RTC Conference Primers: #9 – Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 28th, 2011

Steve Coulter is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA.

Reader’s Take

Despite having two teams earn bids into the NCAA Tournament last season, Conference USA walked away without a win.

 

Top Storylines

  • Can Memphis Pull Away?: While the Tigers have fielded strong teams since John Calipari left after the 2008-09 season, they’ve never had quite as much talent in that time as they figure to show this season. With essentially every notable contributor returning, a huge gap could form quickly. On the other hand, chemistry rarely comes instantly, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Memphis have a double-digit loss season, either.
  • Central Florida Continues To Build: Thanks partially to a soft non-conference schedule of six opponents with KenPom ratings 200 or lower and a non-D-I matchup, UCF cracked the national rankings for the first time in school history. While the Knights came down to Earth once conference play began, momentum is important no matter how it’s established. After winning two postseason games, we’re excited to see how the UCF follows up on a surprising season.
  • Realignment Hovers Over C-USA: Perhaps no single conference houses as many schools that were rumored to be on their way out than Conference USA, even if its membership ultimately stayed intact. East Carolina and UCF are frequently connected to the Big East; Memphis’ basketball program is as valuable a commodity as there is outside of the Power Six, and in its shakier days, the Big 12 could have found itself eyeing the Texas schools as a contingency plan in case the Longhorns and Sooners packed up for the Pac-12. It didn’t come to pass, but you have to wonder just what C-USA will look like in the long term.

This Year's Tigers, Led By Will Barton, Could Be Pastner's Most Talented Memphis Team Ever

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Memphis (13-3)
  2. UAB (11-5)
  3. Central Florida (11-5)
  4. Marshall (10-6)
  5. Tulsa (10-6)
  6. UTEP (8-8)
  7. SMU (8-8)
  8. East Carolina (7-9)
  9. Rice (6-10)
  10. Southern Mississippi (5-11)
  11. Tulane (4-12)
  12. Houston (3-13)

All-Conference Picks (key stats from last season in parentheses)

  • Cameron Moore, UAB, Forward (14.0 PPG, 9.3 RPG): The Preseason Conference Player of the Year was nationally considered as one of the most improved players last season. He is the sole leader on a Blazers team looking to make a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament.
  • Arsalan Kazemi, Rice, Forward (15.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG): Kazemi could make a case for himself as Preseason Player of the Year; However, the junior faces more important matters. Firstly, how can he get the lowly Owls into postseason play?
  • Keith Clanton, UCF, Forward (14.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.8 BPG): Due to a tie in voting, Clanton is the sixth person on the conference’s preseason first team. The 6’8” forward had a breakout year last season as he teams up with Marcus Jordan and a slew of newcomers as UCF looks to build off its 21-win season.
  • DeAndre Kane, Marshall, Guard (top five freshman scorers nationally, C-USA Freshman of the Year): The Thundering Herd’s star point guard was the best freshman in the conference last season. Kane, a Pittsburgh native, is big for his position, but height isn’t a problem considering he will have to go through Memphis’ Will Barton if he wants to advance the team further this season.
  • Jordan Clarkson, Tulsa, Guard (11.5 PPG, All Tournament team): A surprise pick considering Clarkson barely got onto the Preseason All-Conference Second Team; however, the Tulsa guard is explosive and will have to make a lot of plays if the Golden Hurricane stand a chance of competing among the rest of the conference contenders.

Sixth ManTarik Black, Memphis, Forward: The 6’8” Black is arguably the conference’s best low post player. SMU’s Robert Nyakundi could earn this spot at the end of the season depending on how the Mustangs do; however, if Memphis finishes in first place, Black, or swingman Will Witherspoon will be receiving the praise.

Impact NewcomerJeff Jordan, UCF, Guard (Transfer): The Illinois transfer and son of the legendary Michael Jordan makes his first appearance for UCF this season after sitting out last season. He will team up with brother Marcus, a Preseason All-Conference Second Team member, to form the Knights’ backcourt.

Impact Newcomer – Adonis Thomas, Memphis, Forward (Freshman): Already drawing attention from pro scouts, Thomas looks to team up with his teammate Black to give the Tigers a formidable presence down low. If Thomas can average even eight points and eight rebounds, then Memphis will be a tough team to beat.

Predicted Champion

Memphis Tigers (NCAA Seed: #4): Memphis is simply too deep and athletic not to conquer Conference USA this season. Not only does the team have a bounty of weapons in the backcourt, they are loaded on the wings and are stronger than most believe they are down in the post. Rebounding will remain a main area of focus for the Tigers as they enter the early part of their non-conference schedule, but if they can out-hustle teams on the boards then they won’t finish with more than ten losses. Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, Will Witherspoon, Antonio Barton and Charles Carmouche all played over 526 minutes last season. With that experience and the added athleticism freshman Adonis Thomas brings to the table, the Tigers can go as far as they want and climb the national polls if they can play with consistency, something they lacked last season.

Top Contenders

  • UAB Blazers: UAB barely squeaked into the NCAA Tournament last season before falling to Final Four-bound VCU in one of the tournament’s four play-in contests. There’s no reason why the squad shouldn’t be feeling confident with Preseason Conference Player of the Year Cameron Moore returning alongside junior forward Ovie Soko and sophomore guard Preston Purifoy. While graduating Jamarr Sanders, Aaron Johnson and Dexter Fields hurts, the team brings in a trio of freshman— Herb Harrison, Isiah Jones and K.C. Whitaker— who all could make immediate impacts. In addition, transfer Jordan Swing is eligible to play and adds depth to a program that should be aiming for its fifth NCAA birth in nine years.
  • Central Florida Golden Knights: The Golden Knights are the most improved team in the conference this season as three key transfers become eligible to suit up. The additions of point guard Jeff Jordan, small forward Tristan Spurlock and center Josh Crittle will be key to UCF’s season as they look to play alongside established stars Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan. While many critics will remain skeptical of UCF following the teams debacle in conference play last season, the Golden Knights will look to build on a 2010-11 campaign where they won 21 games and entered the national rankings for the first time in school history.
  • SMU Mustangs: The Mustangs will undoubtedly miss Papa Dia’s presence in the low post; however, the SMU program should continue to improve under fifth-year coach Matt Doherty. While eight new players make the Mustangs appear weak on paper, the addition of Shawn Williams, a transfer from Texas, should allow SMU to turn some heads. Senior Robert Nyakundi was second in the country last season in three-point shooting percentage, making close to half his attempts (97-195). He should once again shine in Dallas.
  • Tulsa Golden Hurricane: Tulsa’s big three — Steven Idlet, Jordan Clarkson and Scottie Haralson — give fans a real reason to be excited as the Golden Hurricane should reach a postseason tournament for the fourth time in five years. Although last season ended in disappointment as the team’s second place conference finish wasn’t good enough to get them invited to any postseason tournament, Tulsa has quality OOC games scheduled against Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Wichita State, Creighton and Missouri State.  These early tests should gauge how good this young Tulsa team really is.
  • UTEP Miners: Without departed senior Randy Culpepper, the Miners will struggle with experience issues as the team has one senior in returning starter Gabriel McCulley. Despite the lack of leadership, the Miners expect to continue to be a program that reaches the postseason. UTEP is one of only 21 Division I schools to post 25 wins or more in each of the last two seasons, and the only one in C-USA to achieve the feat. The Miners have fashioned a 51-17 mark since the start of the 2009-10 campaign. Keep an eye on freshman Julian Washburn, son of former NBA player Chris Washburn. The Miners’ prize recruit was ranked No. 24 amongst small forwards by Rivals.com coming out of high school.
  • Marshall Thundering Herd: Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane make for arguably the conference’s best backcourt tandem as they look to lead the Thundering Herd to the postseason for the third consecutive year. Marshall returns five of its seven top players from a season ago. The team’s non-conference schedule is loaded with tough competition as the team plays Belmont twice in addition to play three Big East clubs — Syracuse, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

The Rest

  • East Carolina Pirates: Despite an 8-8 finish in conference play last season, ECU shouldn’t expect to be in the top half of the conference this year as they lose too much talent from last year’s team, including point guard Brock Young.  The team simply doesn’t shoot the ball well enough, ranking 234th in the country last season. The Pirates also struggle rebounding the ball, averaging a plain 33.2 boards per game.
  • Southern Miss Golden Eagles: Gary Flowers will be missed as this program continues to be an up-and-comer in the Conference USA. Similar to ECU, Southern Mississippi finished in the top part of the conference standings last season; however, the team will struggle rebounding without Flowers.
  • Rice Owls: Arsalan Kazemi may be the most talked about player in the entire conference, but he isn’t going to get the Owls out of the cellar on his own.
  • Houston Cougars: After an improbable run to the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago, the Cougars are struggling to find their identity as the team has yet to find its alpha dog. The lack of a top scorer doomed the team in 2010-11, and it most likely will again. In addition, the team lacks the speed in the backcourt to compete with the top teams in conference.
  • Tulane Green Wave: Besides Kazemi, nobody did more for their team last season than the Green Wave’s Kendall Timmons. The junior averaged 17 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in his sophomore campaign. Even if he improves off those numbers, he lacks a supporting cast to take Tulane to the postseason.

Arsalan Kazemi May Not Be Enough To Bring Rice To The Dance. (Sports Illustrated)

Reader’s Take Part II

While the conference is deep at the swing forward position, there are a playmaking point guards leading the conference this season.

 

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

  • Will Barton, Sophomore, Memphis : If the Tigers can return to the tournament, then it will more than likely be because of Barton’s dynamic ability that he displayed in his freshman campaign. A big sophomore season could render him without a choice but to skip out on his final two years of eligibility. He is already a top 30 prospect for the 2012 NBA Draft and his stock could rise depending on his performance this season.
  • Arsalan Kazemi, Junior, Rice: As mentioned before, Kazemi makes a strong argument for 2011-12 Preseason Player of the Year. The 6’7” forward is a lengthy athlete with a knack for scoring the basketball, and he’ll continue to lead the Owls this season. Although they may not make it to the postseason, Kazemi will be a delight to watch and his unique style of play could make him a candidate with enough upside to garnish a second round selection. He will be tempted to leave school early if that’s the case; however, he’s made no indication yet that he plans to leave early.
  • Adonis Thomas, Freshman, Memphis: There are some bigger prospects then the 6’7” Thomas,  but he has an NBA-ready body that is athletic and powerful. Chad Forde has him at #18 on his big board of prospects, and if Thomas can make enough of an impact, then he could be bolting out the door sooner than expected. He’s not guaranteed a starting role on this Memphis squad, though.
  • Tom Herrion, Head Coach, Marshall: Similar to his predecessor, Donnie Jones, Herrion could use the Marshall gig as a springboard for a more high profile job. Last season he led the Thundering Herd to a 22-12 overall record and a fifth-place finish in conference, the program’s second highest finish in the past decade. If Herrion can repeat as a 22-game winner or more, his name will be out there as a hot commodity for a school looking to rejuvenate its program.

Spotlight on: Josh Pastner and Donnie Jones

Pastner is on the brink of earning his 50th win as a collegiate head coach with an all-time record of 49-20 as he enters his third season. Although he didn’t bring home a regular season conference championship, Pastner’s team was able to claim the conference’s automatic bid as the conference tournament champion, which is the school’s fifth in six years. While Pastner continues to move forward and out of the John Calipari spotlight, the Tigers continue to grow under his tutelage. Where most coaches would have failed, Pastner seems to have succeeded in a complicated job. Despite the Tigers’ fourth place finish in the conference last year, the team seems talented enough to remain in the top three within the next years to come. If they don’t, then Pastner’s reign maybe shorter then expected.

As for Jones, he may not be going anywhere soon as he just arrived at UCF last year; however, he will need to have a steadier control on the team this season if he wants the program to continue to rise under his regime. Jones’ first loss as a head coach at UCF came on January 8, which was quite impressive. What was not impressive were the 12 losses that followed over a stretch of the following 19 games. Jones has the potential to be C-USA Coach of the Year when this season is all said and done.

Final Thoughts

Conference USA annually has six or seven teams vying for typically no more than three bids to the NCAA Tournament; this year shouldn’t be any different. While the OOC schedules and early stages of conference play will weed out the contenders from the rest of the pack, the conference is by no means top-heavy. There are at least nine teams that could contend for a league title as well as an automatic bid to the conference tournament. Unlike other conferences with preseason favorites, there is no one team that is blatantly ahead of the pack, though Memphis may have the horses to run away if they put it all together. Although UAB and Memphis have tended to dominate the conference’s NCAA Tournament bids in past years, up-and-coming programs such as Central Florida, Southern Mississippi and Marshall look to play spoiler in the 2011-12 as those teams continue to mature and gain experience. UCF gained a lot of national exposure last season with a fast-paced and undefeated start heading into conference play, yet struggled against C-USA competition and floundered out of the spotlight. Expect the Golden Knights to be hungry this season as they have a lot to prove after that collapse. In addition, Conference USA has two of the more interesting NBA prospects in the country in the season to come.

Brian Goodman (756 Posts)

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


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