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2014 Conference USA Tournament Preview

<p>After an inconclusive regular season, a true champion will be crowned as the 19th-annual Conference USA Tournament is set to begin at the Don Haskins Center. The 15-team competition will begin on Tuesday, March 11 and run through Saturday, March 15, with the winner earning an automatic bid in this year's NCAA Tournament field.</p>

(SportsNetwork.com) - After an inconclusive regular season, a true champion will be crowned as the 19th-annual Conference USA Tournament is set to begin at the Don Haskins Center. The 15-team competition will begin on Tuesday, March 11 and run through Saturday, March 15, with the winner earning an automatic bid in this year's NCAA Tournament field.

Entering the 2013-14 campaign, the new look C-USA was as wide open a league as any in college basketball. Only eight out of the 16 members of the C-USA were part of the league last season. As the holdovers and newcomers fused together, no clear front runner emerged from the pack. The regular season did not truly determine an undisputed champion as Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss all went 13-3 in league play to form a four-way tie for first place.

Although the victor is yet to be decided, it is a certainty that a new school will represent the league in this year's Big Dance since the Memphis Tigers departed for the American Athletic Conference after winning their third consecutive C-USA Conference Tournament in 2013. The only school not participating in the conference tourney this year is FIU, which is banned from postseason play due to poor academic performance.

A head-to-head records comparison among the four schools tied in first place served as a tie-breaker and determined the seedings for the bracket. All four co-regular season C-USA champions will receive double byes into the quarterfinal round. The top-seed Louisiana Tech, No. 2 seed Tulsa, No. 3 seed, Middle Tennessee and No. 4 seed Southern Miss will all have the luxury of resting until the quarterfinals begin on Thursday.

The bottom six teams in the conference will take part in the opening round on Tuesday. The action will tip off with the No. 10 North Texas Mean Green and the last place Rice Owls.

The Mean Green (15-15, 6-10) have been very successful during postseason play in recent history, winning 15 of their last 20 Sun Belt Conference Tournament games. North Texas enters Tuesday's action following back-to-back double-digit losses at home to conclude the regular season. The Mean Green struggled tremendously on the defensive end as they surrendered 72.4 ppg in C-USA games to rank 15th in the conference. Offensively, they netted 73.3 ppg during their non-conference slate before scoring only 67.4 ppg versus league competition. Junior guard Jordan Williams leads UNT with 12.3 ppg on 40.7 percent efficiency from the floor and also grabs a team-high 6.2 rpg. Senior guard Alzee Williams is the team's only other double-digit scorer at 11.5 ppg.

Luckily for Rice (7-22, 2-14), one of its two C-USA victories came over the Mean Green in Houston on Feb. 6. The Owls have gone winless since, losing seven contests in a row to claim sole possession of last place. Rice was outscored by an average of 12.1 ppg and outrebounded by 7.8 rpg in C-USA action. Freshman forward Sean Obi was one of the league's top rookies and most productive big men overall with averages of 11.4 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Senior guard Austin Ramljak netted the majority of his 11.4 ppg from behind the 3-point line, where he accounted for 84 of his 96 made field goal attempts.

Tulane will await the winner of the opening tilt. With only one returning starter from last season's 20 win squad, the Green Wave (16-15, 8-8) exceeded expectations to arrive at the No. 7 seed. Coach Ed Conroy's team had trouble against the league's toughest members and went 0-7 versus the six schools ahead of it in the final standings. The Green Wave have been extremely streaky offensively towards their average of 64.3 ppg and are allowing an even 70 ppg to their foes. Tulane made 35.1 percent of its 3-pointers in C-USA games to rank third in efficiency from beyond the arc. Sophomore guard Louis Dabney paces the squad with 15.8 ppg, although he has made good on just 28.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. Fellow guards Jay Hook and Jonathan Stark check in with 14.2 and 13.9 ppg, respectively, but the Green Wave lack a consistent post presence.

The second game on the docket for Tuesday will feature the No. 11 Florida Atlantic Owls and No. 14 Marshall Thundering Herd. The Owls defeated Marshall, 65-57, in the only regular season meeting between the schools at the Cam Henderson Center.

Florida Atlantic (10-21, 5-11) will hope to have back the C-USA's scoring champion Pablo Bertone for the postseason. The 6-foot-4 senior guard missed the final two games of the season due to an injury to his quadriceps and the Owls lost both contests. In fact, FAU has lost six consecutive contests since edging Texas-El Paso at the Don Haskins Center on Feb. 13. The former Sun Belt program was not very efficient with its possessions in 2013-14. The Owls rank 13th in the conference in scoring (66.5 ppg) along with an 11th place position in field goal percentage (.424) and assist-to-turnover ratio (.93). If Bertone (18.9 ppg) is not 100 percent healthy for the tourney, the Owls will need Marquan Botley (10.8 ppg) and Justin Raffington (10.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg) to step up their play.

While Marshall (10-21, 4-12) lost nine of its final 11 games of the campaign, none of the setbacks came by a double-digit margin. During that stretch, the Thundering Herd lost by just three points to Southern Miss, Tulane and Middle Tennessee. Partially due to the mid-season departure of senior forward Elijah Pittman (21.4 ppg,) Marshall cooled off from its 82 ppg average during non- conference play to post only 64.3 ppg versus league foes. Freshman guard Kareem Canty has wasted no time becoming the new leader of the Herd as he is producing a team-best 16.4 ppg and ranks third in the league with 5.7 apg. Rookie forward Ryan Taylor has been steady during his freshman campaign as well with 13.1 ppg and 7.2 rpg, while junior Chris Thomas has chimed in with 12.7 ppg.

The victor of the FAU and Marshall matchup will advance to the second round to play No. 6 Old Dominion. The Monarchs (15-16, 9-7) were one of the most improved teams in the nation as they finished the 2012-13 season, its last as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, with a 5-25 overall ledger. ODU won two of its last three games to triple its win total from last year. The team made strides behind the strength of stifling defense, as its opponents converted only 41.7 percent from the field for a mere 64.7 ppg. The Monarchs rank second to last in the C-USA in scoring offense (63.6 ppg) in part because of their conference worst 60.5 percent clip at the free-throw line. Sophomore guard Aaron Bacote is a key player for the Monarchs this season with 16.4 ppg and three apg, while juniors Dimitri Batten (10.8 ppg) and Richard Ross (9.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg) also have valuable roles.

The final bout of the opening round will pit No. 12 East Carolina against No. 13 Texas-San Antonio. The Pirates will be playing in their final C-USA Tournament as they are set to follow Memphis to the ACC for next season. ECU downed UTSA, 81-71, in Greenville on Feb. 8.

However, the Pirates (16-15, 5-11) were a much different team outside of Minges Coliseum. They won only two games away from home in 2014, but still managed to stay above the .500 mark overall. ECU can be one of the league's most dangerous teams because of its ability to stretch the floor with the outside shot. The Pirates are pacing the C-USA in both made 3-point field-goal attempts per game (8.4) and 3-point field-goal percentage (.365), however it was limited to just 62.8 ppg during league action. Senior guard Akeem Richmond averages a team- high 17.9 ppg and ranks second nationally with 4.6 makes from beyond the arc per tilt. Rookie forward Caleb White (12.8 ppg) and Paris Roberts-Campbell (11.8 ppg, 1.7 spg) have both proven themselves as reliable scorers for ECU. Sophomore Prince Williams (8.9 ppg, 3.6 apg) is a run-the- show point guard, but is just 4-of-23 from behind the 3-point line on the season.

UTSA (8-21, 4-12) began its tenure in the C-USA with two straight victories, but it quickly descended down the standings. The Roadrunners have lost five games in a row and 12 of their last 14. They earned just one decision outside of San Antonio and went 0-8 versus league rivals on the road. While UTSA failed to impress on both ends of the floor, its poor defensive effort was more damaging. The Roadrunners allowed a C-USA worst 76.7 ppg on 46.9 percent efficiency from the floor. They also rank just 12th in scoring offense (68.6 ppg) and last in turnover margin (-3.97). Junior guard Keon Lewis leads the Roadrunners with 12.7 ppg, senior guard Devon Agusi adds 11.8 ppg and senior forward Jordan Sims chips in 10.4 ppg and four rpg.

The winner of the Pirates and Roadrunners' matchup will take on the tournament's host on Wednesday evening. The Miners (22-9, 12-4) finished just one game back of the four-way tie atop the C-USA standings. They were victorious at East Carolina during the regular season and also swept UTSA in a home-and-home series. The last time the C-USA Tournament was held in El-Paso, UTEP lost to Memphis in the 2011 title came. Coach Tim Floyd's team went 13-5 at the Don Haskins Center during the regular season. The Miners had to overcome some controversy in January when three players, including leading scorer McKenzie Moore, were dismissed from the team for gambling. UTEP still has four players with double-digit scoring averages, led by junior swingman Julian Washburn (12.7 ppg) and freshman forward Vince Hunter (12.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Senior center John Bohannon is one of the premier big men in the conference and contributes 11.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 1.7 bpg, while junior C.J. Cooper tallies 10.1 ppg and 2.8 apg. The Miners hold their opponents to only 63.2 ppg and 28.8 percent shooting from 3-point range.

After UTEP makes its postseason debut, No. 8 UAB and No. 9 Charlotte will close out the second night of action. The Blazers (18-12, 7-9) managed to upset Nebraska and North Carolina before entering conference play, so there is plenty of reason to fear coach Jarod Haase's squad in a one-and-done scenario. UAB is among the national leaders on the boards with 1,344 total rebounds (44.8 rpg). UAB has recorded 50 boards or more nine times and is 7-2 in those games. Junior college transfer Chad Frazier became a superstar in his first season at the Division I level to rank third in the league in scoring at 17.7 ppg to go along with 4.3 apg. Junior forward C.J. Washington is chipping in 13 ppg and 6.9 rpg. Senior forward Rucker has been consistent en route to average of 10.9 ppg and is leading on UAB on the glass with 7.1 rpg. The Blazers, who average 73.2 ppg, were held under the 70-point mark in their last five games.

The 49ers (16-13, 7-9), who are an original member of Conference USA, returned to the league this season after spending the last eight years as a member of the Atlantic 10. They finished strong with back-to-back victories, however they dropped a 64-62 decision when UAB visited Halton Arena on Feb. 22. Coach Alan Major guided his squad to notable upsets of Michigan and Kansas State before entering conference play. Charlotte is netting 71.4 ppg, which is just 0.2 ppg more than it allows. The 49ers also outrebound their foes by 3.6 rpg. Sophomore guard Pierria Henry is the only player in the conference that averages double- figures points (12.6 ppg) and at least five rebounds (5.2 rpg) and five assists (6.1) per game. Sophomore guard Shawn Lester is contributing 12 ppg, while shooting 42.3 percent from the field. Willie Clayton (11 ppg) is pacing the 49ers and ranks fourth in the C-USA with 8.8 rpg.

Coach Danny Manning's Golden Hurricane (18-12, 13-3) will be the first regular season champion to take the floor on Thursday. Tulsa has come a long way since its 4-9 start to the season. It is the hottest team in the C-USA entering the postseason with eight consecutive victories, five of which came on the road. The Golden Hurricane are very balanced, ranking third in the league in scoring offense (73.2 ppg) along with sixth in scoring defense (68.2 ppg). Tulsa drastically improved on the defensive end as it allowed 75 ppg on 43.7 percent efficiency from the floor in its first 17 games compared to only 59.2 ppg on 37 percent shooting from the field over its last 13. Sophomore guard James Woodard spearheads the charge with 14.8 ppg and 5.9 rpg, while Rashad Smith adds 12 points and five rebounds per tilt.

Middle Tennessee (23-8, 13-3) is hoping to return to the Big Dance after being defeated by Saint Mary's in the First-Four round in Dayton in 2013. The Blue Raiders won 11 of their final 12 games to notch their third consecutive regular-season conference championship, with the first two coming in the Sun Belt. Coach Kermit Davis's squad is converting 45.4 percent of its field goal attempts for 71.2 ppg and limits its opposition to an average of 62.3 ppg on just 41.2 percent efficiency from the floor. Senior forward Shawn Jones is the only Blue Raider to have started in all 30 games this season and paces the team with 14.5 ppg and 8.5 rpg. Fellow seniors Neiko Hunter, Kerry Hammonds II and Tweety Knight also provide leadership and experience for the unit. Hunter is the team's second option on the offensive end with 12.9 ppg and Hammonds is close behind at 12.4 ppg. Knight fills up the stat sheet on a consistent basis with seven ppg, 4.7 apg and 2.1 spg.

Southern Miss (26-5, 13-3) clinched its first C-USA regular-season championship since 2001, which was expected since it appeared to be the clear No. 2 to Memphis in 2012-13. The Golden Eagles played excellent on both ends of the court by shooting 46.5 percent from the field for 72.6 ppg while allowing just 62.4 ppg on 42.4 percent shooting. USM also maximized the amount of possessions it achieved by maintaining positive rebounding (+6.4) and turnover (+3.1) margins. The Golden Eagles may not be at full strength as senior forward Michael Craig, who nets 11 ppg and a team-best 7.8 rpg, played only 10 minutes in his return to action on March 6. Senior point guard Neil Watson's performance in El Paso will most likely be vital to the team's success since he is USM's primary ball handler and playmaker. Watson leads the team with 10.8 ppg and 4.1 apg. USM downed LaTech, 63-52, in the NIT last season.

The Bulldogs (25-6, 13-3) were the top seed in the 2013 Western Athletic Conference Tournament, however they lost their first postseason game to a ninth-seeded UTSA squad. LaTech has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991 when it was a member of the American South. Coach Michael White's squad excelled in its inaugural season as a member of the C-USA as it upped its scoring offense (81.7 ppg) by 9.2 points and its scoring margin (16.0 ppg) by seven points. Junior floor general Kenneth Smith is not usually a big-time scorer (7.1 ppg), but he is the C-USA's assist champion at 7.9 apg. Although LaTech's Raheem Appleby (13.8 ppg) returned to the lineup for the final three games after missing 12 games due to injury, he clocked only 23 total minutes in those games. Alex Hamilton (14.5 ppg) and Chris Anderson (12 ppg, 5.6 rpg) had no trouble picking up the slack, but they will only benefit when Appleby fully returns and commands attention.

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