Memphis passed its last regular season road test and now only has a few games to go to return to the “promised land” that they’ve never really left.
While the Tigers’ dominance over the rest of CUSA is nearly unparalleled in the history of modern college basketball, it doesn’t mean that every other team is chopped liver. Basically anything can happen in a tournament setting and the Tigers have endured a few close calls this year.
So here are the teams as they are seeded and some pertinent info:
#1: Memphis Tigers
Coach: John Calipari
Record: 28-3 overall (16-0 in CUSA)
Players to Watch: G Tyreke Evans, F Robert Dozier, F Shawn Taggart, G Antonio Anderson
Season Highlights: In a year that many thought would be fraught with ‘rebuilding’ and the like, the Tigers continue to look dominant. The arrival of the latest one-year wonder: Tyreke Evans, has allowed the blue and gray not miss a beat from last year’s final four squad. But the veteran leadership of guys like Antonio Anderson, Doneal Mack, Shawn Taggart and Robert Dozier has been a huge factor too. They suffered early-season setbacks against Xavier and Syracuse, but they’re currently riding 20+ game winning streak. There have been a few close calls and at the end of the day they’re still undefeated against the rest of the conference.
They Will Win If: They simply show up and play their game. I don’t want to imply that the Tigers will simply cream whomever they play, because they could well lose. But they’re playing an extremely favorable draw on their home court. This is a recipe for success and it also doesn’t hurt that they’ve won over 50 games in a row against CUSA teams.
First Game: vs. the winner of #8 Tulane/#9 East Carolina; Thursday at 8:30 pm.
This week in Conference USA basketball was full of the various surprises and dramatics that make college basketball season something special. However when the dust settled this week, the same team was still the proverbial ‘King of the Castle’ and still nobody else from the pack has distinguished themselves.
Now that the proverbial dark cloud of non-conference play has passed, there’s the excitement of Conference USA basketball. Everyone is now 0-0 and has their chances (some larger than others) to make a statement in the second half of the season. As this week started it didn’t matter if you were Memphis or SMU, a new season has begun for your team.
1.) Same ‘Ol, Same ‘Ol in Memphis: There may be some surprises in conference play this season, but it doesn’t look the Tigers will be providing as many of them. In their conference opener at the FedEx Forum, Memphis dominated from start to finish in an 80-57 win over Marshall. The Tigers got a balanced scoring effort from Tyreke Evans and company. Things got scary in Orlando though as the Tigers got a stiff road test from UCF. Before last Saturday’s game, the athletic department encouraged all Knight fans to come to the arena “armored in black” to create a blackout effect. The Tigers ended up winning 73-66 due in large part to a 13 point effort from reserve Roburt Sallie. While this may be the season Memphis loses a conference game, it’s still been over 1000 days since that’s happened.
Because of the weak schedule the next two days, I’m doing a 2-for-1 edition of Set Your Tivos covering both Monday and Tuesday night for you today.
– #13 Notre Dame at #20 Louisville at 7 PM on ESPN and ESPN360.com: After a tough victory at Villanova on Saturday (best game of the day), Rick Pitino will be looking to have his Cardinals build on the momentum as the reigning Big East POY Luke Harangody comes to town. The Cardinals will have their hands full with the experience of the Fighting Irish to go along with the inside play of Harangody (24.5 PPG and 12.7 RPG) and the outside shooting of Kyle McAlarney (16.5 PPG on 46.3% from 3). While Harangody gets all the hype (for good reason), Mike Brey‘s chances of taking Notre Dame deep into March will likely ride on the shooting of McAlarney, who may be the best pure shooter in the nation (Stephen Curry fanatics: feel free to flame away in the comment section). However, the Irish’s chances tonight will depend on the play of PG Tory Jackson (11.8 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 4.5 RPG). If Jackson can outplay the enigmatic Edgar Sosa, Notre Dame has a good chance at pulling out a win tonight. If Sosa is having an off night, Louisville will need strong performances from their interior guys (Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels, and Terrence Williams) against Harangody and hope that McAlarney doesn’t go off. We keep waiting for Louisville to play to their “potential”. Will this be the night?
– #11 Texas at #5 Oklahoma at 9 PM on ESPN and ESPN360.com: A match-up of teams that couldn’t beat Arkansas. Blake Griffin will probably end up with another ridiculous 20/20 and Texas doesn’t have anybody who can match-up with (nobody in college does) so the Longhorns will need to focus on limiting Willie Warren (the diaper dandy who has been surprisingly consistent this season). If Rick Barnes wants to get the victory, he will need strong games out of A.J. Abrams and Damion James. [Side note: What is going on with Connor Atchley? His numbers are down across the board.] I’d like to give Texas a chance here with Abrams bouncing back from his awful effort against Arkansas, but I’m going to have to with the Sooners since Griffin is a double-double machine and my gut feeling that Warren will go off.
– Memphis at Tulsa at 7:30 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: Tulsa remains a bit of a mystery with an 11-5 record, but their best player (and one of the best in Conference USA) Jerome Jordan has played very poorly in several of their losses. I’m not really expecting Tulsa to beat the Tigers here, but it will be interesting to see if anybody in Conference USA can challenge Memphis, who is down this year as Tyreke Evans hasn’t played to the level that many expected him to after all the hype that he has received.
– Kentucky at Tennessee at 9 PM on ESPN and ESPN360.com: It looks like these two disappointing teams will be battling for the SEC East title this year. Regardless of the relatively slow starts for both teams, this should be an interesting one from a rivalry perspective and whethere Kentucky’s dynamic duo of Jodie Meeks (24.2 PPG) and Patrick Patterson (18.9 PPG on a ridiculous 70.9% FG and 9.3 RPG) can do enough to match Tennessee’s superior depth (headed by Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism). I’d normally call this one a toss-up, but the home court should give the Vols the edge.
Feast week and turkey day are now in the rear view mirror and another week of basketball is in the books.
There were good moments and bad moments, but ultimately this was a positive week for Conference USA basketball. During the UAB/Oklahoma game in the pre-season NIT, ESPN commentator Steve Lavin gushed about the depth of CUSA, talking about how UAB, UTEP and Tulsa could join Memphis in the NCAA Tournament this year. This kind of coverage is the best thing this conference could hope for.
WYN2K. The story of Conference USA basketball the last few seasons has been the absolute dominance of Memphis. This year should be no different as the Tigers return a great combination of veteran talent and blue chip freshmen. To put it in perspective, they have not lost a Conference USA game since an 80-74 loss at UAB on February 2nd, 2006. Despite the recent Tiger dominance, the arrival of quality coaches like Tom Penders (Houston), Mike Davis (UAB), Larry Eustachy (Southern Miss) and Ben Braun (Rice) has helped raise the level of play. There is enough talent in the conference to get two NCAA tournament teams and a few other teams in the other postseason tournaments. There will be close calls, but in the end none of the other teams will score that elusive upset over Memphis.
Predicted Champion.Memphis (#2 seed NCAA). It’s really too easy to predict this one. I realize that the three most valuable players from last season: G Derrick Rose, G Chris Douglas-Roberts and C Joey Dorsey are all gone, but there are some talented players ready to step in. The star of Memphis coach John Calipari’s latest collection of blue-chip prospects is G Tyreke Evans from American Christian in suburban Philadelphia. Evans was one of the most highly-sought out prep point guards in the nation and is the heir apparent to Rose at the position. The other incoming player that should see a lot of action is F Wesley Witherspoon, a small forward from Lilburn, Georgia. Among the returners, F Robert Dozier is without a doubt the best athlete in the low post and is the leading returning scorer (9.2 ppg), rebounder (6.8 rpg) and shot-blocker (1.7 bpg). Depth abounds at the guard position where Willie Kemp, Antonio Anderson, Shawn Taggart and Doneal Mack all have proven they can step up in key situations. The only area where the Tigers lack a proven commodity is at the center position, where Joey Dorsey starred the past couple of seasons. But there is the enough talent on this roster to dominate the Conference USA field and make another deep run in the NCAA tournament. Here’s a bone for UM fans (last year’s highlight mix)…
Others Considered. Do not sleep on UAB(NCAA #9) this season. If there is any team in this conference with a legitimate shot at making the NCAA tournament outside of Memphis, it’s these guys. They were missing point guard Paul Delaney III for practically all of last season and still ended up finishing second behind Memphis in conference play. The Blazers also return the best shooter in Conference USA, Robert Vaden, and a solid scoring threat at small forward in Lawrence Kinnard. I could definitely see these guys getting in the dance as #9 or #10 seed if they avoid the costly slip-ups. Don’t call these guys one year wonders either because Blazer coach Mike Davis’ 2009 recruiting class is one of the best in the country. There is an outside shot that Tulsa (NIT) could make the NCAA Tournament with their very experienced squad. The Golden Hurricanes have Jerome Jordan, a 7-footer who has the NBA scouts drooling and is poised for a breakout year after a dominant finish last season. It doesn’t hurt Jordan that he has an all-conference point guard in Tony Uzoh getting him the ball. There is an interesting collection of incoming talent on this Houston (NIT) squad, including former St. John’s F Qa’rraan Calhoun and G Desmond Wade, a point guard from New Jersey who led his high school team to two state titles. But the Cougars lost way too much talent to seriously consider making the NCAA tournament. I have similar feelings about UTEP who returns one of the best athletes in this league – Stafon Jackson – and in the low post they bring in talented Memphis transfer Kareem Cooper. The Miners return most all of their key players from last season, but I’m just still not sold that they can put it all together under Coach Tony Barbee and make the NCAA Tournament. If nothing else, the Miners will be extremely tough on their home floor, the Don Haskins Center. Former national Coach of the Year Larry Eustachy has the most experienced team in the league at Southern Miss. Guards Jeremy Wise and Courtney Beasley are all-conference level guards who give the Eagles and Eustachy a shot at being a top-echelon C-USA team.
Important Games. Every time Memphis plays a top-half Conference USA team it could be an interesting contest, since a lot of teams seem to ‘play up’ for the Tigers. But I doubt anyone will beat the Tigers at FedEx Forum this season, so the road games will be the most interesting challenges. Specifically, trips to El Paso and Birmingham loom large on the Tigers’ schedule. There are also a couple of contests that will determine who is behind Memphis in the conference pecking order.
UAB @ Houston (01.10.09)
UAB @ Tulsa (01.28.09)
Memphis @ UTEP (02.21.09)
Memphis @ UAB (02.26.09)
Conference USA Championship Game (03.14.09)
RPI Boosters. If this league wants to move past its status as a ‘one-bid’ league then they’ll need to pull of at least a few decently high-profile upsets in the non-conference season. There are opportunities for every team in the league to get a marquee win at some point. Memphis will not be included in this particular list because they will be favored in most, if not all of their games this season. Not all of these are booster games against big conference foes, there are also some interesting match-ups against other mid-major teams.
Tulsa @ Oklahoma State (11.20.08)
UNLV @ UTEP (11.24.08)
VCU @ East Carolina (11.25.08)
Miami (FL) vs. Southern Miss (11.21.08) @ Paradise Jam (VI)
Rice @ Texas (11.27.08)
Western Kentucky @ Tulane (12.06.08)
SMU @ Texas A&M (12.17.08)
UAB @ Louisville (12.29.08)
Houston @ Mississippi State (01.03.09)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. As compared to the past few seasons, this is a much deeper and generally more talented group of Conference USA teams. Even the middle of the pack teams like Marshall, UCF and Tulane could put some scares into the top teams. But this conference is still fundamentally Memphis and the proverbial eleven dwarves at the end of the day. The other teams are gradually getting stronger and this could become one of the better “mid-major” conferences in the next few seasons.
I know I’ve made the point ad nauseum, but Memphis has absolutely dominated the Conference USA competition in the past three seasons. The Tigers’ combined record in C-USA play in those three seasons: 45-1. If that’s not domination, frankly I do not know what is.
Since basketball powers Marquette, Cincinnati, Louisville, and DePaul left for the Big East in 2005 there’s only been one season where the C-USA has had multiple NCAA tournament teams. In the 2005-06 season, both Memphis (#1 seed) and UAB (#9 seed) qualified for the tournament. No C-USA team besides Memphis has made it to the Big Dance since.
Incoming UCF freshman big man Jakub Kusmieruk may be the biggest guy in all of college basketball since the 7’7” Kenny George of UNC-Asheville had to retire due to injury. Listed at an astonishing 7’4” and 295 pounds, this native of Poland is worth keeping an eye on. He probably won’t see too many minutes in his first season, but all indications are that the kid has a good work ethic and can become a force in the low post for the Golden Knights.
65 Team Era. It’s amazing how far CUSA has fallen since the great exodus of 2005. Consider that in 2004, the league earned SIX bids to the NCAA Tournament, racking up four first-round wins. Now it’s very fortunate to get a team other than Memphis into the Big Dance (only happening once – UAB in 2006). Thus, the historical stats (48-42, .533) don’t hold much meaning because the league has changed so much from its current iteration.
Final Thought. The quality of basketball in Conference USA has taken a dive since the “basketball” teams all left for the Big East and Atlantic 10. But it would be foolish to presume that no team outside of Memphis is worth talking about. In fact this conference’s best days of basketball are ahead of them. UAB is bringing in a top-rated recruiting class and has a couple of serious NBA prospects on their roster currently. UTEP has Stafon Jackson and he could be the best athlete in all of Conference USA. While they aren’t tournament contenders right now, Marshall brought in an impressive recruiting class that includes Florida’s Mr. Basketball, Shaquille Johnson. Outside of Memphis few C-USA teams have players leave early for the draft, but Jeremy Wise is a great combo guard and could be the best player in Southern Miss history. There are multiple strong OOC games for C-USA teams to prove themselves in. Basically the onus is on the teams outside of Memphis to make a name for themselves and continue to elevate the national opinion when it comes to Conference USA basketball.