RTC Summer Updates: Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on July 18th, 2011

With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our newest update comes courtesy of our Conference USA correspondent, Steve Coulter.

Reader’s Take I

Summer Storylines

  • Joe Jackson Goes Patriotic: The Memphis guard and MVP of the CUSA Championship was selected as a member of USA Basketball’s U-19 Would Championship squad on June 23. After a week of training camp, Jackson was among the final twelve players selected by the USA Basketball committee. The squad left for Europe on June 30 and returned July 10. While Team USA disappointed in finishing fifth, Jackson more than held his own against some of the top international talent in the world, averaging over 11 points and 4 assists in 9 games. Jackson was accompanied to Latvia for the competition with eleven other collegiate sophomores including Michigan State’s Keith Appling, Villanova’s James Bell, Stanford’s Anthony Brown, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson, Michigan’s Tim Hardaway, Jr., Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb, Illinois’ Meyers Leonard, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, North Texas’ Tony Mitchell, Butler’s Khyle Marshall and Florida’s Patric Young.

Memphis guard Joe Jackson was a bright spot for Team USA in Latvia, despite a fifth-place finish in the FIBA U-19 World Championships. (Vytautas Mikaitis)

  • Thundering Herd Runs Deep: Marshall already had one of the more loaded backcourts heading into the 2011-12 season with stars Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane, but with the addition of Justin Coleman, a one-time Louisville commit, the Thundering Herd will certainly have the deepest backcourt the conference has to offer. Coleman sat out last year, but he will be coming off the bench as a shooting guard this season. Along with Coleman, junior college transfers Robert Goff and Dennis Tinnon will be new faces for the Herd. Goff and Tinnon are strong power forwards, looking to aid a weak Marshall frontcourt.
  • Memphis Coaching Legend Larry Finch Passes Away: Former Memphis coach Larry Finch passed away from natural causes at Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis on April 2 at the age of 60. Finch finished his career with the most wins in Tiger basketball history, a record he still holds today. Before leading the Tigers from 1986-97, Finch was a player at Memphis from 1970-73 and worked as an assistant at his alma mater from 1979-86. He passed away as not only a celebrated coach of the game, but a rare influence at the collegiate level. During his 11-year stint as head coach, Finch had seven 20-win seasons, made six NCAA appearances, amassed 220 wins and propelled 7 former players into NBA Draft selections. He finished his career with a loaded resume, having taken his alma mater to the Final Four, getting his jersey retired by the program and becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach.

Power Rankings

  1. Memphis: Freshman swingman Adonis Thomas, the No. 16 ranked prospect on Scout Inc.’s Top 100, is the conference’s best newcomer and he joins the already lethal Wesley Witherspoon as a scorer on a loaded Tigers roster that includes two of the nation’s best young guards in Joe Jackson and Will Barton. Head coach Josh Pastner can continue his Conference USA dominance this season, but the Tigers need to play solid defense and claim more out of conference wins then they did last season. Otherwise, they will be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives again come March.  As of now, Witherspoon and Barton are two of only four Conference USA prospects in the Top 100, ranking in at No. 79 and No. 80, respectively.
  2. Marshall: The Thundering Herd bring back four of their five starters from last season along with a batch of junior college transfers and the newly eligible Justin Coleman. However, if the Herd are going to make the NCAA Tournament this year, it will be at the hands (and feet) of Damier Pitts, who averaged 16.2 points and 4.7 assists last season. In addition to Pitts, Freshman of the Year DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG/5.6 RPG) will need to be a leader from the first practice. Coach Tom Herrion could go with a four-guard lineup alongside forward Shaquille Johnson, which may make the Herd even more dangerous offensively.
  3. UCF: Junior Marcus Jordan is the player to watch this season, but the Knights are more balanced than ever and look to build off a strong campaign last year that included a head-turning 13-0 start. Alongside Jordan, junior forward Keith Clanton will lead the team as one of the more versatile wings in the conference. The team is loaded with Chicago-based talent, including seniors Jeff Jordan, Dwight McCombs and A.J. Rompza. The team is deep in leadership and learned a lot last season after their fast start and slow finish. A tough schedule looms for them once again as head coach Donnie Jones knows that the Knights will need to continue to play strong competition if they want to make it in March.
  4. Tulsa: Despite losing All-Conference First Teamer Justin Hurtt to graduation, the Golden Hurricane will be stacked in the backcourt as sophomore Jordan Clarkson and junior Scottie Haralson look to take over Hurtt’s responsibilities. Clarkson was arguably the best freshman in the conference last season, while Haralson, a transfer from Connecticut, found his way late in the season. Big man Steven Idlet returns and could be the conference’s best rebounder when all is said and done. Tulsa needs some presence of the wings and they have a pair of 6’9″ forwards that could do the trick in senior D.J. Magley and sophomore Blondy Baruti.
  5. UTEP: The loss of Randy Culpepper hurts tremendously, but what hurts even more is that the Miners enter the season with only one senior, Gabriel McCulley. Once a deeply veteran team, UTEP will need to mature quickly if it wants to contend in conference play. Head coach Tim Floyd may be in for his toughest year in orange and blue, but he’ll have to convince his fans that patience will be rewarded with some prosperous incoming talent. He brings in the conference’s deepest class of freshman, which includes guards D’Von Campbell, C.J. Cooper and Darius Nelson. Those three will be asked to step in immediately for the departed Culpepper. In addition to Culpeper, the Miners lost Julyan Stone, Christian Polk and Jeremy Williams to graduation. It’s safe to say the 2010-11 Miners squad underachieved, while this season’s team will need to overachieve significantly if they want to reach the NCAA Tournament.
  6. UAB: Alexander Scotland-Williamson will be an intriguing transfer prospect for the Blazers this year coming out of Lee (Texas) College. Scotland-Williamson, a London native joins three others in a recruiting class burdened with the task of replacing one of the school’s best senior classes of all time. Freshman Isaiah Jones and K.C. Whitaker can look to see time early as the Blazers won’t have Jamarr Sanders or Aaron Johnson in 2011-12. However, the team does bring back talented players in Dexter Fields, Cameron Moore and Ovie Soko. If the Blazers are to return to the Big Dance, they will need big seasons from their newcomers as well as their proven returnees.
  7. Rice: It’s hard to estimate where Rice may end up at the end of this season, because so much of it rests on the back of junior forward Arsalan Kazemi. The Iranian put up spectacular numbers last season, but the results weren’t apparent in the win column. Along with the three players from Memphis, Kazemi is the fourth player from the conference to be put in Scout’s Top 100 prospects. The program must be comfortable in the Middle East, as Omar Oraby is one of the more intriguing players in the conference. The 7’2″ center has the potential to be a breakout player in his sophomore season.
  8. Southern Mississippi: The Golden Eagles have an interesting recruiting class for this season, but no player seems to be ready to jump in and immediately replace Gary Flowers in the low post. The graduated senior from Dallas will be missed as Southern Miss lacks a forward with his intensity and ability. Transfer Maurice Bolden will most likely be the man to be given the first crack at it. If he fails, the Golden Eagles could be in for a long year. The team has to replace the production of seniors Torye Pelham and R.L. Horton as well.
  9. Tulane: The Green Wave has a thin roster as of now and will probably use too many junior college transfers to fill it in. However, Tulane does have one of the most electric players in the conference in junior guard Kendall Timmons. Although they finished dead last in 2010-11, Timmons’ maturation along with another year in coach Ed Conroy’s system, should benefit the team and elevate them out of the cellar.
  10. SMU: Without Papa Dia, the Mustangs could be in trouble as they lack true size. Only redshirt freshman Ricmonds Vilde is listed taller than 6’8″. Swing forward Robert Nyakundi provides the team with the necessary leadership to have a strong season, but after a deep run in the CIT tournament at the end of last season, SMU will have to battle in order to be postseason eligible in 2012.
  11. Houston: The Cougars landed a pretty big fish in the offseason when they reeled in forward J.J. Richardson from Pittsburgh. However, the transfer will be ineligible this upcoming season, which means Houston won’t have possibly its best player this season. The Cougars still lacks a natural leader and a talented scorer, which could spell out a long year for them. To boot, they have one of the tougher out of conference schedules in the conference with matchups in the SEC and Big 12. The team lacks veteran leadership as well, so fans better dig in for a long ride.
  12. East Carolina: Similar to Houston, ECU received a big name transfer in the offseason, when North Carolina native Akeem Richmond announced he was leaving the University of Rhode Island to play for the Pirates for his two remaining years of eligibility. Richmond is a big name and the second leading scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball, leading the state in his sophomore, junior and senior years. Richmond will not be eligible to play until the 2012-13 season, which hurts the Pirates as they need a guard right away to replace the graduated Brock Young. Darrius Morrow will have to do a lot this season for the Pirates, but he simply doesn’t have enough talent surrounding him to help ECU escape a lean year.

Arsalan Kazemi (14) is a game-changer for Rice, but time is ticking for the Owls to build a winner by supplementing the seven-footer with additional talent. (Sports Illustrated)

Reader’s Take II

Look Ahead

Conference USA enjoyed a very successful 2010-11 campaign with two Big Dance squads and others participating in ancillary postseason events. Also, with some of the conference’s top talent staying in school, the play on the court next season should be as competitive as ever. The conference boasts plenty of young, talented guards, which has became routine for CUSA. Some notable guards looking to outduel one another in Randy Culpepper’s shadow are Tulsa’s Jordan Clarkson, Memphis’ Will Barton and Marshall’s DeAndre Kane. The sophomore class is as deep as it has ever been, but the conference’s two best wing players are juniors—Kendall Timmons and Arsalan Kazemi. The league can easily match its two-bid mark from last season’s NCAA Tournament. Although some viewed UAB as undeserving of a final spot, the Blazers proved that there could be an additional bid available for a 25-win team from Conference USA. While the guard position remains stacked, the low post is an area of concern for pretty much every team in the conference. The conference’s top two big men—Dia and Flowers—have graduated, leaving many teams to explore guard-heavy lineups. Expect Memphis, Marshall and Central Florida to play small ball. If they are all successful without a quality big, then they could all be in the running for an NCAA Tournament berth. All but three teams finished above the .500 mark in 2010-11, and the results certainly can be similar as mid-level teams such as Rice and Southern Miss could be in for big years.


Tulsa sophomore Jordan Clarkson figures to have his name on preseason watch lists with a breakout season on tap. He had a tremendous season in 2010-11, averaging 11.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. The San Antonio native was ranked fourth in all of Texas when he entered school last season and certainly showed he is a natural talent. The 6’4″, 180-pound Clarkson had a particularly strong finish to his freshman year, scoring in double digits in his final seven games. His biggest outing came early on in the season when he scored a career-high 20 points in a win over Stanford. Clarkson will continue to grow and flourish at Tulsa with a pretty talented team surrounding him. With Justin Hurtt graduated, Clarkson naturally becomes the go-to-guy.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

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

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