In my third and final segment of conferences with surprising parity, we go to a conference that has had some relevant upsets the last 5 years, in Conference USA. From the first 12 seed ever that was favored to a 15 seed that busted my bracket 2 years ago, Middle Tennessee State continues to be the new double-digit seeded pest of the NCAA tournament. This is the same conference that also has the UAB Blazers, a team that upset 3-seeded Iowa State in 2015. And this is the same conference that has several other teams that can make it, including Western Kentucky, Marshall, and Old Dominion, teams with very little tournament experience as of late.
What gives Marshall the chance to be that sleeper team? The ability to outscore anyone. Even though they’re playing in a weaker conference that hasn’t had much all-around competition, having two guys scoring over 20 points per game is still a strong weapon to utilize in the NCAA Tournament. In addition, those two scorers, Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, are also very efficient from the field and the free throw line. And their team as a whole, with the exception of freshman forward Darius George at 37.5%, is shooting very good from the line this season. They also have the seventh best offense in the entire nation, averaging 86.8 points per game this season. Even though the bulk of that comes from Elmore and Burks, they have a solid bench and still other solid scorers in their starting lineup. And even though that they do play in a weaker conference, they’ve scored 100 points on 4 different occasions this season, which could help them if they land a weaker defense. However, the flaw with this Marshall team this season has been their team defense. They are allowing 81.2 points per game this season, which ranks 332nd out of an eligible 351 teams in Division I basketball. But even though that statistic is concerning, they’ve had several games where they have held opponents to a point total in the sixties, including their most recent matchup against Middle Tennessee State, where they won 73-63. So even though it is horrible statistically, it hasn’t been consistently bad every game. They flip a switch against an iffy offensive team in the NCAA tournament or a higher seed that is upset vulnerable, this team may be the new Middle Tennessee State in the NCAA tournament. If you have one extreme, you always have a chance in the NCAA tournament. And that offense, despite being in a weaker conference, is always a good extreme to have. Regardless of competition, these players, come time a win-or-go-home tournament game, will have the confidence in their abilities. And often times, being that Conference USA teams don’t play many teams in Power 5 conferences, they will be less familiar with these scorers’ playing styles as well.
On the other extreme, there is Old Dominion, who is currently leading the conference in terms of overall record at 15-4. Old Dominion is more known as a defensive powerhouse, ranking 12th in the league at 62.7 points per game allowed. Contrary to the offense-extreme Thundering Herd, they have had 7 games this season where they have allowed less than 60 points, including two instances where they have allowed exactly 44. There are problems with this team though, offensively, despite having a 15-4 record on this season. They have a couple of shooters under 40% in their starting lineup in Ahmad Caver and Randy Haynes. They also have several iffy free throw shooters, with only B.J. Stith over 80% and Haynes barely over 70%. However, they have balance within that starting lineup, with a team that knows how to pass the ball and not turn it over. They have two guys with 3.0 assist to turnover ratios, and Ahmad Caver is doing it while averaging 6.3 assists per game. In addition, they have 4 guys in their starting lineup that are scoring above 10 per game, so it’s not like it’s dominated by one guy, which is much harder to prepare for. So even though their offense isn’t great, it is very methodical and well-coached, which combining that with their elite defense could create an interesting upset candidate assuming they can win their conference tournament.
And of course, there is Middle Tennessee State. The team that busted my bracket in the first round of the tournament in 2016 by putting 89 on Michigan State. The team that became the first 12 seed to be favored by Vegas odds. However, anybody who watches college basketball knows that that Minnesota team was generously ranked 5 after stumbling into the tournament. Regardless, Middle Tennessee is still a talented team, and with a high level of confidence after their last two tournament successes. Their three leading scorers in Nick King, Giddy Potts, and Brandon Walters, are all seniors now, and are very experienced within the tournament, starting 2 years ago with the Michigan State upset as sophomores. So, in terms of mental preparation, they will be ready to go. And in terms of their success this season, it has been good. Their defense is among the Top 50 in the entire nation at 66.4 points per game allowed. And even though their offense hasn’t been as good as prior years, they have several efficient shooters and a high scorer in Nick King, averaging 21.7 points per game. They do certainly have some weaknesses though, with an inability to shoot the three ball this season and inconsistencies with their free throw shooting. However, they still have three guys over 80% for the season, including a 90% shooter in Antwain Johnson, who scores most of his points going to the free throw line. So overall, you can combine that with a good defense and a great mentally prepared team, assuming they win the conference like they have the past two years, watch out for Middle Tennessee State to once again be a threat in more matchups than just one. They have done it to two Big 10 teams already, which were some of the most balanced teams in the entire nation.
But the team that I think has the best chance in terms of talent and statistics in this conference is the team whose name stands alone in Division I. That team would be the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. This team has the best balance of offense and defense, with an offense that is 83rd in the nation (78.1 PPG) and a defense that is 108th (69.4 points allowed). They also have good depth and balance within their roster, with two bench players that average over 7 points per game, which is often difficult to find in these lower level conferences. Their starting lineup is also very balanced as well, with all their starting 5 over 11 points per game and all of their starting 5 with field goal percentages over 43%, including Dwight Coleby and Josh Anderson shooting over 60%. They are also dynamic from beyond the arc, with their top three scorers shooting over 40% from the three-point line. The other thing that is key for teams in lower level conferences like this is contending with top teams. Well this Western Kentucky team may be more battle tested than others. Despite losing both matchups, they contended with a talented and well-coached Wisconsin team, only losing 81-80. Even better, they contended for 40 minutes with the #1 team in the nation in the Villanova Wildcats, only losing 66-58. Among Villanova’s games this season, only Butler has beaten them and only St. John’s lost to them by a lower margin of victory (7) than the Hilltoppers this season. Even Xavier, the #8 team in the nation and a very talented roster, got throttled by the Wildcats 89-65 when they played them. So based on contending with two of the most successful basketball programs in this decade, you would have to think that kind of play would help their confidence going into the tournament, likely playing a 3 or 4 seed. But to me, I think this Western Kentucky team is built to pull off an upset like that with their balance and multiple ways to attack a defense. Currently standing at 14-6 overall and 6-1 in Conference USA, they have a very good chance to surpass MTSU and Old Dominion and win the conference or even do it in the conference tournament as well.
In closing, Conference USA has never been the conference strong enough overall to get two teams into the NCAA tournament. For something like that to happen, they would need two 31-2 teams most likely to have a shot at that. Therefore, this article isn’t to say that all these teams will make it. However, whoever does wind up the conference champion, don’t sleep on any of these teams in the tournament. We’ve seen what UAB can do in 2015. We’ve seen what kind of positive underdog mentality the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State have had the last two years. But it’s not just those teams that can make a difference this year in Conference USA. There are many more threats this year to make an impact in the NCAA tournament. If they get the right matchup and maybe even the right teams in it, the recent conference of tournament upsets can come through once again.