If The Tournament Is Anything Like The Season... Wow

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting regular season races in the history of Conference USA was this past year, what is the tournament going to be like?

It seemed like every week once conference play started, we had a new front runner show up.

Now on the eve of the conference tournament, parity is the name of the game with five possible contenders who could cut the down the nets in the Don on Saturday morning.

But who is real and who is fake? Time to break it down.

Men of March

Its obvious that the top four horseman, Southern Miss., Middle Tennessee, Tulsa, and Louisiana Tech have the easiest path by only having to win three in a row.

Though something about every one of those teams should have them as the front runners, and that is defense.

Tulsa has been one of the best defensive teams since league play started.

Only one C-USA team (Charlotte) has scored more than 72 on them, and it was in overtime, Tulsa also had an eleven game streak of holding opponents under 65 points.

They held high flying LA Tech to only 66 in their second loss during that span, while limiting conference opponents to 36.8 percent from the field, and turning defense into a 45 shooting percentage from the field themselves during conference play.

Not only does Danny Manning have the horses to defend inside you for 40 minutes, he uses the triangle and two, which outside of Middle Tennessee and UTEP is a rarity in C-USA, and has shut teams down who panic when they see it done with speed, and fury.

Tulsa is full of sophomores, and I had called them veteran a couple of weeks ago, which I believe they are with the experience from last year, and with the tough non-conference schedule this year, they have grown into a club that plays veteran like on both sides of the floor.

Tulsa is my favorite from the top half of the bracket because of their defense, and they have won eight straight, though if anyone can match them defensively its Middle Tennessee.

The Blue Raiders are scary because it seems anybody on their squad can beat you single handedly with a monster scoring, or rebounding effort.

Kerry Hammonds IINeiko Hunter, and Shawn Jones have been constants all season in scoring production.

Hammonds has been deadly with three ball all year, and Jones should be league MVP with his 14.5 point per game average, while brining in 8.5 rebounds a contest.

Hunter and Jones are both seniors, lead Middle Tennessee in scoring, and will certainly have the experience of March after their NCAA appearance last year.

Everybody rebounds if you got a Blue Raider jersey on, that parlayed with their athletes galore who can defend, maybe Tulsa isn't my favorite after all.

Then you have both Southern Miss., and LA Tech who like Tulsa, come at you with fast guards, who can defend, and get to the rim.

Raheem Appleby is back for LA Tech, though has only played 23 minutes is his return to for the Bulldogs last three games, obviously to ease in him for this weekend.

Alex Hamilton averaged 17.4 points during Appleby's absence, and Kenneth Smith is one of the quickest players I've ever seen from floor level, and averages almost eight assists a game.

Heck all of Louisiana Tech's guards were fast on the defensive side, and their are of plenty of them as we all have seen.

Kenyon McNeail is one the most un-talked about players for LA Tech, though averages 10.6 points a game off the bench, and also leads with 70 three-pointers, while shooting 39 percent from deep. If he is not sixth man of the year, something is wrong.

Everyone talks about how LA Tech can score, but when they want to, they can shut you down completely with their speed and depth.

Just ask Middle Tennesse, FIU, Rice (Twice), and Tulane who were all held under 50 points against the Dunkin Dawgs.

Can't forget about Southern Miss. who has won five straight since their 81-64 loss at Middle Tennessee.

Taking the ball away, and getting to the free-throw line seems be the Golden Eagles MO.

Neil Watson is on pace for a C-USA record breaking percentage from the line, while leading a multiple help attack full court trap that could end up being the talk of the tourney.

Want to talk depth, just look at the Southern Miss's stat sheet, nine players have more than 15 steals on the season, while five average 9.6 points a game or more.

Uber experienced guards, athletic forwards who can bang you, and outleap you at the same time, and the masked assassin who just hits game winners has dreams of a repeat in the south.

UTEP

The Miners belong in their own class if were not talking about the upper echelon of well deserved seeds.

Why? The Miners have proved they can hold down first place, win on the road, and shut you down on defense.

Something only five teams in this league have they shown can do.

We all know about UTEP's frontline, but let me throw something at you that has caught my eye as a possible key for UTEP no one is expecting.

Jake Flaggert.

If Flaggert can come off the bench like he did against North Texas, then UTEP has a little bit more of added depth.

Of course C.J. Cooper is what has been stirring the drink, but if Flaggert can be productive with the trifecta when he spells Julian Washburn or Vince Hunter, those are points needed during those times the Miners usually look lost on offense.

Jake wasn't shooting much before that game, and was 0/4 field against UTSA, but if he can chip in with 6 or 7 points, get to the free throw line a couple times, that would give teams something they weren't prepared for.

The Miners had the best defensive field goal percentage in the conference this season, when the Miners protect the rim, and protect the ball, that usually leads to rebounds, and are able to dominate teams.

Along with the home crowd, UTEP's coaching staff also has to be an advantage for the Miners.

LA Tech was the deeper team when they lost in El Paso, but Tim Floyd out worked the young and talented Michael White, also doing the same to his once assistant Kermit Davis in UTEP's road win at Middle Tennessee.

Coaching becomes key in March, with having four head coaches on one sideline, managing four games in four days is in real good hands.

Middle Men

Outside of the previous five, only two stand worthy of even being mentioned as true dark horses, UAB and Charlotte.

Both start their C-USA tourney lives in an even 8,9 matchup to end day two on Wednesday.

Charlotte has struggled with consistency on both ends since January, though has personnel that can hang with the top tier teams in the league.

Willie Clayton and Pierria Henry are matchup problems for anybody in the country, though more is needs outside these two, paging Ben Cherry.

UAB has one of the best all around players, in Chad Frazier, and Rod Rucker has been pretty quite this season, though is certainly a guy you can't forget about.

In all, this could be one of the better tournaments nobody hears about outside of C-USA cities.

Its a shame this is going to be a one bid league, LA Tech, Middle Tennessee, and Southern Miss have been dominate the past couple of seasons, but the C-USA gets no respect for that.

And well when your fifth seed has 22 wins, that should explain how tough C-USA has been within the top five, some sort of respect is due.

Here is to an exciting March week of survive, and move on, El Paso style.

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