Breaking Down Conference USA

By snapping an 18-game losing streak against Memphis on Wednesday night, Southern Miss took sole possession of first place in Conference USA.  At this point, there are four tournament hopefuls in the league (sorry Tulsa), although a couple are headed in the wrong direction.

With Selection Sunday just over five weeks away, here’s a quick look at those four squads:

Southern Miss  (20-3, 7-1)

The Golden Eagles are the current poster child for why people don’t believe in RPI.  USM currently ranks eighth despite the fact they are just 3-2 against the Top 50 and have no wins against the Top 20.  To be fair, their three losses came at Denver (who is better than many people realize), in double overtime to Murray State, and on the road at Memphis.  From a RPI standpoint, their best wins have come against Memphis (24), Colorado State (30), and Mississippi (42).

But while you can rail against the RPI to your heart’s content (and I fully encourage you to do so), I do think Southern Miss is a solid team.  They have a number of able scorers in Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson, LaShay Page, Neil Watson, and Maurice Bolden to name a few.  Dodson has 45 points and 14 rebounds over the last two games, where he has also gone 18-of-20 from the stripe.  Page plays a ton of minutes and has hit 37.7% from long range.  Watson ranks in the Top 100 in ORtg thanks to a superb assist rate (32.3%) and FTR (73.7).  Bolden teams with Jonathan Mills and Torye Pelham (both of whom are in the top 100 for OReb%) to form a strong nucleus of rebounders.

On the offensive end, they have been held under 1.02 ppp just four times and have scored at least 1.10 ppp on a dozen occasions.  Bolstered by the top-ranked TO% and FTR in Conference USA, the Golden Eagles rank second in adjusted offensive efficiency in league play.  The team is third in OReb%, where they rank 38th nationally for the season.  Shooting is the biggest issue on offense, particularly from two-point range where they hit just 43.2%, thanks in part to an 11.7 block percentage against them. 

Defensively, Southern Miss ranks second in C-USA in both TO% and DReb%, but they rank in the middle of the pack overall given their relatively poor eFG% defense and a high opponents’ FTR.  USM has held 16 of their 23 opponents to 1.00 ppp or less, including six times in league games.  They certainly won’t be confused for an elite team defensively, but given their offense, they may not need to be.

The schedule lays out well for Southern Miss, as the only top teams they face are UCF and Tulsa at home to go with a season-ending road trip to Marshall.

Memphis (15-7, 6-2)

The Tigers rank 24th in the RPI, thanks in large part to a high strength of schedule and the fact that they don’t have a “bad” loss (unless you count a one-point road loss to UCF with a rather controversial ending).  However, they have just one Top 50 win so far, which came at home against Southern Miss.  Consequently, Saturday’s matchup with Xavier is a very important one for both clubs.

Memphis ranks first in offensive efficiency in league play and second on the defensive end.  Strong 54.2% shooting on two-pointers has propelled them to the top eFG%, and the fact they have shot just 25.6% of their shots from beyond the arc would indicate they realize where their bread is buttered.  They also rank fourth or better in the other three factors with their TO% and FTR both ranking in the Top 100 nationally.  They have scored at least 1.01 ppp in 19 of their 22 games and have scored at least 1.12 ppp in four of the last six.

Despite the worst opponents’ FTR in league play, Memphis ranks second in defensive efficiency.  They have done a terrific job defending both twos and threes in conference games and have the top block rate at 15.9%.  The Tigers are in the middle of the pack in both TO% and DReb%.  For the season, they rank 10th in the nation in eFG% defense but outside of the Top 200 in the other three factors.  Things have improved on that end of the floor, with Memphis holding eight of their last 11 opponents to 0.97 ppp or less.

In terms of individual performance, Will Barton has been terrific.  He’s averaging 18.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.5 steals while hitting 51.0% from the field.  The 6-foot-6 sophomore has played 87.5% of Memphis’ minutes and boasts solid eFG% and TS%, strong rebounding rates on both ends of the floor, and a 45.1 FTR.

After hosting Xavier this weekend, the Tigers have a string of five winnable games before finishing at Marshall, home versus UCF, and at Tulsa.

Central Florida (16-6, 5-3)

The Knights got back on track this week against Palm Beach Atlantic, but they lost their two previous games and three of their previous five.  UCF ranks 70th in the RPI with just a 2-4 record against the Top 100.  Their top wins are over UConn on a neutral floor and the aforementioned home game against Memphis.  Losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulsa have definitely lessened their margin for error.

The UCF offense has really struggled with their shooting in league play, particularly from beyond the arc (31.1%).  They also have a low 27.3 FTR, but they have taken good care of the basketball and done a nice job on the offensive glass.  They have been held to 1.00 ppp or fewer in four of their last six games (one of the exceptions was Palm Beach Atlantic) and 11 games in total.

On the defensive end, the Knights are fifth in conference play.  They have a low opponents’ FTR and are fourth in eFG%, while their TO% and DReb% rank in the bottom half of the conference.  For the season, they are 37th in defending the three-point line (30.5%), but they have also benefitted from opponents making just 64.3% from the line.  UCF has allowed opposing teams to score over 1.00 ppp eight times this year, but four of those have come in the last seven contests. 

Central Florida has a solid nucleus with Keith Clanton, Marcus Jordan, and Isaiah Sykes, and the return of A.J. Rompza has helped as well.  However, Rompza is the only player on the team with an ORtg over 105.  From a scheduling standpoint, the Knights need to win at least two of their three biggest remaining games (Marshall, at Southern Miss, at Memphis) while not slipping up in any others.

Marshall (14-8, 5-3)

The Herd broke a four-game losing streak by beating Tulane on Wednesday, but their tournament hopes have definitely taken a hit in recent weeks.  They are currently 59th in the RPI with no Top 50 wins and a 4-7 record against the Top 100. 

From an offensive standpoint, their shooting has been brutal this season.  They rank 246th in eFG%, 324th in three-point shooting, and 332nd in free throw percentage.  The good news is that the sheer volume of misses has presented plenty of offensive rebounding opportunities, and the team currently ranks fourth in the country in OReb%.  Outside of that, Marshall ranks eighth or lower in the other three factors in league play.

Defensively, the Herd has done a terrific job of limiting opponents’ three-point shooting, and they’ve also been solid on the defensive glass.  Like UCF, they have benefitted from poor free throw shooting from their opponents, but Marshall doesn’t force turnovers at a high rate and has struggled with putting their opponents on the line.

DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts give the team a pair of double-digit scorers, but neither one is particularly efficient.  In fact, Marshall has just two players with an ORtg over 104.  They have a pair of tough road games up next against Tulsa and UCF, and they get Memphis and Southern Miss at home in two of the final three contests.  They may need to win all of those games at this point.

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