The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
Here’s our look at the Conference USA.
Conference USA was at the center of one of the most exciting moments of the season last year when, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Middle Tennessee toppled No. 2 seed Michigan State 90-81. The Blue Raiders — the league’s lone representative in the NCAA tournament — would fall to Syracuse in the round of 32, but the statement had already been made: Don’t sleep on Conference USA.
This season, Middle Tennessee was picked to finish second in the league in the preseason coaches’ poll. They’re behind 2015 regular season champs UAB, who finished 26-7 overall — the Blazers’ winningest season since in recent history.
Those two squads will meet twice this year, but they aren’t the only two to pay attention to during the upcoming season as the Conference USA will once again be a tight race to the top.
First Team All-Conference USA. Second in the league (and No. 16 in the nation) with 21.4 points per game. Second in the league (and No. 14 in the country) with 2.2 steals per game. And that was just his freshman year? Yeah, be on the lookout for Rice’s Marcus Evans.
This season, the sophomore is the youngest player on the 2016-17 Conference USA preseason All-Conference Team. Just add it to the long list of accolades. The 2015-16 Conference USA Freshman of the Year set a conference record with 10 Freshman of the Week honors (including the final six in a row) and set freshman scoring records left and right for Rice and C-USA. The Owls hope he’s just getting started.
Rice was picked to finish No. 9 in the preseason poll, but if Evans can put in another year in the same mold as his freshman campaign, the Owls — who finished 12-20 last season — should have high hopes for improvement.
Five of Conference USA’s teams finished last season with 12 or more conference wins, making for what could have been a tight race at the top. But UAB had other plans. The Blazers’ 16 conference wins were enough to earn them the regular season crown and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Unfortunately, the 2016 season came to a sudden and disappointing end when, after a double-bye, UAB was upset by Western Kentucky in its first game of the Conference USA tournament. It was the second time last season that the Hilltoppers had bested the Blazers, making them the only C-USA team to beat UAB twice. Middle Tennessee would go on to win the tournament and, with it, the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
This season, the Blazers are out for revenge. While they lost leading scorer Robert Brown, UAB returns the other four starters from its 26-7 season. Two of those players enter their junior years after stellar sophomore campaigns. Chris Cokley, a 6-8 forward, averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last year and was named to the All-Conference USA Second Team. William Lee, the reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 2.9 blocks per game last season, good for second in the conference and eighth in the nation. Both players were selected to the preseason All-Conference Team, making UAB one of three teams (Marshall and Middle Tennessee are the others) to have multiple players honored.
But the Blazers’ secret weapon comes in the postseason where, in March, UAB will host the C-USA tournament. Going back to the 2014-15 season, UAB holds a 25-game home court winning streak. That’s an advantage that could be a difference maker come crunch time.
Aside from Cinderella-story Middle Tennessee State, no Conference-USA team enters the 2016-17 season with more momentum than Old Dominion. The Monarchs finished last season winning 15 of their last 18 games and made it to the C-USA championship game, but ended up falling to Middle Tennessee State 55-53 after the Blue Raiders drained two free throws with two seconds left on the clock.
This year, the Monarchs return four starters and four of their seven leading scorers from the 2015-16 campaign. Redshirt Sophomores Brandon Stith and Zoran Talley, who each averaged more than eight points per game while shooting better than 50 percent last season, both started 31 of the teams 38 games, bringing valuable experience back to an Old Dominion lineup that will certainly be able to threaten late in the season.
Freshman to Watch:
The 2015-16 season was yet another impressive season for UTEP. The Miners finished 19-14 (10-8, C-USA) and made it to the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament. But at the end of the year, UTEP lost seven players — a hit that is hard to overcome.
Enter Tim Cameron. The 6-4, 180-pound guard is coming off a season with the Hargrave Military Academy’s postgraduate basketball team, which he helped lead to a 47-1 season and a national prep championship. The long guard has the athleticism to slash and the precision to hit step-back jumpers — a combination that will be crucial for the Miners as they try to improve on last year’s sixth-place finish in the conference.