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2021 Men’s Basketball Conference Tournament Preview

We had some drama near the end of the season as WKU essentially lost any and all chances at getting an at-large bid for the big tournament 1. ODU showed it is tournament-ready and nearly beat WKU the second time that would have locked up the first seed. They locked up Chuck Bassey ( 7 points, 9 rebounds in 28 minutes) and nearly tied the game on a buzzer beater.

UAB upset 2 the Mean Green and showed a lot in doing so. The defense corralled a good offense, and the Blazers were able to score consistently against a good defense.

Both of the above series demonstrate the fact that just about any squad in this league can win a game in this tournament. This year things are a little tighter. I mean in a normal year we saw USM beat the very good Middle squad. It stands to reason that one of the top four will go down in the Thursday round.

Executive Summary: The teams that have the best chance at winning this are WKU, UAB, Tech, ODU, North Texas, and Marshall. The possible Cinderella of this thing is UTSA, simply because of their twin shooters. Beyond that one of Rice/USM are going to get a tournament win simply by virtue of playing each other. The same was going to be true for Middle/FIU but Middle got through to face NT by virtue of an FIU forfeit due to contact tracing. Neither FAU or UTEP have the materials to upset La Tech. That said, be ready to be surprised. That is part of the fun of this thing.

My pick: La Tech wins this in a grind of a final.

Tuesday March 9th 7pm

6W Rice vs 7W Southern Miss

If you have not watched either of these teams you are in for a treat. Both feature some guys that can light it up. Tyler Stevenson is good. Jaron Pierre is on the league’s all-freshman team. There is a lot to like on this squad but the one criticism we have had for them is that they are too young. They usually have a nice half before unravelling with some self-inflicted mistakes and get run off the floor. If head coach Jay Ladner can continue the progress and continue to add talent this could easily be a contender next season. For this tournament, know that they have the ability to pull off a win vs Rice but would take a big meltdown.

Rice swept this series earlier in the year and Quincy Olivari has scored in double figures in seven straight games. Travis Evee is the other threat for the Owls. He has not played as well recently as he did earlier in the year. You could say that he and Olivari have sort of swapped being the main threat. Max Fielder is the big man who can set screens, and finish plays at the rim. I like Rice a lot, and they probably would have been a higher seed if they did not have such a tough schedule. I see them getting by USM fairly easily and then losing to Marshall in the next round.

For what it is worth, I do not see either of these teams beating Marshall, and it is even less likely that they follow that up with a win over UAB. The Blazers swept both of these squads handily this season.

Wednesday March 10, 5:30pm 6pm, 8:30pm, 9pm

4W UTSA vs 5E Charlotte

Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace have rewritten the UTSA record book and if you are new to this league just watching them a good place to start. Because of their ability, they have a shooter’s chance of winning two games — yes that means upsetting WKU. The problem is the Runner defense is awful. Their resume shows two wins against “good” competitions and both were at El Convo in San Antonio over UNT and UAB. The Roadrunners under Steve Henson have fizzled out disappointingly in the league’s tournaments and that does not bode well for this week. That said, they should have more than enough for Charlotte, which has been in a tailspin. Look for UTSA to run actions to get either of Jackson or Wallace off screens for looks, some pick and roll, but really just lots of dribbling the ball up and launching. When it is working it is fun, when it isn’t it is frustrating especially as the defense does not generate enough stops.

Charlotte looked really good early in the conference season and has disappointed at every point through since. They cannot play good defense or offense and those are like, important? Jahmir Young is a dude and he’s where you put your eyes when watching the 49ers. A win here would end an 8-game losing streak which is ridiculous. Despite Virginia’s title win the pack line defense enjoys a reputation of being a good way to win regular season games but not necessarily tournament games. Having watched this CLT defense suffocate the Hilltoppers I can see the vision of the Niners shutting down UTSA and making a game of it vs WKU.

In reality expect UTSA to continue their nice run and get to WKU where they are thumped. If either of these teams were to win on Thursday, it sets up a potential matchup with UAB (or Marshall/6/7) in the semifinal on Friday.

3E Marshall vs 6 or 7

The Herd have the best offense and the 9th-best defense in efficiency according to kenpom. That is not usually the winning formula for a tournament but it is what this team has. Taevion Kinsey is a guy that can score from anywhere. That is something you need to win a conference. Marshall split against every good team it faced (Tech, UNT, ODU) except for WKU. The roster is a nice mix of talent and veteran savvy like Jarrod West, who has won this thing before. Marshall has the offensive philosophy to not be so bothered by the long UAB arms and stifling zone that bothered North Texas’ more deliberate post-and-pick-and-roll offense. Marshall’s squad iss happy to shoot the first decent look they are presented with.

The most likely opponent is Rice, but either Rice or USM should be a relatively straightforward win. After that comes UAB and a resurgent Blazer squad that won two clutch wins away to earn the 2nd seed. I have liked what Marshall has done all season against good competition — including an escape against NT where Kinsey did not get a shot off and letting Hamlet have a great look at a winner — and they should get by UAB and face WKU (or UTSA/Charlotte).

I can see a run into the semifinal vs WKU where it all ends against a team that won home and away vs Marshall. The legs will be shot by then, and WKU just has to be big.


By the advanced measures FAU is a good team. By the eye test and the resume, they are not. I would say at best they are unproven. They racked up a good efficiency score by beating up on the worst teams in the league in FIU, Middle, and Southern Miss 3. That this squad has not been punched in the mouth by a good squad is normally a bad thing but that mystery can give them confidence. For the most part the scoring will be done by Jailyn Ingram and shooters will let it fly otherwise.

UTEP has talent. Souley Boum, Bryson Williams, Jamal Bieiemy are all talents and have shown some nice things throughout this season. The Miners as a team have underperformed and look like a pick up squad with talent than a team with a unified vision. The offense is inefficient, and the defense is a sieve. There have been some absolutely awful blowout losses. I know much more about UTEP than FAU and that colors this analysis a bit, as we have not seen FAU challenged and clearly have watched UTEP struggled.

Call it a toss up but having to choose, I will say UTEP gets the win. After that it is LA Tech and that ain’t good if you are either of these teams. Tech plays good defense (great defense) and can bully ball and mix it up with some wing attacks from Crawford, Archibald, and Pemberton. Neither of FAU or UTEP have what it takes to beat that squad outside of a ridiculous shooting night and a bit of luck. That is always a possibility, sure.

Beyond that the bracket has ODU/NT/Middle as options. If one of FAU/UTEP were to get by Tech I think the physical exertion does most of the job of ending the run in the semifinal.

3W North Texas vs 6E Middle Tennessee

You know that Middle made a brief cameo in Coming 2 America? I won’t bore you with details but the St John’s basketball squad is playing Middle and someone is outside Madison Square Garden scalping tickets.

Anyway, NT is better than Middle in a lot of ways but the Mean Green have struggled in recent weeks. UAB’s tough defense made all the tiny cracks split wide open. Mean Green twitter is doing self-reflection and reconfiguring the offense and all kinds of things that are done post-mortem when there is at least one game to play. Javion Hamlet is a baller, but is off the pace from his 19/20 season where he won CUSA POY. He can still get where he wants but he is over thinking at moments and has yet to put together a nice string of games. Zach Simmons is the big man with touch around the rim. He has battled Tech’s bigs and battled to a draw even while being slighter than either. His weakness is that he does not just catch-and-go, too often taking a second before going into his move. Against teams like UAB which like to dig and get in passing lanes it creates a problem. When he is catching and finishing he is dangerous.

Middle was just about done with this season and is on a six-game losing streak. There were at least two 30-point losses mixed in there. There is not much positive here, as the Raiders have the worst offense and the 12th-ranked defense. There are some pieces to like and some dudes that will make you say “oh, that was nice” but then there will be five possessions of bad offense before the next play happens with some good in it.

Expect NT to advance easily to face ODU in the next round on Thursday. The Monarchs beat up on Middle twice in late February and were scheduled to play NT but that was postponed. For any ODU matchup, the slow pace and grinding defense are a challenge. Before the UAB weekend I would have wrote that NT has the tools, patience, and coaching to deal with that kind of thing. After? Well I am skeptical. It could have been just one bad weekend and a potential blowout vs Middle could be enough to get the confidence back to where it was earlier in the season.

NT is not playing its best basketball having dropped two to UAB and lost a chance at a possible 1 seed and ODU is playing great, having nearly upset WKU twice this past week (they got a split and lost by three after missing the final shot). That says just about all you need to know.

If NT or Middle advance past ODU, Tech/FAU/UTEP wait there. The better version of NT split with Tech at home, and ODU has not had the pleasure of game planning against Kenneth Lofton just yet. Tech is vulnerable, but should have enough for both of these squads.

Thursday March 11, 5:30 pm 6pm 8:30pm 9pm

1E WKU vs UTSA/Charlotte

We discussed the matchup so let us discuss the team here. The Hilltoppers are incomplete. They lack some outside shooting and that is partly why they keep getting into grind fests. Yes, they have potential NBA-er Charles Bassey but it is 2021, not 1991 and a big man is not what it used to be. Taveion Hollingsworth is the Tops’ go-to man in the clutch … unless Davion McKnight thinks it should be him. That situation cost them against ODU, but it got them out of some jams vs Charlotte. It is an overall good to have multiple players willing to take a shot in crunch time (ask NT) but Hollingsworth should be the guy this tournament exclusively.

Lesser teams are unable to get over the challenge of taking on superior athletes like Bassey and Josh Anderson while good teams are able to battle and make the rest of the depth chart make plays. The Tops have lost thrice in league play and it always came down to the wire. No one has beaten this team thoroughly because it is tough to do so. There is savvy, physicality, and solid defense. They do not beat themselves although there are some mistakes made in clutch situations. That is all that can be reasonably be asked for.

UTSA is a threat simply because they can shoot (and make) from anywhere. Charlotte could be threatening if they play to the level they did in January where they moved on a string defensively and got timely buckets. Beyond that, UAB is lengthy and likes to score off turnovers and blocks. It is hard to block Charles Bassey and the length and physicality will not bother the good athletes on WKU as much. As we mentioned, WKU has multiple guys that can get their own shots off even against good athletes. That is a difference-maker when teams are sizing in a zone or playing well. Marshall just did not have the size to battle inside and their shots were not falling as well although they did better in the second game.

They just really need someone to stretch the defense. If WKU goes down it will be the same old story: they got in a grind, and late in the game they missed a shot that either should have gone in or was taken by the wrong guy.

2W UAB vs Marshall/Rice/Southern Miss

The likely opponent is Marshall here. UAB are a nice team but I do not know that they really belong to the top tier (WKU/TECH) right now. The defense is good and the offense is mid-tier. The real concern is that UAB has the 11th best strength of schedule. The best wins came against North Texas — an admittedly impressive weekend — but a just-as-bad-if-not-worse loss to Louisiana Tech.

I know this is a contentious issue and everyone things CR is anti-UAB but it is more that I am skeptical of what we saw. The SOS was weak going in, and it looked like UAB did not belong in the same conversation with Tech. The loss at home vs ODU (I understand ODU is getting better and peaking right now) and getting run out of the gym vs UTSA gave us pause. [Footnote] You could easily point to UTSA beating NT at home and ask “what is the difference?” and I would answer “NT controlled the game until a drought shooting where some of their guys got cold feet and UTSA won by 8 in an otherwise close game”. UAB got throttled after an early lead and never recovered. [/footnote]

So it comes down to how much we put on the wins at NT. My eyes saw a UAB team battle and do their thing and a lot of NT falling into their own weaknesses where they are overreached and overpassing. Reese, Hamlet, Bell all had open looks and are otherwise 35%+ shooters and they were airing them. Credit UAB for making them uncomfortable but sometimes a loss is the other team wilting under the pressure 4.

The simple fact is that it does not matter one bit what CUSAReport thinks. We will learn plenty about UAB when they play Thursday as the higher seed and every second that the lower-seed has the lead feels like an indictment of every basketball decision they have ever made. That is the way these things go.

Jackson, Lovan, Ertel, Benjamin et al can get buckets on turnovers and get into the lane and get their own rebounds for second chances. That gives them a fighting chance but the real threat is on defense where the length and athleticism leads to easy buckets. When teams start to hesitate that is when they pounce and that leads to easy transition on the other end. The teams that are not bothered by physicality — Tech, WKU — will not be bothered by UAB and that is where they will have to find another way to win.

Marshall may just let it fly to quickly to get bothered by the length, and WKU is going to try some bully ball. Ertel is good enough to find his own shot if it comes down to needing one bucket late.

1W La Tech vs FAU/UTEP

Louisiana Tech is my pick to win this tournament. They (like all the good teams) have weaknesses and can be beaten. Specifically, they do not have knock-down shooters that need to be checked at all times. That is not to say they do not have guys that can knock it down — Crawford, Archibald, Pemberton, et al are all guys that can hit the three. The go-to offense is a little slow, with some high horns actions going through their bigs. That puts a lot of pressure on Kenneth Lofton and Anthony Gordon and to an extent, Isaiah Crawford to be good passers and effective scorers when they are posted.

The quick turnarounds in this tournament will challenge the legs of everyone and it remains to be seen if Tech will be able to play their physical style three games in a row. UTEP/FAU should be pretty straight forward. Tech will be playing a tired team and that might make it easier to rest. Of course, the challenge of getting up to tournament mentality quickly enough to matchup with a team that already survived one round is a challenged and has felled many a good squad.

Beyond that, the ODU/NT/Middle matchup is likely to produce a defensive fight that will wear out the winner. It is very possible that Tech vs WKU will come down to attrition. I think the advantage is on Tech and WKU’s side simply because being big does not take a lot of energy. Teams that shoot a lot –and this is where the weaknesses of both teams becomes a strength — can start to misfire after the legs have gone.

Guys like Cobe Williams will be that much harder to chase on day three. Kenneth Lofton will seem like a superman by then as well.

Of course it can go the other way. A lot of energy is expended being a big man and going up and down the court. If Tech is drawn into a tough battle on Thursday, it makes it vulnerable on Friday and the same with Saturday if it goes that far.

2E ODU vs NT/Middle

The Monarchs are respected in this league for precisely this recent run: they are always a squad to be reckoned with. ODU was very mid earlier in the season but ended the season pushing WKU to the very limit and nearly ended with the top seed in the east. Rice, that good 6th seed in the west basically ran the Monarchs off the floor.

A lot of that was because the Monarchs take a lot of time to get bad shots. See this video as an example.

ODU Offense

It should be noted that ODU battled to beat Rice the next night, split vs Marshall and UAB, and of course WKU. There were a lot of less-than-impressive performances in there but they give out trophies and awards for winning games, not doing it prettily. When ODU won the title a couple of seasons ago they got big time clutch performances from Ahmad Caver and Xavier Green. Green has not nearly been the player he was in the title game, and the bulk of the scoring is done by Malik Curry.

Head coach Jeff Jones has never had teams that will overpower you with superior offense and that this team struggles to score is not a surprise. He insists on execution and that usually puts the team in good position to execute when it matters. Defensively, this team is sound, gives good effort, and generally can compete with anyone. I would have written that they are a little undersized, but they handled Charles Bassey pretty well with an effective game plan this past weekend.

Up first is likely North Texas, a team that is struggling to find the form they had earlier in the year. This particular NT team is struggling for confidence and cannot shoot. That sounds like the perfect scenario for a good defensive coach to think up some zones and other traps that will put shooters with shaky confidence in the spotlight.

After that it is Tech/FAU/UTEP and it probably will be Tech. The outstanding question is if ODU can get up for that matchup the way it did for rival WKU. The last time these two played in the conference tournament it required an Ahmad Caver heroic effort to beat them.

Caver goes off

I thought that Tech team was good enough to compete with WKU in the title game, for what it is worth.

That is how these things go. Thing can go right but a ridiculous effort by a talented player in a clutch moment can change the game. That is of course why you recruit game-changers like that but you build your team around a system so that they do not have to do everything and can save their energy for the most important moments.

Guys That Can Change Games

In no particular order: Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace, Charles Bassey, Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson, Isaiah Crawford, JaColby Pemberton, Taveion Kinsey, Javion Hamlet, Jahmir Young, Travis Evee, Quincy Olivari, Tyler Stevenson, LaDavius Draine, Michael Ertel, Jailyn Ingram


Rice over USM

Marshall over Rice
NT over Middle

Marshall over UAB — an upset pick
Tech over FAU
NT over ODU — this is down to the wire.

WKU over Marshall
Tech over NT

Tech over WKU

  1. That was never really likely in my eyes, but the loss on Friday confirmed it

  2. Yes, it was an upset. The Blazers were not favored and surprised a lot of people by winning both

  3. Before you tweet at me, consider that those teams are literally the two 7th seeds and the other 6th seed. They are the worst in the league by definition.

  4. UNT had more to lose — literally the 2nd seed.

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