MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- It’s finally time for the real contenders in the Conference USA men’s basketball race to emerge.
The non-conference portion of the season is over, and league play is set to begin Thursday, Jan. 9. Games on tap include FIU at Rice, Marshall at Texas-San Antonio, Southern Miss at North Texas, Tulane at Tulsa at Charlotte at UTEP.
Saturday openers include UAB at MTSU, Old Dominion at East Carolina and FAU at Rice.
MTSU (10-5) will find out immediately how it stacks up with the best when it faces UAB, which is off to an 11-3 start, including a victory over North Carolina.
“It is a really good league and when you start looking at it, UAB beat North Carolina, UTEP beat Tennessee, Charlotte won the Puerto Rico Shootout after beating Michigan in the championship game, Louisiana Tech beat Oklahoma and Southern Miss is one of the best teams, best road teams in our league,” said MTSU coach Kermit Davis. “It is a really good league. We have to become a tougher, more physical team to be able to combat and go on the road with those teams.”
Davis also said Conference USA will be more challenging than the Sun Belt in terms facing new opponents and playing in different arenas for the first time.
“I haven't seen every team play and have watched tape on six or seven of the teams we are going to play earlier,” Davis said. “It is a better offensive league. Teams are playing faster. There are some really good players in the Sun Belt, but the talent level overall in C-USA is better.
“Just based on watching Charlotte beat Michigan and watching Louisiana Tech beat Oklahoma, the quality of play is better. There are 30-35 guys that could be first and second team all-league based on what I have seen, including some of our guys. There are some quality players.”
Davis has said MTSU is still a work in progress and still hasn’t found its identity. That’s a scary thought going into conference play.
“Just based on some teams playing better up against quality competition, Southern Miss, UAB, Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, the teams I have mentioned have played better than us to this point, Davis said. “I think they have played better against upper echelon competition. Something we have been very good at in the past that we haven't done as well right now. We haven't proven ourselves on the road.
“Although, if you look at who we have played on the road ‑‑ Cincinnati, Florida and Ole Miss, I think our team is a team that could finish seventh, eighth, ninth or we could win the league. I think that is the parody in the league and will make the conference games interesting, especially Saturday against UAB.”
MTSU senior guard Kerry Hammonds said the Blue Raiders are looking forward to playing in a different conference.
“I'm excited for our first game against UAB because it should be a good test for us right off the bat going into Conference USA.” he said. “We need to do the little things, keep defending and rebounding like we have been. We need to execute our offense, trust in one another and play for the guy beside you.”
MTSU plays UTEP at home on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. The game will be televised live on MyTV30. MTSU also plays Texas-San Antonio at home on Jan. 18 before hitting the road for games at Tulsa and North Texas.
The Conference season is a long grind, but the Blue Raiders will certainly know where they stack up after the first couple of weeks of league play.