It’s that time of year where we’re inching closer to the end of the regular season. Through five weeks MTSU has risen high above the field and has shown the versatility and resilience needed to take the regular season crown. The national championship game is eight weeks from today, believe it or not. Things are going to start moving quickly and some team’s seasons will end in less than a month.
Memphis was the last team who was able to go through the conference undefeated when they won all 16 games during the 2012-13 season. Conference USA was then comprised of 12 teams rather than the current 14, and the new format of 18 conference games has proven to be too much for teams to run through without faltering.
Let’s start from the top and work down through the top 12 teams* and review what they’ve accomplished and were they could end up in March.
*FIU and North Texas are projected to miss the C-USA tournament as only the top 12 teams are invited.
It took a near perfect storm in El Paso for the Blue Raiders to be dealt their first conference loss of the season. UTEP held Potts and Upshaw to 9 combined points and forced 19 Blue Raider turnovers. Jacorey Williams went off for 24 proving there isn’t anyone stopping him this season. Maybe the Miners showed the blue print for beating MTSU by cutting off two heads of the three-headed monster. More than likely, this will prove to be an outlier game for the Blue Raiders who will have four of their last seven at home. They should go ahead and start etching MTSU on the regular season conference trophy now.
Personally, I think Tech is right where they’ll be in the standings come conference tournament time. They have the roster and identity in place to maintain their position near the top. Senior Erik McCree is making a strong push behind MTSU’s Upshaw and Williams for C-USA Player of the Year, and DaQuan Bracey has virtually locked up the Freshman of the Year award. Road games at UTSA and UTEP this week and then at Rice in a couple weeks will ultimately decide their seeding fate.
The Monarchs have arguably the toughest finishing schedule of any team in the conference. They’ll play MTSU, UAB, Charlotte, Marshall, WKU, UTEP, and UTSA between now and the conference tournament. Brandan Stith appears to be back for good having appeared in the last four games, but, it’s really anyone’s guess how they’ll finish. ODU has played the 13th out of 14 ranked conference slate up to this point.
The Blazers have gone back to their back-and-forth ways dropping the last two after having won the prior two. The good news is they have five of their last seven at home. Even with a home loss to MTSU, they should finish no worse than 4-3 given the games they have remaining. UAB’s ceiling is likely no higher than the 2 seed, and at worst they’ll be in the dreaded middle of the pack range where the seeding is always very fluid as the end draws near. Keep in mind, UAB hasn’t lost a conference home game since March of 2014.
If center Matt Willms can remain healthy, the Miners should be able to maintain the same consistent defensive play that has helped them win six of their last seven. Tim Floyd’s point zone has been seemingly impossible to crack even for teams as talented and versatile as UAB and MTSU. The Miners aren’t deep, but their starting five are playing as well as any in the conference currently. UTEP could end up as high as the 2 seed if teams are unable to crack the code of their zone. It’s crazy to think this team lost 12 straight games at one point.
Like UAB, it’s tough to predict what Marshall will do in their next seven games. At their best they can push the likes of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to the brink, and at their worst they can allow a team like Southern Miss to score 91 in a blowout loss. Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is for Marshall. Defensively they just don’t get enough stops night in and night out. Four Conference USA teams have scored more than 90 points against the Herd and I don’t see that trend changing.
Kenpom.com has projected the Hilltoppers to finish 9-9 in conference play and I think that’s spot on. This is a rebuild year for WKU and anything above a .500 conference record should be viewed as a positive. Rick Stansbury will have the luxury of keeping his team home five of their final seven, but will be hosting some of the better teams in the conference in MTSU, UAB, Marshall, and Rice.
At 5-5 in conference play, Rice has been the biggest disappointment thus far. However, The Owls just won two straight by double-digits and could very well string off five or six in a row if they can handle the Florida teams on the road and UTSA and UTEP in Houston. This is a manageable stretch for Rice and could propel them back to being a border line top 4 seed. The lengthy sophomore Marquez Letcher-Ellis has worked back into the starting lineup the past two games and he may very well be the piece that gets the Owls going back on the right track.
While the win over UAB was quite impressive, the Roadrunners still have a lot of work left to do at 5-5 with eight left to play. It’s crazy to think this team has wins over La Tech and UTEP in addition to UAB. I believe the Roadrunners play well enough on defense that they’ll steer clear of the bottom two spots in the conference despite their upcoming 4-game road trip. With three more conference wins UTSA would match their highest conference win total since joining Conference USA.
Say a prayer for the 49ers as they embark on their 3-game road trip at UAB, MTSU, and ODU. Charlotte has one of the toughest — if not the toughest — final seven games with just two coming at home. At 5-6 with the slate they have coming up, it’s hard to see the 49ers matching last year’s win total of nine games. The Clemson transfer Austin Ajukwa exploded for 30 points against FIU on Saturday and is playing at a very high level. Charlotte is capable of stealing a game from UAB or MTSU if he and Jon Davis gets hot.
To the surprise of anyone paying attention, the Owls have won three straight all coming on the road. During this stretch Michael Curry has been bringing his 7-footer Ronald Delph off the bench and it’s done wonders for FAU. For certain players coming off the bench is their most effective way to contribute, and that appears to be the case for Delph. I’d stick with the plan if I’m Curry and hope for the best as the Owls will have a very tough final eight games featuring La Tech, UTEP, UAB, and MTSU.
As I type this, I still can’t believe the Golden Eagles beat Marshall by 14 in Hattiesburg without Khari Price. The word is the senior point guard is out for the remainder of the season, which doesn’t bode well for their chances to finish in the top 12. If they do, it would be a remarkable coaching job by Doc Sadler.