I know what you’re thinking. After seeing Middle Tennessee State handle UAB quite easily to open conference play last night, they’re all but certain to run away with the title this season.

Not so fast.

The conference is as competitive at the top half as it’s been since the 2011-12 season when all but one of the 12 teams was ranked in the KenPom top 200.

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Of course comparing Conference USA then to now is like comparing basketballs to bricks. However, as I mentioned in my C-USA Midseason Hoops Awards and Review, the conference has actually improved a good bit this season, especially in the top half.

To circle around back to MTSU, I’d be wearing green and gold glasses to claim they aren’t a notch above the rest in Conference USA currently. As you can see in the graphic they have three of the top five statistical superior players (as of 1/2).

But, again, on behalf of the UAB faithful, I won’t hand them the keys to the new Cadillac until they’ve proven they can beat good teams in conference on the road. We won’t have to wait long as their first big test comes Thursday at Rice’s Tudor Fieldhouse.


The Contenders

MTSU

Without a doubt, coming into conference play the Blue Raiders are perched up on the throne looking down at the other thirteen’s lack-luster portfolios. Unlike last season though, more than half of these teams are much closer in talent to them than was the conference to UAB last season. Heavy is the crown as they say, and MTSU gets to wear the bullseye early on and it gets quite heavy over 18 games.

UAB

Obviously last night in Murfreesboro was a putrid offensive showing for the Blazers, but they did show once again they are a top defensive team in the conference allowing MTSU to score just 60 points. UAB will have a chance to get right in Denton Thursday night where they’ve lost the prior two times in 2014 and 2015. The team’s success going forward will depend on UAB’s staffs ability to counter the defensive schemes aimed at stopping Chris Cokley.

Marshall

The Herd is hitting their stride at the right time. Since the return of CJ Burks on December 19 they’ve performed like a much more complete and versatile team in terms of D’Antoni’s schemes. Adjin Penava has developed into one of the better big men in the conference and he being a threat is vital to the spacing Marshall wants. If Terrance Thompson, who has been out since November, returns … watch out.

La Tech

I’ve been saying since September that the Bulldogs have one of the better inside-and-out designed teams in the conference. Omar Sherman and Erik McCree rank up there with Upshaw and Williams and Lee and Cokley in terms of versatility and production. Jacobi Boykins has established himself as the most lethal 3-point shooter in the conference and their freshman point guard DeQuan Bracey will likely go on to win C-USA Freshman of the Year.

Rice

The Owls, as much as I’ve pom-pommed for them the past few months, barely sneak into the contenders category for me. Their loss at ODU Saturday really spotlighted their dependency on the 3-point shot. Shooting a cool 5-of-21 won’t win many games against the conference’s best. I will say their top 5 of Egor, Evans, Jackson, Letcher-Ellis, and Cashaw will no doubt have them approaching double-digit C-USA wins this season.

The Spoilers

WKU

After tonight’s likely win at FIU, the Tops will have won four in a row and will be sitting pretty at 2-0 in conference play. The insertion of Tennessee transfer Jabari McGhee on December 3 gives Stansbury a 6-7 deep roster of solid players. Unfortunately, that’s about as deep as they’ll go and I’m not certain that’s enough to be considered a title contending threat. With that being said, you can mark it down now that they’ll win three or four games against better teams between now and March.

Charlotte

I’ll have a much better feel for the 49ers tonight after they host Rice, but for now they are a fringe top half C-USA team. Like many other teams I’ve mentioned up to this point, Charlotte has benefited from a power conference transfer who became eligible in December. Former Clemson Tiger Austin Ajukwa is a physical 6-foot-7 combo guard who has made an immediate impact and is now in the starting lineup. Keep an eye on the heralded recruit Quentin Jackson who dropped 17 on North Texas. The 49ers have arguably one of the best collection of guards in the conference.

ODU

If this Monarch team had last year’s C-USA schedule they’d be in the contender section. Road games against UAB, MTSU, Marshall, Charlotte, and Rice will have their lacking offense’s back against the wall. BJ Stith can be the difference between this team getting a top 4 seed in the tournament or not. He’s a guard/forward mis-match that has the ability to provide offense that the Monarchs regularly desperately need. As usual, their defense is scary good.

Florida Atlantic

I got really high on the Owls following their win over Ohio State. I’m officially pumping the breaks now. While they get decent to good production offensively and defensively from their guards, they conversely have been getting exposed in the paint area of late. WKU had 21 made 2-pointers in their win at FAU Saturday. When Delph is in foul trouble like he was against the Tops, the interior defense levee seems to break rather easily. But, as they showed agains the Buckeyes, when the planets align they’re capable of beating very good teams.

The Others

UTSA

The Roadrunners might have the least talented team in the entire conference, but that hasn’t kept Steve Henson from continuing to coach and will this team to playing over their heads. A win at Southern Miss Thursday would make them 2-0 to start conference play and winners of their last four. Realistically though, UTSA is a season or two away from righting the ship. At least they can say their floating in the right direction.

North Texas

Every time I right about North Texas it’s the same thing. The talents there, but the coaching is not. The way the Mean Green’s schedule is set up they could very easily start 0-5 in conference play. The SMU transfer Keith Frazier is still working his way up to game speed having played in just three games thus far. Their four game slate of ODU, UAB, MTSU, and Rice is brutal.

Southern Miss

Another year, another rebuild. I could see them beating UTEP in Hattiesburg this Saturday though. Sorry UTEP.

UTEP

Imagine driving a Lamborghini in LA traffic every day. That’s what it’s like for Miner fans who had to watch the brilliance and ability of Dominic Artis go to waste. The senior point guard leads C-USA in assists per game (7.2) and steals per game (2.1). I said back in December he could average 15/5/5. He’s currently averaging 15/6/7 (points/assists/rebounds). Dominic Artis has better numbers than Lonzo Ball and UTEP might not win five games this season.

FIU

The Panthers are ranked 16th of 351 teams in terms of experience. Granted their roster is mostly filled with JUCOS and transfers. Nevertheless, this is a team that’s poorly built and poorly coached and has no clear foundation moving forward. They don’t have a single freshman on the team.