LWOS continues its conference previews with the 2020-21 Conference USA Basketball Preview. North Texas took home the regular-season title in 2019-20, finishing a game ahead of the rest of the competition. That is impressive, given how competitive C-USA tends to be. The Mean Green are in a good position to repeat. However, there are plenty of teams that will give them a run for their money once again. Western Kentucky seems most likely. Marshall, UAB, and Charlotte will be there too.
2020-21 Conference USA Basketball Preview
14. Rice Owls
Key Returners: Chris Mullins
Key Losses: Trey Murphy III, Drew Peterson, Robert Martin
Key Newcomers: Cavit Ege Havsa (Utah Valley), Tre Clark (Furman)
Rice continues to try and be competitive in the league. An 11th place finish last season seemed like a step in the right direction given the program’s recent history. However, the top three contributors from that team are gone. That leaves behind a very young team without an identity. Havsa and Clark will infuse a little bit of a veteran presence. Otherwise, the Owls are rebuilding once again, hoping their young talent develops for a push towards the top in the future.
13. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Key Returners: Tyler Stevenson, LaDavius Draine
Key Losses: Gabe Watson, Leonard Harper-Baker
Key Newcomers: Justin Johnson (JUCO), Tae Hardy (JUCO), De’Andre Pinckney (JUCO)
Southern Miss is similar to Rice in that they are another young program. Stevenson had a breakout sophomore campaign, averaging 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. The trio of transfers will be expected to contribute immediately. They will need to help shoulder the load as the freshmen go through their lumps. There is some exciting talent in the pipeline, but a finish towards the bottom of the league is the reality for 2020-21.
12. Florida Atlantic Owls
Key Returners: Michael Forrest, Karlis Silins, Jailyn Ingram
Key Losses: Cornelius Taylor, Richardson Maitre
Key Newcomers: Alijah Martin, Johnell Davis, Bryan Greenlee (Minnesota)
Florida Atlantic was more competitive than their record showed last season. However, now the Owls are expected to take a step back this season. Ingram and Silins lead the frontcourt, though the experience behind them is limited. The starting backcourt, including Forrest, is also strong. The experience behind them is non-existent. The bottom line is that the starters will have to produce while the bench players discover their roles. This Conference USA Basketball Preview sees the Owls experiencing a down year.
11. Florida International Panthers
Key Returners: Antonio Daye Jr., Tevin Brewer, Eric Lovett
Key Losses: Devon Andrews, Osasumwen Osaghae, Trejon Jacob
Key Newcomers: Sedee Keita (St. John’s), Radshad Davis (UT Arlington), D.J. Mitchell (JUCO)
Florida International enters this season without its top three performers from a season ago. That includes two all second-team performers in Andrews and Osasghae, decimating the frontcourt. Keita, a St. John’s transfer, is expected to step right in to help in the paint. Daye and Brewer will take over as the team leaders, leading a strong backcourt. The strength at the guard position makes the Panthers a little tricky to place. However, the ceiling on this team is high if they can come together and regroup.
10. UTSA Roadrunners
Key Returners: Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace, Jacob Germany
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Cedrick Alley Jr. (Houston), Eric Parrish (Nevada)
UTSA had the second-leading scorer in the country last season in Jackson. He averaged 26.8 points per game and was routinely dropping 30+ points. With a star like that, you would think this team would finish near the top. However, the Roadrunners finished tied for ninth. The biggest thing in this team’s way heading into 2020-21 is how much better other teams got in C-USA. UTSA is capable of finishing higher but will have to prove they can do it with the team they have.
9. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
Key Returners: Donovan Sims, Jayce Johnson, Tyson Jackson
Key Losses: C.J. Jones, Antonio Green
Key Newcomers: Jordan Davis (Dayton), DeAndre Dishman (Eastern Kentucky), Jalen Jordan (St. Francis NY)
Middle Tennessee State fell hard after enjoying some successful campaigns earlier in the decade. However, this program seems to be on the rise once again. That starts with bringing in talented transfers, something that worked well for them when they won NCAA Tournament games. The starting backcourt is back as well as Jackson, who had an impressive freshman season. MTSU will be one of the most improved teams in the league and should be back in contention for league titles in a year or so.
8. Old Dominion Monarchs
Key Returners: Malik Curry, Xavier Green, A.J. Oliver II
Key Losses: Aaron Carver
Key Newcomers: David Strother (D-II), Austin Trice (Kansas State)
Old Dominion returns most of a roster that finished in a three-way tie for sixth place. However, that does not mean there are not question marks. The biggest one is in the frontcourt, as all the returning players there will need to step up in their roles. Still, this is a team that will thrive on veteran guard play. Add in a seasoned coach in Jeff Jones, and the Monarchs can be a sleeper. They just need to realize their potential. For now, the floor puts them in the middle of the pack.
7. UTEP Miners
Key Returners: Bryson Williams, Souley Boum
Key Losses: Daryl Edwards, Jordan Lathon
Key Newcomers: Keonte Kennedy (Xavier), Kristian Sjolund (Georgia Tech), Jamal Bieniemy (Oklahoma)
UTEP showed flashes of improvement last season, and that trend is expected to continue. Bryson Williams is a star in this league, averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in 2019-20. He will be in the running for player of the year. The Miners also bring in some great transfer talent as well. The frontcourt will carry this team while Boum gets another year of experience running the offense. This Conference USA Basketball Preview believes the Miners will cause plenty of headaches this season if not taken seriously.
6. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Key Returners: Amorie Archibald, JaColby Pemberton, Kalob Ledoux
Key Losses: DaQuan Bracey, Mubarak Muhammed, Derric Jean
Key Newcomers: None
Louisiana Tech is really going to miss the playmaking ability of Bracey. He was especially lethal from beyond the arc, shooting at a 44.5 percent clip last season. However, there is still plenty of experience left in the backcourt. That starts with Archibald, Pemberton, and Ledoux, who was the league’s sixth-man of the year last season. The frontcourt situation, however, is a bit shakier. This team will rely on its guard play to carry it, but there is enough experience and coaching to keep the Bulldogs hanging around near the top half of the league.
5. Charlotte 49ers
Key Returners: Jordan Shepherd, Jahmir Young
Key Losses: Drew Edwards, Malik Martin
Key Newcomers: Jhery Matos (Dayton), Jared Garcia
Charlotte was the biggest surprise in Conference USA last season. The 49ers finished in fourth place after being picked near the bottom in the preseason. That effort was spearheaded by the breakout seasons from Shepherd and Young, both third-team all-conference finishers. The biggest challenge this team will face is handling much higher expectations. Charlotte will not sneak up on anyone this season, but they might not have to. The talent has shown itself, meaning the 49ers are primed to compete near the top of the league once more.
4. UAB Blazers
Key Returners: Tavin Lovan, Jalen Benjamin, Tyreek Scott-Grayson
Key Losses: Will Butler, Makhtar Gueye
Key Newcomers: Michael Ertel (Louisiana-Monroe), Quan Jackson (Georgia Southern), Trey Jemison (Clemson)
UAB was one win shy of reaching 20 last season, which would have been their third straight such season. However, the school decided to part ways with old coach Rob Ehsan, bringing in seasoned veteran Andy Kennedy with dreams of taking the Blazers to the next level. A bulk of last season’s contributors return, including Benjamin, who was an impact freshman. Transfers Ertel and Jackson provide immediate depth and talent in the backcourt, while Jemison and his seven-foot presence will be intimidating in the paint. UAB may appear to be a step behind the top three on paper, but the potential is there for something more.
3. Marshall Thundering Herd
Key Returners: Taevion Kinsey, Jarrod West, Andrew Taylor
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: None
Marshall is in a great spot heading into 2020-21. Every key guy from last season’s team is back. Kinsey is a playmaker and will be in the mix for the player of the year award. Taylor had an all-freshman worthy first season with the Herd and appears set to be the future star of this program. This Conference USA Basketball Preview sees third place just as the floor for this team. Marshall has everything they need to compete for a Conference USA title and could be even dangerous beyond that if they can earn the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
2. North Texas Mean Green
Key Returners: Javion Hamlet, Zachary Simmons
Key Losses: Umoja Gibson
Key Newcomers: Mardrez McBride (JUCO), Terence Lewis II (JUCO)
North Texas will enter the 2020-21 season with the target on its back following last season’s regular-season title. Unfortunately, we never got to know what this team could have done during March Madness. The loss of Gibson hurts, and it will allow teams to key in on reigning player of the year Hamlet. Simmons anchors the frontcourt along with Thomas Bell. There is plenty left for the Mean Green to repeat, but the rest of C-USA has caught up to them heading into this season.
1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Key Returners: Taveion Hollingsworth, Charles Bassey, Carson Williams
Key Losses: Jared Savage, Camron Justice
Key Newcomers: Kenny Cooper (Lipscomb), Luke Frampton (Davidson), Kevin Osawe (JUCO)
Western Kentucky was last season’s preseason league favorite as well. The Hilltoppers certainly have the pieces to earn that honor once again. The program is still waiting for former five-star recruit Bassey to stay healthy and play to his potential. However, Hollingsworth carried the team last year and has the capability of winning the player of the year honor. Western Kentucky has experience, but the depth behind that experience is limited. Still, the Hilltoppers are good enough to win the title and win an NCAA Tournament game.
2020-21 Conference USA Basketball Preview Award Projections
Player of the Year: Javion Hamlet, North Texas
Hamlet did a little bit of everything on his way to earning this honor last season. He averaged 14.6 points, three rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. Essentially, he was able to be a scorer when needed while also facilitating the offense and getting teammates involved. While Conference USA is flushed with talent, there is no reason to think he will not find a way to repeat.
Defensive Player of the Year: Bryson Williams, UTEP
No player was more valuable in creating wins on the defensive end of the court in the league than Williams. He led all of C-USA with two defensive win shares last season. He averaged just a shade under one block and one steal per game, while also crashing the defensive boards with 5.5 per game. Williams’ offensive production will be a big reason why the Miners will be solid, but his defensive game should not be overlooked either.
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Ertel, UAB
Ertel comes to UAB from Louisiana-Monroe. He was a second-team All-Sun Belt selection after averaging 16.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and one steal per game. He was by far the best player on the Warhawks, and his talent should translate well for the Blazers. It would not come as a shock if he earns all-league honors in his new home as well.
Freshman of the Year: Jared Garcia, Charlotte
Garcia should see some time within the rotation for the 49ers in the post. He was rated in the top 100 as a small forward by 247 Sports and also helped his AAU team reach the semifinals of the Adidas Summer Championships in 2019. Garcia averaged 17 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in his last full season of high school. He is part of a growing talent pool that the 49ers possess heading into the season.
Sixth-Man of the Year: Luke Frampton, Western Kentucky
Frampton showed flashes of his abilities during his time at Davidson. However, he only played five games for the Wildcats last season before taking a leave of absence. He arrives as a nice boost in depth for the Hilltoppers, who already are blessed with riches at the guard position. Frampton is a guy who can get hot from behind the arc, and is the kind of spark that can help Western Kentucky win a league title.
Coach of the Year: Rick Stansbury, Western Kentucky
Stansbury becomes the obvious choice here as he is the head man of the team that is projected to win the conference title. That is easier said than done, however, as the Hilltoppers have yet to live up to expectations while he has been there. If he can finally win that elusive C-USA title, he can take home the coach of the year award.
All-Conference First-Team Projection: Javion Hamlet (North Texas), Jhivvan Jackson (UTSA), Taveion Hollingsworth (Western Kentucky), Bryson Williams (UTEP), Taevion Kinsey (Marshall)