Conference USA Wrapup & Tourney PreviewPosted by rtmsf on March 11th, 2009
Memphis passed its last regular season road test and now only has a few games to go to return to the “promised land” that they’ve never really left.
While the Tigers’ dominance over the rest of CUSA is nearly unparalleled in the history of modern college basketball, it doesn’t mean that every other team is chopped liver. Basically anything can happen in a tournament setting and the Tigers have endured a few close calls this year.
So here are the teams as they are seeded and some pertinent info:
#1: Memphis Tigers
Coach: John Calipari
Record: 28-3 overall (16-0 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Tyreke Evans, F Robert Dozier, F Shawn Taggart, G Antonio Anderson
Season Highlights: In a year that many thought would be fraught with ‘rebuilding’ and the like, the Tigers continue to look dominant. The arrival of the latest one-year wonder: Tyreke Evans, has allowed the blue and gray not miss a beat from last year’s final four squad. But the veteran leadership of guys like Antonio Anderson, Doneal Mack, Shawn Taggart and Robert Dozier has been a huge factor too. They suffered early-season setbacks against Xavier and Syracuse, but they’re currently riding 20+ game winning streak. There have been a few close calls and at the end of the day they’re still undefeated against the rest of the conference.
They Will Win If: They simply show up and play their game. I don’t want to imply that the Tigers will simply cream whomever they play, because they could well lose. But they’re playing an extremely favorable draw on their home court. This is a recipe for success and it also doesn’t hurt that they’ve won over 50 games in a row against CUSA teams.
First Game: vs. the winner of #8 Tulane/#9 East Carolina; Thursday at 8:30 pm.
#2 Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Coach: Doug Wojcik
Record: 22-9 overall (12-4 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: C Jerome Jordan, G Ben Uzoh, G Ray Reese
Season Highlights: It has been a season with some fairly bizarre up and down moments for the Golden Hurricane. In non-conference play they beat Texas A&M and lost to a very average Ohio team. They came within milliseconds of doing the unthinkable and knocking off the Memphis Tigers, before Antonio Anderson had a last second lay-up. The development of 7 footer Jerome Jordan has been very encouraging to TU fans and they played significantly better after a tough road loss at Tulane.
They Will Win If: The grinding, defensive style of Wojcik’s team wears down Memphis and any other foe. If they can establish their style early the Golden Hurricane are in fact quite a tough team to beat. It would also help if a guard besides Ben Uzoh would have a real good game.
First Game: vs. the winner of #7 Marshall/#10 Rice; Thursday at 12 pm
#3 UAB Blazers
Coach: Mike Davis
Record: 21-10 overall (11-5 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Paul Delaney III, G Robert Vaden, F Lawrence Kinnard
Season Highlights: The highs and lows of the Blazers season were quite extreme, to say the least. In one of their first games, the Blazers scored an upset of Arizona in the pre-season NIT. Things were looking promising until 4 reserve players were kicked off because of academic violations. None of these losses were key ones, but the Blazers now had only 6 scholarship guys available. Still they did quite well in conference play and managed not to let the lack of depth kill their season. They did have two demoralizing double-digit road losses to Houston and UTEP.
They Will Win If: The shooting touch of Robert Vaden improves, since he’s been in quite a slump recently. This Blazer team has lived and died with their senior leaders, so it’s up to guys Paul Delaney III and Lawrence Kinnard to play well in this senior class’ final shot at the NCAAs.
First Game: vs. winner of #6 UCF/#11 Southern Miss; Thursday at 2:30 pm
#4 UTEP Miners
Coach: Tony Barbee
Record: 19-11 overall (10-6 in CUSA)
Player to Watch: G Stefon Jackson, G Randy Culpepper, G Julyan Stone
Season Highlights: Not every team would have antipathy towards a 19-win regular season and the 4th seed in the CUSA tournament. But if this seems odd to you, then you must not have the high standards that many Miner fans hold their program to. Early in the year they scored an impressive victory over St. Mary’s and gave a top-10 Wake Forest team all they could handle. Along the way, Jackon broke a fair number of CUSA and NCAA scoring records this past season. The offense hasn’t been a problem and the Miners have tons of athletes, but the defense has been atrocious. Case in point was a recent 89-77 win over Tulane. The grumbling in El Paso will start to become quite audible if the Miners go a 3rd year in a row without making even the NIT.
They Will Win If: The Miner team defense improves in a huge way. Nobody is denying that the Miners have loads of offensive talent, but that won’t do anything if they can’t hold anyone of significance down. Also Arnett Moultrie needs to have a big game in the low post and snag more than his share of offensive boards.
First Game: vs. winner of #5 Houston/#12 SMU; Thursday at 8:30
#5 Houston Cougars
Coach: Tom Penders
Record: 19-10 overall (10-6 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Aubrey Coleman, G Kelvin Lewis, F Qa’rraan Calhoun
Season Highlights: I don’t believe that one event can change a season, but when Aubrey Coleman stepped on the face of Arizona’s Chase Budinger and promptly got suspended things started coming unraveled. The Cougars subsequently lost back-to-back games to UTEP and Memphis, effectively taking them out of any tournament consideration. In a word they’ve been extremely schizophrenic, soundly beating good teams like UTEP and UAB but losing to inferior teams like Marshall and Southern Miss. Ultimately the Cougars are dependent on the guard duo of Coleman and Kelvin Lewis.
They Will Win If: The same Aubrey Coleman who dropped 35 on Memphis shows up with his teammates this time around in the Music City. When he’s on, Coleman is one of the most athletic players and effective scorers in Conference USA. Also it wouldn’t hurt if the Cougars got some consistent play from their big man: Marcus Cousin, who’s been in a big slump.
First Game: vs. #12 SMU; Wednesday at 7:30 pm
#6 UCF Golden Knights
Coach: Kirk Speraw
Record: 17-13 overall (7-9 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Jermaine Taylor, G A.J. Rompza, G Isaac Sosa
Season Highlights: The story of the Golden Knights this season is two-fold: Jermaine Taylor and a whole bunch of youth. The Knights have 9 freshmen on their roster and they have guys like A.J. Rompza and Isaac Sosa who can give fans hope for the future. But right now the story is Jermaine Taylor who’s the top scorer in CUSA and one of the best in the entire country. Things were going along well enough for the Knights until forward Tony Davis was kicked off the team for a violation of academic policy. The Knights have been in a late-season swoon ever since. But there have been positives, like a 19-point comeback against Tulsa and a near win at home against Memphis.
They Will Win If: Any of Jermaine Taylor‘s teammates decide to step up and have big games in the tournament. It has been a ‘one-man show’ for most of the year, but especially so since the suspension to Davis. It’s time for guys like Kenrick Zondervan, A.J. Tyler and Jean-Michel Yotio to show up big for the Golden Knights.
First Game: vs. #11 Southern Miss; Wednesday at 2:30 pm
#7 Marshall Thundering Herd
Coach: Donnie Jones
Record: 15-16 overall (7-9 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: F Tirrell Baines, G Markel Humphrey, G Shaquille Johnson
Season Highlights: It was a hopeful year for Thundering Herd basketball as second-year head coach Jones brought in a promising recruiting class and a few talented transfers. But things admittedly got off to a pretty slow start in Huntington and it looked like all of the new players weren’t clicking. Injuries and defections knocked the ‘Herd down to 8 scholarship guys and seemingly a fade into oblivion. But an 88-83 home win against Houston started a mini-run that ended with the ‘Herd finishing better than most observers expected.
They Will Win If: They can use their small, quick line-up to exploit the weaknesses of the bigger and slower teams. Typically the 6 foot 6 Tirrell Baines is the biggest player on the court for the ‘Herd. The hot-shooting of former Purdue transfer Chris Lutz and the point-guarding of freshman Shaquille Johnson can lead to a few upset victories.
First Game: vs. #10 Rice; Wednesday at 12 pm
#8 Tulane Green Wave
Coach: Dave Dickerson
Record: 13-16 overall (7-9 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Kevin Sims, G Kris Richard, C Robinson Louisme
Season Highlights: With the exception of maybe SMU, there isn’t a team in Conference USA that got off to a worse start than the Green Wave. They lost to the likes of New Orleans and Binghamton in a very forgettable non-conference slate. They also started off CUSA play with a loss to SMU. But as the hoops season wore on, the ‘Wave started playing much better and even scored wins over upper-tier CUSA teams UTEP and Tulsa. They also had a 19-point comeback win on the road against Rice, capped by a buzzer-beater lay-up from Kevin Sims. No, they aren’t world-beaters but they have become the solid team most expected at the outset of the season.
They Will Win If: They can get just a bit of consistency for a stretch of several games from shooting guard Kris Richard. The 6 foot 5 Richard is one of the better athletes in CUSA, but can go missing at times when his team needs him. Also the Wave will need role players like Daniel Puckett and Asim McQueen to step up if they want to pull of some big upsets.
First Game: vs. #9 East Carolina; Wednesday at 6 pm
#9 East Carolina Pirates
Coach: Mack McCarthy
Record: 13-16 overall (5-11 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Sam Hinnant, G James Legan, G Brock Young F Darrius Morrow
Season Highlights: When McCarthy took over as the Pirates’ head coach a couple of years ago, the program really had nowhere to go but up. So far they have been rough patches in the first couple of seasons, but there have also been definite bright spots. For example the Pirates won multiple road games for the first time in seemingly forever since joining Conference USA. They are a team that relies very much on the three-pointer and the guard duo of Sam Hinnant/James Legan. Also, Brock Young led the nation in assists for much of the season. Road wins over the likes of Tulane and SMU wouldn’t be a big deal in other places, but at ECU it’s one step on the way back to respectability.
They Will Win If: Their main shooters (Legan and Hinnant) become insanely hot from the field. I know this would hold true for any team not named Memphis in this tournament, but the Pirates are especially dependent on the three. It also wouldn’t hurt if freshman big man Darrius Morrow had a few really good games in a row right about now. Everyone knows the kid has the potential for it.
First Game: vs. #8 Tulane; Wednesday at 6 pm
#10 Rice Owls
Coach: Ben Braun
Record: 9-21 overall (4-12 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Rodney Foster, F Trey Stanton, G Connor Frizzelle
Season Highlights: Nobody expected that the Owls would be contending for the NCAA tournament in year one, but the Owls have shown tangible signs of progress. Newcomers like Navy-transfer Trey Stanton, and freshmen Connor Frizzelle and Lucas Kuipers (now injured) saw lots of early action for the Owls. In non-conference play the Owls actually turned in outstanding defensive performances against Oklahoma and Texas A&M. They hit a rough patch after the injury to Kuipers, which included a 25-point whipping at the hands of UCF. But the Owls have played well lately and even got some revenge on the Golden Knights by winning their first road CUSA game in forever at Orlando. In a loss they also held a high-powered Houston team to 56 points. They’re a young team that is playing slightly better than their record would indicate.
They Will Win If: What I’ve seen from watching the Owls is that they live and die with the play of their senior point guard Rodney Foster. It would behoove Foster to play the best games of his career in Memphis week. Also it would help if shooting specialists Corey Pfleiger and Connor Frizzelle got hot.
First Game: vs. #7 Marshall; Wednesday at 12 pm.
#11 Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Coach: Larry Eustachy
Record: 14-16 overall (4-12 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Jeremy Wise, G R.L. Horton, G Courtney Beasley
Season Highlights: It wasn’t exactly a thrilling prospect, but after the non-conference portion of the season the Golden Eagles looked like a solid, middle of the pack CUSA team. But the lack of a bench and completely ineffective play on the road led to a complete collapse. After a promising 83-77 win over Houston, the bottom dropped out and USM lost 9 of its last 10 games. The inexplicable part of this collapse is that the Eagles have as solid of a guard trio as there is in this league with Wise/Horton/Beasley. There hasn’t been consistency on either end of the floor, as one game Memphis held them to 41 points and in another game Rice dropped a school record 16 three-pointers. I would argue these guys are the worst team in CUSA.
They Will Win If: Larry Eustachy bribed multiple officials and asked all of the opposing coaches to throw their respective games. I don’t believe the Golden Eagles could beat any team outside their home court with the way they’re playing right now. I suppose if Jeremy Wise and Courtney Beasley went unconscious from the field… then maybe.
First Game: vs. #6 UCF; Wednesday at 2:30 pm
#12 SMU Mustangs
Coach: Matt Doherty
Record: 9-20 overall (3-13 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Paul McCoy, G Derek Williams, C Bamba Fall
Season Highlights: The months of non-conference play for the Poniess were quite ignomious as they got humiliated by cross-town rival TCU and lost to SWAC foe Arkansas-Pine Bluff (giving the SWAC one of their only Division 1 non-conference wins). But things have really gone uphill since. With a roster that’s around 80% underclassmen, they have come frustratingly close to some big wins. Paul McCoy is the best freshman in CUSA after Tyreke Evans and has made a difference for his team this year. The Ponies lost in overtime on the road to UTEP and were quite close against UAB and Tulsa. Heck, mighty Memphis couldn’t pull away from them until late in the second half. My point is, despite their record this team is way better than the very same SMU team I watched a year ago. The talent is there. The coaching may not be.
They Will Win If: Matt Doherty forgets that he is the same guy who lost 20 games at North ‘freakin Carolina. Okay but seriously, McCoy and Williams are capable of having big games and could go off if they catch Houston napping. The 7 foot 1 Bamba Fall needs to play more like Hakeem Olajuwon and less like Manute Bol. Also bench guys like Robert Nyakundi and Frank Otis need to have big games.