College Basketball

Conference USA basketball preview

Charlotte 49ers guard Braxton Ogbueze releases a jump shot during the Green and White scrimmage at Halton Arena.
Charlotte 49ers guard Braxton Ogbueze releases a jump shot during the Green and White scrimmage at Halton Arena. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Favorite

UAB: All five starters return from a team that won the conference championship and upset Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament last spring.

Contenders

Old Dominion: Possibly the only team with a chance of upending the Blazers. The Monarchs had an 11-1 start last season, then stumbled down the stretch before recovering to reach the NIT semifinals.

UTEP: The Miners lost three key starters but have recruited several outstanding players, led by forward Paul Thomas, one of the top-recruited front court players in the country.

Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders made a run to the conference tournament finals last year and have four starters returning.

Five to watch

G Trey Freeman, Old Dominion: He’s the league’s top returning scorer (16.9 points a game). A sophomore, he was conference Newcomer of the Year in 2014-15.

G Robert Brown, UAB: He led the Blazers in scoring in 20 of 36 games as a junior and averaged 23 points in the two NCAA games.

F William Lee, UAB: A sophomore, he averaged 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds in the Blazers’ final nine games last year.

G Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech: He was an all-conference selection last season as a junior, scoring 27 or more points five times.

G Braxton Ogbueze, Charlotte: He averaged 9.6 points a game last year but could thrive in new head coach Mark Price’s fast-moving offense.

Worth mentioning

▪ The conference, which regularly put multiple teams in the NCAA tournament in years past, had a single qualifier last season – UAB.

▪ On paper, UTEP would not appear to be a title contender, having lost its top four players from a year ago. But coach Tim Floyd has landed standout freshman forward Paul Thomas and junior college transfer Lee Moore at point guard, along with several other promising freshmen.

▪ While UAB appears to be the league’s powerhouse, Old Dominion has several key pieces back from a team that beat Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond and LSU last season before faltering in the league schedule.

▪ UAB was picked by conference coaches to win the league this season, followed by Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Louisiana Tech. The Charlotte 49ers were picked 11th of the 14 teams.

Outlook

UAB’s talent should carry the Blazers to the regular-season title, but with a weak nonconference schedule, they’ll need to dominate the league to lock up an at-large NCAA tournament berth. Old Dominion or UTEP could steal the conference tournament title, and it looks like Conference USA should be good for at least two NCAA qualifiers this season.

NEXT: MEAC

Steve Lyttle

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