Say what you will about Conference USA, but there has been some great basketball played in the league this year. Unfortunately, it suffers from top-heaviness. It’s the only conference in the country that had four teams tie for the regular season lead. And for that reason, pundits across the nation are claiming this is no more than a one-bid conference.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Of course, that statement comes with a caveat: that Southern Mississippi doesn’t win the conference tournament.
The Golden Eagles (26-5, 13-3), despite a league record three other teams were able to achieve, enter this week’s tourney as the class of CUSA. Their 36th-ranked RPI is 23 spots better than the next-best conference team (Middle Tennessee State at 59), putting them squarely in the middle of bubble talk.
Of course, that’s dependent on them not crumbling early on. And they’ll be tested right away. Their first game of the conference tournament will be against the host school, UTEP, who’s already beaten East Carolina in the first round to get to USM. If the Golden Eagles fall by the wayside to the Miners in enemy territory on Thursday, it could be the end of the road for them — as well as the hopes and dreams of CUSA getting two teams in the Big Dance. Not that there’s any pressure, though, right?
The perfect scenario for the league would see Southern Miss get to the championship game and lose. The winner would get the automatic bid, but USM would still improve to 28-6 on the season with an RPI in the 40s for the Tournament Selection Committee to digest. If that’s not the resume of an NCAA Tournament team, I don’t know what is. Honestly, how would you keep a team with 28 wins out? It would be a serious injustice if that were to happen, and I don’t think it will if it gets to that point.
Louisiana Tech (25-6, 13-3, 67 RPI) and Middle Tennessee State (23-8, 13-3, 59 RPI) are both capable of winning three straight games this week, but without doing so, they’re going straight to the NIT. Holding your destiny in your own hands is a powerful motivator, and that’s what those two teams are facing. Southern Miss, on the other hand, could be the only team in this league who’ll be legitimately sweating on Selection Sunday. CUSA officials are strangely hoping they’ll have to do that very thing.