Doug Smock: Ranking C-USA basketball ahead of conference play

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail
Phil Blesdoe and the Thundering Herd come in at No. 3 in Doug Smock's Conference-USA basketball rankings.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: From top to bottom, Conference USA basketball is not very good.

Heard that last year, right?

You know this league is good enough to throw a Molotov cocktail into your bracket, but that’s only one team of 14. For every Middle Tennessee, there’s a Texas-San Antonio, a Southern Mississippi and a North Texas.

With conference play beginning at the end of this week, the Rating Percentage Index rankings aren’t kind. Entering Christmas Eve, C-USA had slumped to 25th of 32 Division I teams, according to WarrenNolan.com.

That’s even further down from the 21st or thereabouts the league was pegged at a year ago. C-USA sits between the American East and Big South.

As I look around the top of the league, I don’t see many teams who aren’t taking at least a half-step back. Alabama-Birmingham lost point guard Nick Norton for the season. Louisiana Tech is having trouble finishing, and Marshall can’t stop anything inside.

And what is up with the Miners of Texas-El Paso? They don’t seem to be bereft of talent, but are 1-9 vs. Division I play and just lost to Maryland-Eastern Shore.

As I compiled my annual pre-conference season rankings, I seriously entertained the thought of placing Rice at No. 2. Let that simmer for a minute.

Here goes:

1. Middle Tennessee (10-3, RPI 18 as of Saturday morning). Best results: beat Mississippi 77-62, Vanderbilt 71-48. Worst result: lost to Georgia State (RPI 63) 64-56.

Playing Marshall: Jan. 12 at Murfreesboro, Feb. 18 at Huntington.

This is hardly a John Calipari Memphis team, but the Blue Raiders have stood out above the rest of the league, their recent loss to Georgia State notwithstanding.

MTSU did to Vandy what it did to Marshall twice last year — get the Commodores out of their rhythm on offense, getting hands on balls and turning those into transition baskets. The Raiders lead the league in turnover margin, and suffered just six giveaways in that game.

Some familiar faces from the team that dismissed Marshall 99-90 in the C-USA tournament semifinals last March: Giddy Potts (16.6 points per game, .419 3-point percentage), Reggie Upshaw (13.9 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, 3.4 assists per game). But ‘The Man’ is senior JaCorey Williams (18.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg), an Arkansas transfer.

The Raiders received votes in the coaches poll last week, but the loss to Georgia State will put an end to that.

2. Alabama-Birmingham (6-6, RPI 188). Best results: beat George Washington 81-74, lost to Auburn 74-70. Worst results: lost to Furman 84-74, lost to Texas 96-60.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 14 at Birmingham, Feb. 16 at Huntington.

This pick is a show of faith in a UAB roster that still includes Chris Cokley, Dirk Williams and William Lee, a shot-blocking machine with a league-high 36 swats. The big question is how point guard Deion Lavender, a Southern Illinois transfer who started 11 Missouri Valley Conference games, can develop in Norton’s stead.

Norton’s assist-to-turnover ratio in league play last season was a shiny 3.0. In 12 games, Lavender is sporting a 1.8.

Critical stat: UAB’s free-throw percentage is a league-high .757, just ahead of Marshall’s at .755.

3. Marshall (7-5, RPI 117). Best results: beat Toledo 111-105 (OT), lost to Cincinnati 93-91 (OT). Worst result: lost to Ohio State 111-70.

The Thundering Herd couldn’t close out the 23rd-ranked Bearcats in regulation and was struck by bad luck (Bearcat miss wedged between rim and backboard). But that game showed me the Herd can work its offense in a hostile environment against a tough defense.

Jon Elmore is a player-of-year candidate and Stevie Browning’s midrange game is an exciting development. The return of Terrence Thompson is an “X factor,” as the Herd needs all the help it can get inside. I’m starting to fear the worst in that regard, as that abdominal injury has to heal 100 percent.

This team needs to learn to win on the road in a hurry — if not at Pitt, then the upcoming Florida International/Atlantic weekend. With two games of rec-center atmosphere, that stands to be the easiest road trip of the season.

4. Rice (10-3, RPI 168). Best results: beat Nebraska-Omaha 100-87, lost 83-73 to Pittsburgh. Worst result: lost 71-68 to Texas Southern (RPI 50).

Plays Marshall: March 2 in Huntington.

There you go. I’m calling the shot. Your Rice Owls will earn a first-round bye in the Conference USA tournament, which kicks off March 8 in Birmingham.

Am I really doing this?

In most years, the Owls have a dangerous shooter, a solid but unspectacular point guard and somebody to pull down nine rebounds a game, and they’re a pain in the neck. This time around, with veterans Egor Koulechev, Marcus Evans and Marcus Jackson, they may be more than a nuisance.

Koulechev, the Russian who first played at Arizona State, is having an MVP-type year — 18.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and a league-high .600 (!) 3-point percentage. This team is second in scoring (85.0) and first in SAT scores.

5. Louisiana Tech (8-5, 258). Best result: lost to South Carolina 85-76. Worst result: lost to Louisiana-Lafayette 91-83.

Plays Marshall: Feb. 4 at Ruston.

2015-16 player of the year Alex Hamilton has moved on, but Erik McCree (17.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg, .537 FG percentage) is still around. The emerging names: Jacobi Boykins (14.8 ppg, league-high 27 points), DaQuan Bracey (5.8 apg, league-high 4.0 assist-to-turnover ratio) and 6-foot-9, 255-pound Omar Sherman (.582 FG percentage).

Tech is third in scoring (78.8), first in assists (17.6) and first in defensive rebounding percentage (.765). And I bet the Bulldogs still practice their halfcourt shots.

The Bulldogs keep losing to their better opponents, but haven’t been blown out. I remain confident in this bunch.

6. Old Dominion (7-4, RPI 104). Best results: beat St. John’s 63-55, lost to Louisville 68-62. Worst result: lost 51-39 to Rhode Island.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 5 at Huntington, Feb. 23 at Norfolk.

The Monarchs miss Troy Freeman something fierce, as they are shooting a league-low .368 against a pretty good schedule. But they’re first in field-goal defense (.386) and second in 3-point defense (.321)

The ever-solid Brendan Stith (12.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg) is a senior.

7. Western Kentucky (5-7, RPI 245). Best results: beat Indiana State 77-59, Ohio 67-66. Worst results: lost 90-69 to Belmont, 86-57 to Washington, 85-79 to Detroit Mercy.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 21 at Huntington, Feb. 11 at Bowling Green.

Under first-year coach Rick Stansbury, this may be the toughest team to read. The Hilltoppers went 1-6 on a 29-day stretch of road games, but had Tennessee transfer Jabari McGhee become eligible this month.

Justin Johnson (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) is back, and he complements Washington State graduate transfer Que Johnson (14.2 ppg, 26 3-pointers). Pancake Thomas scores 11.8 a game, and is among the league leaders in minutes (35.4).

8. Charlotte (6-5, RPI 155). Best result: beat Elon 100-95. Worst results: lost to South Carolina-Upstate 108-103, Florida 87-46.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 7 at Huntington, Feb. 25 at Charlotte.

In the second year under coach Mark Price, I see the same players who have given Marshall fits — Jon Davis (19.9 ppg, .514 3-point percentage, 3.5 apg), Andrien White (12.2 ppg, 19 steals) and Braxton Ogbueze (11.4 ppg).

But the 49ers have underachieved more often than not since rejoining Conference USA. Somehow, even this pick may be too high.

9. Florida Atlantic (4-6, RPI 252). Best result: beat Ohio State 79-77 (OT). Worst results: Lost to Texas State 61-57, Hawaii 64-63.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 2 at Boca Raton.

OK, Owls, I see your win over the Buckeyes. But a two-point win and Marshall’s 41-point loss doesn’t mean you’re 43 points better than the Herd — especially when you lost to two 300-plus RPI teams.

This is becoming a veteran team, with 7-footer Ronald Delph (9.1 rpg, .580 FG percentage, 17 blocks), shooter Adonis Filer (.452 from 3) and point guard Nick Rutherford (5.4 apg, 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio). Add in juco guard Gerdarius Troutman (.414 from 3) and freshman Jailyn Ingram, and the Owls have something on which to build.

This team has major balance — no player is in the top 25 scoring, but seven players average 8.0 or more points. Filer leads at 11.1.

10. Texas-El Paso (2-9, RPI 346). Best results: lost 78-77 to New Mexico, 61-54 to Mississippi State. Worst results: lost to Maryland-Eastern Shore 71-66, Southeast Louisiana 72-56.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 28 at Huntington.

I’m riding the brand name on a team that might not be the second-best of the league’s Texas schools. There is still talent with Dominic Artis (14.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, league-high 7.5 apg, 26 steals) and Omega Harris (17.1 ppg). Seven-foot-1 Matt Willms leads the league with a .617 shooting percentage.

These guys are the mystery of the pre-conference season.

11. Florida International (4-9, RPI 338). Best result: beat Binghamton 74-57. Worst results: lost to Florida Gulf Coast 82-63, South Carolina 70-54.

Plays Marshall: Saturday at Miami.

Adrian Diaz has moved on, but 6-9 Alabama graduate transfer Michael Kessens is leading the league in rebounding (10.3) and averages 13.3 points. Donte McGill is third in scoring at 19.3 points, no doubt pleasing the average crowd of 736. (Yes, three digits.)

12. North Texas (6-6, RPI 261). Best result: lost 76-71 to Sam Houston State. Worst result: lost to Texas Tech 70-43.

Plays Marshall: March 4 at Huntington.

Jeremy Combs played 1:34 in a C-USA tournament loss and missed a few games this season, both courtesy of ankle injuries.

One thing to beware: Keith Frazier, a McDonald’s All-American who transferred from Southern Methodist, became eligible for the Southeastern Louisiana game. If he’s all that and Combs gets/stays healthy, watch out.

13. Texas-San Antonio (4-8, RPI 327). Best result: beat Prairie View 69-59. Worst results: lost to Texas Tech 87-50, Oregon State (RPI 337) 72-64.

Plays Marshall: Jan. 26 at Huntington.

Conference USA is reverting to the 12-team tournament format, so two teams will stay home. We’re looking at you, Roadrunners.

14. Southern Mississippi (3-7, RPI 345). Best result: beat Alabama A&M (RPI 351 of 351) 63-55. Worst results: lost 98-49 to Florida State, 71-64 to Tulane.

Plays Marshall: Feb. 2 at Hattiesburg.

You too, Golden Eagles.

Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougsmock and read his blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/dougsmock/.

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