Checking in on… Conference USA

Posted by rtmsf on December 1st, 2008

Allen R of Houston Basketball Junkies is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA.

Feast week and turkey day are now in the rear view mirror and another week of basketball is in the books.

There were good moments and bad moments, but ultimately this was a positive week for Conference USA basketball. During the UAB/Oklahoma game in the pre-season NIT, ESPN commentator Steve Lavin gushed about the depth of CUSA, talking about how UAB, UTEP and Tulsa could join Memphis in the NCAA Tournament this year. This kind of coverage is the best thing this conference could hope for.

Now let’s get to the happenings of the past week:

  1. Mortal in Memphis: The Memphis Tigers may still be the class of Conference USA basketball, but they looked surprisingly mortal in a 63-58 loss to Xavier at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. As a team they shot 18-55 (32.7%) total and 7-21 (33.3%) from behind the three-point line. Not surprisingly the Tigers also shot poorly from the free-throw line, only hitting 50% (15-30) on the night. I still believe Tyreke Evans is one of the best guards in Conference USA, but he will have games like this one where he struggles to be the ‘go-to’ guy. Also, I said it at the outset of this season and I will say it again: this Memphis team is not good enough to overcome horrid free-throw shooting.  I’ll channel my inner Rick Pitino: “Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose are not walking through this door.”
  2. Miner Threats: Everyone knew the Miners would have a good collection of talent this season, but putting it together under coach Tony Barbee would be somewhat of a question mark. It has been all systems go for the Miners and they scored a huge 75-62 win on Thanksgiving over St. Mary’s. The Miners were led by 20 points from Randy Culpepper, while Stefon Jackson (15) and Kareem Cooper also scored in double figures. Freshman forward and Memphis-native Arnett Moultrie also had 15 points for the Miners. The Miners followed that up with a very solid effort against #24 Wake Forest, which ended as an 82-79 defeat.
  3. Not Fooling Around: When Brandon Powell came to Marshall after being kicked off the team in Florida, he was certainly on a tighter leash than most of his teammates. According to a story in the Huntington Herald Dispatch, Powell was dismissed by Herd coach Donnie Jones “due to a violation of team policy.” Up to this point he had averaged 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while averaging 21 minutes. You have to wonder whether a third school will give Mr. Powell a chance.
  4. Hurricane Alert: In what may be the biggest non-conference win from a team not named Memphis, Tulsa soundly beat Texas A&M 67-56 in the South Padre Invitational. The Aggies had trouble getting started all night against the stifling defense of Golden Hurrcane coach Doug Wojcik. Only one Aggie player scored in double digits as Donald Sloan netted 10 points. It was also apparent that the Aggies had no answer for Tulsa big man Jerome Jordan who had 13 points in only 21 minutes of action. Also guards Tony Uzoh (16 points, 7 assists) and Ray Reese (13 points) played very well. Tulsa eventually lost to Illinois 48-44, but has proven itself to be a dangerous team.
  5. Tales of Two Halves: The UAB Blazers have all the pieces to be a tournament team, but have struggled putting together 40 minutes of basketball so far. In the pre-season NIT at Madison Square Garden, the Blazers held a 34-29 lead at the half over #11 Oklahoma. But it all came crashing down in the second half as the Blazers had no answer for Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin in the low post. The real disappointment though was the loss to a middling Boston College team. Once again the Blazers played a sound first half and went into the locker room leading 37-29. That was to be short lived as they surrendered a whopping 54 second half points en route to an 83-77 loss. Look – there is not a better offensive trio in Conference USA than Robert Vaden, Paul Delaney III and Lawrence Kinnard, but I guarantee that lackluster defense and interior play will do the Blazers in if they don’t improve.
  6. Pirate Basketball Ahoy: Recently ECU and their basketball team have been more of a punchline than an actual competitive team. This week has convinced me that the Pirates will be a top half CUSA team sooner rather than later. In a crucial home game the Pirates defeated VCU in overtime 93-90, while super freshman Darrius Morrow had 16 points and 12 rebounds off the bench. Also the guard trio of Sam Hinnant, Brock Young and James Legan combined for 55 points. They also took care of business on the road against Winthrop, who went to the NCAA tournament last year.  Hinnant led the Pirates with 19 points and the Pirates won 63-60. Mack McCarthy turned around programs at Chattanooga and VCU, and he will do the same thing at ECU.
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