College Basketball

Charlotte 49ers open C-USA tournament looking to defeat Rice third time this season

Charlotte men’s basketball coach Mark Price, left, and the 49ers will face Rice on Wednesday in the Conference USA tournament in Birmingham, Ala. Charlotte beat Rice twice during the regular season.
Charlotte men’s basketball coach Mark Price, left, and the 49ers will face Rice on Wednesday in the Conference USA tournament in Birmingham, Ala. Charlotte beat Rice twice during the regular season. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Mark Price has gone through a year of “firsts” in his inaugural season as men’s basketball coach at Charlotte.

Price will face another first with the 49ers this week: his first Conference USA tournament. Charlotte (13-18, 9-9), the tournament’s No. 7 seed, will play at 7 p.m. Wednesday against 10th-seed Rice (12-19, 7-11) at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala.

It will be the third meeting between the schools this season, the second in a week. Charlotte won 102-73 in the first game at home, and again last Thursday in an 88-75 win at Rice.

But it is Ala.-Birmingham that’s favored to repeat as champion. However, the Blazers won’t have an easy path to the title.

At least four teams – Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Marshall – could challenge the Blazers.

Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech posted 20-win seasons, while Old Dominion came close. Meanwhile, Marshall – which had the league’s toughest nonconference schedule – shook off a tough start to tie for third in the league’s standings.

Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Marshall have byes to Thursday’s quarterfinals.

What’s at stake

The tournament champion will recieve an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The others must hope for an at-large bid or an invitation from smaller postseason tournaments.

Favorites

Ala.-Birmingham: Defending C-USA tournament champion going for first regular-season/tournament title sweep since 2013.

Middle Tennessee: Enters tournament off best regular-season finish since 2014, its first year in the conference.

Louisiana Tech: Two-time, regular-season champion looks to return to final for first time since 2014.

Don’t be surprised if ...

▪ Marshall makes it to the final or wins the tournament. The Thundering Herd had its best C-USA finish since 2012.

▪ Old Dominion plays a spoiler role. While struggling at home, the Monarchs tied for the best conference road record (7-2).

▪ Charlotte makes a long run. The 49ers lost to Ala.-Birmingham, Middle Tennesse and Louisiana Tech by six points total in mid-January.

Three to watch

▪ Trey Freeman, guard, Old Dominion: Senior a two-time all-conference first-team pick. He averaged 21.6 points to lead C-USA in scoring.

▪ Marcus Evans, guard, Rice: Favorite to be named C-USA Freshman of Year. He was second in scoring at 21.2 points.

▪ Joseph Uchebo, center, Charlotte: Set C-USA record for rebounding in conference games, was ninth nationally at 11.5 per game.

Worth mentioning

▪ Western Kentucky leads current C-USA teams in NCAA tournament appearances with 23, its last in 2013.

▪ Florida Atlantic and Florida International have the fewest NCAA tournament appearances among C-USA teams. FIU made the field in 1995, Florida Atlantic in 2002.

▪ Rice has the longest NCAA tournament appearance drought in C-USA, last making the field in 1970.

▪ Texas El Paso won the NCAA tournament in 1966, when the school was Texas Western College.

▪ Two other C-USA teams have made it to the Final Four: Western Kentucky in 1971 and Charlotte in 1977.

Pairings

Tuesday: No. 12 Florida Atlantic (7-24, 5-13) vs. No. 13 Texas-San Antonio (5-26, 3-15), 4 p.m. Florida Atlantic 82-Texas-San Antonio 58

Wednesday: No. 8 Western Kentucky (16-15, 8-10) vs. No. 9 North Texas (12-19, 7-11), 12 p.m.; No. 5 Old Dominion (19-12, 12-6) vs. Florida Atlantic-Texas-San Antonio winner, 2:30 p.m.; No. 7 Charlotte (13-18, 9-9) vs. No. 10 Rice (12-19, 7-11), 6 p.m.; No. 6 Texas-El Paso (18-13, 10-8) vs. No. 11 Florida International (13-18, 7-11), 8:30 p.m.

Thursday: No. 1 Alabama-Birmingham (26-5, 16-2) vs. Western Kentucky-North Texas winner, 12 p.m.; No. 4 Louisiana Tech (23-8, 12-6) vs. Old Dominion-Florida Atlantic-Texas-San Antonio winner, 2:30 p.m.; No. 2 Middle Tennessee (21-9, 13-5) vs. Charlotte-Rice winner, 6 p.m.; No. 3 Marshall (16-15, 12-6) vs. Texas-El Paso-Florida International winner, 8:30 p.m.

Friday: Semifinals, 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Saturday: Championship, 1:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

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