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College Basketball Preview - Conference USA

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The throne in Conference USA is up for grabs due to the departure of the Memphis Tigers, who won the last three regular-season conference titles and tournament championships. UCF, Houston and SMU also left the league, but eight new programs have been added to the mix to form a deep 16-team competition to determine which squad will claim the vacant spot at the top.

Louisiana Tech, Charlotte and Middle Tennessee are the three newcomers to the league that have the best shot of winning the C-USA crown in their inaugural campaign. The Bulldogs return four starters from last season's team that pushed into the Top-25. The 49ers also have four starters back from a squad that made an NIT appearance.

They will have to overcome some returning programs that have been yearning for a league title for quite some time, but just could not overcome the Tigers the past few years. Tim Floyd's Texas-El Paso Miners have a strong chance of finishing at the top due to their excellence at the defensive end of the floor. Southern Miss, Tulsa and UAB all have a fighter's chance as well. The Blazers could make strides in their second year under coach Jarod Haase, who will have more resources to run his up tempo system and that could send UAB back to the Big Dance.

The Golden Hurricane are entering their second season under former NBA star Danny Manning, who guided them to a 17-16 finish in his first year as a head coach. USM's homecourt advantage is one of the best in the nation among mid- major programs, which should help Donnie Tyndall make a run at the title once his team gets past a very difficult non-conference slate.

The next tier has three programs that battled in the Sun Belt Conference last season as North Texas, FIU and Florida Atlantic will all likely finish in the middle of the pack. East Carolina will try to continue its recent success after notching 23 wins a season ago that ended with the CIT championship. The Mean Green will have to figure out a way to replace Tony Mitchell, who went on to be selected by the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the most recent NBA Draft. FIU is the only school in the 16-team field that is not eligible for the postseason due to low APR scores.

C-USA will resemble a brand new conference as there is very little history between the new members and existing ones. Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio are considered the weakest new additions, although both could finish ahead of Marshall, Tulane and Rice, who have all underachieved recently.

The Monarchs are making their C-USA debut after a last-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association. Coach Jeff Jones has some talented players in his backcourt, but ODU will have to overcome a lack of size that will make it difficult to defend and rebound in what is expected to be a very athletic league.

Tom Herrion enters the campaign in search of a new leader after star swingman DeAndre Kane transferred to Iowa State. Rice has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the league standings with a 1-15 conference mark in 2012-13.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Louisiana Tech

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Louisiana Tech, 2. Texas-El Paso, 3. Southern Miss, 4. Charlotte, 5. Tulsa , 6. UAB, 7. Middle Tennessee, 8. North Texas, 9. FIU, 10. East Carolina, 11. Florida Atlantic, 12. Tulane, 13. Marshall, 14. Texas-San Antonio, 15. Old Dominion, 16. Rice

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

LOUISIANA TECH: After winning 27 games, a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship and a game in the NIT, the Bulldogs are hoping to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament at the end of their inaugural tour of C- USA. Michael White is an excellent coach and his defensive-minded approach is sure to frustrate Louisiana Tech's 15 new conference rivals. White's team also scores points in bunches as it plays a faster pace than most. The team came together last season as the Bulldogs produced an 18-game win streak, and a very deep squad should help them generate plenty of victories this season. Louisiana Tech will rely on junior guards Raheem Appleby (14.9 ppg) and Kenneth Smith (6.8 ppg, 5.0 apg, 1.7 spg), who both earned All-WAC First Team honors last season. Appleby earned the all-conference accolades despite a drop in his efficiency from beyond the arc. After hitting on 40 percent of his 3- point attempts as a rookie, Appleby sank only 30 percent last season. Smith paced the WAC in assists per game and is also an excellent defender. The key to Tech's defense is junior forward Michael Kyser, who led the WAC in blocks (93) and the team in rebounding (5.3 rpg) last season. Cordarious Johnson (7.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg) will also help LaTech down the stretch, as will freshmen Leo Edwards and Dominic Jackson.

TEXAS EL-PASO: The Miners would have been the clear favorite to win the league this season had McDonald's All-American Isaac Hamilton not backed out of his commitment to join the squad. Floyd's squad may not be the clear frontrunner, but it still has plenty of potential to claim the C-USA crown after finishing third in the standings last season. UTEP's trademark defense paired with its 44.9 percent shooting from the floor made it a tough opponent throughout the course of the 2012-13 campaign, during which it took down top-notch foes such as New Mexico State and Oregon. The team will also have an edge when the 2014 conference tournament rolls around, as it will be played in the Don Haskins Center. The Miners return five of their top seven scorers with Julian Washburn (12.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg), John Bohannon (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and McKenzie Moore (8.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) leading the way. In addition to pacing the squad in scoring, the 6-foot-7 Washburn also earned a spot on the C-USA All-Defensive Team for his contributions at the other end of the floor. The 6-foot-10 Bohannon is one of the top big men in the league and he will be a great mentor for Matt Willms (7-1), who is by far the biggest of the team's new additions. The Miners most promising freshman is Vince Hunter, a 6-foot-7 wingman who was considered a four-star recruit.

SOUTHERN MISS: No team in C-USA is more excited by Memphis's departure for the AAC than the Golden Eagles, who finished second to the Tigers in the league standings the last two seasons. Tyndall's squad overcame its lack of size in 2012-13 en route to an impressive 27-10 finish, but failed to make a return to the NCAA Tournament after suffering a double-overtime loss to Memphis in the conference tournament title tilt. USM earned a pair of NIT wins, including a 11-point decision over Louisiana Tech, before falling to BYU in the quarterfinals. The team's success came due to its excellent performance at the offensive end of the floor which yielded 74.4 ppg (30th-best nationally) on 48.3 percent field goal efficiency, which gave it the 11th-best field goal percentage among all Division I programs. Those numbers will be hard to replicate without Dwayne Davis (16.0 ppg) in the mix this season, but Jerrold Brooks (10.9 ppg, 2.3 apg) is hoping to pick up the slack and become the squad's new go-to-guy. USM has an all-conference caliber point guard in Neil Watson (9.8 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.8 spg), due to his great awareness that pays dividends at both ends of the floor. The Golden Eagles have a pair of transfers becoming eligible this season, as Chip Armelin (Minnesota) and Aaron Brown (Temple) seek a fresh start in Hattiesburg.

CHARLOTTE: The 49ers were one of the most impressive teams in the nation to begin last season as they won 15 of their first 17 games, however they could not carry over that success into Atlantic 10 Conference action and tallied only six victories the rest of the way. Charlotte, which was one of the founding members of C-USA, will benefit from its return to the league as it tries to build on last season's NIT appearance. Coach Alan Major's team had earned only 23 victories over the previous two seasons before ending the 2012-13 campaign with 21 wins. Reaching the mark again will rely on Charlotte's ability to find an adequate replacement for leading scorer Chris Braswell, but Major has a strong foundation to build upon with point guard Pierria Henry (10.3 ppg, 5.5rpg, 3.7 apg) and Willie Clayton (8.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Terrance Williams (7.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Denzel Ingram (5.8 ppg) bring experience to the table as they both played in all 33 games last season. Tulane transfer Ben Cherry will help right away after hitting 50 percent of his attempts from 3-point range last season, and freshman forward Cameron Blakely should be a factor on the interior.

TULSA: Manning was not predicted to post a winning record in his first season as a head coach as he took over a squad filled with newcomers, but a strong defensive performance helped the former Kansas Jayhawks' unit win half of its league games and 17-of-33 overall. This will be Tulsa's last season in the C- USA before it joins Memphis in the AAC. The Golden Hurricane were inconsistent at the offensive end last season as they scored 101 points on Houston to set a season-high, and managed only 41 against Stephen F. Austin to mark their season-low. An extra year of experience should help solve that issue as Tulsa expects stellar sophomore campaigns out of James Woodard (12 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and D'Andre Wright (8.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) return after being selected to C-USA's All- Freshmen Team. Manning will also have back 6-foot-7 forward Rashad Smith, who led the team in scoring with 14.5 ppg before suffering a season-ending injury after just four contests. Manning added size to his roster in the off-season with Emmanuel Ezechinonso (6-11, 275) and Lew Evans (6-10, 225), both of whom could help the team progress toward the 20-win mark.

UAB: Haase's strategy was the polar opposite of his predecessor, Mike Davis, Jr, as the Blazers were a slow-paced, defensive-minded unit in the season before the former North Carolina assistant's arrival. UAB still managed to finish just below the .500 mark and should only go up from there as the returning players have a better grasp on Haase's system, and the incoming recruits are better suited to play in his up tempo style. The team had no trouble lighting up the scoreboard last season, as it netted 71.4 points per game and finished 12th nationally with 16 assists per outing. Although UAB finished with a 7-9 league record, it played well down the stretch to overcome its 0-5 start. The forward tandem of Rod Rucker (14.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Jordan Swing (14 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.7 apg) is one of the most dynamic in the conference and highlights the Blazers' starting lineup that features four seniors. Robert Williams (8.5 ppg) and Preston Purifoy (7.7 ppg) are both legitimate threats from long range while the 6-foot-9 Fahro Alihodzic (9.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg) provides some mid-range shooting from the center position. Haase did a decent job recruiting some new talent to Birmingham, and the team will have an experienced new point guard in Chad Frazier (6-4, 190), who was one of the top players at the junior college level last season.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE: Coach Kermit Davis will guide the Blue Raiders into C-USA after a dominant display in the Sun Belt Conference last season. They went 19-1 in league play en route to a 28-6 overall finish and even earned an at- large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite playing in a lower-level conference. Davis, who led the squad to 27 wins in 2011-12, will have trouble keeping the team at such a high level as there is definitely a need to rebuild in Murfreesboro. MTSU's dominance last season came due to its incredible performance at the defensive end, where it ranked 15th nationally with only 58.1 ppg allowed. The Blue Raiders were also ranked 24th in rebounding margin (plus-5.7), but they have to replace Marcos Knight, a First-Team All-Sun Belt selection, along with the SBC Defensive Player of the Year, Bruce Massey and Raymond Cintron, who both earned Third-Team accolades. MTSU still has forward Shawn Jones (8.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) along with contributors Neiko Hunter (7.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg) and Tweety Knight (4.7 ppg, 2.5 apg) to lead a deep rotation. NC State transfer Jaquawn Raymond is eligible to play this season, and Marcus Tarrance will help as well after being named a NJCAA First-Team All-American last year.

NORTH TEXAS: Despite having an NBA prospect on the squad and playing in the SBC, the Mean Green went just 12-20 with a 7-13 league record last season, the first under coach Tony Benford. The poor performance was mostly caused by a handful of injuries that limited many of UNT's players, including its starting backcourt of Brandan Walton and Chris Jones, who played a combined total of only 15 games. Both were clearly missed as the team struggled to open things up for Mitchell on the inside due to its 28.5 percent effort on 3-point attempts. If healthy, UNT will drastically improve this season as Jones (9.2 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Walton (8.8 ppg in 2011-12) both return to join leading scorer Jordan Williams (14.2 ppg) and Alzee Williams (11.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg) in the starting lineup. The Mean Green also have a new enforcer in the paint as the 6-foot-10 Kelvin Gaines becomes eligible after transferring from Cincinnati. Freshman Greg Wesley (6-7, 215) could see the floor right away as well after being considered a top-10 prospect in the Lone Star State.

FIU: Richard Pitino's departure to take over as the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers left FIU without a leader heading into a season that will be limited by its low APR numbers. The school made a great hire in Anthony Evans, who was the coach of Norfolk State when the Spartans upset Missouri in the opening round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. After leading Norfolk State to a 16-0 record in MEAC play last season, Evans takes over at FIU and has a potential star in forward Rakeem Buckles for his first campaign. Buckles transferred from Louisville to play for Pitino, but the former four- star recruit will be a huge contributor for Evans instead. Last season's leading scorer, Tymell Murphy (14.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is also back along with sophomore Jerome Frink (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) who started 25 games as a rookie. FAU transfer Raymond Taylor should also be a huge help at point guard as he was a First-Team All-Sun Belt selection at the end of the 2011-12 campaign.

EAST CAROLINA: Coach Jeff Lebo has done a remarkable job turning the Pirates into a successful team since arriving in Greenville in time for the 2010-11 season. ECU, which had not experienced a winning season since 1997, set a school record with 23 victories, but it will take some more time before it makes its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993 following the departures of Maurice Kemp, Miguel Paul and Robert Sampson. Akeem Richmond (10.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg), who broke the school record with 105 3-pointers last season, played a big factor for the Pirates as they finished 16th in points per game (77.0) and second in assists per game (17.4) nationally. Richmond's final 3-pointer of the season came as time expired to give the Pirates the CIT Championship. He will get some help from Paris Roberts-Campbell (5.6 ppg, 1.8 apg). ECU is thin up front due to Ty Armstrong leaving the team in September for personal reasons, which means 6-foot-10 sophomore Marshall Guilmette (4.0 ppg, 15.3 mpg) and 6-foot-8 Michael Zangari (4.1 mpg) will be asked to do much more this season.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC: Coach Mike Jarvis will lead the Owls into C-USA following an unimpressive 14-18 record in the school's final season in the Sun Belt. Jarvis lost both of his standout guards from the 2012-13 squad that ranked ninth in the SBC in points per game (65.4), despite hitting 36 percent of its 3-point tries. Greg Gantt and Stefan Moody accounted for 56 percent of the club's scoring, but new leadership may help the underachieving Owls make a move in the right direction. FAU has its third-leading scorer, Pablo Betrone (9.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg) back, and he will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Jackson Trapp (5.0 ppg, 2.1 apg) and freshman Marquan Botley, a three-star recruit who played his high school ball with Kentucky's top recruit Julius Randle. The Owls also have a 7-footer in the middle in Dragan Sekelja (3.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg), whose production is going to go up with more ample opportunity to shine.

TULANE: Coach Ed Conroy would have had one of the best lineups to start the season had Josh Davis and Ricky Tarrant not decided to transfer to San Diego State and Alabama, respectively. The Green Wave's hopes of building on last season's 20 wins diminished when their top two players left as they will have tremendous difficulty trying to duplicate averages of 69.6 ppg and 65.7 ppg allowed which helped them earn a berth in the CIT. Junior forward Trevante Drye (4.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) is going to be one of the leaders for Conroy. Although Davis' numbers were not all that impressive, he started 25 games and played 57 percent of the available minutes. Tulane gets back center Tomas Bruha (1.8 ppg), who missed the last 17 games of last season with a knee injury. Former Utah signee Josh Hearlihy, Mikael Herbert (6-9, 210) and Ray Barreno (6-11, 260) will all have a chance to earn minutes early on in their careers, which may hurt the team initially, but hopefully pay dividends down the line.

MARSHALL: After the Thundering Herd came into the season with high hopes of competing with Memphis for the C-USA title, they endured a nightmare of a campaign and finished 13-19 overall with only six league wins. Four starters from the squad that allowed 72.7 ppg are gone, but Marshall is hoping that addition by subtraction takes place. Last season's team had plenty of room for improvement and its lack of accurate jump shooters was made obvious as it finished 10th in the league in field goal percentage (.427), 11th in 3-point field goal percentage (.307) and 12th in free-throw percentage (.598). The Herd have a reliable senior leader in forward Elijah Pittman (16.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who emerged as the best offensive player on the team last season. Kareem Canty, who was expected to start at point guard last season before being ruled academically ineligible, is ready to go. Herrion has a potential all- conference selection in junior college transfer Chris Thomas, who has had academic and legal troubles prevent his career from taking off to this point.

TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO: The Roadrunners have a long way to go as they enter a much tougher league following their 10-win season in the WAC. Coach Brooks Thompson's squad had a noticeable lack of size that caused it to finish near the bottom in blocks with roughly one per game, and also resulted in a -3.8 rebounding margin. UTSA built momentum down the stretch as it won five of its final eight games, including a shocking upset of Louisiana Tech in the WAC Tournament, but three starters are gone from that unit including the top-two scorers. Senior forward Jeromie Hill (13.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) gives the Roadrunners a solid leader to steer the ship, but he has little help around him for his final tour. Jordan Sims (6.5 ppg) showed he has plenty of confidence with 172 attempts from beyond the arc, and that total could go up due to departures, but he needs to connect on more than 32 percent of them or the offense will suffer. The key addition is 6-foot-2 guard Larry Lewis, who originally committed to USC.

OLD DOMINION: The Monarchs have nowhere to go but up after experiencing the worst season in program history. ODU is under the leadership of former American mentor Jeff Jones after the school fired 12-year coach Blaine Thompson late last season when it dropped to 2-20. Jones has an excellent track record that includes an Elite Eight appearance as Virginia's coach in 1995, but he will begin his tenure without any seniors and very few capable post players. ODU netted only 64.9 ppg on only 40.9 percent shooting from the floor last season. The leading scorer among the returning players is sophomore point guard Keenan Palmore (8.2 ppg, 3.0 apg), but his poor shooting from the outside will make him very easy to guard if he is the top option. Junior forward Richard Ross (7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) was highly efficient as he connected on 56 percent of his field goal tries. ODU could receive a huge lift if Trey Freeman (14.3 ppg, 5.8 apg), who was an All-Big South pick last season at Campbell, is granted eligibility and allowed to play immediately.

RICE: Although it is hard to imagine the Owls doing much worse this season following their 5-26 showing in 2012-13, coach Ben Braun is not expected to fare much better as he will once again have a depleted roster. The Owls lost Tamir Jackson's 17.7 ppg to graduation, and Julian Debose's 10.4 ppg when he transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. Considering Rice averaged only 60.5 ppg and allowed 70.9 ppg, wins will not be easy to come by unless a few underclassmen make enormous strides. C-USA All-Freshman Team selection Max Guercy (9.5 ppg, 2.5 apg) will be at the center of the rebuilding project, and he could be among the conference's leading scorers if he continues to knock down 37 percent of his 3-point attempts. Ross Wilson and Seth Gearhart are both back after making 20 starts apiece. Freshmen big men Andrew Drone (6-11, 270) and Sean Obi (6-9, 240) will see the floor right away, although they probably wouldn't had they gone to any other school in the conference.