to injury), Willie Carmichael (missed games due to suspension), Giddy Potts, Nick Norton (out for season due to injury)

C-USA Third Team

Omega Harris ¦ UTEP

Jeff Beverly ¦ UTSA

Que Johnson ¦ WKU

Chris Cokley ¦ UAB

Stevie Browning ¦ Marshall

My Preseason Picks: Dirk Williams, Braxton Ogbueze, Jon Elmore, Terry Winn (left team), Justin Johnson

C-USA All-Defensive Team

William Lee ¦ UAB

Leads C-USA with 36 blocks

Jacobi Boykins¦ La Tech

Leads C-USA with 27 steals

Dominic Artis ¦ UTEP

Second in C-USA with 26 steals

Joniah White ¦ La Tech

Second in C-USA with 33 blocks

Giddy Potts ¦ MTSU

Third in C-USA with 24 steals

My Preseason Picks: William Lee, Marcus Evans, Brandan Stith, Ronald Delph, Pancake Thomas

C-USA All-Freshman Team

DaQuan Bracey ¦ La Tech

Byron Frohnen ¦ UTSA

AJ Lawson ¦ North Texas

Jailyn Ingram ¦ FAU

Javien Williams ¦ UAB

My Preseason Picks: Javien Williams, Oliver Powell, Xavier Green (redshirt), Adrian Moore (left team), Quentin Jackson