Newcomer Middle Tennessee Preseason Favorite to Take First C-USA Title
Oct. 7, 2013
IRVING, Texas - UTEP and Tulane have long dominated the Conference USA women's basketball landscape, but those two perennial powers find themselves looking up at newcomer Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders were voted to the top spot in the 2013-14 C-USA Coaches' Preseason Poll released Monday by the league office.
The head coaches also had a tough time voting for the eight-member preseason team considering how much star power resides in the league. However, picking a Preseason Player of the Year was an easy selection as the Conference returns the nation's leading scorer in FIU's JERICA COLEY.
Coley (St. Petersburg, Fla.) accounted for an NCAA-best 26.3 points per game last season, edging out future WNBA stars Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. She's a two-time Associated Press and WBCA All-America Honorable Mention as well as a two-time District 4 All-Region selection. Coley also owns two Sun Belt Player of the Year and SBC First Team trophies. This season, the 5-7 senior leads FIU into the new-look C-USA and must stand tall against some of the league's best.
One of her biggest challenges will be when she goes head-to-head against Southern Miss' JAMIERRA FAULKNER (West Palm Beach, Fla.). The 5-6 senior guard led the league in scoring (19.0) and assists (205) and currently ranks among the conference's all-time top 15 in four categories: assists (6th/592); assists/game (3rd/6.6); steals (13th/261) and steals per game (7th/2.9). Faulkner was an easy selection for the C-USA preseason team given her 205 assists and 101 steals last season.
Middle Tennessee racked up eight first-place votes out of 16 ballots. The Miners and Green Wave also garnered high praise to rank second and third, respectively, in the preseason poll.
Leading these teams will be All-C-USA Preseason selections in MT's EBONY ROWE, UTEP's KAYLA THORNTON and DANIELLE BLAGG of Tulane.
Middle Tennessee, last season's Sun Belt champion, is aiming for its sixth straight NCAA Championship appearance under coach Rick Insell. Rowe (Lexington, Ky.) was an All-American Honorable Mention in 2013 and already holds the Blue Raider record for career rebounds (1,014). The senior forward produced 21 double-doubles, averaged 19.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game plus ranked among the top 25 in four NCAA categories.
Rowe, along with preseason pick JESSICA KUSTER of Rice will present an intriguing battle inside as they are the only Division I seniors who averaged double-doubles in each of the last three seasons (2011, 2012, 2013).
Kuster (San Antonio, Texas) was the 2013 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, an All-C-USA First Team and All-Defensive Team honoree for the third consecutive season. The 6-1 forward averaged 16.1 points and 10.1 rebounds and ranks eighth on C-USA's all-time double-doubles list with 41.
UTEP, the coaches' No. 2 pick, is coming off another 20-win season under head coach Keitha Adams. The Miners went to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and 2012 and have four key returning players and three ACL victims back from a year ago. Leading this crew will be Thornton (El Paso, Texas), who cracked the league's all-time double-doubles list last season with 21, ranking her 17th on the list. The senior led the Miners to 22 victories as she averaged 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Thornton was named to the All-Conference USA Second Team in 2013, marking her second straight selection to the squad. The forward is on track to become the Miners' career leader in rebounds, a record that has been held since 1982. She is currently third on the list with 688. Holding the record is Timika Williams (2006-10) with 794 boards.
Tulane is always in the championship mix and has played in a postseason tournament each of the last four seasons. Blagg (San Antonio, Texas) returns as the most decorated player on the Green Wave roster. The 5-11 junior was the C-USA Freshman of the Year her rookie season and then won second-team all-conference honors as a sophomore. Blagg averaged 9.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game as the Green Wave finished the year 24-9.
Newcomer Charlotte enters the fray picked to finish fourth, and received one first-place vote, after an impressive season in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The 49ers are just one of 12 Division I programs who have played in a postseason tournament every year since 2003.
FIU was picked fifth, Old Dominion was sixth and East Carolina seventh. Coley led FIU to an overall record of 19-13 and a berth in the 2013 Postseason WNIT.
Old Dominion went 19-12 in the Colonial Athletic Association as one of the youngest teams in the nation. The Lady Monarchs look to build upon that experience and the leadership of All-C-USA Preseason selection SHEA KELLEY. The forward posted a team-best seven double-doubles and finished in the top-10 in the CAA in scoring (13.5), rebounding (8.5), field goal percentage (.497), blocks (36) and steals (73). The 6-1 junior was the only underclassmen to be voted to the CAA All-Conference team a year ago.
East Carolina, UAB, Tulsa and Rice were picked seventh through 10th, respectively. ECU went 22-10 a year ago and set a program best with 12 home victories inside Minges Coliseum. UAB is now under the direction of Randy Norton, who was an assistant previously at Illinois State and Missouri. Norton will look to preseason selection KARISMA CHAPMAN (Calumet City, Ill.) for senior leadership as the Blazers welcome six newcomers to a program that participated in the WNIT and finished at 18-13. Few players finished the year hotter than Chapman as the 5-11 senior scored at least 20 points in four of the Blazers' last five games. She ended the season averaging 13.5 points and has netted 1,041 for her career.
The remaining six teams are all in various phases of rebuilding their programs. But each of them have key players who are looking to grow in November and December to be ready for league play. Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Southern Miss, Florida Atlantic, UTSA and Marshall rounded out the preseason poll.
It's difficult to handicap the new 16-team league because it offers a little bit of everything. Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion are two of the most storied programs in Division I women's basketball history. On the other end of the spectrum, FIU and UTSA are relative newcomers to the Division I level.
The 2013-14 regular season gets underway on Nov. 8, while the battle for the 2014 C-USA Championship trophy will be determined the week of March 11-15 in El Paso, Texas.
2013-14 CONFERENCE USA PRESEASON COACHES POLL
(#) denotes first-place votes
2013-14 CONFERENCE USA PRESEASON TEAM