Conference USA Men’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Western Kentucky University

 

2018 C-USA MEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

The madness of March is upon us!!

The 2018 Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championship tips off Wednesday with the first round of games - and we could not be more excited. This year’s edition debuts the new home of the conference championship is set in Frisco, Texas at the practice facility of the Dallas Cowboys.

Middle Tennessee enters the conference tournament as regular-season champs and heavy favorites. Their only two losses came to Marshall and until their most recent loss in the season finale, the Blue Raiders were ranked in the Top 25 of most college basketball rankings. However, with a Marshall semifinal matchup looming, teams like UAB and Old Dominion playing good basketball, and a talented Western Kentucky squad, the winner is far from a layup.

We’ll preview the tournament and give you our predictions:

FIRST ROUND

6:00PM CT WEDNESDAY - #9 SOUTHERN MISS BEATS #8 FIU

FIU comes into the opening game of the tournament winners of 3 of their last 4 games - the one loss coming on the road at Old Dominion. That said, their offense is very hot and cold. They are the third-worst shooting team - 42.7% - and second-worst shooting team - 32.4% - from downtown. In all but one of FIU’s conference wins, they’ve kept opposing teams at 70 points or less. All seven Southern Miss conference wins came in games where they scored over 70 points. Despite their recent struggles, Southern Miss is a solid offensive team and head coach Don Sadler deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done. It will be difficult for the FIU to keep up. The Golden Eagles like to push the pace, guard Tyree Griffin distributes the ball very well, and they don’t turn the ball over. This game will come down to whether or not the Panthers can control the pace and keep scoring low. They beat Southern Miss at home 76-70 in early  February.

6:30PM CT WEDNESDAY - #12 UTEP BEATS #5 UTSA

UTSA head coach Steve Henson should get some Coach of the Year buzz for the job that he’s done with this young team. However, with the loss of recently-named Conference USA Freshman of the Year winner Jhivvan Jackson to a knee injury, the Roadrunners simply will not be able to replace his shot-creating ability. Sixth Man of the Year winner Deon Lyle is expected to step into his role. The Miners were pretty miserable for most of the year but come into the tournament winners of 4 of their last 6 games. They secured a spot in the tournament with a last-second alley-oop dunk by Matt Willms to beat #7 North Texas on the road in the regular-season finale. Despite two losses to UTSA in the regular season, UTEP were able to keep the run-and-gun Roadrunners under 70 points in both games.

8:30PM CT WEDNESDAY - #10 LOUISIANA TECH BEATS #7 NORTH TEXAS

North Texas played excellent ball in January, but have fallen off a cliff in their last several games. They’ve lost 6 of their last 7 games - including a bad 20-point loss to FAU where the Mean Green shot 4 for 21 from downtown. They rely heavily on the production of sophomore guards and Roosevelt Smart and Ryan Woolridge - both have struggled in recent games. Louisiana Tech isn’t doing all that great either - they’ve lost 5 of their last 6 games. They’ve been without a healthy DaQuan Bracey for most of the year with a lingering back injury. Even the games where Bracey has played, he hasn’t looked right. 

North Texas is more talented, but the youth of their key guys can hurt them in the tournament. They turn the ball more than any team left in the tournament. Veteran guards Derric Jean and Jacobi Boykins give the Bulldogs steady hands they can rely on. This should be a close one though. North Texas has played 11 games decided by three points or less - including a one-point loss to Louisiana Tech in January.

9:00 PM CT WEDNESDAY - #6 UAB BEATS #11 FAU

UAB is the best team in this first round. They’ve struggled to find their jump shot at times this season,  but are coming off two of their best games of the season with home decisive wins over Marshall and Western Kentucky to close out the season. They’re solid offensively, defensively, and can dominate on the boards. Look out for a Blazers run in this tournament.

QUARTERFINALS

6:00PM CT THURSDAY - #1 MIDDLE TENNESSEE BEATS #9 SOUTHERN MISS

The Blue Raiders should dominate Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles had real trouble scoring on Middle Tennessee in their regular season matchups - putting up 62 and 47 points in their two games.

6:30PM CT THURSDAY - #4 MARSHALL BEATS #12 UTEP

UTEP just can’t score with Marshall. The Thundering Herd average 84.5 points per game. UTEP has scored 85 or more points just three times this season. Elmore and Burks would both need to have bad games from the floor and UTEP would have to control the pace throughout to have a shot.

8:30 CT THURSDAY - #2 OLD DOMINION BEATS #10 LOUISIANA TECH

Old Dominion aren’t just good at defense - they’re one of the best teams in the country on that end of the floor. They hold teams to just 41% shooting from the floor and 63.2 points per game - both of those are best marks in Conference USA. Junior guard Ahmad Caver is one of the best floor generals in the conference - he is 11th in the nation in assist to turnover ratio. Whoever beats Old Dominion will have to be on their A game.

9:00PM CT THURSDAY - #6 UAB BEATS #3 WESTERN KENTUCKY

This will be a fun one. 

UAB flustered for a good part of the conference schedule but comes into the tournament red hot. Western Kentucky dominated for most of the year but comes into this game following two double-digit losses against Middle Tennessee and UAB. 

Western Kentucky will - and should - be favored in this game.They are an extremely well-rounded team. All five starters average double digits in points, they’re the best shooting team in the conference, and they have a good mix of talented youth and experience. They’re talented in the frontcourt and the backcourt. They can win big and win close. But this is a tough draw for them. UAB gave them all they could handle in both games against them - the Blazers led with 4 minutes left in the game in Bowling Green before the Hilltoppers pulled away late. In the season finale, UAB downed WKU by 28 on Senior Night. They’re not scared.

Let’s not forget that while the Hilltoppers are very talented, many of these players had never played together before this season due to transfers and incoming freshmen. Offensively, they’ve been a juggernaut, but that inexperience has translated to trouble on the defensive end at times.

UAB has the experience factor working in their favor - and they’re pretty talented themselves. Chris Cokley should be a first-team all-conference selection. William Lee is the most prolific blocks man in program history. The question will be whether the Blazers can get the performance out of their guards. Nick Norton, Zack Bryant, and Nate Darling will need to be on their A-games to pull this one out - and all three have the ability.

UAB will need to shoot well - and they have in their last couple of games. However, when the Blazers struggled, the long-range shot looked ugly. There’s a pretty heavy correlation with their three-point shooting stats and winning - the Blazers are 13-1 when they shoot better than 38% from three and 5-12 when they don’t. 

SEMIFINALS

12:30PM CT FRIDAY - #1 MIDDLE TENNESSEE BEATS #4 MARSHALL

Marshall is the one hurdle that Middle Tennessee has struggled to get over this season. The Blue Raiders lost both of their games against the Herd in the regular season. In order for Middle Tennessee to advance they will need to be dominant on the inside and hold Marshall under their scoring averages and percentages. Elmore and Burks are capable of going off in any given game, and despite the recent struggles of Ajdin Penava, the Herd have a threat on the inside that can keep the Blue Raiders at bay. In their losses, opposing teams have been able to dominate Marshall on the boards. This is the recipe for Middle Tennessee - arguably the best rebounding team in the conference.

It’s hard to see a team as good as Middle Tennessee - and a coach as good as Kermit Davis - losing to the same team three times in one season. This would be a rematch of last year’s conference championship game where Middle Tennessee beat a 5-seeded Marshall 83-72 to earn a spot in the dance.

3:00PM CT FRIDAY - #6 UAB BEATS #2 OLD DOMINION

This could be proven horribly wrong, but we’re out here taking risks. UAB has the talent, depth, and experience to beat anybody in this conference. That said if there’s any team that can derail that it’s Old Dominion. The Monarchs are excellent at slowing down the opposition and executing in the half court - things that come in very handy in March. This game could go either way. Both teams are solid on both ends.

FINAL

7:30PM CT SATURDAY - #1 MIDDLE TENNESSEE BEATS #6 UAB

This is where the ride ends for UAB. These two teams are very similar. They love to work their inside-out game, attack the boards, utilize their superior athleticism, and stifle teams defensively. Middle Tennessee is all the things that UAB is - but better.

But of course, we could be totally wrong. 

Tune-in Wednesday to find out.