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Middle Tennessee the class of tough Conference USA

Greg Peterson
VSiN.com

November 8, 2017 04:23 AM

It was a party in Conference USA for Middle Tennessee, which posted a 31-5 record last season with double-digit road wins over Southeastern Conference foes Mississippi and Vanderbilt along the way.

The Blue Raiders won a game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, knocking off Minnesota as a 12-seed. Their road to a third straight NCAA trip figures to be a bit more difficult with coach Rick Stansbury building up Western Kentucky and other programs on the rise.

With that said, Middle Tennessee is the the team to beat in the conference until further notice. Its backcourt leader returns in Giddy Potts. The 6-foot-2 guard had 15.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while hitting 38.4 percent of his 3-point shots.

It will not be easy to replace JaCorey Williams, who was the league’s top player, but coach Kermit Davis did have him for just one season. The 6-foot-8 forward, who transferred to MTSU after being a part of a counterfeit money scandal at Arkansas, averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

With the loss of Williams and Reggie Upshaw, it means the team must get scoring from more places than it did last year. A lot of that burden will fall on the shoulders of sophomore Tyrik Dixon. He was a starter as a freshman and proved to be a solid distributor, notching a team-high 3.3 assists per game to go along with 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds. He also showed the ability to shoot the 3, making 39.7 percent of his triples.

The team also will have the services of graduate transfer Nick King, who played for Memphis and Alabama prior to joining MTSU. He played just seven games last year after being diagnosed with a lung infection. In his last full season in 2014-15, he had 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a multi-faceted 6-foot-7 forward for Memphis who was working on improving his 3-point shot.

As has been the case the past few years with Davis, he has a bunch of junior-college transfers coming in to give the team a boost. The real prize is netting guard Troy Simons, who led all of JUCO basketball with 26.3 points per game, hitting nearly 41 percent of his 3s. He also grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game and added 2.4 assists per match while scoring at least 17 points in each game.

The Blue Raiders should exceed 25 wins once again and put themselves in a spot to not just wreck shop in Conference USA, but make an impression nationally, as well.

The first year of the Stansbury era at Western Kentucky fell short of expectations as the team went 15-17, but the roster loaded with talent that should kick things into high gear this year.

Former Buffalo guard Lamonte Bearden is eligible after sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules. He helped the Bulls make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and averaged 13.7 points and 4.2 assists per game as a sophomore.

The team also adds a graduate transfer in Dwight Coleby, who should receive a lot more playing time than he did in his past three seasons. He arrives after averaging 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds last year at Kansas. Prior to that, he spent two years on Ole Miss' roster as a complimentary player.

He will be joined in the post by Moustapha Diagne, who originally committed to Syracuse as an ESPN top 100 prospect for the class of 2015. He failed to meet the ACC school's academic standards, which caused him to begin his career at the JUCO level for Northwest Florida State.

Stansbury also managed to get one of the best guards on the transfer market in former Virginia player Darius Thompson, who had 6.2 points and 2.2 assists per game while making over 35 percent of his 3s.

These additions are sure to make senior forward Justin Jackson happy after he had team-highs 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last year. The Hilltoppers needed the additions as Jackson is the only player back from last year's team who averaged more than five points per game.

The team looks nothing like it did last year and the ceiling is high. It would not be inconceivable to see the Hilltoppers make a run at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if they play Villanova and Wisconsin tough in their nonconference slate.

Louisiana Tech had its fifth straight season of 23 or more wins, but it once again did not result in a trip to the big dance as Middle Tennessee ran roughshod through the conference and the Bulldogs came up short against Marshall in the conference tournament.

Jacobi Boykins, a 6-foot-6 senior stretch player, is an outstanding 3-point shooter who made 40.8 percent of his triples last year while turning in 14.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and two steals per game. Sophomore Jalen Harris will have to follow his lead in the backcourt after he contributed 10.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game as the team's starting two.

Louisiana Tech has the potential to reach 25 wins this year, but it likely does not have enough to take down Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky. Another trip to the NIT is the most likely outcome for the Bulldogs.

To call the 2016-17 season a rollercoaster for Texas-El Paso would be an understatement. The Miners were a brutal 2-13 to begin the season, but won 13 of their next 16, handing MTSU its only league loss in the process.

To aid in replenishing a depleted roster, coach Tim Floyd has brought in five freshmen. While it's hard to see UTEP threatening for an NCAA Tournament bid, the team has talent and finished the 2016-17 season with a tremendous turnaround. UTEP should be in the top five in the conference and, if it can rectify last year's non-conference struggles, should be a 20-win group.

Rice was one of the most improved teams in college basketball last year, going from 12 wins to 23, which is the highest single-season win total in program history. That dramatic rise may turn out to be a bit of a detriment as coach Mike Rhodes bolted for Virginia Commonwealth in the offseason.

Former associate head coach Scott Pera now takes over a program that has been ravaged by transfers. The team averaged 81.5 points per game last year, and with three departures alone, the Owls lose 49.4 of those points. The loss of so much production means 6-foot-5 junior Connor Cashaw must become the leader of the team as he's the top returning player. He played a nice role on last year's club, getting eight points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game while logging nearly 27 minutes.

What it all means in simple English is that Rice is screwed this season and is a solid candidate to see the largest decrease in wins of any team in the nation.

Old Dominion had a solid 19-12 season in 2016-17 and has three of its four double-digit scorers returning, including Brandan Stith and B.J. Stith. This team should exceed 20 wins and get into the picture for an at-large bid to the NIT.

Conference USA seems to be on the uptick and has seen its NCAA Tournament representative win a game in each of the past three years. If things break right and Western Kentucky can play up to its potential, there is a chance that both the Hilltoppers and Middle Tennessee can bust into the NCAA field. Look out for UTEP, Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech as possible spoilers and teams that should exceed 20 wins.

Greg Peterson’s Conference USA forecast:
1. Middle Tennessee
2. Western Kentucky
3. Louisiana Tech
4. Old Dominion
5. UTEP
6. UAB
7. Marshall
8. North Texas
9. Charlotte
10. UT San Antonio
11. Florida Atlantic
12. Southern Mississippi
13. Florida International
14. Rice

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