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Predictions, expectations and numbers of the C-USA tournament

Photo Courtesy of Conference USA

The Conference-USA men’s basketball tournament kicks off in Birmingham, Alabama, on Wednesday, March 5, with eighth-seeded Western Kentucky (15-16 overall, 9-9 C-USA) facing off with ninth-seeded UT-San Antonio (13-18 overall, 8-10 C-USA) at 10:30 a.m. MT.

(#8) WKU vs. (#9) UTSA

The Miners faced WKU in Bowling Green back on Jan. 26 and lost 62-52. UTSA split the season series with the Miners with both teams defending home court. In El Paso, the Roadrunners were held to a paltry 39 points by the Miners’ defense.

What we think:

Mike: I have WKU winning this matchup against UTSA. The Roadrunners are the worst 3-point shooting team in C-USA by a mile, while the Hilltoppers aren’t limited from the outside. UTSA is coming in losing five out of their last seven contests, and WKU won earlier in the year by 15 points. I expect no difference in the tournament.

Jason: Although UTSA is the best rebounding team in the tournament, you need to be able to shoot the 3 come March and the Roadrunners are awful. They are the only team in the tourney shooting under 0.300 and their free throws are just as atrocious. They aren’t long for this tournament.

(#5) Rice vs. (#12) So. Miss.

The second game of the tournament at 1 p.m. MT, pits the fifth-seeded Rice Owls (21-10 overall, 11-7 C-USA) against 12th-seeded Southern Miss (9-21 overall, 6-12 C-USA). UTEP defeated Rice by eight during their epic conference win streak in mid-February. The Miners split with Southern Miss. Once again, each team defended home court.

What we think:

Mike: This game is as lopsided as it gets in this year’s tournament. Rice will take care of business easily against Southern Miss. The Owls average 81.5 points per game, compared to the Golden Eagles’ worst offense in C-USA with 62.6 points per contest. I expect the guard play of Rice to have one of their biggest games of the year.

Jason: Definitely an easy one for Rice, who is the third-best team in the tournament, statistically speaking. Although their 450 turnovers on the season scare me a little, they are the second-best rebounding team in C-USA, and shoot the 3 better than anyone else. Their 6.8 point win margin versus Southern Miss’s 8.5 means that this will be an easy one.

(#7) UAB vs. (#10) Charlotte

Opening day continues with the host team, seventh-seeded UAB (16-15 overall, 9-9 C-USA) taking on 10th-seeded Charlotte (13-16 overall, 7-11 C-USA) at 4:30 p.m. MT. UTEP squeaked by UAB at the beginning of February with 63-59. In the last game of the season, the Miners defeated Charlotte 74-67 at the Don Haskins to see  senior guard Dominic Artis in his final home game.

What We Think:

Mike: The hometown Blazers, who are 11-5 at home, welcome in Charlotte, who are 3-9 on road, which would result in a UAB victory. Of the 49ers’ three road wins, two of them were only by one point. It’s no secret that they miss playing away from Charlotte. Also, the 49ers are the worst rebounding team in C-USA and they will pay the price in the end.

Jason: Although the Blazers turn the ball over at an alarming rate – 413, second only to Rice – it will not be enough of a problem to cause them to lose to Charlotte. Charlotte could get hot from 3, they did shoot 0.372 on the season, but the Blazers weren’t far off with their 0.357. Nothing that the 49ers could do should be enough to worry the Blazers in their hometown.

(#6) Marshall vs. (#11) FAU

The final game of opening day pits the sixth-seeded Thundering Herd of Marshall (17-14 overall, 10-8 C-USA) against the 11th-seeded Florida Atlantic Owls (10-19 overall, 6-12 C-USA). At the end of January, UTEP delivered a huge first home loss to the Thundering Herd, 91-68. UTEP defeated Florida Atlantic both times the two faced off, only by a combined six points.

What We Think:

Mike: Marshall’s high-flying offense that puts up 86.4 points a night will beat FAU soundly come Wednesday. The Herd has the leading scorer in all of C-USA, Jon Elmore, who scores over 20 every game, while FAU is led by the 30th leading scorer in C-USA, Adonis Filer (11 points per game). The Panthers don’t have the firepower to keep pace. In their only contest this year, Marshall took out FAU 89-72 on the road.

Jason: Yet another opening-round game, where the higher seeded team will win. Sorry. Just the way it goes. Head coach Dan D’Antoni’s Marshall team is high scoring and doesn’t play defense, almost as if he cut his teeth in the NBA. He did. This one could be close, as FAU can be streaky, but in the end, the Herd will take it.

(#1) MTSU vs. (#8) WKU *projected

Our projected first second-round game would be the number seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (27-4 overall, 17-1 C-USA) and our pick, WKU. The Miners are the lone blemish on MTSU’s sterling conference record. UTEP pulled off a miracle, 57-54 win, ending the game on a 19-6 run.

What We Think:

Mike: MTSU steamrolled their way to 17 wins in C-USA for a reason—they are by far the most dangerous team in the league. In the two games between MTSU and WKU, the Blue Raiders beat them by a combined 41 points. On the road, WKU has lost six out of their last seven, while MTSU is 11-2 in away games. The Blue Raiders will continue their dominance.

Jason: There’s a reason MTSU is the regular-season champion of C-USA. They don’t turn the ball over. Their 318 turnovers for the season is the lowest in the conference. Obviously with 17 wins, there are going to be a lot of win streaks during the season and the Blue Raiders are in the midst of a 9-of-10 run. It’s not ending to the Hilltoppers. It will end in Birmingham—just not yet.

(#4) UTEP vs. (#5) Rice *projected

The fourth-seeded Miners (14-16 overall, 12-6 C-USA) will finally take the court at 1 p.m. on Thursday against our winner of the Rice/So. Miss. match-up, fifth-seeded Rice. The Miners already defeated Rice by eight in their only match-up this season.

What We Think:

Mike: UTEP’s glorious turnaround ends here against the Owls. The Miners made nine 3-pointers in their first go around with Rice. That will likely not repeat itself. Rice’s big three, Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov and Marcus Jackson who combine for almost 50 points per night, only put up 31 points on 7-for-26 shooting against UTEP. I expect the Owls’ top playmakers not to struggle again. UTEP is 6-5 on the road, and Rice is impressive at 9-5 during away games.

Jason: Rice ranks third in my “very scientific” C-USA rankings that take into account things like 3-point percentage, turnovers, rebounding margin, etc. These are the things that matter this time of year. Can you hit the 3 when it matters? Rice has. 1,152 of them to UTEP’s 990. Can you hit free throws when it matters? Rice has. To the tune of a 0.729 free throw percentage compared to UTEP’s 0.660. Lastly, are you beating people soundly or just scraping by? Rice is. By an average of 6.8 points per game, compared to UTEP’s 0.8. Sorry guys, you were lucky to make it here at all, but once again, no C-USA championship, no NCAA tournament.

(#2) La. Tech vs. (#7) UAB *projected

Next up, at 4:30 p.m. MT is the first game for the second-seeded Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (22-9 overall, 14-4 C-USA) versus, most likely, seventh-seeded home team UAB. The Miners lost both games to the Bulldogs this season, by 20 in Ruston and then a heartbreaking one-point loss on their home court. Artis missed a close three-point shot as time expired that would have put the Miners ahead.

What We Think:

Mike: UAB handled business at home against La. Tech this season. However, the outcome in March will result in the Bulldogs getting revenge. In the first matchup, La Tech was victim to a hot shooting UAB team, who hit 50 percent from the field (29-58). With a top-three defensive ranking in C-USA, La Tech will right their wrongs this time around. The Bulldogs’ league-leading margin of victory, 11, is something to keep an eye on. UAB’s margin was only 2.5 during the season.

Jason: La. Tech is just a better team. In fact, I think that they are the best team in the conference and should probably represent C-USA in the NCAA tournament. They rank sixth in turnovers, third in rebounds, fifth in 3-point percentage, fifth in free throw percentage and first in scoring margin. I say all of that to say that the home team is heading out of the tournament at this point.

(#3) ODU vs. (#6) Marshall *projected

The nightcap features the third-seed Old Dominion (19-11 overall, 12-6 C-USA) playing our opening game winner, Marshall. In ODU’s only meeting with the Miners, they won on two controversial calls in the closing minute of the game. The final score was 62-61 following Matt Willms’ waved off tip-in at the buzzer.

What We Think:

Mike: ODU’s defense (61.1 points per game) will be Marshall’s kryptonite to their soaring offense. The Monarchs allow the seventh fewest points in the nation, while the Herd has had trouble stopping anyone all year, giving up a league-worst 85.2 per game. On Feb. 23—the most recent matchup between the two—ODU thrashed Marshall 86-65.

Jason: As much as I don’t want to agree on every game, this one has to go the same way. Old Dominion is all about ball protection (331 turnovers in 2016-17). When you’re not voluntarily giving the ball back to a team that doesn’t play any defense, it can make things very tough on them. It will be a close game – and honestly I’m not as sure about this as I am about other picks so far—but, ODU is a three-seed for a reason. They have won 7-of-10, while Marshall struggled down the stretch, losing three of their last five.

(#1) MTSU *projected vs. (#5)Rice *projected

The semi-finals tip-off on Friday at 10:30 a.m. MT with MTSU versus Rice, according to our picks. The number-one seeded Blue Raiders would face off with the number-five seeded Owls, should UTEP fail to defeat Rice as projected by the seeding.

What We Think:

Mike: MTSU’s last loss, other than UTEP, took place nearly four months ago on Dec. 21. Since then, the Blue Raiders have made teams look like they don’t belong on the same court. In Friday’s game, Rice will fall to the top-seeded C-USA squad that prides themselves on the defensive end of the court. And the Owls’ downfall is taking care of the ball (450 turnovers this year). Turnovers are crucial in March, Rice will see. At home, Rice could not overcome the Blue Raiders earlier this season. Nothing will change on the road.

Jason: If Rice beats UTEP with the three, let’s say 10 of them, then watch out for them in this game. The best shooting 3-point team in C-USA could get hot in the tournament and ride that all the way to a surprise berth in the NCAA Tournament. It happens every year. In the previous meeting between the two teams, both hit nine 3-pointers. For Rice, Koulechov scored 31 and grabbed 14 rebounds. Rice grabs more boards and shoots the three better than MTSU, but turns the ball over more. Fix that, and it’ll be an upset. But, it’s not happening. MTSU wins it.

(#2)La. Tech *projected vs. (#3)ODU *projected

The second semi pits the number two seed against the number three seed. Louisiana Tech against Old Dominion. This could easily be the best game of the tournament if it works out this way.

What We Think:

Mike: La. Tech is talented enough to win the C-USA tournament. They have playmakers and have performed well all season. The Bulldogs’ ability to share the ball will be key in this game, and there is no other team in the league that averages more assists as a team per contest than La. Tech. Since I expect this game to come down to the last minute, free throws could be the difference. La Tech knocks down free throws (71 percent) at a much higher rate than ODU (64 percent). Unlike ODU, which has the worst offense and best defense, La Tech is balanced with top three rankings in both offense and defense.

Jason: I don’t honestly think that there is much difference between MTSU, Rice, La. Tech and ODU when it gets down to the final four of the C-USA tourney. This is the point where stars win. March is about leaders and about winners. ODU has nobody near the top of C-USA in scoring. The Bulldogs on the other hand have forward Erik McCree at sixth with 17.7 points per game and guard Jacobi Boykins with 15 ppg, ranking him 15th. It’s time for the stars to shine and take the Bulldogs to the finals.

(#1)MTSU *projected vs. (#2)La. Tech *projected

Our championship game has Middle Tennessee facing off with Louisiana Tech –number one versus number two, the way it should be. These two teams had the best regular season records in the conference. Middle Tennessee knocked off Ole Miss and Vandy early in the season, finishing with a stellar 27-4 record. La. Tech played close games against South Carolina and Cal before settling into a 22-9 overall record.

Now, it’s finally time for a showdown. Well, another showdown. MTSU already defeated the Bulldogs in Murfreesboro by a final score of 71-61. The Bulldogs led at halftime 32-28, then saw the Blue Raiders outscore them 43-29 to take the victory in the battle for C-USA supremacy.

Now, for round two.

What We Think:

Mike: Expect Middle Tennessee to be dancing come NCAA tournament time. They are the most complete team that the C-USA has to offer, while just being outside the top-25 ranking. In the first contest between the two teams, MTSU came out subpar to start off the game, but kicked into gear and outlasted the Bulldogs’ lackluster closing half effort. I expect both teams to be winded from the weekend tournament, and the second half will be the deciding factor. Last season, MTSU beat Michigan State and this season they also showed that victories over elite competition are not a problem for them. The Blue Raiders are the most tournament ready team. They are battle tested and ready for C-USA’s best competition.

Jason: The biggest question following this game will be whether MTSU can still get into the NCAA tournament based on resume alone. It didn’t happen last year for the 29-5 UTEP women who lost in the C-USA tournament. They ended up in the WNIT. In case you hadn’t figured out by now, I’m picking the Bulldogs. Yes, La. Tech turns the ball over more, but they rebound better and they shoot free throws better. They also outscore opponents by half a point more. McCree and Boykins are La. Tech’s biggest scoring threats and shoot 38 percent and 41 percent from 3, respectively. It’s that time of year. Hitting big shots wins championships and those big shots are going to put the Bulldogs in the “Big Dance.”

So, there you have it. It’s a split from this portion of the Prospy sports staff on who’s going to win the C-USA Tournament. For what it’s worth, our third voter, web editor Adrian Broaddus picked MTSU as the tie-breaker. “Middle Tennessee’s forward duo of JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw will be McCree’s best test, and the duo will come out successfully to win MTSU’s second consecutive C-USA title,” said Broaddus. Good luck to everyone in the tournament and good luck filling out your C-USA bracket!

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Predictions, expectations and numbers of the C-USA tournament