College Court Report 2017-18 Preseason Awards: Conference USA

Jon Elmore has been a constant problem for opposing defenses over his first two years at Marshall, and that trend will continue in 2017-18. (Source: Jared Wickerham – AP)

CANMORE, Alta. — The 2017-18 season tips off on November 10th, which means the final month without college basketball is finally upon us.

Fans all across the country are gearing up for another exciting college basketball season, and with the recent scandal involving the FBI and several power conference programs across the NCAA, the level of anticipation is through the roof.

Conference preview pieces are starting to circulate from various media outlets, and conferences are hosting their annual media days and announcing their preseason polls and award winners. It’s always interesting to see how coaches and media rank teams in their respective conferences.

With the season right around the corner, we are starting to release our Preseason Player of the Year awards for each conference, along with three All-Conference teams. Picked at random, we will release two sets of awards each day.

Following the 2016-17 season, several teams in the Conference USA underwent some major changes in the off-season. From a recruiting saga with a five-star prospect that looked like it was never going to end, to several big-time players either graduating or transferring to bigger programs, the makeup of several teams will look vastly different that it did the year prior.

Regardless, the race for the Conference USA crown will be an exciting one. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders will look to advance to their third straight NCAA Tournament and knock off a Big Ten school for the third time in a row. Other programs are nipping at their heels, and some come into the year ranked higher than the defending champions.

With an abundance of talent still calling the Conference USA their home, scroll down to take a look at who we have tabbed as our Preseason Player of the Year, and who comes in where on our All-Conference USA Teams!

2017-18 Player of the Year: Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

The college basketball world was formally introduced to Middle Tennessee and guard Giddy Potts during the 2015-16 season. Potts finished the year as the nation’s top three point shooter, hitting on 50.6% (76-of-156) of his attempts from beyond the arc in the regular season. Then, the Blue Raiders pulled off what is considered the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history as a 15-seed, when they defeated the heavily-favoured Michigan State Spartans in the Round of 64.

As a junior in 2016-17, Potts was solid as can be, averaging 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game, while shooting 38.4% from three point range. For the second season in a row, Potts shot better than 48% from the field, finishing at 48.2% in 2016-17. He then helped lead Middle Tennessee past a second Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament in as many years. This time, the 12th-seeded Blue Raiders rolled past the 5th-seed Minnesota Golden Gophers, with Potts recording 15 points and five assists in the win.

This season, Potts won’t have the likes of Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams by his side to share the spotlight. As a senior, Potts looks poised for a career-year as his tenure at Middle Tennessee comes to an end.

The Player of the Year award in the Conference USA could go several different ways, and depending on team results as well as individual statistics, a case could be made for any one of the five players on our First Team All-Conference USA to win the award. But, until proven otherwise, Potts is the best player in the conference heading into the 2017-18 season.

2017-18 All-Conference USA Teams

Ever since he put up 25 points and five assists back on January 9th, 2016 for the Marshall Thundering Herd as a freshman, scoring guard Jon Elmore has been causing a plethora of problems for opposing defenses. The native of Charleston, WV averaged 19.7 points per game last season to rank among the nation’s scoring leaders. Add in his 4.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.2 steals, and Elmore can do it all for the Herd. Elmore has already eclipsed 1,000 points for his career (1,077), and looks like he could very well pass the 2,000-point plateau before his career is over.

We’ll be the first to admit that we slept on Jon Davis slightly after his freshman campaign in 2015-16. That was a mistake. The 6’3” guard put up 19.6 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Charlotte 49ers last season, and he emerged as one of the nation’s top scoring guards in the process. Davis opened up the 2016-17 season with three straight 20+ games, and finished the year with 14 such performances in total. In terms of Conference USA Player of the Year candidates, Davis is a very close second behind Potts heading into the season, and a big year from the 49ers could lead to the award heading Davis’ way.

Thanks in large part to the play of Giddy Potts, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have advanced to the Round of 32 in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments. As the undisputed lead guy this season on offense, Potts is in position for a big season as a senior, and he will look to make it three straight trips to the Big Dance to close out his career.

Last season, Jacobi Boykins asserted himself as one of the top players in the conference. After a relatively quiet first two years with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, the 6’6” Boykins went for 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per contest. He showcased his defensive prowess over the course of the year, recording at least two steals in 20 contests. Boykins will be the undisputed leader of the Bulldogs in 2017-18, both on and off the court. The Bulldogs have several rising stars on their roster, but will look to Boykins to steer the ship as a senior.

William Lee is a 6’9” forward who can hit jumpers from three point range, finish around the basket, score in bunches if needed, and he can disrupt a lot of shots on the defensive end for the UAB Blazers. As a junior last season, Lee averaged 13.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per contest, and he put together 14 games with three or more rejections. His best all-round game came on January 14th, at the expense of Elmore and the Thundering Herd. Lee went for 22 points, on 5-of-7 shooting from three point range, 17 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in UAB’s 16-point win. With Lee leading the way, the Blazers come into the season as the projected team to beat in the Conference USA.

As a sophomore in 2016-17, guard Ahmad Caver took on an expanded role from his freshman year, and more than rose to the occasion for the Old Dominion Monarchs. Caver averaged team-highs in points (13.0) and assists (4.8) per game, while shooting a team-best 36.8% from three point range. With Zoran Talley having transferred to the Iowa State Cyclones, the Monarchs will need someone else to step up as a secondary scoring option behind Caver. Another big season from Caver, and he could very well end up on the First Team All-Conference USA by season’s end.

With Dominic Artis out of the picture for the UTEP Miners, the offense now runs through senior guard Omega Harris. Last season, the 6’3” guard averaged a team-high 17.0 points per game, while also recording 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Harris had nine games with 20 or more points on the year, and recorded double-figures in all but two games that he appeared in. Without Artis, who did a bit of everything for the Miners, someone else will have to step up and feed Harris. Or, Harris will have to adapt and assume a similar role to that of Artis. Either way, with Harris running the offense, the Miners could turn a few heads over the course of the season.

Amidst the changes that the North Texas Mean Green have had to endure this off-season, they return one of the more promising back court tandems in the conference with A.J. Lawson and Ryan Woolridge. Several key personnel from last year’s team are gone, meaning that Lawson will take on a starring role in Grant McCasland’s first season at the helm for the Mean Green. As a freshman, Lawson averaged 11.4 points per game, while shooting 44.8% from the field. If he can improve his three point shooting, which will come with more reps each night out, his game will go to another level. Lawson on the Second Team is a gut feeling, and we always go with our gut.

Over the off-season, forward Justin Johnson announced that he was leaving the team and was joining the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers’ football team as a tight end. In the end, Johnson opted to return to the hardwood, and with the saga that was Mitchell Robinson, he gives the team a bonafide post presence in 2017-18. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, he’s a big body who commands attention in the paint, and he’s tough to move away from the basket. Johnson nearly averaged a double-double last season, putting up 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per contest.As the focal point of the offense, expect more of the same this season.

Chris Cokley joins Lee back in the front court for the Blazers, and will be looking to help lead UAB back to the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 2017-18. The 6’8” Cokley hasn’t averaged more than 22.1 minutes per game over his first three seasons, yet hasn’t finished a season with a shooting percentage lower than 54.1% from the field, and he did that as a freshman. The native of Savannah, GA eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his career last season, and is closing in on 600 career rebounds (580). Cokley’s numbers won’t blow you away, but his effectiveness and importance to the team can’t be understated.

After a quiet freshman campaign, one that saw him average under two points per game, Cortez Edwards enjoyed a breakout season in 2016-17 for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. He averaged 11.0 points per game, which was the second-highest mark on the team, while also pulling down 5.2 rebounds and dishing out 3.6 assists. With leading scorer Quinton Campbell now graduated, look for Edwards to have yet another career year as a junior.

DaQuan Bracey emerged as one of the top point guards in the conference last season, despite being just a freshman. He averaged 9.1 points and 5.8 assists per game, and recorded an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.51 for the year. Bracey committed just 55 turnovers, while dishing out 193 assists. Alongside Boykins, Bracey helps to give the Bulldogs one of the top back courts in the Conference USA.

As a sophomore with the Buffalo Bulls back in 2015-16, Lamonte Bearden averaged 13.7 points and 4.2 assists per game. Now, after sitting out last season due to transfer regulations, the 6’3” guard is ready to become a game-changer on the back end for the Hilltoppers. Amidst a tumultuous off-season for Western Kentucky, the team still possesses a ton of talent, and Bearden is a big piece of the puzzle over the next two seasons.

The future of UTSA Roadrunners’ basketball looks to be in good hands with sophomores Giovanni De Nicolao and Byron Frohnen back to lead the way. Frohnen averaged 8.5 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game last season, and is the top returning scorer for the Roadrunners this year. With the program saying goodbye to several key players from last season, the torch has been passed onto Frohnen, who will look to improve on his 2-of-23 (8.7%) shooting from three point range, and De Nicolao.

Senior forward Brandan Stith has quietly gone about his business for three years in the NCAA, and he’s been a factor on both ends of the floor. With the Monarchs for the past two years, Stith saw his numbers dip slightly last from the year before, but he still averaged 9.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Stith’s ability to disrupt shots and grab rebounds in limited minutes often goes unnoticed by the national media, but he’s been a consistent factor for the Monarchs and he will look to end his career on a high note in 2017-18.

– T. Bennett