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College Basketball Preview - Conference USA

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The landscape of Conference USA was tossed around quite heavily in the offseason, and now defending C-USA tournament champion Tulsa has a new home, along with a handful of other programs that once completed Conference USA. East Carolina and Tulane have also departed, while Western Kentucky, formerly of the Sun Belt, is now a C-USA member. The conference decreased from 16 teams to 14 in the offseason, which means slightly less contention for the 2014-15 conference crown, but it certainly doesn't take away from the level of competition.

Last season, four teams tied atop the regular season standings with 13-3 marks in conference play. Tulsa was one of them, and went on to win the league tournament, propelling the Golden Hurricane into the NCAA Tournament via an automatic bid. Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee all finished with identical 13-3 league records, while Southern Miss' 29-7 overall ledger was the best in the conference.

This could be the season for Louisiana Tech to end up on top. Coach Michael White turned down an opportunity to coach Tennessee in order to remain with the Bulldogs, who return four of the team's five starters from a school-record 29-win campaign a year ago. They'll be contending with a UTEP team that won 23 games last season and has almost its entire roster back this go-around, but also Old Dominion and Charlotte figure to be part of the mix in terms of high title hopes. Having Western Kentucky, which has been one of the more popular teams the last few years thanks to prolonged success in the Sun Belt Conference, join immediately makes things more difficult for the other programs in C-USA.

Middle Tennessee, which was one of the better squads last season that finished with a 24-9 overall record, may be the leader in the middle-of-the-road Conference USA programs this season, after Kermit Davis' group lost its four top scorers in the offseason. UAB finished 2013-14 with a 7-9 record in league play, but Jerod Haase's program has one of the better recruiting classes entering the fray this season, so expectations in Birmingham are high. It may take a year for things to fall into order, but the Blazers will be decent contenders or at least top-notch spoilers. FAU hired former Detroit Pistons coach Michael Curry to replace the veteran Mike Jarvis in the offseason, and Southern Miss has to deal with the loss of its three top scorers from last season. FIU was a bit of a shock last season, being able to win seven league games in coach Anthony Evans' first year. But without four of the team's top five scorers from the last campaign, it might be a down year for the Panthers.

The bottom portion of the conference will likely consist of North Texas, UTSA, Marshall and Rice - all of whom have seriously different looks from a year ago. North Texas gets senior guard Jordan Williams (who is already a 1,000- point scorer) and forward Colin Voss back, which will help. UTSA was overmatched in its first season as a member of Conference USA a year ago, finishing 4-12 in the league, and this year looks to be another learning experience for the Roadrunners. Marshall hired coach Dan D'Antoni (older brother of Mike D'Antoni) to replace Tommy Herrion, even though Dan D'Antoni hasn't been associated with the college level for more than four decades. And Rice lost its best player, Sean Obi, to Duke, so new coach Mike Rhoades doesn't have much to work with in his first season.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Louisiana Tech

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Louisiana Tech, 2. UTEP, 3. Charlotte, 4. Western Kentucky, 5. Old Dominion, 6. Middle Tennessee, 7. UAB. 8. FAU, 9. Southern Miss, 10. FIU, 11. North Texas, 12. UTSA, 13. Marshall, 14. Rice

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

LOUISIANA TECH: White's Bulldogs showed some serious promise last season after the team finished 29-8 with a 13-3 Conference USA record, including a 14-1 mark on their home court. The team averaged 81 ppg, led by then-sophomore Alex Hamilton, who registered 14.5 ppg after starting 37 contests. Hamilton is one of the four big names to return for White this season in what should be an unquestionable title run. Louisiana Tech will be led by Kenneth "Speedy" Smith at guard. The 6-foot-3 senior was an All-Conference USA First-Teamer following last season, a member of the All-Conference USA Defensive Team and the league's defensive player of the year. Smith led the team with 90 steals and 278 assists, while also averaging 3.8 rpg. Michale Kyser and Raheem Appleby, who only played in 25 games year, are expected to have huge seasons alongside Smith and Hamilton. Kyser only managed 7.0 ppg in 2013-14, but was dominant underneath the glass with team-leading statistics in rebounds (6.6 rpg) and blocked shots (109). Smith, Kyser and Appleby are the only three seniors on the team, and with a strong group of incoming freshman (which includes 7-foot center Joniah White), the Bulldogs are poised for a strong upcoming season.

UTEP: Coach Tim Floyd should be very happy about the number of strong returnees he has for the 2014-15 season. The Miners finished last year's campaign a game out of first place in the conference standings with a 1204 mark, while sporting a 23-11 overall record. But while most teams in the league were dangerous at home, UTEP was a formidable team on the road, leading Conference USA with a 7-1 road ledger. The two players Floyd will be the most excited about are senior Julian Washburn and sophomore Vince Hunter. The 6- foot-8 Hunter averaged 12.3 ppg and 6.5 rpg en route to earning Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors, while Washburn averaged 13.1 ppg and 3.5 rpg. The team returns nine of its top 10 scorers from 2013, with the only notable loss being John Bohannon (11.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg). The Miners also get Victor Mbachu back after the then-junior was declared academically ineligible to play in 2013. Perhaps UTEP would have finished better had the team not had to dismiss three players early on that were involved in a gambling incident, including McKenzie Moore. Moving forward, this UTEP squad has the talent to push for a conference title in 2014-15.

CHARLOTTE: Last season's 17-14 overall campaign and 7-9 mark in Conference USA play was a strong start for the 49ers, who returned to the conference after spending the previous years as a member of the Atlantic 10. Coach Alan Major should be excited about the upcoming season, since he has his four top scorers back in a well-rounded lineup that is led by senior guard Pierria Henry. Henry led the team last season with a 12.3 ppg average and 5.8 apg, also adding in a 5.2 rpg mark. Guard Shawn Lester and forward Willie Clayton (both juniors) were ranked numbers two and three in scoring on the 49ers roster last season, with Lester netting 11.9 ppg and Clayton checking in at 10.8 ppg (also bringing down a team-best 8.9 rpg). Guard Terrence Williams (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and center Mike Thorne Jr. (9.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) are both back as well, giving Major a very experienced roster, with plenty of depth on the bench. The top end of Conference USA will be highly contentious, but Charlotte figures into the top tier of programs that should have a fighting chance for the league's title, considering how well the team performed in its first year back.

WESTERN KENTUCKY: Most already know what Western Kentucky was able to accomplish in the Sun Belt Conference over the past few seasons, with trips to the NCAA Tournament and conference title games aplenty. That makes the Hilltoppers a great addition to Conference USA. WKU will see a boost in the level of competition, but that shouldn't scare either coach Ray Harper or his veteran players. Western Kentucky finished with a 20-12 record and a 12-6 mark in Sun Belt play a year ago, led by experienced guard T.J. Price. The 6-foot-4 senior is back for another year after leading his team with a 15.5 ppg average in 2013. Forward George Fant (13.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and guard Trency Jackson (10.2 ppg) will provide some stability to the lineup and will provide Harper with other scoring outlets should Price be sealed up in coverage. Even Chris Harrison-Docks (9.9 ppg, 2.2 apg) will see increased time after valuable experience last season. Sometimes teams struggle in their first season as part of a new conference, but the Hilltoppers have been around the top for so long, it's hard to imagine a shift in conference scenery will be enough to shake them.

OLD DOMINION: The Monarchs were indeed royalty last season, even though the program finished with an 18-18 record that included a 9-7 mark in Conference USA play. Coach Jeff Jones, however, took a five-win team in the 2012-13 season and turned it into last year's 18-win campaign, which tied for the greatest turnaround in all of Division I basketball. But now there are standards to which the team must meet following that success. Any lofty goals should be met however, considering the Monarchs return seven of the team's top eight players from 2013, including guard Aaron Bacote, who led Old Dominion in scoring as a sophomore with 15.5 ppg. His 102 assists was a team best as well, though his 100 turnovers will need to be corrected this season. Forward Richard Ross (9.9 ppg, team-best 7.0 rpg) will be counted on to lead the ground of players underneath the basket once again. Guard Keenan Palmore may need to pick up some of the production left behind by Dimitri Batten, who graduated after scoring 11 ppg last season. Last year's huge turnaround likely wasn't a fluke, and the Monarchs should be just as good with a core group of players returning. But don't be shocked if Old Dominion takes another season to work up to the top tier of Conference USA.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE: Middle Tennessee was a stellar team last season (24-9, 13-3) under Kermit Davis, who has built that program into a consistent model of success. But this may be the year that drops the Blue Raiders from grace as Davis will be without his top four scorers from last season. Shawn Jones (14.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 63 blocked shots) is the team's biggest loss, along with Tweety Knight (153 assists). Jaquan Raymond is the player with the highest returning scoring average. At 6.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg and 42 assists, Davis will have to likely work around Raymond as the star of the bunch. Forward Reggie Upshaw Jr. started in 20 games last season, so he'll be counted on in his sophomore season to be a force under the basket with senior forward Jacquez Rozier. This year's Middle Tennessee lineup only has two seniors and a handful of juniors, so perhaps this will be somewhat of a bridge year for Davis and his squad. The Blue Raiders will still compete and shouldn't finish anywhere near the bottom of the conference.

UAB: The Blazers were one of the better rebounding teams in the entire country last season, led by forward C.J. Washington (6.9 rpg), who returns for his senior campaign in 2014. Jerod Haase, the team's third-year coach, locked down possibly the best recruiting class in the history of the program, adding stud in-state freshmen William Lee (Alabama's Gatorade Player of the Year last season) and Lewis Sullivan. Both are expected to contribute right away to the team's success. Lee, a 6-foot-9 forward, and Sullivan (6-foot-7 forward) will make for one dominant frontcourt alongside Washington. The Blazers, who finished 18-13 last season with a 7-9 mark in C-USA, took a hit in the offseason, however, after the school announced last year's leading scorer, Chad Frazier, would not return to the program following an offseason incident. That makes Washington (13.0 ppg) the leading returning scorer. Washington is one of two seniors on the team (Denzel Collins is the other), which is made up almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores (10 of the team's 13 players are either a freshman or sophomore). That means it will be an unpredictable season for UAB, which will likely see plenty of growing pains and plenty of promise.

FAU: The Owls finished near the bottom of the Conference USA standings last season, ending the campaign on a seven-game losing streak and finishing with a 10-22 record overall, and a 5-11 mark in conference play. It's tough to see things getting much better this season after the surprising hire of former Pistons head coach Michael Curry to replace 69-year-old Mike Jarvis. But that might be the least of FAU's worries. The Owls were led offensively last season by Pablo Bertone (19.0 ppg), who is not back this season. The good news is that four of the other top five scorers are back this season, including guard Marquan Botley (11.3 ppg, team-high 84 assists) and center Justin Raffington (10.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg). Botley had a strong freshman campaign in 2013-14 that the Owls are hoping turns into even more success now that he's experienced. It's yet to be seen what type of system Curry implements at FAU, but the Owls will definitely be a team that should be allotted some transition time. Don't expect FAU to compete for the conference title this season.

SOUTHERN MISS: There may be no team in Conference USA this season that has a larger turnaround from one year to the next than Southern Miss, and not in a good way. The Golden Eagles tied atop the conference standings last season at 13-3, and ended with a 29-7 record - the best in the league. But boy, did player turnover hit the Eagles hard in the offseason. Last year's top scorers Michael Craig, Neil Watson and Daveon Boardingham are all gone. Aaron Brown is no longer on the roster, and Jerrold Brooks isn't with the program. That means all five of the team's top scorers from last season aren't back, and leaves redshirt freshman Matt Bingaya 5.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) as the go-to player. Chip Armelin, who saw action in 35 games last season and averaged 4.8 ppg, is one of two seniors on the Southern Miss roster. Jeremiah Eason (5.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is the other. The fall for the Eagles may not be so bad, but there's an extremely slim chance that Southern Miss goes on to repeat the efforts of last season, which nearly saw the Golden Eagles head to the NCAA Tournament.

FIU: The Panthers finished up last season right about in the middle of the Conference USA road at 7-9 in the league and 15-16 overall. That was after Richard Pitino left FIU to take the coaching job at Minnesota, sticking Anthony Evans in a bit of a tight spot headed into his first season at the helm. His second season might be another tough one, considering one of the team's top five scorers from last year returns. Guard Dennis Mavin finished the 2013-14 season averaging 11.8 ppg with 3.9 rpg. He wasn't counted on as much as guys like Tymell Murphy (16.6 ppg) and Rakeem Buckles (13.7 ppg), but he'll be the main guy for Evans this season. But the Panthers get a couple of guys in from transfers that should help out. Adrian Diaz, formerly of Kansas State, is a 6-11 forward that will be a presence down low, and Daviyon Draper is a 6-7 forward coming from Antelope Valley College. But unless the Panthers can get a significant source of scoring from another player besides Mavin, FIU might be in trouble in a deep league.

NORTH TEXAS: The Mean Green finished up the 2013-14 campaign with an even 16-16 overall record, but could only manage a 6-10 ledger in conference play. Headed into this season, North Texas will rely on senior guard Jordan Williams, who is a member of the 1,000-point scoring club already. Williams led the team in scoring last season with 12.0 ppg, and sported a team-best 6.3 rpg mark as well. But the Mean Green lost three starters from last season, so Williams will be the go-to player, along with senior forward Colin Voss, who averaged just 7.3 ppg last season, but added 5.8 rpg and 16 blocked shots to his resume. Coach Tony Benford is in his third season at the helm of the program, and might have a tough time competing this upcoming year without players like Chris Jones (127 assists) and Alzee Williams (11.1 ppg) on the roster anymore. But he will be build around Williams and Voss and use the four seniors on the roster to help develop the younger players.

UTSA: The Roadrunners moved over to Conference USA before the start of last season, and performed well from time to time in an upgrade of league competition. UTSA finished with an 8-22 record last year, and a 4-12 mark in conference play in the team's first C-USA season. Keon Lewis led the team in scoring with 12.6 ppg in last year's campaign, and the senior guard returns to the action in 2014 ready to play a potential spoiler role. He loses some big names, however, as Devon Agusi (12.2 ppg, 70 assists), Jordan Sims (10.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Hyjii Thomas (9.3 ppg, 25 steals) are all gone from the roster entering this season. Sophomore forward Phillip Jones, who averaged 7.2 ppg and a team-high 6.2 rpg last season, will get an expanded role heading into his sophomore year. Team defense was a bit of an issue in 2013, as the Roadrunners allowed 76.8 ppg to opponents. Although UTSA lost some key players, Lewis will lead a team looking to improve its record in its second season as a member of Conference USA.

MARSHALL: The hiring of Dan D'Antoni was a curious one for the Thundering Herd, who needed to replace Tommy Herrion in the offseason. D'Antoni, the older brother of Mike D'Antoni, hasn't been part of the college basketball ranks in 40 years. Last season Marshall finished with an 11-22 record overall and a 4-12 mark in Conference USA play. The Herd were hurt in the offseason by the loss of leading scorer Kareem Canty (16.3 ppg, 180 assists, 24 steals) and Chris Thomas (12.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Redshirt sophomore forward Ryan Taylor returns as the team's leading scorer from a year ago (12.8 ppg) and the leading rebounder (7.2 rpg). Taylor received plenty of experience last season, starting in 29 games with the Herd. Forward Shawn Smith, a transfer from San Francisco, averaged 7.6 ppg for Marshall last season, and he'll look for an expanded role this upcoming season. One thing Marshall needs to improve on for this year is playing on the road. The Herd finished with a 2-12 mark away from home in 2013-14. It will take some time for Marshall to get the hang of D'Antoni's new system, but perhaps even longer for players to adapt to their new roles.

RICE: The Owls had a dismal 2013-14 campaign, finishing with a 2-14 mark in conference play and a 7-23 record overall. Rice replaced coach Ben Braun, who went 3-29 in three seasons as the coach of the Owls, with Mike Rhoades, a former assistant under Shaka Smart at VCU. But the addition of Rhoades doesn't come with entirely good news. The Owls' best player last season, Sean Obi (11.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 22 blocked shots), transferred out of the program in favor of playing for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. And Austin Ramljak (11.6 ppg) graduated, which leaves junior guard Max Guercy (9.3 ppg, 97 assists, 3.3 rpg) as the team's leader. Forward Seth Gearhart will anchor the big men underneath, while 6-foot-10 sophomore center Andrew Drone will see an increased role after a freshman year in which he averaged 10.5 minutes per outing. The team won just two games away from home last season, and was 0-3 at neutral sites. Unless something unforeseen happens this season, Rice is expected to have a long first season under Rhoades.