Conference USA 2016-17

- Jim Root


Conference USA Preview

1.      Marshall
     Middle Tennessee
     Western Kentucky
5.    Louisiana Tech
     Old Dominion
     North Texas
  Florida Atlantic
  Florida International
  Southern Miss

All Conference Awards 

POY: Jon Elmore, PG, Jr., Marshall
Coach of the Year: Rick Stansbury, Western Kentucky
Newcomer of the Year: Keith Frazier, Sr., G, North Texas
Freshman of the Year: Tim Cameron, G, UTEP

1.     Marshall

Key Returners: Jon Elmore, Stevie Browning, Austin Loop, Ryan Taylor, CJ Burks
Key Losses:  James Kelly
Key Newcomers: Phil Bledsoe, Jannson Williams, Ky’re Allison

Postseason Projection:

Let’s start this conference preview off with a comparison, shall we? Jon Elmore, Marshall’s stud point guard and a transfer from VMI, became eligible for the Thundering Herd’s December 14th contest against NC Central. Here are the before/after numbers:

  • Marshall w/o Elmore: 2-6, ranked 250th in KenPom, averaged 75.9ppg
  • Marshall w/ Elmore: 15-10, ranked 142nd in KenPom, averaged 89.2ppg

Now granted, there’s some noise in there based on the difficulty of opponents faced, but the difference is plenty pronounced enough to make the point that Elmore is crucial to their success. He ranked 4th in the conference in % of minutes played (conference games only), 5th in assist rate, hit 80% of his FTs, and made 3 threes per game in Marshall’s 18 conference games (at a 40% rate, no less). With another year of development and playing a full season this time, he’s a serious candidate for POY, especially if the Herd rises up the standings like I anticipate.

Coach Dan D’Antoni is a disciple of his brother’s Seven-Seconds-Or-Less (SSOL) approach to offense, which involves attempting to take a (good) shot in the first 7 seconds of the shot clock. Indeed, Marshall had the 3rd-shortest average possession length in the country last year and were 15th in 3-point field goal rate (3FGA/total FGA), indicative of how hard they tried to score early and often, frequently from distance. Like almost any team attempting to play that fast, the defense suffered, but the Herd were able to get great shots on offense (57.2% on 2’s) that, coupled with excellent ball control, allowed them to have far and away the most efficient offense in the league.

Elmore should have a fun supporting cast at his disposal, led by three redshirt seniors in Stevie Browning, Austin Loop, and Ryan Taylor. Loop is the most one-dimensional, but he is elite at that dimension - he hit 40% of his 216 three-point attempts (took 22 twos all year) and was 4th in the country with a miniscule 6.4% turnover rate. He’ll draw fevered attention from his defender, making room for the interior play of Taylor and the scoring of Browning. Taylor was almost a complementary post piece to the graduated James Kelly, but with Kelly’s graduation, he should be the beneficiary of even more Elmore and Browning dimes, helping him maintain his pristine 62% field goal percentage. Browning is kind of a jack-of-many-trades, master-of-none offensively - he’s a solid passer, a slightly above-average deep shooter, and a good scorer in the midrange. Juniors CJ Burks and Terrence Thompson will have bigger roles this year as well, with Thompson being a possible breakout candidate as a force on the offensive boards while taking over for the departed Kelly.

Defensively, Marshall just doesn’t have the horses to play great defense - their strategy will always be to try to outscore opponents - but having some increased depth this year should help. They ended last year playing essentially a 7-man rotation, and with 6 of those players back and the additions of Ot Elmore (UT-RGV transfer, Jon's bro) and a decent freshman class, plus the returns of Noah Frampton and Aleksa Nikolic from season-ending injuries, the depth should be much better for college basketball’s 3rd-fastest team. They’ll still have absolutely no rim protection, but if they’re fresher, perhaps they’ll be able to compete more on the glass (Kelly’s loss spells trouble there) and force more turnovers.

Marshall’s offense should be good enough to keep them in the top 5 of the league no matter what, but if Elmore continues his ascendancy and the increased depth helps the defense, the Thundering Herd and D’Antoni’s SSOL could very well take the league title.

2.     UAB

Key Returners: Nick Norton, Hakeem Baxter, William Lee, Chris Cokley, Dirk Williams
Key Losses: Robert Brown
Key Newcomers: Deion Lavendar, Nate Darling

Postseason Projection:

Despite Robert Brown's departure as a major impact player, the Blazers biggest loss is not listed above: fresh off of an NCAA Tournament win in 2014-15 and a conference regular season title in 2015-16, coach Jerod Haase took over for the fired Johnny Dawkins at Stanford. The school is hoping to minimize the drop-off, though, as UAB hired his assistant Robert Ehsan to take over, and the team returns a bevy of experienced, skilled players.

Hiring an assistant can be a hit or miss proposition - probably the most successful instance in college hoop can be found at Xavier, where the Musketeers replaced Thad Matta with assistant Sean Miller, and eventually replaced Miller with his own assistant, Chris Mack. That’s not bad folks!! UAB can only hope to be anywhere near that successful with Ehsan’s hiring.

Ehsan has coached under Haase as well as under Gary Williams at Maryland and Seth Greenberg, King of the Angry Bubble Rant, at Virginia Tech. Despite his longer tenure under Williams, I expect Ehsan to play more to the style of his previous boss, who was a Roy Williams disciple. That means a generally uptempo offensive style and a dominance of the paint - a perfect fit for this roster. Nick Norton is a fantastic quarterback, a great passer who uses his quickness on each end to draw extra defenders and harass opposing ball-handlers. He’ll be the brains behind Ehsan’s offensive attack.

On the interior, Chris Cokley and William Lee are a rock solid duo, with Cokley being a bullish scorer and rebounder who never turns it over and Lee being one of the nation’s very best shot-blockers and last year’s C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. Those two, along with reserves Tohsin Mehinti and Lewis Sullivan, give the Blazers probably the best frontcourt in the league, which is crucial when playing Roy Williams-style basketball.

The biggest question on the roster is on the wing, where Brown was by far the team’s most effective option. Dirk Williams put up marvelous shooting splits of 62/39/90 and will be a great floor spacer, while Hakeem Baxter was a good driver and solid perimeter defender. Neither is going to replace Brown’s combination of high-volume scoring, shooting, and respectable defense, though, and the other options (Deion Lavendar, freshmen Nate Darling and Javien Williams) will need to step up right away.

 If Ehsan keeps the style similar to Haase like expected, the Blazers should continue to dominate the offensive glass and maintain their offensive efficiency. Plus, with Lee in the paint along with Cokley and Mehinti, the Blazers will always have stout interior defense. The only things holding back UAB at this point is dynamic wing play and the unknown of the coaching transition.

3.     Middle Tennessee

Key Returners: Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw, Edward Simpson, Quavius Copeland
Key Losses: Perrin Buford, Darnell Harris, Jaqawn Raymond
Key Newcomers: JaCorey Williams, Davion Thomas, Calvin Davis

Postseason Projection:

I tell ya what, guys, I’m pretty excited to write this preview. Middle Tennessee, the David who knocked off the Sparty Goliath in the first round last year - I’d say I’m GIDDY to preview this team!! That’s right, I made the second-easiest pun in the world (the Olympics reminds us that Djibouti is the world’s easiest pun. That or Jake Butt, the football player).  

The Raiders have a strong core returning behind Potts, Reggie Upshaw, and Edward Simpson, and impact newcomers joining the roster in Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams, JUCO transfers Calvin Davis and Antwain Johnson, and freshman Davion Thomas. Despite their big NCAA Tournament victory, MTSU finished 3 games off the pace in the C-USA race, and thus have plenty to work towards this year.

Coach Kermit Davis may be their best asset, though, as he returns for his 15th year at the helm, sporting a 62% career winning percentage and a pristine 123-48 record over the past 5 years. His teams consistently dominate the defensive glass, and with Upshaw and Williams, that dominance should continue this year. They also force turnovers at a good rate, an area in which Upshaw again excels (Potts isn’t too shabby either). Part of those turnovers come from the scheme - Davis employs a difficult-to-figure-out zone that morphs between a 1-3-1 and a 2-3 at times, keeping the offense guessing. It speaks to Davis’s coaching ability that MTSU still rebounds well defensively, even out of the zone.

Offensively, this is a very good shooting team, led by Potts and his 50.1% (!!!) from three-point range. Upshaw, Simpson, and Xavier Habersham were all moderately-effective shooters on low volume, and Johnson will bring some shooting and scoring, likely off the bench. Upshaw presents a lot of matchup problems with his shooting and ability to drive on big men, and Williams, despite not being a shooter, isn’t bad in space either. Point guard will be an interesting battle - neither Jacob Ivory nor Quavius Copeland really seized the job last year, and the JUCO transfer Davis averaged a solid 5.0apg at his previous stop. Kermit will hope one of the three emerges as a clear starter, or the PG job will be a blah committee.

Between Potts’s shooting and Upshaw’s versatility, Middle Tennessee will continue to be a tough out, and Davis’s zone should make them a challenging riddle to solve defensively. They’ll be right in the thick of the regular season race, but the conference won’t be good enough to support an at-large bid.

4.     Western Kentucky

Key Returners: Justin Johnson, Ben Lawson
Key Losses: Aaron Cosby, Chris Harrison-Docks, Fredrick Edmond, Nigel Snipes, Chris McNeal
Key Newcomers: Jabari McGhee, Willie Carmichael, TJ Howard, Jemerrio Jones, Pancake Thomas, Junior Lomomba, Que Johnson

Postseason Projection:

With the introduction of Rick Stansbury as its head coach, Western Kentucky sent a very clear message - we are serious about college hoop. Stansbury has been reeling in player after player this summer, including three grad transfers (Pancake Thomas, Junior Lomomba, and Que Johnson), next year’s starting PG (Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden), and two top-100 prospects including 5-star high school senior center Mitchell Robinson (class of ‘17). Along with two Tennessee transfers (Jabari McGhee and Willie Carmichael) and a solid JUCO transfer (Jemerrio Jones) who will join this year, the Hilltoppers’ talent is upgraded right away and will continue to be so in the future.

With that influx of talent and the addition of the experienced Stansbury on the sideline, Western Kentucky looks to climb up from 8th in the standings (though they do lose almost everyone from last year's roster). Defensively, Stansbury favors a highly conservative approach, rarely forcing turnovers but taking away inside scoring and keeping opponents off the free throw line. He’ll have a very long, athletic lineup to play with, a great fit for his scheme. They’ll wall off the paint, though it’d be nice if one of the 7’1 reserves, Ben Lawson or Nathan Smith, can emerge as a shot-blocking presence. Lawson was solid last year, posting an 11.4% block rate, but he’ll need to clean up his game a bit (fouls, turnovers) if he is going to make an extended impact.

The backcourt is a little unsettled to start, though two of Thomas, Lomomba, and Johnson are likely to start. PG is the question mark - Jones averaged 5apg in junior college, but he’s more of a wing, so freshmen TJ Howard and Damari Parris will battle for minutes. Howard is a good shooter but just an OK passer, while Parris is a smaller, unheralded prospect who may not be ready for a role right away. I also think Stansbury will try Pancake there - he's definitely more of a scorer, but playing his most talented 5 means getting all three grad transfers on the floor at the same time. 

Oddly enough, despite all the incoming talent, the team’s best player will likely be returning forward Justin Johnson, a bruising,high-energy post man who can play the 4 or 5 (though better at the 4 due to his lack of shot-blocking). Carmichael and McGhee are both bigger wings who should be effective at getting to the rim in the C-USA. Stansbury’s teams at Mississippi State tended to avoid turnovers and shoot the ball well, often taking a large amount of threes. While all high-D1 transfers, McGhee/Carmichael/Johnson/Lomomba don’t bring much shooting to the table (Johnson is solid at a low volume); Thomas, however, is a gunner from the America East and his shooting + physical driving style will be the engine that makes this offense hum.

This was always bound to be a transition year for Stansbury, but the influx of transfers should allow him to be competitive right away in his new gig. The future is bright in Bowling Green (not to be confused with the university in Ohio).

5.     Louisiana Tech

Key Returners:  Derric Jean, Erik McCree, Qiydar Davis, Jacobi Boykins
Key Losses: Alex Hamilton, Dayon Griffin, Merrill Holden
Key Newcomers: Omar Sherman, Jalen Harris, Daquan Bracey 

Postseason Projection:

In the proud tradition of great Louisiana Tech power forwards - Karl Malone, Paul Millsap - the next one to come along is Erik McCree. Ok, so maybe he’s not a Hall of Famer or even a future NBA All-Star, but McCree is a force to be reckoned with for the Bulldogs. A versatile offensive talent and a bear on the defensive glass, McCree should be the team’s primary scorer with the graduation of lead guard Alex Hamilton. His efficiency could use a bump - particularly his 49% conversion rate on twos - but his ability to hit threes as well as get to the free throw line is a unique combination of skills in this league.

Someone that may help McCree’s efficiency is newly arrived Omar Sherman, formerly of Miami (FL) and Paris Junior College.  At 6’8, 260 lbs., Sherman is a load and will draw occasional double teams inside, but he can also hit the occasional trey. He and McCree should complement each other extremely well in the frontcourt, causing matchup nightmares for opponents.

That rock solid frontcourt should give second-year coach Eric Konkol some peace of mind after losing all-league PG Alex Hamilton. Konkol coached under Jim Larranaga at both George Mason and Miami (FL), but though Larranaga’s strategy is to play relatively slow, Konkol recognized Hamilton’s strengths in the open floor as a slasher and distributor and allowed the Bulldogs to play fast last year.  The Bulldogs will still be long at a lot of positions this year, meaning some of the defensive pressure schemes (including some 1-3-1 in the halfcourt with the athletic Jacobi Boykins and Qiydar Davis wreaking havoc) are here to stay. However, new starting PG Derric Jean (or freshman Daquan Bracey) won’t be anywhere near as dynamic with the ball in his hands, which could harm the Dogs’ offensive efficiency.

The return of Davis should be a massive boost, as he was off to a great start to the 2015-16 campaign before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Davis, who hails from JUCO powerhouse Indian Hills, is a versatile wing who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. In his final game pre-injury, Davis put up a monster line of 17 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal in a 2OT win - he could be a force if fully healthy.

The bench unit will be almost entirely different this year, made up of newcomers and another player returning from injury. Joniah White, a rail-thin 7-footer, returns after averaging 22 minutes per game early on - his shot-blocking will make an impact if he can stay healthy. More rim protection may come from JUCO transfer La’Barrius Hill, and guard/wing depth will be almost all freshmen - Bracey, Jalen Harris, and JaColby Pemberton should all have a chance to play real minutes.

With a promising young coach, a very good primary scorer in McCree, and maybe the most athletic group of wings in the league, Louisiana Tech won’t fall far even without Hamilton. If Jean or Bracey steps up in the PG role, the Bulldogs could challenge for the conference title.

6.      Rice

Key Returners: Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov, Connor Cashaw, Bishop Mency, Marquez Letcher-Ellis
Key Losses: Max Guercy
Key Newcomers: Ako Adams, Tim Harrison, Austin Meyer

Postseason Projection:

This team makes me feel the exact opposite of rice: as opposed to the bland filler food, I’m irrationally excited to see the Owls play basketball. They weren't very good last year, but the double Marcus backcourt combination of Jackson (missed last year with injury) and Evans provides a major reason for optimism.

Both guys can create offense for themselves as well as their teammates, and the luxury of alternating who plays off the ball should give opposing perimeter defenses fits. It’s not quite a dual-point guard system, but coach Mike Rhoades can simply give the ball to whichever player has a worse defender on him and let that guy go to work. Jackson is a better shooter, while Evans is more adept at getting to the rim, but they both can do a little bit of everything. Evans is also a defensive terror, a quick-handed bandit who will pick his man’s pocket at any moment. Expect him to guard the opposing ball-handler more frequently. Ako Adams, a 3-star freshman recruit, should get some time off the bench with either Marcus, giving Rhoades some options and chances for rest, and redshirt freshman Chad Lott is another promising option after missing last year with an injury.

Of course, all this talk about the guards fails to mention Egor Koulechov and Connor Cashaw, two talented supporting pieces who should prevent defenses from giving all their attention to the Marcuses. Cashaw was a nice shooter on the wing last year, but he’ll need to improve the “D” part of “3-and-D” to truly reach his potential. Calling Koulechov a supporting piece is perhaps underselling his talents, as the undersized big man put up impressive numbers last year, but his size can be a deficiency on the defensive end. He rebounded fairly well, but he doesn’t intimidate opposing shooters whatsoever.

That defense is really the glaring weakness for this team, with a gigantic gap between adjusted offense and adjusted defense of 193 places (143rd offense, 336th [!!!] defense) staring Coach Rhoades in the face as their downfall. They just couldn’t stop anyone, allowing an abysmal 56.2% effective field goal rate (346th nationally) and getting crushed on the defensive glass. The versatility of Marquez Letcher-Ellis was beneficial, as he posted solid defensive rebounding and rim protection numbers, but like many freshmen in that role, he fouled too much to stay on the court a lot. Center Andrew Drone is massive, but he’s not super athletic and his lack of defensive rebounding was a primary reason for the team’s deficiency there. Incoming freshmen Austin Meyer, Tim Harrison, and Corey Douglas will be given every opportunity to show they can help shore up the interior in Houston.

Defense is a trait that sometimes comes with experience, and simply put, the Owls had almost none of that last year, ranking 334th in weighted experience per KenPom. Another year of seasoning for a lot of the rotation guys should help, though a gaggle of sophomores and freshmen will still see a plethora of minutes. With the pace they play at and the gap between offensive and defensive ability, Rice should be a great source of entertaining basketball this year, and if the defense improves some, they’ll move up from their T-9th place finish last year.

7.      Old Dominion

Key Returners: Brandan Stith, Denzell Taylor, Zoran Talley, Jordan Baker
Key Losses: Trey Freeman (!), Aaron Bacote, Nik Biberaj
Key Newcomers: Randy Haynes, Austin Colbert, Trey Porter, BJ Stith, Xavier Green 

Postseason Projection:

The Monarchs have one of the toughest tasks in the country facing them in replacing the nation’s leader in terms of percentage of shots taken while on the floor; Trey Freeman was an iron man who scored 22.1ppg while turning the ball over on only 7.1% of his possessions used, an absolutely incredible number for how much he was asked to do. If it sounds like Freeman was crucial based on the numbers, the eye test was even more of a testament - ODU possessions constantly came down to Freeman isolating and taking difficult, contested two-point pull-up jumpers, simply because the anemic offense just couldn’t generate anything else. Second-leading scorer Aaron Bacote also departs, leaving coach Jeff Jones with the unenviable task of rebuilding this offense without its two creators.

The one aspect of the offense that should still be a factor, however, is offensive rebounding. Denzell Taylor was #4 nationally in O-reb rate and his frontcourt partner Brandan Stith was not far behind at 15th; those two will wear down any opponent as they relentlessly seek second chance opportunities. The one note worth mentioning there: ODU shot 30.1% from deep last year, which is so bad I doubt they could even hit their mouths with their forks when feeding themselves. I’m sure Coach Jones would trade some of that offensive rebounding prowess for more competent shooting (and better shots - 351st nationally in 3FGA/FGA). Jones teams will always play slow, but they had never eschewed the deep ball like they did last year. Jordan Baker is the only competent returning shooter, meaning the newcomers (Randy Haynes, BJ Stith - Brandan’s brother, Keith Pinckney, Xavier Green) will have a chance to play if they show any semblance of scoring ability. Haynes was prolific in JUCO and Stith comes in highly-regarded from Virginia, so the incumbents will really need to step up to avoid being passed over.

On the other hand, the ‘Narchs (let me abbreviate how I want!) were extremely tough defensively, using their slowed-down brand of hoops to frustrate opponents and force them into bad shots. Behind Taylor, Stith, and Zoran Talley, they also dominated the glass on this end, and Stith owned the paint with the conference’s #3 block rate. All of this, combined with their offensive struggles and snail’s pace, is to say you didn’t miss much by not watching a lot of ODU basketball last year, unless you wanted to see Trey Freeman do his best impression of Atlas from Greek Mythology.

Without Freeman, Jones will need to find new roads to offense apart from “let Trey chuck up garbage and hope it goes in or that we get the rebound and do it again.” Haynes is a crucial piece, and the development of Caver at PG will really dictate how easy (or, more likely, hard) it is for this team to score. They’ll continue to own the lane and the backboards on both ends, but it looks like another year of Avert Your Eyes bball in Norfolk.

 8.      North Texas

Key Returners: J-Mychal Reese, Deckie Johnson, Ja’Michael Brown, Jeremy Combs
Key Losses: Eric Katenda
Key Newcomers: Keith Frazier, Derail Green, Shane Temara, Ryan Woolridge

Postseason Projection:

Without question, this is the hardest team in the league to predict. I’ll go on record as saying they have the most talent in the entire league, with three returning stat-stuffers and two of the best transfers this side of WKU in the conference. What remains to be seen is how the talent gels together and if coach Tony Benford can engineer any sort of defense with the group he has.

Defense will be the central issue for this group. The Mean Green were anything but mean last year, allowing an abysmal 52.7% field goal rate inside the arc (among many other pitiful statistics that I won't list for you). For all the talent here, the only mildly respectable rim protector is sophomore Rickey Brice, who fouls so much he couldn’t stay on the floor if the bench was lava. Without shot-blocking, a conservative approach might seem best, but this team is too outrageously athletic to waste that talent sitting back inside the arc. J-Mychal Reese, Deckie Johnson, Keith Frazier (SMU transfer available at the semester end), Ja’Michael Brown and redshirt frosh Ryan Woolridge are an incredibly talented group of perimeter players, and Benford should let them spread their wings. His 2014-15 squad thrived (relative term) on forcing turnovers, so he should know he can be successful teaching that approach. Versatile forward Jeremy Combs is a also great athlete on the back line who can get steals when opponents are careless after beating the guards or dominate the defensive glass off missed shots.

Offensively, there’s really no excuse for this team to not be dynamite. Frazier should be one of the best 2 or 3 scorers in the entire conference, a former blue chip recruit who left SMU after repeated run-ins with the administration and ex-coach Larry Brown. He can shoot or drive, and very few C-USA wings will have a chance at stopping him. Another transfer, Derail Green, was an all-conference level player in the Southland, and while he may not be elite after stepping up a notch in competition, he’ll still make a strong contribution. The returning backcourt of Reese and Johnson can score (but should stick to attacking the basket, as they’re both garbage three-point shooters). Combs, despite a slight frame, is one of the nation’s best at grabbing offensive rebounds and finding his way to the free throw line. And Brown, likely to get the short straw in the starting lineup, is the team’s best outside shooter.

So what’s the issue offensively? Those 6 guys only get one basketball! Benford’s teams have been in the bottom 15 in the country in assist rate for 4 years running, and with a whole lot of scorers and no elite distributors (sorry, J-Mychal), this team’s shot selection is bound to be cringe-worthy. Expect a lot of “hey, it’s my turn to shoot” chucking, coupled with some bickering while they “forget” to play defense.

The ceiling for NT is as high as anyone in the league, but the issues with spreading the wealth on offense and playing any defense whatsoever will likely hold them far below their potential. Frazier may score 18+ ppg, but at the expense of some frustrated teammates as the season falls short of expectations.

9.      Charlotte

Key Returners: Jon Davis, Braxton Ogbueze, Anthony Vanhook, Andrien White
Key Losses: Joseph Uchebo, Curran Scott, Bernard Sullivan
Key Newcomers: Austin Ajukwa, Quentin Jackson, Najee Garvin

Postseason Projection:

In his first year as a college basketball coach, Mark Price acquitted himself pretty well. The 49ers started slow against an extremely difficult nonconference schedule, but a 9-9 conference finish while having the 301st-most experienced team in the country is a good start. Charlotte returns 3 starters in the backcourt plus consistent sixth man Anthony Vanhook, a versatile wing who can play some undersized 4-man, which along with some promising newcomers, establishes a strong foundation for Price’s sophomore campaign.

The offense starts with rising soph PG Jon Davis and scoring wing Braxton Ogbueze, a complementary pair who should be even better this year. Davis was a very good passer in Price’s uptempo system as a freshman, and his shooting and ball control numbers seem likely to get even better with a full year under his belt. Ogbueze is a very efficient gunner whose game revolves around the perimeter (255 threes attempted compared to 128 twos and 66 free throws). When you shoot 43% from deep and never turn it over like Ogbueze, though, you pretty much get free reign to fire away when you want. Sophomore Andrien White was in a similar vein offensively, but he brought some major heat defensively too (3.4% steal rate, 70th nationally).

Of the newcomers, Clemson transfer Austin Ajukwa (eligible in December) will be a major difference maker. He brings an element of length on the wing that the 49ers simply haven’t had. That should help Charlotte’s abysmal field goal defense - they were a sieve all over the floor (sensing a C-USA theme yet?), giving up bottom-15 percentages on both twos and threes, largely due to a lack of perimeter length and shot-blocking in the paint. The departed Joseph Uchebo was a rock on the glass, but he wasn’t scaring anyone at the rim; problem is, that doesn’t change much this year. Benas Griciunas is a 7-footer, but in limited minutes last year, he wasn’t much for rim protection. Junior college transfer (previously at Houston) JC Washington is another key newcomer, a strong paint presence in the mold of Uchebo, a rebounder who won’t intimidate drivers. Freshman Najee Garvin is a good athlete, but he won’t be big enough to alter shots in the C-USA.

The defensive problem is unlikely to go away without a major jump in length and interior defense. The improvements need to be incremental from all the returning guys - the 4-guard system that Price often plays needs to do a better job of keeping opposing guards out of the lane, and Griciunas and company must bother opponents more inside and force tougher finishes. The 49ers will score, but with a drop in their previously elite rebounding without Uchebo and no new rim protection, the defense will continue to hold this team back.

 10.      UTEP

Key Returners: Dominic Artis, Omega Harris, Terry Winn
Key Losses: Lee Moore, Earvin Morris Jr.; Hooper Vint
Key Newcomers: Tim Cameron, Kelvin Jones, Deon Barrett

Postseason Projection:

Tim Floyd’s Miners have a pretty consistent pattern - have some pretty great talent for the C-USA, underachieve slightly, miss the NCAA Tournament. He’s 0/6 so far on making the NCAAs, and despite some more impressive talent this year, a 7th miss is the likely outcome.

Dominic Artis is the linchpin for the UTEP attack, a former Oregon player who can do a bit of everything. He rebounds well for a guard, he was 6th in the conference in assist rate, and he can score and defend enough to be a threat. With the graduation of high volume shooter Lee Moore, expect Artis to see an uptick in production. Artis, along with redshirt sophomore forward Terry Winn, both get to the line a fair amount, typically a strength of Floyd teams. Omega Harris was ineligible for the first semester due to academics, but upon his return, he showcased his lethal shooting ability by converting at a crisp 44% rate from three-point range. He’ll get more attention this year without Moore and Earvin Morris, but the arrival of 4-star freshman Tim Cameron should help offset that somewhat. Cameron is a lanky athlete who can do a little bit of everything, including possess an awesome afro. He should start right away. Floyd always eschews the offensive glass, but Winn will attack them by himself at times. Jake Flaggert will provide a good option as a stretch 4, but to repeat the potent 4-guard lineups that UTEP employed last year, another of the true freshman will need to be ready right away - diminutive PG Deon Barrett is the best bet, allowing Artis to shift off the ball and play more of a scoring role and putting Cameron, a pretty good rebounder for his size, in the nominal 4-spot.

Defensively, UTEP sorely lacked rim protection with Matt Willms missing the year with injury, and to combat opponents’ resulting effectiveness at the rim, the Miners did a pretty respectable job of keeping opponents away from the paint. Winn is a versatile defender and Artis is long for his position, so there’s something for Floyd to build on, and Willms is back to give the team some shot-blocking. UTEP’s perimeter defense was strong last year, keeping opposing drivers out of the lane and forcing a decent chunk of turnovers. Floyd will also employ some zone looks to confuse and slow down opponents, especially when he goes small (if he can make the 4-guard lineup work, or if Winn plays the 5).

There’s a good amount of firepower here offensively, and if Willms is healthy, then the defense should be improved this year as well. Moore’s shot selection wasn’t terribly impressive, and if they can redistribute his and Morris’s shots appropriately, the offense could get better too. As you can see by this 10th place prediction, though, I’m not completely sold all of these improvements will take place, nor do I fully trust Floyd to get the best out of his players. It looks like another year of slightly underachieving with good talent for the Miners.

11.   Florida International

Key Returners:  Donte McGill, Jason Boswell, Eric Nottage
Key Losses: Daviyon Draper, Adrian Diaz
Key Newcomers: Michael Kessens, Eric Lockett, Raekwon Long, Eric Turner

Postseason Projection:

FIU loses two stalwarts on the front line in Daviyon Draper and Adrian Diaz, complementary players that gave the Panthers multiple dimensions inside - Draper was quicker and more athletic with a respectable outside shot to his game, while Diaz was strictly a paint presence as a shot-blocker and one of the best offensive rebounders and finishers in the country. Coach Anthony Evans (semi-fun fact - he was the coach at Norfolk State when they beat the #2 seed Mizzou Tigers, prompting the horrific tailspin that Mizzou’s program still hasn’t recovered from - thanks!) did a nice job recruiting to fill Diaz’s spot - Alabama grad transfer Michael Kessens was a role player in the SEC, but in C-USA, he should be a solid finisher and defender. Evans also brings back redshirt sophomore big man Hassan Hussein, a bit player as a freshman who missed almost all of 2015-16 with an injury.  The replacements for Draper will be more via internal development - senior Elmo Stephen is more of a stretch 4 presence, a good shooter who won’t help much on the glass, whereas Cameron Smith is a rebounder who doesn’t bring much of anything in the way of offense. Draper’s versatility will be sorely missed.

The offense should revolve around the attacking Donte McGill, a midrange scorer who also showed the ability to hit a few outside shots (about 1 per game). He has a quick first step, and although he doesn’t draw many fouls, he is adept at getting to the rim. McGill is not much of a facilitator, though, a role that will be fought over by incumbents Kimar Williams and Eric Nottage and JUCO transfer Eric Lockett. Lockett is a big guard who averaged over 6apg in junior college, but he didn’t show much of an offensive game (7.2ppg). Williams was thrown into the role before he was ready last year, but with a year of development, he could emerge as the best option. He isn’t a shooter at all, though, leaving a possibility that Nottage could earn PT for his outside prowess. Nottage was too turnover-prone as a sophomore to be effective, though, and he may be the odd man out of this PT battle.

Evans will play some zone defensively, and without a true shot-blocker inside to replace Diaz, he may need to find an alternative strategy. FIU was far more conservative defensively last year than is Evans’ tendency, barely forcing any turnovers, mostly due to the lack of strong pressure defenders. If Williams is able to lock down the PG position, that might revert back to normal this year, as he has solid potential on that end.

This seems like a “tread water” type of year for FIU - McGill will play close to an all-conference level, but the loss of rim protection and athleticism up front may be too much to overcome. The lack of any true freshmen on the roster really stunts the long-term prospects, as well.

 12.   Florida Atlantic

Key Returners:  Ronald Delph, Adonis Filer, Nick Rutherford, Jeantal Cylla
Key Losses:  CJ Turman, Marquan Botley, Jackson Trapp
Key Newcomers: Frank Booker, Gerdarius Troutman, Devorious Brown 

Postseason Projection:

The first two years of Michael Curry’s tenure in Boca Raton have been eerily similar, statistically: middle of the pack in tempo (201st and 203rd), atrocious at offensive rebounding (333rd and 316th), they don’t get to the free throw line (284th and 346th), and they absolutely, unequivocally, do NOT give up three point attempts (1st and 1st in attempts allowed). The last stat is the craziest - for two straight years, the Owls completely took away the three point line, and with a lot of last year’s team back, expect that trend to continue this year.

Curry is relatively young (47 years old), but he’s already played 15 years professionally and coached a year in the NBA. That NBA experience is very appealing to players, and he brings in a good group of newcomers led by Oklahoma transfer Frank Booker and three junior college additions. Booker is a gunner - he took 133 threes and 47 twos in his two years in Norman; expect his game to expand with the step down in competition. Gerdarius Troutman is the prize of the three JUCOs, a solid wing who should be a nice backup for Booker and returnee Adonis Filer. Filer, along with rising soph PG Nick Rutherford, excels at getting to the rim, but as mentioned, no one else on the team does. Neither of those two can shoot at all either (both below 30% from 3).

Stretch four Jeantal Cylla was a decent marksman, but his lack of impact inside put a ton of pressure on 7’0 junior Ronald Delph, who actually came through. Like you’d expect from a 7-footer, Delph was an effective finisher, rebounder, and rim protector, and he should only get better with more experience. He fouled a bit too much, but if he can cut down on that, he has all-conference potential. His presence at the tin allows the Owls to run opponents off the three-point line as hard as they do.

There’s still a lot of progress needed here, but Michael Curry has them moving on the right track. The addition of Booker should help space the floor around Delph’s post-ups and Rutherford and Filer’s drives, which will help stabilize the weak offense. One issue with the lack of offensive rebounding - the Owls still aren’t a good defensive transition team, and if you aren’t good at one of those two things, you’re doing something wrong. Either get back or crash! This season needs to be one of progress before Booker and Delph are both seniors in 2017-18.

13.   UTSA 

Key Returners: Christian Wilson, Gino Littles, JR Harris, Lucas O‘Brien
Key Losses: Ryan Bowie, George Matthews
Key Newcomers: Tyrik Price

Postseason Projection:

When you finish last in the conference at 3-15, 339th overall in KenPom, and 343rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, there aren’t many places to go but up. And off go the Roadrunners, up, uP, UP all the way to...second-last in the conference! The Wile E. Coyote anvil drops on poor Southern Miss, but that still doesn’t mean great things for UTSA.

One source of optimism for them is the hopes of a healthier season, as Gino Littles, Christian Wilson, Philip Jones, James Ringholt, and Nick Billingsley all missed time last season, which really hurt UTSA’s consistency and role allocations throughout the roster. Littles and Wilson, ideally the team’s starting backcourt, only played 7 games together, and a fresh season should give them a chance to develop some chemistry. Between those two, JR Harris, Billingsley, and Austin Karrer, UTSA actually has a respectably deep backcourt, and Littles and Wilson can both handle the ball. That should open up transition opportunities for the whole team, particularly Harris, who will be relied on as the team’s best (and hopefully not only) three-point shooter.  

Unfortunately, the team’s defense was decidedly not made for former coach (and since tragically deceased) Brooks Thompson’s up-and-down system. UTSA finished last in the whole dang country in effective field goal percentage defense, including an impressive 350th on 2’s and 349th on 3’s (it’s actually tough to be that bad at both!). Despite doing no defending against shooters, the Roadrunners still managed to put opponents on the free throw line frequently, an astounding combination of no discipline and subpar athleticism. Every big man Thompson played aside from Ringholt was a walking foul, a factor that also speaks to the perimeter’s inability to keep opponents out of the lane. In Thompson’s scheme, they just gave up way too many easy opportunities on the break, as opponents had a dizzying 28% of their possessions in transition.

Enter new coach Steve Henson, the team’s other great source of hope. Henson is a longtime Lon Kruger assistant at both UNLV and Oklahoma, which means the Roadrunners will attempt to cut off all access to the lane, both through disciplined perimeter defense and denials of post entries. The personnel isn’t here to be a “good” defense yet, but if Henson gets them out of the “utterly abysmal” tier, he will have done great work.

Wilson is a legitimately good player: a gifted passer and defensive rebounder who can get to the rim whenever he wants and draw fouls (7th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes). Henson also breeds optimism after 12 years under a very successful and well-regarded coach. Without any consistency around Wilson, though, the Roadrunners will struggle to get their legs moving, even in the watered down Conference USA.

14.   Southern Miss

Key Returners: Eddie Davis III, Khari Price, Michael Ramey, Quinton Campbell, Raheem Watts
Key Losses: Kourtlin Jackson, Keljin Blevins
Key Newcomers: Marcus Cooper, Josh Conley

Postseason Projection:

The best thing I can say about Southern Miss is that they’re a basketball team. They’re a group of guys who gets together, goes out on the hardwood, plays some games, has some fun, and then goes home, win or lose. This year, it will mostly be lose. But hey, at least these guys will lace them up and play their unpaid butts off!

The Golden Eagles actually tied for 12th in the league last year, not the worst in the league, but they lose their primary scorer in Kourtlin Jackson from an offense that was already fairly disastrous. Doc Sadler teams will never push the pace, and the lack of transition opportunities requires either pinpoint execution in the halfcourt and/or a dynamic creator to create consistently good shot opportunities. Khari Price is actually a very good passer at the PG spot, but the options he has to pass to are underwhelming and the aforementioned execution is...less than pinpoint. Turnovers were far too prevalent last year, and the team completely ignores the offensive glass. JUCO transfer Marcus Cooper and junior post Eddie Davis III (returning from injury) should be the primary scoring options, and without Jackson and Keljin Blevins (transferred to Montana St.), Cooper’s wing scoring will be crucial. His shooting will also help replace Jackson’s (42% from 3) somewhat.

Shooting is a key for this squad - they took the 5th-highest ratio of threes to total field goals last year, and Davis, Price, Quinton Campbell, Cooper, Raheem Watts, Robert Thomas, and Michael Ramey will all take the open three if it’s there. Note that both Davis and Watts can shoot a bit - though they’re undersized, this presents a problem to opponents’ big men, especially if the opponent is playing two bigs at the same time. USM’s efficiency on those shots will go a long way towards determining their offensive effectiveness.

In a similar vein, USM gives up a massive quantity of threes themselves on the defensive end, and with the propensity Sadler has towards playing zone, that trend will almost assuredly continue. Due to the previously stated ignorance of the offensive glass, USM is superb at taking away transition opportunities - all part of their plan to slow down the game - but they give up too many good looks in their halfcourt set defense regardless. Extending pressure would help, but without any semblance of a rim protector to shield the basket, that’s not a great option either. Development from 6’11 sophomore Tim Rowe would be huge in that facet, as he possesses the only returning block rate over 1.5%.

The Golden Eagles’ season comes down to one line - the three-point line. How will they AND their opponents shoot on the multitude of attempts that will assuredly present themselves on both ends of the court? The loss of their only 40%+ shooter doesn’t bode well in that regard, and my hunch is that USM’s slow style (and incremental improvements from the teams around them) will leave them crawling in the conference’s cellar this year.