C-USA Breakdown: Louisiana Tech & UTEP Atop Decidedly One-Bid League

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 18th, 2015

As recently as last Thursday, Conference USA still had a legitimate shot at becoming a two-bid league. Old Dominion – in second place behind Louisiana Tech – was considered among Joe Lunardi’s “Last Four In” selections, a team capable of sneaking into the Big Dance even if failed to win the league tournament. But life outside power conferences can be cruel, and the Monarchs all but squandered those at-large chances over the weekend, suffering back-to-back road losses at UT-San Antonio (Thursday) and UTEP (Saturday) while falling to fifth place overall. In fact, with several other would-be contenders also stumbling badly in recent weeks, the once-crowded conference field is looking more and more like a two-horse race between Louisiana Tech and UTEP. Let’s examine the top of the standings, the potential importance of the date of February 26, and why UAB has an ace in the hole come March.

The Top Five

'Speedy' Smith and the Bulldogs sit atop Conference USA. (Tom Morris/latechsportspix.com)

‘Speedy’ Smith and the Bulldogs sit atop Conference USA. (Tom Morris/latechsportspix.com)

  1. Louisiana Tech – 20-6 (11-2). The preseason conference favorites are right where we thought they would be back in November – all alone atop the standings. Louisiana Tech boasts the second-most efficient offense and defense in C-USA and its #67 overall KenPom ranking tops in the league. And while the Bulldogs’ excellent guard trio garners much of the credit – led by Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith, the nation’s top assist man (7.9 APG) – forward Erik McCree (12.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG) has also been superb in his first year since transferring over from Murray State. If Michael White’s up-tempo bunch can win at Old Dominion next Saturday, it may be one victory over UTEP away from an outright league title.
  2. UTEP – 18-7 (10-3). The Miners are equipped with the league’s best player, 6’8’’ forward Vince Hunter (15.8 PPG, 9.6 RPG), and a massive frontcourt that ranks seventh nationally in effective height. Their schedule is also favorable, with three of the team’s final five contests coming at home, and only one game – the showdown at Louisiana Tech – against an upper-tier opponent.
  3. Western Kentucky – 19-8 (9-3). What happened to Western Kentucky? A little more than a week ago, the Hilltoppers were alone in first place in this conference, winners in 11 of 12 games. But inexplicable losses to Rice (at home) and Marshall have sent them plummeting back to the pack, results which all but ruin its title chances considering the upcoming slate: four of the Hilltoppers’ final six games are on the road, including trips to UAB, Charlotte and Old Dominion. If things don’t turn around quickly, Ray Harper’s group may wind up having to play a first round game in the C-USA Tournament.
  4. UAB – 13-13 (9-4). Much like Western Kentucky, things were going so well for UAB before, well, they weren’t; the Blazers lost to sub-.500 North Texas and Rice last week only days after knocking off Louisiana Tech. Luckily, their schedule sets up nicely down the stretch (they are projected favorites in all five remaining contests), so a top-four finish and a bye to the C-USA Quarterfinals is still very much in reach.
  5. Old Dominion – 18-6 (7-5). The wheels have not completely fallen off – the Monarchs remain undefeated at home this season – but going 5-5 in their last 10 conference games probably isn’t what they had in mind. Old Dominion’s once-stellar defense has allowed over a point per possession in five of its last seven outings, including UT-San Antonio’s 1.29 PPP outpouring on Thursday. Still, if Jones’ club finds a way to beat Louisiana Tech at home this weekend, their schedule is soft enough to win out and regain some momentum heading into tournament play.

The Importance of February 26

As Sean Isabella of the Monroe News Star points out, the slew of recent upsets has created a situation where – if Louisiana Tech can survive its upcoming road trip to Charlotte and Old Dominion – the Bulldogs will square off with UTEP in a de facto regular season championship game on February 26. Both units face easy schedules down the stretch and each is unlikely to lose beyond that point. The Bulldogs manhandled the Miners in El Paso the first time around, with White’s high-pressure defense forcing 13 UTEP turnovers and limiting the home squad to a season-low 0.78 points per possession, but Tim Floyd’s team is currently riding a six-game winning streak and playing its best basketball of the season. The decisive tilt will be nationally televised on Fox Sports 1, so be prepared.

UAB’s ‘Neutral Court’ Advantage

UAB will have semi-home court advantage this March. (Mark Almond/malmond@al.com)

UAB will have semi-home court advantage this March. (Mark Almond/malmond@al.com)

Why do the standings matter so much besides the obvious league title implications? A couple reasons: 1) the top four seeds receive a bye in next month’s conference tournament; and 2) avoiding UAB’s side of the bracket may prove critical. With the C-USA Tournament moving to Birmingham this year – after spending a season in El Paso – the Blazers will have the unwarranted benefit of semi-home court advantage. They are 6-0 at home in conference play this season, so even though the event won’t be held in Bartow Arena, it’s easy to assume that the lack of travel, disproportionate number of fans and so forth will play to their advantage. If Jerod Haase’s young group beats Western Kentucky this Thursday, they will own tiebreakers over both the Hilltoppers and Old Dominion and be in excellent position to secure the three seed. That scenario would make this month’s UTEP-Louisiana Tech clash all the more crucial; both teams want to avoid a possible semifinal match-up with the Blazers at all costs.

The Outlook

Louisiana Tech has played the league’s second-softest schedule to this point and faces three difficult upcoming tests in a row, concluding with UTEP in eight days. Even so, the Bulldogs – which destroyed Florida International by 33 points on Saturday – look like the conference’s best team, both on court and on paper. A loss to UTEP would hurt, of course, but even that might not unseat White’s unit from the top of the standings, depending on how the tiebreakers fall. Expect White’s group to finish as the top dog with the Miners not far behind.

The biggest loser of the bunch may end up being Western Kentucky, which sits just 1.5 games out of first place but faces a brutal upcoming slate. According to KenPom, the Hilltoppers will be underdogs in four of their final six contests, a grim outlook which looks even grimmer when you consider that they surrendered a combined 159 points on 1.18 points per possession against two of the league’s least-efficient offenses last week. Do not be surprised if the slide continues and the Hilltoppers are left with the five seed – and an additional game – in next month’s C-USA Tournament.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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