2012-13 RTC Conference Primers: Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 5th, 2012

Ryan Peters is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA. You can find him on Twitter @pioneer_pride and read his musings online at Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride.

Top Storylines

    • A Conference in Considerable Flux – Before MemphisHoustonUCF, and SMU defect to the Big East – which officially makes a geographic mockery of the Big East’s name – C-USA will have one final season together as a full-fledged “upper-level” Division I conference. With only six NCAA Tournament teams and zero NCAA tournament victories in the past three seasons, however, can C-USA muster together a respectable showing for the 2012-13 campaign that doesn’t rival most mid-major conferences? Memphis is the only virtual lock to go dancing, yet several other programs (see MarshallUTEP, and Tulane) are on the rise and could conceivably end up on the right side of the tournament bubble come March. Still, it may be overly optimistic to think C-USA will break the two-team NCAA bid barrier that has eluded the conference since 2005.
    • A Run Towards Perfection – In his fourth season as Memphis’ head coach, Josh Pastner has an opportunity to do something his predecessor, John Calipari, did with apparent ease for three straight seasons prior – have his Tigers run the table in C-USA. With the conference slightly weaker heading into this season (according to Ken Pomeroy), Memphis has a real opportunity to put up a perfect 16-0 regular season mark against their conference foes. It will still prove to be difficult, especially when facing UCF and Marshall twice as part of their unbalanced schedule, yet Memphis returns four starters and is sitting on a potential NBA lottery pick in Adonis Thomas if the 6’7” small forward can stay healthy for much of the season.

Josh Pastner leads a talented home-grown roster in Memphis’ final season in C-USA.

  • Welcoming Back a Legend – Anytime you can hire a head coach with a resume such as the 71-year old Larry Brown, I guess you have to do it, given SMU’s desperation to hire a big name. After all, you’re talking about a guy with an NCAA championship and an NBA championship on his resume. The problem is – aside from his age and inability to coach through the initial contract at his last three destinations – Brown has been away from the college game for nearly 25 years, when he won the 1988 NCAA championship coaching Danny Manning (who, interestingly, is a new C-USA coach himself) and the Kansas Jayhawks. How much can the Mustangs reasonably expect from Brown under these conditions? The cupboard is bare with the graduation of leading scorer and most efficient player, Robert Nyakundi, and the removal of four players including starting point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas, so you have to wonder if Brown will have the patience to stick around long enough to fully rebuild a SMU program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993. One benefit from Brown’s hiring is that he has assembled an impressive coaching staff, which includes the Mustangs possible head-coach-in-waiting in Tim Jankovich.
  • New Coaching Blood – Including Brown, there are four C-USA programs that hired new coaches this offseason, which makes up a whopping one third of the entire league. The most notable new hires are Brown and the aforementioned Danny Manning, who left his assistant post at Kansas in an attempt to push Tulsa out of complacency. Donnie Tyndall (Southern Miss) and Jerod Haase (UAB) complete the list of coaches. It will be an uphill battle in season one; research has shown head coaches typically struggle in their first season at their newest destination. Perhaps these men can buck the trend and adapt quickly, although the more likely scenario has some of the league taking advantage and pushing ahead of these rebuilding programs for the time being. Well, maybe except for Rice (more on that later)…

Reader’s Take I

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Memphis (14-2)
  2. Marshall (12-4)
  3. UTEP (11-5)
  4. UCF (10-6)
  5. UAB (9-7)
  6. Southern Mississippi (8-8)
  7. Tulane (7-9)
  8. East Carolina (7-9)
  9. Houston (6-10)
  10. Tulsa (5-11)
  11. SMU (5-11)
  12. Rice (2-14)
All Conference Predictions (last season’s stats in parentheses)
  • G: DeAndre Kane, Marshall (16.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.4 SPG): Kane is arguably the best guard in the conference, and he proved it last season by scoring in double digits for 30 of the Thundering Herd’s 34 games. If there’s one criticism concerning Kane, it’s that he isn’t the most efficient scorer, with a career effective field goal percentage of 46.5%. Nevertheless, the stat-stuffing Kane is such a valuable contributor on both ends of the floor that any expected improvement toward better efficiency will have him in serious consideration for C-USA Player of the Year.
  • G: Ricky Tarrant, Tulane (14.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 78.4% FT): It was a special rookie season for Tarrant, who unanimously won the C-USA Rookie of the Year, after averaging 18.2 points in his 16 conference games and finishing third overall in steals. Heading into his sophomore season, the incredibly composed yet highly energetic Tarrant is poised to lead the Green Wave back to C-USA respectability.
  • F: Adonis Thomas, Memphis (8.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 53.9% EFG): It was a frustrating rookie season for Thomas, who posted solid numbers before missing a significant amount of time because of ankle surgery. Now healthy, the versatile Thomas has a chance to have his name called by David Stern in the NBA Draft’s first round next June. A terrific playmaker, Thomas can score in a variety of ways and will be asked by Pastner to contribute more towards Memphis’ bottom line. Thomas is a former five-star recruit, so I’m certainly bullish for a breakout season.
  • F: Keith Clanton, UCF (14.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.0 SPG): Clanton is the preseason C-USA Player of the Year, which is quite surprising since many had expected him to leave UCF amid recent recruiting sanctions that sadly includes a postseason ban. But in a remarkable display of loyalty, the 6’9” Clanton decided to finish up his collegiate career in Orlando. Forecasting ahead, Clanton’s ability to score from anywhere on the floor and aggressively rebound should make him a finalist, at worst, for C-USA Player of the Year.
  • F: Tarik Black, Memphis (10.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 68.9% FG): Perhaps the most efficient big man in the conference, Black led all C-USA players last season in field goal percentage and was sixth in blocks per game. Averaging only five rebounds per contest is nothing to write home about, so the key for Black is to better pursue the basketball off the glass. An expected uptick in rebounding rate should push Black’s scoring up as well, and would make it extremely difficult to leave the 6’8” power forward off the C-USA first team.

Sixth Man: G Joe Jackson, Memphis (11.0 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 83.7% FT): It’s been a fairly inconsistent two seasons for Jackson in Memphis, yet the incredibly quick guard has shown flashes of brilliance on the court. Already a two time C-USA Tournament MVP, Jackson has the capability to become a leading player on the best team in the conference. If Jackson can improve his consistency, which Pastner believes he can do, then Jackson could very well displace one of his teammates to earn all-conference first team honors.

Memphis may be the favorite, but it would be foolish to overlook DeAndre Kane and the Thundering Herd this season.

Newcomer of the Year: Danuel House, Houston – Sometimes opportunity is as much a factor as talent is when deciding the next great newcomer. House has both going his way – along with excellent athleticism that plays well in transition and on the defensive end – and should play meaningful minutes right away for James Dickey‘s club. The 6’7” House was dominant at the high school level and turned down offers from Baylor, Georgetown, Kansas, and Texas to stay close to home.

Predicted Champion

Memphis – Is there really any other choice? In Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings, Memphis is the only C-USA team ranked inside his top 90 … top 50 … well actually the top 20! Despite losing the reigning C-USA Player of the Year Will Barton to the NBA, the Tigers shouldn’t skip a beat with a terrific trio of juniors – Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, and Chris Crawford – and the aforementioned Adonis Thomas returning. All four players have all-conference first team potential and I haven’t even mentioned the efficient long-range bomber Antonio Barton and four-star high school recruit Shaq Goodwin. Add it all up and you have a team that should stay inside the Top 25 throughout the season, especially with a non-conference tilt that features Louisville, VCU, Ohio, and little else.

Top Contenders

  • Marshall – Let’s get one thing straight: Barring a Tigers’ catastrophe on the injury front, it’s quite unlikely any other team – including the Thundering Herd – will win the C-USA regular season crown. But let’s play along, shall we? Because Marshall returns DeAndre Kane and Dennis Tinnon, a tenacious rebounder who finished third in the conference in rebounding rate, Tom Herrion‘s squad has a real opportunity to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987 (yes, you read that correctly). The biggest question in Huntington hinges on the replacement of point guard Dameer Pitts, who led Marshall last season in minutes played and assists, and was second in points scored per 40 minutes. If sophomore Chris Martin and freshmen Kareem Canty (more on him in a few moments) can combine to run the point anywhere near the level of Pitts, then Marshall may very well be dancing come March.
  • UTEP – There’s a lot to like with Tim Floyd‘s team as he begins his third season as the Miners’ head coach. For starters, UTEP returns everyone of significance except Gabrial McCulley, led by the incredibly efficient master in the paint, John Bohannon. The 6’10” center, along with sophomore Julian Washburn and junior Michael Perez, gives Floyd a formidable 1-2-3 punch for the Miners. UTEP has a brutal non-conference schedule, which includes Arizona, Nebraska, UNLV, Oregon, and in-state rival New Mexico State. If his team can get through that rough patch early, the Miners will be one of the more difficult C-USA teams to play on a regular basis.
  • UCF – Since Donnie Jones’ arrival two offseasons ago, UCF has finished in the RPI top 100. Four starters return to a team that won 10 C-USA games last season, so there’s reason for optimism, if it wasn’t for the recruiting violations that led to a postseason ban. Now instead of competing for a NCAA berth, Jones has the challenge of keeping his Knights focused and motivated enough to push toward an unlikely C-USA regular season championship. Having Keith Clanton back for his senior season will help Jones’ cause.

The Others

  • Southern Mississippi – Rarely does a team finish second in its conference, win 25 wins, make the NCAA Tournament and consider the following season “a rebuilding year.” Such is the case with the Eagles of Southern Miss, who bring in Donnie Tyndall to replace the successful Larry Eustachy. Returning junior guard Neil Watson and senior Jonathan Mills are nice pieces to rebuild around, but it’s safe to expect the Eagles to take a step back after graduating four valuable players.
  • UAB – Like Southern Miss, a new coach will patrol the sidelines with Jerod Haase replacing the well-known Mike Davis. Gone are the two most efficient players on the team in all-conference first team selection and C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Moore (graduation) and big man Ovie Soko (transfer), which will make the rookie head coach’s job much more arduous. Some talent does return, although the good health of point guard Quincy Taylor – who tore his ACL late last season – is paramount for UAB to be successful.
  • Houston – The future is bright for James Dickey and his Cougars. Houston brings in quite possibly the best recruiting class in the conference with three immediate impact freshmen in Danuel House, Valentine Izundu, and Danred “Chicken” Knowles. Unfortunately for Houston, Knowles was declared ineligible and must wait a season before donning the Cougar red. House and Izundu, however, combined with All-C-USA rookie team selection Joseph Young provides Dickey with an excellent foundation to work with.
  • Tulane – After ripping through a very soft non-conference schedule last season, Tulane lost 14 out of 17 C-USA games to once again close out the year on a brutal note. Things should improve for Ed Conroy, assuming Ricky Tarrant continues to build off a fantastic freshmen season and seniors Kendall Timmons and 7’0” center Tomas Bruha can stay away from the trainer’s table.
  • Tulsa – Despite six consecutive winning seasons, the Tulsa administration wasn’t keen on settling for annual trips to the NIT, and fired Doug Wojcik after a moderately successful tenure. In his place enters Danny Manning, who unfortunately arrives with the Tulsa cupboard mostly bare. Several integral pieces are now gone, due to transfer or career ending injuries. As a result, Manning – and his six freshmen on the roster – unquestionably will endure growing pains early on and will likely find themselves in the bottom third of the C-USA standings.
  • East Carolina – According to Ken Pomeroy’s 2011-12 end of season ratings, East Carolina significantly underperformed based on their 5-11 C-USA finish. Miguel Paul is coming off an excellent junior season and will bolster an above average backcourt for the Pirates, which is why I’m somewhat bullish on the Pirates possibly crawling back to the conference 0.500 mark this season.
  • SMU – The Matt Doherty experiment has mercifully ended, after six lackluster seasons at the helm which saw the Mustangs go 80-119. Replacing Doherty is coaching great Larry Brown, who should struggle to extract wins from a roster that finished 4-12 in the conference last season. There are some useful pieces in Kansas State transfer Nick Russell and senior London Giles, although the SMU rebuilding project will certainly take some time.
  • Rice – It wasn’t supposed to be this way heading into Ben Braun’s fifth season, but for whatever the reason, the once promising roster has been ravaged by players fleeing Rice this offseason. It was one thing when freshmen Dylan Ennis and Jarelle Reischel decided to bolt, but the final death blow occurred when Arsalan Kazemi, the most efficient player in the conference after C-USA Player of the Year Will Barton last season, transferred to Oregon. Once a candidate to finish in the top quarter of the league, Rice will now struggle to stay out of the C-USA standings basement.  

Reader’s Take II

Spotlight On…Coaches

  • Ed Conroy – It’s the pivotal third season for Conroy at Tulane, and the pressure is on. The Green Wave has failed to win more than three conference games in each of the past three years, therefore you can expect the athletic director to get a little antsy if there isn’t significant improvement moving forward. Ricky Tarrant is a star in the making, yet more contribution must be found from the other five sophomores from Tarrant’s class. Staying healthy would certainly help Conroy’s cause too.
  • Josh Pastner – It’s been a fantastic three seasons at Memphis following in the footsteps of John Calipari. 75 wins. Two C-USA Tournament titles. Two trips to the NCAA Tournament. So exactly why is the spotlight on one of the best young coaches in the game? Because in two trips to the Big Dance, the Tigers have lost both games in the second round, which in Memphis is considered unacceptable. Of course, Pastner’s job isn’t in jeopardy should the same fate befall him this season, however, you can expect the Tiger faithful to get a little inpatient should the team disappoint. It will surely add more fuel to the fire that Pastner is a master recruiter, yet hasn’t shown the necessary skills to become an accomplished in-game coach.
  • Ben Braun – Could this be the beginning of the end for the coaching vet? Rice has been mediocre in Braun’s four seasons at the helm (51-79), yet the program took a step forward last season. Now with most of the team’s returning possession minutes gone, Braun is essentially starting from scratch once again. If Rice predictably becomes the C-USA punching bag for the 2012-13 season, it’s difficult to envision Braun keeping his job.

Top Newcomers

  • Kareem Canty, Marshall – Canty is a tough-minded, hard-nosed floor general, who surprisingly chose the Thundering Herd as his Division I school of choice. Even though better offers were on the table, Canty brought into Tom Herrion’s message – Marshall views you as our point guard of the future who can contribute immediately as a freshman. It’s safe to project a timeshare early on with sophomore Chris Martin, but make no mistake, Canty is the player with far more upside.
  • McKenzie Moore, UTEP – Originally a St. Mary’s signee, Moore was declared ineligible academically, and as a result, spent a semester at junior college before enrolling at UTEP. He has since been cleared to play this December and figures to be a key member is the Miners’ attack. At 6’6”, Moore possesses an efficient scoring prowess and has a deft passing touch. Given this unique length at the point guard position, he absolutely has all-conference potential if developed properly.

Final Thoughts

With four teams leaving C-USA after this season, this is essentially the last hurrah for a conference that has always found itself in the upper third of Division I basketball. Can Memphis finally break through under Josh Pastner? Can teams like Marshall and UTEP enter the 68-team field in mid-March? These are pertinent questions for a conference that doesn’t really get much respect, (so much so that Ken Pomeroy needed to bring together a panel of experts just for a C-USA Preseason Poll). Nevertheless, this is a conference that absolutely deserves your attention and may provide a surprise or two come March.

Brian Goodman (966 Posts)

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

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