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Conference USA runs through the hills of Western Kentucky

The powers in a top-heavy Conference USA will remain on top in 2015-2016, as Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee look destined to battle for the top spot. Beyond them, C-USA will be riddled with competitiveness that will make it impossible for any school to take any one game for granted.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Western Kentucky, which ran away with Conference USA last year with a 30-5 (16-2 C-USA) record, probably lost the most talent from last season over to this upcoming year after losing 2014-2015 C-USA Player of the Year Chastity Gooch and fellow All-Conference First Teamer Alexis Govan to graduation.

The loss of two All-Conference players will surely shake up the outlook of this season's squad.

"We are really excited to get the year started and get everything going, but we are going to have a whole new look," said Michelle Clark-Heard, who is entering her fourth season at her alma mater. "We had a lot of veterans on last year's team, players that have been here with us since our coaching staff took over, so that really helped this past season.

"We had a couple players that we could always put the ball in their hands. This year the difference will be that we are going to do a lot of things by committee."

On most occasions, the loss of two high-caliber talents would result in a drop of expectations, but that isn't the case with the Hilltoppers.

WKU is under the helm of a two-time Coach of the Year in Clark-Heard, and they expect to continue firing on all cylinders and building on the NCAA Tournament berth earned last season.

Not all of WKU's talent left in a cap and gown, as guard Kendall Noble, who averaged 10.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 34 games last season, returns for her redshirt junior campaign.

Noble often went overlooked last season because Gooch and Govan took much of the spotlight away, though it can be argued that claiming the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year award and a spot on the All-Conference second team is a massive achievement for the third best player on a team that went 30-5 a year ago.

"Kendall Noble is a do-it-all player that has done a ton for us," Clark-Heard said. "She is one of the one's we have talked to a lot about stepping up and putting more on her shoulder."

Noble is more than capable of stepping up to an increased role this season, but she won't be asked to replace the production of two All-Conference players. The Hilltoppers will also rely heavily on senior Micah Jones, who started all of WKU's 35 games last season. Also on Clark-Heard's short list of talented players that can step up is All-Freshman Team selection, Tashia Brown.

"Kendall understood her role last season. She would just do whatever it took, but now I think she understands that she has the ability to do whatever she needs to do," Clark-Heard said. "In my eyes, we have three starters that are back, and we lost a lot, but we have to continue to keep talking to our players and getting them better."

They don't have the names opposing coaches are used to game planning against anymore, but that may be a good thing for the Hilltoppers. Despite the loss of two stars, WKU still has the firepower and raw talent to compete amongst the top teams in Conference USA in 2015-2016.

Blue Raiders return to the top?

Like Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee lost a very critical piece to its program after last season as senior forward Cheyenne Parker was selected as the fifth overall pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft. Parker averaged 18.6 points and 11 rebounds per game for a Blue Raiders squad that went 24-10 (14-4 C-USA) last season.

Replacing the production Parker provided on both sides of the ball will be difficult to say the least, but Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Insell is a proven winner no matter who he has on his roster.

As a matter of fact, last year's 24-10 record was the worst under Insell since the team went 22-12 during the 2007-2008 campaign. So it's needless to say that the Blue Raiders' consistency over the years despite the different rosters almost ensures this team will be somewhere atop the C-USA standings when it's all said and done.

Middle Tennessee won't need to look too far for a star player to fill Parker's void. Returning for the Blue Raiders is last season's leading scorer, junior guard Olivia Jones. With Jones, a First-Team All C-USA member from last season, Middle Tennessee has an athlete that can take over a game at any particular moment. Jones averaged 19.8 points and 8.1 rebounds last season and was a huge factor in last year's deep run into the WNIT.

Junior guard Ty Petty also seems primed to pick up a bigger role in the offense this season. One year removed from averaging 11.6 points and leading the team with 104 assists; Petty will be asked to score more often while still facilitating to her teammates.

Do the Eagles soar or flail?

Southern Mississippi enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history last year, going 25-11 (13-5 C-USA) and making a deep run in the WNIT. The program was led by two All-Conference players in the first-team member Tamara Jones and second-teamer Jerontay Clemons. Unfortunately for the Golden Eagles, only one of those players is suiting up this season as Jones was lost to graduation.

Clemons returns for her senior season with the opportunity to build on what was an excellent all-around campaign a year ago. She averaged 12.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

The 5-foot-8 senior will have a lot to prove this season on whether or not she can expand her game and successfully embrace a bigger role on this team. Clemons isn't a great shooter -- she shot just 44 percent from the field and 56 percent from the free-throw line last season -- and she often was too careless with turnovers.

Despite nitpicking at Clemons' slight flaws, there is definitely space for her to come out this season and prove to any doubters that she can, in fact, take the next step in developing her game. Already a fierce defender, if Clemons can improve her shooting and game-management skills she can guide Southern Miss to another great season and have them near the top of the conference once again.

Are they creeping toward the top?

On any given day, Old Dominion can beat any team in C-USA. How so? Well, Old Dominion has Jennie Simms, who averaged 19.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last season. Simms led Old Dominion to a 21-13 (11-7 C-USA) record and a berth to the WNIT.

Simms, a transfer from LSU, will have every opportunity to replicate and expand on last season's performance because she's simply the go-to player on this Old Dominion squad. If the redshirt junior can produce more games like her 45-point outburst against FIU last season more often, she might be able to legitimately contend for Conference Player of the Year honors.

She was All-Conference First Team during her first season at Old Dominion, so there isn't much to improve on but the truly great players manage to build a mantle big enough to fit a bigger trophy year in and year out.

The Monarchs are a legit threat to anyone. Simms is a legit threat to torch anyone. The only downfall? With a huge target on her back, can Simms build on last year's great season.

2015-2016 C-USA Preseason Player of the Year: Olivia Jones, Middle Tennessee, Jr., G/F

2015-2016  All-Conference USA First Team

Kendall Noble, WKU, RS-Jr., G, Hazard

Olivia Jones, Middle Tennessee, Jr., G/F

Jennie Simms, Old Dominion, Sr., F

Lefty Webster, Charlotte, Jr., G

Jerontay Clemons, Southern Miss, Sr.

Leah Scott, Marshall, Sr., G/F

Cameasha Turner, UTEP, Sr.