Mar 15, 2013; Tulsa, OK, USA; UTEP Miners head coach Tim Floyd talks to an official during the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at the BOK Center. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte 49ers Countdown to Madness: Conference USA Top To Bottom

Conference USA will be a completely different conference this year compared to what it was when Charlotte left for the Atlantic 10 in 2005.  CUSA has added eight new basketball teams this season alone: four from the Sun Belt (Middle Tennessee, FAU, FIU, North Texas), two from the WAC (La Tech, UTSA), one from the CAA (Old Dominion), and of course one from the Atlantic 10 (Charlotte).  With Memphis leaving for the AAC, the conference championship is up for grabs for the first time in almost a decade (Memphis had won 7 of the last 8 conference titles).   The conference as a whole looks to be significantly weaker top-to-bottom compared to the tough competition Charlotte faced in the A 10 the last few years.  As long as Charlotte can overcome their lack of frontcourt depth, the Niners have the talent to compete for a conference title this season.

Favorites:

1. UTEP (18-14, 10-6 C-USA; no postseason games)
When McDonald’s All-American recruit Isaac Hamilton committed to play at UTEP last fall, the Miners became were looking to be a flashy pick to win the conference in 2013-14.  Even after Hamilton decided to take his talents to Los Angeles, UTEP still remains the favorite to win it all.  Tim Floyd has built this team on tough defense and appears to have the team trending in the right direction in his third season as head coach.  Junior G-F Julian Washburn, who made 3rd team all-conference last season as a sophomore, returns as the team’s leading scorer at 12.3 PPG.  Juniors C.J. Cooper and McKenzie Moore are both dangerous from deep, as they each shot over 35% from long range last year.  John Bohannon, the 6’11″ lone senior on the team, provides a strong presence under the basket (averaged 10.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.7 BPG last season), along with 6’10″ junior forward Cedrick Lang who is an exceptional rebounder.  Matt Willms is a talented seven footer who should be able to contribute quality minutes this year after redshirting his freshman season last year.  Four star recruit Vince Hunter, an athletic 6’7″ wing from Detroit, and three star recruit Josh Brown, a 5’11″ guard from L.A., will both have the opportunity to make an impact on a team that will be competing for a conference championship this year.  If UTEP can improve on their 262nd nationally ranked scoring offense from last season, they’ll have a good shot at winning the conference title this year.

2. Southern Miss (27-10, 12-4 C-USA; lost in NIT quarterfinals)
Despite the Golden Eagles losing some key players from last season’s squad, they are still one of the favorites to win the conference in Donnie Tyndall’s second year as head coach.  They head into the 2013-14 season without their leading scorer Dwayne Davis (16 ppg) and best interior player in Jonathan Mills (9.3 PPG, 8.0 RPG), but return four seniors who started at least 10 games last year.  6’0″ senior guard Jerrold Brooks who averaged almost 11 ppg and shot over 35% from beyond the arc for Southern Miss last season will be looking to take over as the team’s leading scorer.  Seniors Neil Watson (9.8 PPG, 42 3P%), Michael Craig (9.0 PPG), and Daveon Boardingham (8.6 PPG) are all capable of double-digit scoring on a nightly basis.  Tyndall also brought in three transfers, all eligible to play this year,  that should be able to help replace what they lost from last season and then some.  Aaron Brown, a 6’5″ small forward transfer from Temple, will provide a three point threat from the wing- he shot 42% from distance in his last season with the Owls.  Minnesota transfer Chip Armelin will provide solid depth to the backcourt, and 6’10″ 230 lb JUCO transfer Ude Ifeanyichukwa should see significant minutes at the forward/center position this year.  The main concern for the Golden Eagles this season will be frontcourt depth- other than Ifeanyichukwa, Southern Miss doesn’t have any players taller than 6’7″.

3. La. Tech (27-7, 16-2 WAC; lost in NIT second round to Southern Miss)
From Charlotte’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine C-USA being a step up in competition for basketball; however, this is the case for the other seven newcomers to the conference this year, including Louisiana Tech.  La Tech dominated the WAC last season, save the conference tournament where they got knocked out of the first round by a lowly UTSA squad (who is also new to CUSA- see below…way below).  The Bulldogs played an 11 man rotation last year and only lost two of those players, neither of which should significantly hurt the team this season.  Junior guards Kenneth Smith and Raheem Appleby both won 1st team All-WAC honors last year.  Smith is a 6’3″ do-it-all point guard who can fill up a stat sheet- he averaged 6.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.7 SPG,  and shot 37% from deep last season- while Appleby led the team in scoring with just under 15 PPG.  Michael White’s team will definitely be able to compete against better competition this year, but inconsistency could keep them from capturing a conference championship.

Contenders:
4. Charlotte (21-12, 8-8 A-10; lost in NIT first round)
In Alan Major’s fourth season at the helm of the Charlotte 49ers, things finally are seeming to be trending in the right direction for the program.  Charlotte lost their most talented offensive weapon from last season in Chris Braswell (12 PPG), along with two key role players transferring out of the program- forward Darion Clark (USC) and small forward E. Victor Nickerson (Valparaiso).  The three incoming players–sophomore G-F Shawn Lester (academically ineligible last year) and freshmen recruits Marcus Bryan and Cameron Blakely–should be able to fill the voids left by Clark and Nickerson.  This year it will be Pierria Henry’s team, but the team’s success will depend heavily on the development of all of the youth from last year’s team that started three freshmen and two sophomores for the majority of the season.  The competition will be significantly lower versus what the 49ers went up against in the A-10, and Charlotte should be in contention for a conference championship this year.  The biggest question mark for them this year is whether or not they’ll be able to win consistently throughout the season with the lack of depth on their roster.

5. Tulsa (17-16, 8-8 C-USA; lost in CBI first round)
With an extremely youthful team and injury-riddled season last year, Tulsa was still able to manage a .500 conference record in Danny Manning’s first season as head coach.  They return all-conference freshmen players James Woodard (12 PPG, 6 RPG) and D’Andre Wright (8.5 PPG, 5 RPG, 1.0 BPG) for a young team that only has three seniors and one junior on the roster.  Senior Pat Swelling Jr. should be Tulsa’s best perimeter threat this year as he shot 41% from deep before fracturing his wrist at the end of the season.  Fellow senior Tim Peete looks to add backcourt depth and JUCO transfer Marquel Curtis could prove to be a scoring threat for Golden Hurricanes.  Rashard Smith led the team in scoring in his first four games as a freshman before a stress fracture ended his season last year.  Freshmen forwards 6’11″ Emmanuel Ezechinoso and 6’9″ Tarekeyi Edogi will both add depth to an already young frontcourt, although how many minutes both will be able to contribute is unknown.  Tulsa should be able to play with a deep rotation this season, and with such a youthful roster they will be competitive in Conference USA for at least the next few years.

6. Middle Tennessee State (28-6, 19-1 Sun Belt; lost in NCAA “first round”)
After securing an at-large birth to the NCAA tournament last year by dominating the Sun Belt, Middle Tennessee will see a step up in competition in Conference USA this season.  To be successful, Middle Tennessee will have to replace five players who averaged double-digit minutes, including 3 of their top 5 scorers they lost from last year.  Senior forwards Shawn Jones and Neiko Hunter will both be looking to improve off solid junior years and should provide consistent scoring this season.  Kermit Davis has brought in three JUCO transfers–all guards–to help replace what will be a different looking backcourt compared to the 2012-13 season.  Guard Jaquan Raymond, a NC State transfer, will add to the backcourt full of new players that will be ready to contribute right away.  Despite losing some of their top players from last year, the Blue Raiders still return a lot of experienced role players.  Those players, along with the plethora of new talent that should be ready to contribute, could produce a dangerous team who will be very deep this year if they can avoid injuries.

7. UAB (16-17, 7-9 C-USA; no postseason games)
UAB returns five of its top six scorers–all seniors this year–in Jerod Haase’s up-tempo offense.  The Blazers shouldn’t have a problem scoring this year, but the team will have to cut down on their 15 turnover/game habit from last year to see success in conference in 2013-2014.  Jordan Swing (14 PPG), Robert Williams (8.5 PPG), and Preston Purifoy (7.7 PPG) will be threats from deep, all of them shooting around 36% from behind the arc last season.  For a team without a lot of size, their 6’5″ forward, Rod Rucker, was their best rebounder last year averaging just over 8 boards a game.  He was also their leading scorer with over 14 PPG.  Haase brought in a nice recruiting class this season as well.  Top-20 JUCO prospect Chad Frazier and top-40 JUCO prospect C.J. Washington could both play major roles on the team this year.  Frazier had originally committed to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State before making his final decision to play in Birmingham where he’ll most likely be the Blazers starting point guard.  With UAB’s experienced roster, they could definitely make some noise in Conference USA this season.

Middle of the Pack:
8. Marshall (13-19, 6-10 C-USA; no postseason games)
The Thundering Herd only return one starter from last season, that is, if his legal troubles from this summer don’t end up being an issue during the season this year.  Senior Elijah Pittman led the team with 16 points a game and shot 37% from the perimeter last year.  Tom Herrion will introduce two very talented newcomers to the team, though–Kareem Canty was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school but was ruled academically ineligible; and former five star recruit Chris Thomas, who played at Chipola Junior College last year, has also had his share of academic and legal troubles.  JUCO transfers Shawn Smith and Cheikh Sane both will see the court a lot this season and guard TyQuane Goard, a transfer from the Ohio squad that went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012, will get his chance coming off the bench for Marshall.  Despite losing most of its starters from a sub-.500 team from last season, Marshall has the talent to potentially finish in the top half of CUSA this season.

9. ECU (23-12, 9-7 C-USA; won CIT)
Going into their last season as a part of C-USA, the Pirates will be looking to replace some of their top players from last year before departing to the AAC next season.  All-Conference first-team forward Maurice Kemp and second-team point guard Miguel Paul both were lost to graduation last year.  Leading rebounder and shot blocker Robert Sampson transferred to Georgia Tech in the offseason.  ECU does return two of its top three point shooting threats in Akeem Richmond (42 3P%) and Paris Roberts-Campbell (36 3P%), but should struggle to fill bodies down low.  Marshall Guilmette, the 6’11″ sophomore, had promising looks last season, and three-star recruits Brandan Stith and Caleb White could both see a lot of playing time as freshmen this year.  Jeff Lebo has the team moving in the right direction it seems, but ECU doesn’t figure to be in the top half of the conference this year.

10. North Texas (12-20, 7-13 Sun Belt; no postseason games)
Second year coach Tony Benford will have to replace their top talent from last season in Tony Mitchell, who was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the NBA draft this past summer.  His team will be looking to stay injury-free this year, something they had problems with last season that resulted in a bad showing in a weak Sun Belt conference.  The Mean Green bring back their top scorer in Jordan Williams, and hopefully will have a healthy Brandan Walton and Chris Jones- both guards suffered major injuries before conference play even started last season.  Benford has also brought in a slew of JUCO prospects and Division I players who could contribute to the team this year after a disappointing 7-13 record in the Sun Belt last season.

11. Florida International (18-14, 11-9 Sun Belt; no postseason games)
Anthony Evans takes over a Golden Panthers team this season in his first year as FIU’s head coach after Richard Pitino was hired away to Minnesota in the offseason.  FIU won’t have a postseason to play for, as they were hit with a ban this season due to academic issues from the Isiah Thomas era.  Evans lost three guards to transfers- Malik Smith followed Pitino to Minnesota and Deric Hill and Juan Ferrales both transferred to D-II schools.  FIU does return its leading scorer from last season, though, in Tymell Murphy.  They’ll also have size down low, with three players that are 6’10″ or taller, including a seven-footer (Ivan Jurkovic) who may see more than just the reserve minutes he saw last season.  Anthony Evans seems like a solid hire, but the team may end up transitioning into a rebuilding stage for the next couple years with its new head coach.

Bottom Dwellers:
12. Tulane (20-15, 6-10 CUSA; lost in CIT second round)
Tulane will be dealing with replacing a total of six transfers this season, including two of the team’s best players from last season.  Ed Conroy will be looking to rebuild his team, beginning this year, where only one starter from last year returns.  Conroy didn’t bring in any highly touted recruits per se, but he did bring in eight new faces to the program where they’ll have plenty of opportunity to develop.

13. ODU (5-25, 3-15 CAA; no postseason games)
ODU is coming off the program’s worst season in its history and will be looking to move forward after coach Blaine Taylor’s personal issues got him fired towards the end of last season after a 2-20 start.  Jeff Jones is in as the new head coach and will be looking to lead a squad with just one senior back to relevance after an embarrassing season last year.

14. FAU (14-18 ,9-11 Sun Belt; no postseason games)
Head coach Mike Jarvis heads into the 2013-14 season with a step up in competition and without his two best guards from last season.  FAU did bring in a three star recruit this year in Marquan Botley, who should get his fair share of playing time as a freshman.  Seven foot senior and a former Baylor center, Dragan Sekelija, will also need to be productive in the frontcourt to help FAU be successful this season.

15. UTSA (10-22, 3-14 WAC; no postseason games)
A UTSA team that only was able to muster up three wins in a lowly WAC conference might have some trouble adjusting to its new conference.  Brooks Thompson did bring in a four star recruit, Larry Lewis, who originally committed to USC his sophomore year in high school.  The Roadrunner’s main issue will be size this year, but like most teams in the bottom half of the conference, their main focus is to rebuild/develop right now.

16. Rice (5-26, 1-15 CUSA; no postseason games)
Ben Braun will be continuing his rebuilding of a Rice team that was one of the worst in the country last year.  With only four upperclassmen on the roster, the Owls will be looking to develop the young talent that they have moving forward.  Braun has brought in four two star recruits that Rice fans hope to see develop into a nice core in the next few years.

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