Allen R is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA.
The first week or so of Conference USA basketball is in the books and really you can’t tell too much from these contests.
My biggest complaint is that teams like Central Florida, Marshall, East Carolina and Southern Miss scheduled Division II and NAIA teams to start out the season. I realize that many schools struggle to find quality non-conference opponents, but there are over 300 Division I teams out there that could be potentially scheduled. In a conference desperate for an RPI boost, this does very little good.
Okay, the rant is now finished. Here are the very early storylines in the conference so far.
- Reload Time. With the loss of leaders such as Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose it isn’t surprising that the Memphis Tigers have looked a tad bit mortal early on in the season. During a nationally televised match-up against UMass, the Tigers struggled mightily to score any points at the outset. Clearly they are not as crisp as they were a year ago and the roles aren’t as clearly defined. In the second half of the UMass game however, Tyreke Evans showed why he was a top prep recruit and got the Tiger ‘dribble drive’ offense going en route to an 80-58 victory. While this may be the best chance for a Conference USA team to knock off the Tigers, they will only get better as the year grows on.
- Blazing Arizona. The current Arizona Wildcat squad would not be confused with some of the great groups to come out of Tucson in the past few decades. Longtime head coach Lute Olson stepped down just before the start of the season, while recruits and players bailed left and right from the program. But that shouldn’t take away from the UAB Blazers’ impressive 72-71 road win over the Wildcats in the pre-season NIT. Coach Mike Davis has a deep, senior-laden team that has proven itself capable of dealing with challenges early in the season. Keep an eye on the health of point guard Paul Delaney III. He missed all of last season with an ACL tear and the Blazers’ success is quite contingent on him staying healthy this year.
- First Impressions. At least a few freshmen from Conference USA teams look like they’ll be major impact players on their respective teams. Obviously Tyreke Evans on Memphis has superstar written all over him and has broken into the lineup from day one averaging 15.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Along with Evans, Tiger freshman Wesley Witherspoon has received a good chunk of minutes early on. Houston point guard Desmond Wade has also worked his way into the lineup from the first day, all the while showcasing a selfless attitude and hard-nosed defensive play (he’s averaged 6 assists and 2 steals per game). Junior college transfer Aubrey Coleman has also played well for Houston early, averaging 16.8 points and earning CUSA newcomer of the week honors along with Tyreke Evans in week one. On a team full of newcomers UCF’s Dave Diakite has stood out early on and will pose some matchup problems down the road with his combination of size and scoring ability. Another team featuring a lot of new faces is the Marshall Thundering Herd, who have 8 new players on the court (including 3 transfers and Marcus Goode, who sat out the 2007-08 season due to academics). Out of that group, Shaquille Johnson and Chris Lutz have both broken into the Herd starting lineup to start the year. Expect Lutz, a Purdue transfer, to light up the scoreboards all season.
- Dancing With Experienced Partners. On the opening weekend of college basketball, both Houston and Tulsa chalked up victories against teams that went to the NCAA tournament last season. One of last year’s biggest Cinderella stories: the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers were defeated by Houston 73-64. In their home opener the Cougars trailed 37-27 at the half, but relied on a stingy defense and an aggressive offense led by Aubrey Coleman (19 points, 6 rebounds) to pull it out. Tulsa hosted Oral Roberts in what has become an interesting regional rivalry game. It was a fairly ugly and disjointed game, but the Golden Hurricane pulled out a 50-43 victory, led by 20 points from point guard Ben Uzoh.
- House of Tudor. They may be a few years from being an upper-echelon CUSA team and have no basketball history to speak of, but the Rice Owls finally have a real basketball facility to play in. Previously the Owls played in Autry Court, a tiny and decrepit facility that seriously hampered any recruiting efforts. Prompted by a large donation from former Owl player and Goldman Sachs executive Bobby Tudor, the university began a major renovation of Autry Court that spanned all of last season. Now with new coach Ben Braun the Owls are looking to build a winning tradition in this new arena. For the record the Owls are 0-1 so far this year, with a 78-74 loss to defending Big Sky champion Portland State.
- Not Cowboying Up. In one of the games I highlighted as an important non-conference contest for Conference USA, the Oklahoma State Cowboys dismantled Tulsa 91-73 in Stillwater. The Cowboys and their new up-tempo offense under coach Travis Ford made quick work of the Golden Hurricane in the first half. Led by Byron Eaton the Cowboys built a 54-28 first half lead and coasted from there on out. The lone bright spot for the Golden Hurricane would probably be another 20-point performance from Ben Uzoh.