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The Conference USA tournament tips on Wednesday at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas. Middle Tennessee State, thanks to 20-ppg scorer Nick King (pictured above), is the betting favorite to win its third straight CUSA tournament, but it also has an outside shot at an at-large bid. If the Blue Raiders make it to the title game and lose to say No. 3 seed Western Kentucky, CUSA could potentially become a two-bid league for the first time since 2012. (Only five teams from that season still play in the conference).

 

Let’s take a deeper look at the bracket to identify any potential futures value, take a quick look at the crazy playing conditions, and then finish up with ATS predictions for each of Wednesday’s four first round games.

2018 Conference USA Tournament

Only 12 of the 14 league teams participate in the tourney, which means you won’t see Rice or Charlotte. The top four seeds (Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, Marshall) each receive a bye into Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

A quick note on the venue, which will feature two courts, with games happening simultaneously. Crowd noise and whistles could cause some confusion, despite assurances from officials that the courts are far enough away from each other. Additionally, the sight lines are rumored to be “unique” (read: awful). I would be hesitant to bet any jump shot reliant teams (looking at you Marshall and UTSA) or any overs.

Who Should Win

Middle Tennessee +137

The top three teams (MTSU, WKU, ODU) dominated league play for most of the season, but the Blue Raiders are clearly the class of the league. MTSU took the regular season title for the second consecutive year and is primed to upset another Big Ten team in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

MTSU played the league’s best defense, as Kermit Davis’ morphing 1-3-1 zone limited CUSA opponents to just .92 points per possession (ppp). Offensively, the Blue Raiders are led by savvy paint scorer Nick King and efficient true post Brandon Walters, while the perimeter shooting of senior guard Giddy Potts keeps opposing defenses honest.

The Blue Raiders aren’t without fault, as point guard play has been erratic, and quick backcourts can exploit their defense. That’s precisely what Marshall achieved with Jon Elmore and CJ Burks. The Herd handed MTSU its only two conference losses.

 

MTSU will face the winner of the 8/9 matchup between Southern Miss and FIU, which combined to go 0-3 against the Blue Raiders. Although, FIU did take them to OT in Miami, as Panther point guard Brian Beard profiles as exactly the type of guard that can give MTSU trouble.

While FIU could potentially give the top seed issues, it doesn’t matchup well on paper with Southern Miss. The Panthers rely entirely on penetrate and kick action from Beard to wings Trajon Jacob (questionable with an injury) and Eric Lockett. USM however plays one of the most compact man to man defenses in the country. All five defenders on the court essentially have a foot in the paint, which will limit the FIU penetration.

Defensively, FIU uses a more complex box-and-one, with Beard pressuring the ball handler for 40 minutes. (Everyone else pretty much packs in the paint). Again, that’s not an ideal scheme against Southern Miss, which has one of the league’s steadiest backcourts in Tyree Griffin and Cortez Edwards. That said, FIU won the only meeting of the season at home. USM played awful away from Hattiesburg all year.

If Not MTSU, Then….

Old Dominion +320

The Monarchs aren’t the flashiest team, but head coach Jeff Jones’ squad finished second in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. ODU is also one of the best pick and roll defenses in the entire country.

Jones, who previously had a reputation of being one of the country’s most stubborn coaches, has mixed in an excellent 1-3-1 zone that plays to the strength of ODU’s length. ODU allows an impressive .78 ppp in man to man defense, but an even better .76 in zone. The Monarchs are incredibly difficult to score against in the halfcourt, which is where tournament games are usually decided. Unfortunately, it didn’t win a single game against MTSU or WKU (0-3) this year. It at least looks like point guard Ahmad Caver has recovered from a stomach bug that recently caused him to lose 15 pounds.

 

ODU will take on the winner of No. 7 seed North Texas and No. 10 seed Louisiana Tech. Both teams struggled to end the season. UNT lost six of its last seven and LA Tech lost four straight to close the year. UNT was actually one of the league’s surprise teams for a stretch in late January to mid February, as head coach Grant McCasland had the Green sitting at 7-4 in league play after a huge win at UAB. However, a serious lack of interior defense eventually caught up with the Mean Green. (NT allows the 8th highest FG% at the rim in the country).

LA Tech meanwhile has battled through defections and a massive amount of key injuries. Although the Bulldogs have actually played more efficiently on both ends with freshman Amorie Archibald running the point. He has been a much better option than star DaQuon Bracey trying to play though a back injury. Archibald and fellow frosh stretch 4 Anthony Duruji were both fantastic in a narrow regular season home win over UNT. Containing UNT’s dribble penetration is key, which LA Tech mostly accomplished in that game.

Potential Sleeper(s)

Western Kentucky +420 and Marshall +835

WKU fell from potential team to beat to sleeper because of an awful road trip to finish the year. It’s apparent WKU goes as senior guard Darius Thompson goes. He really struggled in losses at MTSU and UAB this past weekend. In fact, WKU’s four league losses coincided with Thompson four lowest offensive efficiency outputs of the year.

When Thompson and backcourt mate Lamonte Bearden are right, WKU is an impossible team to keep out of the paint, especially with hulking Justin Johnson and Kansas transfer Dwight Coleby lurking at the rim. WKU’s downfall has been zone defenses, as it really struggles to hit jump shots that aren’t borne from penetration. The Tops also have some lapses defensively, especially against pick and roll.

No. 4 seed Marshall is the only CUSA team to beat MTSU. And the Herd did it twice! Marshall fell to MTSU in last year’s CUSA title game, but would potentially face the Blue Raiders in the semis this year. As I mentioned before, MTSU’s outstanding defense is vulnerable against the league’s better guards. Well, Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni has CUSA’s best in Jon Elmore. D’Antoni is a master of drag screen transition offense, and Marshall routinely beat MTSU down the floor before it could set its defense.

 

When Marshall did operate in the halfcourt, MTSU’s slower bigs struggled to defend in pick and roll. Marshall super athletic and mobile big Ajdin Penava exploited that weakness, scoring 1.4 ppp as the roll man, per Synergy. In short, MTSU should root for Marshall to get upset by the winner of UTSA-UTEP.

However, No. 5 seed UTSA is down one of the league’s premier offensive talents in freshman gunner Jhivvan Jackson, who scored 23 in a home upset of the Herd last month. UTSA swept the Miners in the regular season, but Jackson played in both games. UTEP big man Matt Willms also only played 10 minutes in the first meeting because of a lingering foot injury. UTSA’s first game without Jackson resulted in a blowout loss to UNT, but the Runners did end the season with a road win in the following game (albeit against an awful Rice team).

The good news for UTSA is that UTEP struggles to defend in transition, and UTSA head coach Steve Henson (Lon Kruger disciple) loves to push the tempo. The Runners should generate plenty of easy buckets on the break.

Most Intriguing R1 Matchup

UAB vs FAU

This 6/11 matchup itself isn’t so intriguing, as the No. 6 seed Blazers destroyed FAU in Boca Raton, with UAB senior forward Chris Cokley completely shutting down FAU senior center Ronald Delph. However, a UAB win would set up a very intriguing quarterfinal game against Western Kentucky. UAB is the biggest wild card in the tournament, as it is finally playing up to its potential after a severely disappointing season. If you are looking for a deep sleeper, the Blazers (+1300) are probably worth a look.

UAB ended the year with convincing wins over Marshall and WKU. Cokley has recently dominated in the paint, but more importantly, UAB has started to hit  jumpers. Don’t expect a repeat 15-24 three point shooting performance against WKU again. But if the Blazers can hit 8-21 like they did against Marshall (instead of the 1-17 against MTSU in the game prior), defenses can’t collapse on Cokley and HaHa Lee around the rim. If Nick Norton and Nate Darling knock down jumpers, the Blazers can make a run in Frisco.

First Round ATS Predictions

FIU PK
UTSA -3
LA Tech -2.5
UAB -8.5

Conference USA Final Prediction

MTSU over ODU

Photo credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Credit:

Mar 1, 2018; Murfreesboro, TN, USA; Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders forward Nick King (5) reacts during the second half against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Murphy Athletic Center. Middle Tennessee won 82-64. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

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