Originally, we intended to let the final FAU-are-champs-of-the-league be the final post on this site, but something as monumental as the C-USA champions being in the Final Four is so fantastical to not have to put down some thoughts in the old digital notebook.
At a time when this version of the league is breaking up and six teams are moving to the American, it is the first time that the entire league, old and new, is united behind the individual success of a member school. This is what Sam Doughton, noted writer for Middle Tennessee athletics noted in a twitter thread. Former ODU beat writer Ed Miller said it was a “nice sendoff” for a league that was “always good” but always a “collection of misfit toys.”
In our little time covering this league we saw the potential for a strong group. All programs shared some “little brother”1 characteristics and if they could band together they might become greater than the sum of their parts. Alas, each program was seemingly scheming for their own fortunes and looking to get out as soon as it was feasible. WKU and Middle, although they are staying, briefly looked to be headed to another league as well. There are no clean hands.
One thing long time basketball fans have known is that the basketball played in this league was always good. The outside perception was maybe colored by the departures — ie, how could a league without a Memphis be good? — but the truth is since 2014 the league went 6-2 in first round NCAA games. You could say this run by FAU was always coming. There were plenty of cases for some additional bids — including 2018 Middle, maybe 2019 WKU, 2022 UNT, and 2023 UNT and maybe UAB. Now one of these really good CUSA squads forged in the fire of trying to win a tough league just broke through.
“You just don’t know how REAL CUSA was this year” said C-USA player of the year Tylor Perry. FAU beat North Texas, a current NIT finalist twice by just 4 points, including one time where NT was up 9 points with four minutes left. UAB beat FAU by nine once. It was a tough league to win, even if FAU heated up in Frisco and made it look easy in the final, Middle Tennessee nearly came all the way back on them.
I understand the arguments being made that still keep squads like UNT and UAB out of the tournament, but I think they are missing the essential logic: The tournament is a chance to prove yourself on the court. One reason that FAU, UNT, and UAB were underseeded, or left out respectively was because of the strength-of-schedule. “They didn’t play anyone!” cries the billionth twitter bracketologist, and it is true. Like any good racket by a powerful group in charge, it does not violate any rules (because the ruling group makes those rules). They did have a terrible non-con schedule. But C-USA squads cannot control that alone.
To me, if you get 18 cracks at Quad 1 wins, I don’t know that I want to see you in the tournament to just lose again. If you only had 5 and dominated the competition you did play? Well, let’s see you in the tourney. Let’s see you get a chance to prove yourself. If the powers that be had their druthers, I am sure they would have kept out a FAU if they could. There were some rumors that FAU’s resume was so impressive they might have gotten an at-large bid if they were to lose in the league tournament. After what happened to Middle in 2018? I simply do not believe it.
As it is, UNT probably sealed their fate losing on the road to Charlotte, you know the eventual CBI champion. UAB was left out because of some midseason injuries to Jelly Walker and some slip ups. Now North Texas and UAB are in Las Vegas, along with Utah Valley and one (1) power school in Wisconsin to join them. The NCAA Tournament Final Four includes Florida Atlantic, and folks, we are just a little bit of magic away from C-USA sweeping the postseason in the men’s tournaments.
Also of note is that last year’s league members won the Sun Belt regular season. Southern Miss and Marshall dominated the Belt, and even if they had horrible league tournaments, they still should be recognized. There was a lot of turnover at USM, but Marshall had three major contributors that had C-USA patches last season. These programs were bottom-dwellers in the league last year!
Of course we should acknowledge that the league’s current stars are not going to be the league’s stars as of June 2023. All three programs playing now are leaving to the American, along with Rice (CBI quarterfinalist and the only post-season loss for the league) Charlotte, and UTSA (league bottom-dweller). It is the final unlucky blow for a league that was seemingly dealt a lot of unfortunate hits. Much criticism has been leveled at leadership — the commissioner Judy MacLeod in particular, although that is part of the job description — but the leadership is the league membership. The commissioner and the office are just the execution of the bylaws adopted by the member institutions.
Right as the basketball programs are experiencing massive highs, the American will get to enjoy the immediate benefits — at least reputationally. The NCAA units — roughly $340K or so per game played — will accrue to the league and after expenses will go to the member institutions. Sam Houston State, an NIT participant and solid program in and of itself, will benefit. Kennesaw State, currently eliminated 2023 NCAA Tourney participant, will benefit after another year’s hiatus when they arrive. And of course the current league members will get a slice and probably even a little shine when it comes to evaluation.
C-USA will have to start all over from the beginning just like they did the last time the league was raided, and basically reformed as the American. So it goes.
Still, as Ed Miller said, this postseason has been a nice send off and a nice told-you-so for all the league’s followers and true-believers. Happy trails, C-USA.
I mean in that none were flagship programs in their states or regions. ↩