Conference Tournament Primer: Conference USAPosted by Adam Stillman on March 11th, 2014
Championship Fortnight continues with another conference tourney tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, Conference USA gets started.
Dates: March 11-15
Site: Haskins Center (El Paso, Texas)
What to expect: Four teams tied for first during the regular season at 13-3 — Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Middle Tennessee, and Southern Miss — and they’ll be seeded in that order here. Without much of a chance for at-large bids, the C-USA tourney should be a dogfight between those top four. Semifinal Friday should be a doozy if the chalk holds. The automatic bid winner could be a potential Cinderella in the big bracket.
Favorite: Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are the top seed, having won four straight and eight of their last nine games. Tech gets it done on the defensive end, ranking 22nd in the nation in defensive efficiency (94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Bulldogs aren’t too shabby on offense, either, ranking second in Conference USA in league games with 110.1 points scored per 100 possessions.
Darkhorse: UTEP. The fifth-seeded Miners went 12-4 in league play, but the main reason they’re a threat to steal the automatic bid is the fact that the conference tournament will be played on their home floor. Yep, real fair, right? I still think one of the top four seeds wins it, but considering that they all tied for first, none of them can truly be a darkhorse.
Who wins: Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are on a roll and have their star player back (see below). Tech has already proven it can play with the big boys, winning at Oklahoma in late December. The Bulldogs don’t turn the ball over, force a lot of turnovers, and don’t miss many shots inside the arc. The major-conference powerhouse that gets matched up with Louisiana Tech next week is going to be in for a long night.
Player to watch: Raheem Appleby, Louisiana Tech. For a couple reasons here. First, he’s the Bulldogs’ best player. Second, he just returned from a lengthy ankle injury last week. The 6’4″ guard missed 12 games before returning to play five minutes against Middle Tennessee, two minutes against UAB, and 16 minutes against Rice. If he can get back to his old self — and it seems like he’s well on his way — the Bulldogs are not only the favorite to win the automatic bid, they are a threat to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Bubble implications: There are a few here. While it’s certainly a long shot, Conference USA could become a two-bid league. Southern Miss boasts a shiny #34 RPI and a gaudy 26-5 record, but there’s not much heft to that resume. Louisiana Tech’s RPI is #65, but the Bulldogs have a great road win at Oklahoma. These teams are on track to meet in the C-USA semifinals, but it’s possible that the winner of that game — if it then loses in the tournament final — could get an at-large bid. Don’t bet on it, though.