RTC Conference Primers: #9 – Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 28th, 2010

Steve Coulter of the DU Clarion is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Memphis (15-1)
  2. UTEP (14-2)
  3. UAB (12-4)
  4. Marshall (10-6)
  5. Southern Mississippi (9-7)
  6. Houston (8-8)
  7. Tulsa (8-8)
  8. East Carolina (6-10)
  9. Southern Methodist (6-10)
  10. Central Florida (5-11)
  11. Tulane (2-14)
  12. Rice (1-15)

All-Conference First Team

  • G: Justin Hurtt, Tulsa, Sr.
  • G: Randy Culpepper, UTEP, Sr. (Preseason Player of the Year)
  • F: Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis, Jr.
  • F:  Gary Flowers, Southern Mississippi
  • F/C: Will Coleman, Memphis, Sr.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G: Brock Young, East Carolina, Sr.
  • G: Joe Jackson, Memphis, Fr.
  • G/F: Will Barton, Memphis, Fr.
  • F: Jeremy Williams, UTEP, Jr.
  • F/C: Papa Dia, SMU, Sr.

Memphis has a talented stable of young talent, including the recently-cleared Will Barton. (bouncemag.com)

Impact Newcomers

Several freshman and transfer players will suit up for C-USA squads this season, but three that have grabbed everyone’s attention before the season has gone under way.

  • Charles Carmouche, SG, Memphis: The junior transfer from New Orleans is a sharpshooter who can be the difference-maker late in the season. He is eligible to play right way, as the Privateers dismantled their program and moved to Division III status.
  • Scottie Haralson, G, Tulsa: The UConn transfer could get a lot of playing time and be one of those studs that people talk about at the end of the season. Of course, it really depends whether he is cleared to play.
  • Joseph Young, G, Houston: The freshman was a Parade All-America Third-Team selection from Yates High School. He is a talented young guard in a class with athletic forwards that makes Houston a contender in the conference once again. The infusion of a guy like Young into the lineup could spark a team looking for a playmaker. Young was the Texas Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year last season.

What You Need to Know

  • There are six first-year coaches in the league this season; Tim Floyd getting hired at UTEP was probably the biggest offseason coaching move.
  • The Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championships will be held in El Paso, giving UTEP a slight home court advantage against their conference opponents. The first game tips off on Wednesday, March 9. The tournament ends on Saturday, March 12 and the final will be broadcasted on CBS.
  • UAB’s Aaron Johnson enters the season in need of 173 assists to become the school’s all-time leader. 597 assists is currently the record and the senior point guard leads a well-balanced UAB squad that could emerge as an at-large dark horse. The 5’8 point guard finished his junior year averaging 9.6 points per game, 4.8 assists per game, and 2.5 rebounds per game.

Predicted Champion

Memphis (NCAA #5 Seed): The Tigers have the best starting five in the conference with an array of quality players coming off their bench. The trio of freshmen they have — Joe Jackson, Will Barton, and Jelan Kendrick (assuming he returns from suspension) — really make this team a top contender. In his second year of coaching the Tigers, Josh Pastner looks to build off a 24-10 campaign last season, which wasn’t enough to net an NCAA Tournament bid. Playing in the NIT woke up the school and the program. This year, they come back with something to prove and despite losing Elliot Williams and Doneal Mack, they have a loaded roster. If Kendrick suits up, he could be a highly versatile weapon off the bench and sharpshooter.

Top Contenders

  • UTEP (NCAA #10 Seed): After Memphis there are two very good teams that could be dancing in with at-large bids if they fail to get past the Tigers in the conference tourney. UTEP brings back a conference-high 12 players. Under the tutelage of Tim Floyd, the Miners’ potential is through the ceiling.
  • UAB (NIT): Mike Davis brings back Aaron Johnson and Jamarr Sanders, who led the team through the NIT to the semifinals, where they lost to North Carolina. The loss of Elijah Millsap hurts, but returnees Dexter Fields and Ovie Soko come back with much-needed experience.

The Best of the Rest

  • Marshall: Tom Herrion takes over the reigns of the Thundering Herd, who returns eight players and three starters. They could have a surprisingly good record at the end of the season. The return of C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Dago Pena helps, as do Shaquille Johnson and Damier Pitts.
  • Southern Miss.: They return all five starters, which is always a positive. Head coach Larry Eustachy could put up his best regular season at Southern Miss since he arrived with Gary Flowers and Sai’Quon Stone pacing the team.
  • Houston : The losses of Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis requires this team to find young talent quickly. If they fail to gel early, they could be looking at a low, double-digit seed like they did last year when they made their run to the NCAA Tournament. Kendrick Washington shoulders a lot of the burden.
  • Tulsa: Justin Hurtt needs to step up as the team leader, because the Golden Hurricane lost three starters in the offseason. Other than that, they bring back everybody.

Key Non-Conference Games

  • Nov. 16 – Tulsa vs. Oral Roberts: The Golden Hurricane meet the likely Summit League representative in the Big Dance in this early nonconference tilt.
  • Nov. 26 – UTEP vs. Georgia Tech: This matchup in Atlantic City will be a good early season battle for the Miners. The next day, UTEP will play either Syracuse or Michigan.
  • Jan. 5 – UAB at Duke: The defending national champs host the Blazers before they engage in their grueling conference schedule.
  • Jan. 5 – Memphis at Tennessee: A controversial offseason for the Volunteers could leave them vulnerable for this nonconference battle. All that can be said is that this matchup features some of the nation’s best guards.
  • Feb. 5 – Memphis at Gonzaga: The journey to the Pacific Northwest will be a great test for the Tigers as they go against a mid-major foe in Gonzaga in this late nonconference matchup. The timing could help both teams prepare for life in March.

Key Conference Games

  • Jan. 8 – UTEP at UAB: The No. 2 team and No. 3 team in the conference meet up in Birmingham. Randy Culpepper will have to outperform Aaron Johnson and Jamarr Sanders. Last year, the Miners won by nine on the road and then narrowly escaped by two points in their regular season finale versus the Blazers.
  • Jan. 15 – Marshall at Memphis: An early-season conference matchup will be a good measuring stick for the Thundering Herd. Everybody will be gunning for the Tigers, and it will be interesting to see how they will deal with the pressure.
  • Feb. 19 – Houston at UTEP: This one is especially huge for UTEP because it is a rematch of the C-USA tournament final game, which the Cougars won by eight to get into the NCAA Tournament. The Miners lost two conference games last year, both to the Cougars.
  • Feb. 26 – Memphis at UTEP: These two teams most likely will get into the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in this game. However, if they don’t end up playing in the conference final, and another team slips into the Big Dance, then the loser of this matchup may be on the outside looking in.
  • Mar. 5 – Southern Miss at Tulsa: This season finale could have seeding implications on the line. One team may be playing for a bye in the first round. All Conference-First Team members Gary Flowers and Justin Hurtt will square off in this marquee late season matchup.

Digging Deeper

  • East Carolina’s Brock Young enters his senior season playing the best basketball of his career. He set his career high in points at the end of last year when he dropped 30 on Tulsa. The senior point guard became the 19th player in conference history to amass 400 career assists. He finished last season leading the conference in that category.
  • Marshall’s Damier Pitts led the team in assists last year. The Thundering Herd may not make the NCAA Tournament, but they would sure settle for a trip to NYC if they could get there through the NIT. Pitts is familiar with playing in the Big Apple, as he led his high school team, Hargrave Military Academy (Va.) to a 29-0 record as a senior. He scored an average of 26 points per game in the three championship games held in Madison Square Garden.
  • Jelan Kendrick, who is considered the third-biggest fish in Memphis’s 2010-11 recruiting class, is a consensus top-15 recruit and was a McDonald’s All-American. He isn’t without baggage, though, as multiple reports have alleged altercations with players and coaches, and he is currently suspended indefinitely.  His availability to the Tigers could mean the difference between a good and great season.
  • UTEP senior forward Jeremy Williams was a reserve player for the first 15 games last season before blossoming into a starter for the last 18 games. Williams will need to have a big season seeing he is the tallest of all the Miners forwards, but he stands just 6’7.

NCAA Tournament History

  • The conference stands at 50-45 (.526) in the NCAA Tournament, though success in recent years has been very one-sided, with Memphis being responsible for all 13 of Conference USA’s wins since 2006.
  • Although the conference has only been around since 1995, C-USA schools have already played more tournament games than all but 12 of the nation’s 31 Division-I conferences.
  • Last season, Houston ended an 18-year tournament drought by making its first tournament appearance since 1992.

Final Thoughts

It’s only been a little over two years since the Memphis Tigers were playing for the national championship. That year Derrick Rose led the Tigers to within seconds of the title, and this year Will Barton, the team’s freshman shooting guard, believes Memphis can get back and win it all. Barton told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “We’re going to win the national championship this year, I’m guaranteeing it.” There is no guarantee for a young team like Memphis to go far in the tournament, assuming they make it, but right now, Memphis has confidence in its talent, which surely counts for something.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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