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2017 Conference USA Tournament: Viewing Guide and Preview

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A breakdown of the contenders, pretenders, and players to watch in Birmingham later this week.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament-MIddle Tennessee State vs Old Dominion Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Who are the favorites? Who are the dark horses? Who are the top players to watch? And who to root for?

We got you covered as the Conference USA tournament tips off Wednesday.

The favorites

#25 Middle Tennessee (27-4, 17-1)

The Blue Raiders cracked the USA Today Coaches poll yesterday for the first time in school history, and have won seven straight after falling to UTEP back on February 4th.

No C-USA team since the current re-alignment has boasted as solid of a resume as Kermit Davis' team has complied this season.

Jacorey Williams will be C-USA's newcomer of the year, but look for Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts to step up in a big way as veterans who have been here before.

MTSU has gotten steady point guard play from Tyrik Dixon who looks to be one of the top point guards in the conference going forward into the tournament and into future years.

A nasty 1-3-1 defense, star power, and intangibles brought by Upshaw and Potts could carry the Blue Raiders into a Saturday date for the auto-bid.

LA Tech Bulldogs (22-9, 14-4)

Quietly, LA Tech flew under the radar in the latter part of the season, and set themselves up for a path to face Middle Tennessee in the championship game.

Senior swingman Erik McCree has MVP type numbers averaging 17.7 points, and 8.7 rebounds per game all while shooting 39 percent from 3-point distance.

The 3-ball has been nice for the Bulldogs this year with Jacoby Boykins, Derric Jean, and DaQuan Bracey forming a deep guard gallery.

LA Tech also has rim protectors, and when Bracey is on in terms of disturbing the rock, this LA Tech team is tough to beat. KenPom gives LA Tech the second highest percentage to win it all at 22 percent, while the Blue Raiders have a 50 percent shot of winning it all.

If Middle Tennessee happens to fall before Saturday, look for the odds to swing in the Bulldogs favor in a huge way.

Don't sleep on

Rice (21-10, 11-7)

Anytime you have two first team all-conference players in your backcourt, you're going to have a chance.

Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov had banner years, leading Rice to a rare 20-win season.

Matchups will key for a deep run for the Owls due to the fact they have virtually no post presence, but Evans and Egor can fill it up and take over games.

In March, guard play can carry you, and the Owls also have Marcus Jackson and Chad Lott who are capable of big games and will also have their chances to change a game.

Head coach Mike Rhoades and his agent may field calls about various coaching openings across college basketball this off-season after the fine turn around he's accomplished at Rice.

UTEP (14-16, 12-6)

Of course UTEP had a shocking turnaround finishing the season 12-3 after a 2-13 start.

But the main reason UTEP should not be slept on is their ability to defend.

UTEP has held Reggie Upshaw scoreless, and has shut down both Marcus Evans, and Egor Koulechov, and Charlotte guard Jon Davis to scoring numbers well below their game changing averages.

If UTEP makes to Friday, Middle Tennessee might not flinch in the second matchup with the Miners, but the Miners ability to defend and rebound will make them a tough out.

UAB (17-15, 9-9)

The Blazers have home court advantage, but their near upset of Middle Tennessee should have teams on alert more so than their home court edge.

UAB did fall to FIU to end the season, but if UAB's guards can find a consistent way to get Chris Cokley, Dirk Williams, and William Lee the ball in situations in where they can easily score, watch out.

Only a few teams in the conference can erase shots like the Blazers can, and their overall defensive metrics are impressive.

They won't be playing at Bartow, but a pro-UAB crowd will be in the stands every time they lace em' up this week.

The Dark Horses

Marshall (17-14, 10-8)

Marshall's ability to score in bunches, and the fact that Jon Elmore can get hot and carry the Herd are dangers team have account for when facing Marshall.

One of their X-Factors is senior forward Ryan Taylor who ended the season with a 29-point effort, and he's had a double-double in three straight games.

The Herd looked like a sure fire contender at the start of conference play, then hit a wall in the middle of the season, but their ability to score and drop daggers can give anyone fits.

Charlotte (13-16, 7-11)

The 49ers were snake bitten by defections before the season started, but still have one of the top guards in the conference.

A guard collection with Jon Davis, Andrien White, Anthony VanHook, and Austin Ajukwa is a tough matchup when all four are on top of their games.

Braxton Ogbueze is another guard to account for, and when this Charlotte team is shooting well they are tough to keep up with.

They play at one of the highest tempos in the nation, and Jon Davis can go off for 30-points or more at any moment.

Charlotte has made minor waves with new head coach Mark Price, and an upset or two won’t be surprise given their guard options.

The UAB-Charlotte matchup could be one of the better games in the tournament on Wednesday.

WELCOME BACK SOUTHERN MISS

After a two year hiatus due to NCAA violations, the Golden Eagles are back in the tournament and will open up with Rice on Wednesday.

Donnie Tyndall put current head coach Doc Sadler in a major bind and is still feeling the effects of Tyndall's ignorance and greed.

The Golden Eagles are still a few recruiting classes away from competing for a title, but it's good see a proud program, with one of the top fan bases in the conference back in the postseason mix.

Top players to watch (best pro prospects and certified dudes)

  • Marcus Evans---Rice
  • Jacorey Williams---Middle Tennessee
  • Jon Elmore---Marshall
  • William Lee---UAB
  • Dominic Artis---UTEP
  • Erik McCree---LA Tech
  • Jon Davis-Charlotte
  • Pancake Thomas---WKU

TV GUIDE

2017 Conference USA Championship Schedule

Legacy Arena at BJCC, Birmingham, Ala.

(ASN=American Sports Network, Streaming available)

Wednesday, March 8

(8) WKU vs. (9) UTSA (Campus Insiders) - 11:30a

(12) Southern Miss vs. (5) Rice (Campus Insiders) - 2:00p

(10) Charlotte vs. (7) UAB (Campus Insiders) - 5:30p

(11) Florida Atlantic vs. (6) Marshall (Campus Insiders) - 8:00p

Thursday, March 9

WKU/UTSA vs. (1) Middle Tennessee (ASN) - 11:30a

USM/Rice vs. (4) UTEP (ASN) - 2:00p

CHA/UAB vs. (2) Louisiana Tech (ASN) - 5:30p

FAU/MAR vs. (3) Old Dominion (ASN) - 8:00p

Friday, March 10

Semifinal # 1 (CBS Sports Network) - 11:30p

Semifinal # 2 (CBS Sports Network) - 2:00p

Saturday, March 12

Championship Game (CBS Sports Network) - 7:30p