The race to finish first has begun in the new 16-team Conference USA. Early indications are the better start results in a better finish. Currently, UAB, East Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Southern Mississippi and Tulane are all undefeated.
While all have a full schedule of games to play, being undefeated early in the season signals a pretty good start. But, keeping the momentum is where the challenge exists for these teams with a different conference member to play against 16 times during the regular season.
However, while conference play is still in the distance, non-conference play is serving as the chemistry lab while C-USA teams prepare for what’s ahead.
Talk about a tune-up, East Carolina will face Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski Tuesday during the 2013 NIT Tipoff in Durham, N.C. This will be an interesting matchup as ECU head coach Jeff Lebo played against Coach K and Duke as a guard for legendary head coach Dean Smith at North Carolina.
Rice and head coach Ben Braun will travel to Corpus Christi to face Texas A&M Corpus Christi and former Rice, now TAMCC head coach Willis Wilson on Wednesday. Tulsa and Danny Manning will host the hard charging Shockers of Wichita State.
Middle Tennessee State and head coach Kermit Davis will put its early-season undefeated record on the line against Billy Donovan and Florida in Gainesville. The game against a ranked opponent on the road is good test for Davis' club.
“The main objective (is) that our team thinks we can have a plan, we have great respect for Florida and Billy," said Davis. "But, we have a plan to win the game. We have won these kinds of games on the road. It’s a difficult task. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got seven new guys and taking them on the road for the first time in this environment.”
The non-conference competition doesn’t get any easier as the season progresses and Davis thinks that C-USA teams have a chance to make a statement.
“As a conference, I think we all just have to be pulling for each other," said Davis. "But, we got to be such big fans of each other as to hope we try and win some of these games in November and December.”
Charlotte and head coach Alan Major have departed for San Juan to compete in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. They will face Kansas State with the possibility of playing either Georgetown or Northeastern in the second round.
Early game results show that C-USA will have a good mix of styles. Unlike certain leagues that for years have featured a typical element of play such as slow-tempo, or strictly defensive teams that score off turnovers, this league is multifaceted. It will feature good defensive teams and up-tempo, run-and-gun type teams.
Marshall is one such example. Through three games, it leads the conference in scoring with an average of 90 points per game. That simply means head coach Tom Herrion and the Herd have every intention of running for 40 minutes. East Carolina and Louisiana Tech have also started the season deploying an up-tempo style of play.
Meanwhile, taking the air out of the ball and showing a defensive spirit are UTEP, Southern Miss, FIU, and Rice. The top five marksmen are Marshall leading the way shooting 52 percent from the field followed by Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, UTEP and Middle Tennessee.
The best three-point shooting teams thus far are North Texas, UTEP, East Carolina, Middle Tennessee, and Tulane. The Mean Green are atop the bunch shooting 39 percent.
The top five early offensive rebounding leaders are UAB, North Texas, Old Dominion, Tulane and East Carolina. The top five blocked shot leaders are Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, and FIU.
The leading scorer early on in the conference is Marshall’s Elijah Pittman, who’s averaging 30 points per game.