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10 Best Conference USA teams entering league play

UAB freshman forward Tosin Mehinti attempts to blocks a shot during the Blazers 63-59 upset of North Carolina on Dec. 1. The Blazers are one of the teams expected to contend for a Conference USA crown.
Butch Dill/AP

With the nonconference portion of the schedule in the rearview mirror after Middle Tennessee State’s game Tuesday, it’s a good time to stop and evaluate where Conference USA teams stand.

This year’s Conference USA race will have a different feel. Gone are perennial power Memphis as well as Houston, SMU and Central Florida. Playing their first season of C-USA basketball are UTSA, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.

With 16 teams, Conference USA is now one of the largest conferences in the nation. Teams will play all 15 conference opponents and then have a second game against one conference foe. In Rice’s case, they play Louisiana Tech twice.

All the teams qualify for the Conference USA Tournament except for Florida International, which is ineligible. The top four seeds will receive a double-bye. The tournament is hosted by UTEP this season.

Rice enters conference play 5-8; a win total that equals how many victories the Owls had the entire 2012-2013 season. The team has made strides this season and should be competitive in many C-USA games.

The following is a closer look at Rice’s opponents the rest of the regular season, and one perspective regarding what percentage chance the Owls have to pull off the victory.

The conference season kicks off with six games Thursday before a full slate of eight games this coming weekend. Rice opens against FIU at 7 p.m. Thursday at Tudor Fieldhouse.

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Southern Mississippi
Southern Mississippi Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Southern Mississippi

  • Record: 13-2
  • RPI: 26
  • Ken Pom: 51
  • Strength of Schedule: 128

3 best wins: at North Dakota State, at DePaul, at Rhode Island

Losses: at Louisville, at Western Kentucky

  • Top Scorer- Neil Watson (11.8 ppg)
  • Top Rebounded- Michael Craig (7.5 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Watson (3.7 apg)

The Golden Eagles are poised to perch on top of the conference standings this season. Southern Miss shoots well at 47 percent per game, has a balanced scoring attack (five players average between 9 and 12 points a game) and leads the conference in scoring defense, giving up 62 points a game. There are no bad losses on the resume, and they are 4-2 on the road.

Matchup against Rice: Jan. 16 in Hattiesburg

Chance Rice will win: 4 percent

UAB
UAB Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

UAB

  • Record: 11-3
  • RPI: 103
  • Ken Pom: 107
  • Strength of Schedule: 232

3 best wins: UNC, at Northwestern, Nebraska (in Charleston, S.C.)

Losses: at LSU, New Mexico, Temple (last 2 in Charleston)

  • Top Scorer- Chad Frazier (17.6 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- C. J. Washington (7.6 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Frazier (5.1 apg)

UAB has arguably the conference’s signature win of the season so far. They upset UNC 63-59 after a decent sixth-place showing at a tournament in Charleston. UAB leads the conference in free throw percentage (.723) and is tops in both offensive rebounding and rebounding margin. Turnovers have been a problem though, and some games the players have shot poorly.

Matchup against Rice: Feb. 27 in Houston

Chance Rice will win: 10 percent

Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech Nate Billings/AP Photo

Louisiana Tech

  • Record: 12-3
  • RPI: 92
  • Ken Pom: 52
  • Strength of Schedule: 248

3 best wins: at Oklahoma, at ULM, vs. St. Bonaventure (in Florida)

Losses: at St. Mary’s, Oklahoma State (in OKC), UL-Lafayette

  • Top Scorer- Raheem Appleby (16.6 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Michale Kyser (7.2 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Kennith Smith (6.3 apg)

The explosive Bulldog offense is tops in the C-USA and 7th best in the country. La Tech averages 86 points a contest. Alex Hamilton and Chris Anderson join Appley in averaging double digit points a game. The Bulldogs are only team to win at Oklahoma so far this season. La Tech is second in Conference USA in field goal percentage (.479) and tops in blocked shots (94).

Matchups against Rice: Feb. 15 in Ruston, March 6 in Houston

Chance Rice will win: 14 percent in Ruston, 25 percent in Houston

Charlotte
Charlotte Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Charlotte

  • Record: 9-4
  • RPI: 130
  • Ken Pom: 114
  • Strength of Schedule: 244

3 best wins: Michigan (in Puerto Rice), K-State (Ditto), Elon

3 worst losses: at Charleston, Davidson, Georgia Tech

  • Top Scorer- Shawn Lester (13.8 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Willie Clayton (9.5 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Pierria Henry (6.2 apg)

Winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off brought Charlotte some national attention in the 49ers debut year in Conference USA. Since then, Charlotte has gone 4-3, including a pair of home losses. Henry is third in the conference in assists while Clayton is second in rebounding and leads C-USA in field goal percentage (.622). The 49ers are in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories, though they do excel in 3-point shooting percentage (.371).

Matchup against Rice: Jan. 25 in Houston

Chance Rice will win: 24 percent

UTEP
UTEP Jason Cooper/AP Photo

UTEP

  • Record: 10-5
  • RPI: 137
  • Ken Pom: 104
  • Strength of Schedule: 158

3 best wins: Tennessee (in Bahamas), at Washington State, Colorado State

3 worst losses: New Orleans, New Mexico State (twice).

  • Top Scorer- McKenzie Moore (13.1 ppg, suspended)
  • Top Rebounder- John Bohannon (8.1 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Moore (2.7 apg)

Tim Floyd’s team faced stiff competition in the Bahamas during Thanksgiving week. They beat Tennessee 78-70, got blown out by Iowa and then gave Kansas fits in 67-63 loss. The Miners appear battle tested and they get the advantage of playing the C-USA Tournament at home. UTEP is second in scoring defense in the conference (65.2 ppg) and leads the way in defensive field goal percentage (.375). News surfaced on Tuesday that Moore, Jalen Ragland and graduate student Justin Crosgile had been dismissed from the team after school administration had determined that they had gambled on athletic events. School officials and the FBI do not think the players betted on UTEP games.

Matchup against Rice: Feb. 1 in El Paso

Chance Rice win will: 21 percent

North Texas
North Texas Nate Billings/AP Photo

North Texas

  • Record: 9-5
  • RPI: 171
  • Ken Pom: 200
  • Strength of Schedule: 240

3 best wins: at Texas A&M, at Portland, Nicholls State

3 worst losses: Idaho (in Portland), Columbia (in Portland), Stephen F. Austin

  • Top Scorer- Alzee Williams (14.4 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Jordan Williams (6.3 ppg)
  • Top Assister- Chris Jones (3.8 apg)

Winners of four straight, North Texas is the only Conference USA team that can claim a 20-point road win over an SEC foe. Granted Texas A&M is not going to win many SEC games this year, but the 61-41 win on New Year’s Eve was a shot in the arm for coach Tony Benford’s squad. North Texas shot 51 percent in that game, but for the season the Mean Green are 14th in the C-USA in field goal shooting (.423). The Mean Green are second-to-last in assists and made 3-pointers.

Matchup against Rice: Feb. 6 in Houston

Chance Rice will win: 32 percent

East Carolina
East Carolina Grant Halverson/Getty Images

East Carolina

  • Record: 11-4
  • Ken Pom: 172
  • RPI: 198
  • Strength of Schedule: 315

3 best wins: UNC-Ashville (in Kingston, R.I.), VMI, at UNC-Greensboro

3 worst losses: UNC-Wilmington, Georgia State, at NC State

  • Top Scorer- Akeem Richmond (20 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Brandan Stith (9.5 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Paris Roberts-Campbell (3.3 apg)

Unlike Southern Miss, UAB and Charlotte, East Carolina has been relatively untested. They did play Duke and NC State and kept both games close. The Pirates have just one win over an RPI Top 200 team and UNC-Ashville barely qualifies at No. 195. Richmond tops C-USA in scoring and Stith is fourth in rebounding. The Pirates lead the conference in shooting percentage (.492) and 3-point shooting percentage (.393).

Matchup against Rice: Feb. 22 in Greenville

Chance Rice will win: 28 percent

Middle Tennessee State
Middle Tennessee State Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Middle Tennessee State

  • Record: 10-5
  • RPI: 134
  • Ken Pom: 138
  • Strength of Schedule: 230

3 best wins: Akron, Southern, ULAR

3 worst losses: Maine (in Chattanooga), Belmont, at Ole Miss

  • Top Scorer- Shawn Jones (13.1 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Jones (8.6 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Tweety Knight (5.0 apg)

Middle Tennessee State is 5-1 at home, but they only have won one road game thus far. They are 0-4 against RPI top 100, but 4-0 against RPI 101-200. The Blue Raiders resume seems to lack anything unusual on it, for better or worse. Knight is fifth in the league in assists and third in steals. Middle Tennessee State is a decent rebounding squad and pretty good at swatting away opponents’ shots. They could use some improvement behind the arc (shooting .312).

Matchup against Rice: March 1 in Murfreesboro

Chance Rice will win: 33 percent

Tulsa
Tulsa Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Tulsa

  • Record: 5-9
  • RPI: 156
  • Ken Pom: 166
  • Strength of Schedule: 38

3 best wins: Indiana State (in Alaska), ULAR, Cal-State Fullerton

3 worst losses: TCU (twice), Oral Roberts

  • Top Scorer- James Woodard (14.4 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Woodard (5.9 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Shaquille Harrison (3.4 apg)

The record is worse than Tulane and others not cracking the top 10, but Danny Manning’s squad is battle tested, having faced 7 RPI top 100 teams. Yes, they lost six of them, but they were only overmatched in the Wichita State game. Tulsa is third in C-USA in 3-point field goals (.352) and third in turnover margin (+1.86). On the negative side, they are last in rebound margin (-3.4) and third-to-last in scoring defense (74.5).

Matchup against Rice: Feb. 8 at Tulsa

Chance Rice will win: 41 percent

Florida International
Florida International AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Florida International

  • Record: 8-7
  • RPI: 238
  • Ken Pom: 235
  • Strength of Schedule: 297

3 best wins: Georgia State, Florida Gulf Coast, at Kennesaw State

3 worst losses: at Florida A&M, Youngstown State (in Kennesaw, Ga.), Eastern Kentucky (ditto)

  • Top Scorer- Tymell Murphy (16.1 ppg)
  • Top Rebounder- Rakeem Buckles (10.5 rpg)
  • Top Assister- Raymond Taylor (6.2 apg in six games)

FIU has four players average double figure points led by Murphy, who is ninth in the conference in scoring. Yet, the team is only 10th in scoring offense at just over 71 points a contest. The Golden Panthers do hit the boards well. Buckles leads the conference in that category. Turnovers are a concern as they’ve already committed 220. FIU had only one win over an RPI 200 team.

Matchup against Rice: Thursday in Houston

Chance Rice will win: 43 percent

Best of the Rest
Best of the Rest Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Best of the Rest

Marshall (6-9) and Tulane (8-7) are just outside the top 10. Both are capable of getting to .500 or better in C-USA play, but they have to show gradual improvement.

The bottom four are Old Dominion (6-9), Rice (5-8), Florida Atlantic (4-10) and UTSA (4-9). These are the games Rice has the best shot of winning. Florida Atlantic visits Rice on Saturday. Rice could equal its C-USA win total from last year right away with a W over the FAU.