Conference USA basketball is fun. It is infuriating. It is confusing. It is fun because it is all of those things. UAB, the defensive monster crated by Andy Kennedy, lost to Rice and Marshall despite handling Tech and NT on the road. Forget it, reader. This is CUSA basketball.
Regular season basketball is fundamentally different than tournament ball, and so we cannot make too many grand proclamations from the season so far. We know who is good, and who isn’t, but it is easier to impress on a Thursday night in front of die-hards and empty seats than it is at the Star in Frisco. This is the way of things.
All that written and at the risk of contradicting myself, let us take a look at the league at this late stage and take some stock and throw around some opinions.
These Teams Are Impressing
FAU, Middle, NT, UAB, Tech, UTEP
Of the above, I think UAB, Tech, and NT are the real title-contenders but FAU has been very intriguing. If you paid close attention last season, you might have noticed that FAU wasn’t bad. They shot well, and made some noise. They did some big damage at home, mostly — like winning by big margins — but it was easy to ignore all of that because of the weird schedule. The back-to-back thing was weird, but necessary, and created some strange-looking resumés. As it is, they haven’t really dropped off from that pace — they score, and defend well. Let us criticize them by saying this: their record is boosted by Western/Marshall/ODU being down.
Middle has a similar criticism, but wins are wins. Last year they stunk but have grown up a bit. Josh Jefferson has been good for them (transfer from GB). Beating Western, Marshall, were the big impressive wins, and everything else sort of tracks. They are firmly in the solid category.
North Texas is surprising only because they turned over a big part of the title-winning roster. Javion Hamlet was amazing in the tournament, as was Zach Simmons — but also gone is James Reese. Tylor Perry has stepped into the crunch time role, but Rubin Jones has grown, as has Thomas Bell and Abou Ousmane. Bell has stepped into the playmaker role while Perry has done the crunch-time scoring. They combined to steal a win in Ruston. This team is leading the conference right now.
UAB was expected to be good — and depending on who you read in the preseason, they were the favorites. That has largely been the case. They looked very good in the early season heavyweight matchup in Denton, but followed that with a loss to Rice in Houston, and another head-scratcher in Huntington vs Marshall (previously winless in the league). That is a curious habit for a team that can pretty much shut anyone down at anytime. They won in Ruston — something that used to be impressive before North Texas did it just a week later. Still the odds-on favorite to win the league.
Louisiana Tech had a rough end of January/beginning of February. They lost twice at home, and dropped a road game to FAU. That means that this team with lots of talent and everyone’s favorite postman, Kenneth Lofton Jr., has now lost to both 1-seeds and the 2-seed in the West. NT won the league without getting the bye, but it is super difficult. There are a couple of chances at make-ups vs UAB and NT coming up. My gut says they have a Isaiah Crawford-sized hole missing (injured, out for the year) that would complete a championship picture.
UTEP is solid, and Joe Golding is making a nice demonstration of how quickly he will turn this program around. The Miners play really good defense and I suspect that another recruiting class will set this team up nicely for the future. They can make little noise in the league tournament — Jamal Bieniemy and Souley Boum can score, and JB has a nice midrange game. The six-game win streak was inflated by a couple of UTSA games plus one vs FIU, but they played well vs NT for a half.
These Teams Are Flaming Fires Of Questions
WKU, Marshall, UTSA, ODU
I could write “the entire east” here and yeah. Western is 4-6 as of this writing, largely because they cannot defend (Middle put up 93 in Diddle). There was a five-game losing streak involved. Rick Stansbury had a hot seat under him for not winning the league tournament — despite going to three of the last four (and being a favorite in the corona-cancelled 2020 year. This was supposed to be a rebuild/reload year after Charles Bassey graduated but … it has not been good. Play a little better defense and maybe they have a chance.
Marshall was on a rise with Dan D’Antoni in the league for a bit and was the favorite for a couple of seasons. This year there was going to be an expected transition after Jannson Williams and Jarrod West left. Taevion Kinsey is back, however, and Taylor/Anochili-Killen/Early have been in the program. As it is, Marshall lost 10-straight, surprisingly beat UAB (in a game in which Kinsey didn’t play) and lost a couple more after. Charlotte won going away, and ODU handled them as well. It is bad.
UTSA is in a similar situation, in that they were talked about in the league and now are easy wins for everyone. We wrote in this space that the “system” as it was, had devolved into former Runners Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace alternating taking ill-advised shots and no one playing much defense. Now, there is no offense to speak of and the defense remains horrid. UTSA needs to build a new arena, invest in the basketball program, or they will be absolute garbage in the AAC, as they have been this year CUSA.
ODU won the league in 2019, having capped a four-season run of quality where they challenged and competed every year. They somewhat surprisingly worked their way into a 2-seed (and a bye) and nearly found themselves in the semifinal vs Tech in the league tournament. The Monarchs are mid-tier now (at best) and are missing the game-changing scoring of basically anyone you remember from the last half-decade. Mostly it is the defense that is gone. This program used to defend, and score efficiently (like NT does now) and … that isn’t happening.
Rice, USM, FIU, Charlotte
Rice impressed me last year, but have mostly been lukewarm this year. They have gotten shiny wins (UAB) but not only lost, but were blown out in others (NT, WKU, Tech). I just do not know what to make of this team outside of an unstable particle. I can see them pulling a tourney upset followed by a record-setting blowout loss the next night.
USM is largely doing what they did last year: making some noise for about ten minutes and then getting run off the floor because they are too young. That might work in the east (Middle) but not in the west division. I still like Tyler Stevenson.
FIU had a blistering tempo in Jeremy Ballard’s first year in 19 (led the country) and now is pretty standard. They are also pretty awful. They stink defensively, and are terrible offensively unless they get hot on a given night. That sneaky win over WKU was something like a fluke at home mixed with WKU being down. That is the big win. I see more Ls.
Charlotte is not bad but also is not super impressive. They are bottom-tier offensively, and mid-tier defensively which is just about the definition of lukewarm. It is a pretty standard “if they are hitting 40% from 3 they can win” which the artificial-intelligence sports-report writes. Can they shoot 40% from three against a quality opponent? Nah. Probably not. They do not do enough defensively either to make it tough for good squads to get their shots.
You want to make predictions with eight games (or so) remaining? Sure. Let’s do it.
- I see NT losing to one of FAU/UAB/Tech in the coming month, and maybe one of the bad teams. Cannot be that good right?
- Western is going to find themselves a way to get a top-two seed in the East.
- Tech and UAB and NT are so good that I think the semifinal round is a combination of these three plus WKU.
- I would not be surprised, however, to see an all west-division semifinal round. That would mean a West 3 seed (Tech, right now) beating an East 2 (right now Middle, but probably one of Middle, FAU, Charlotte and WKU). Also, a West 4 beating an East 1. I can totally see a UTEP beating, say Middle. Or even FAU. West is so good, and the East is in sort of upside down.
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