James Vickers is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA.
In what has been a crazy year defined by change for Conference USA, this past week in Conference USA basketball was no different. A streak ended, there is a new outright conference leader for the first time in four years, and there is a freshman who doesn’t go to Memphis that is grabbing national headlines. Marshall showed its conference-mates that they are a legitimate contender, even if they did go 0-2 for the week. Was losing a game addition by subtraction for Memphis? The Tigers had a streak end that we all know lasted for four years; however, the way they bounced back in their game against Houston, is the monkey off their back for the year? What is wrong with Tulsa? Is UTEP now the team to beat in conference play? Can the conference show any form or consistency whatsoever?
Many questions can be asked about conference play from the past week. I hope to tackle a number of these in the upcoming team capsules. What we did find out was that the conference race this year will go down to the wire. The parity in conference play will make for a better chance of multiple bids from CUSA.
UAB (5-0, 17-2)
The Blazers are off to the best start in school history since the 1985-86 and 1993-94 campaigns. The Blazers can also be considered this years “Cardiac Kids” and the school should consider giving free EKG’s to their fan base plans to watch their games night after night. Trailing with 5:30 left in the second half against Southern Miss (53-47) and going almost seven minutes without a field goal in the second half against Marshall, the Blazers showed their resiliency and fought through to come out of the week 2-0 and become co-leaders of the conference with Tulsa. Junior Elijah Millsap (younger brother of Utah Jazz F Paul Millsap) continues his solid conference play, registering his league best 10th double-double against Southern Miss but was held in check against a longer and more athletic Marshall. UAB will continue to rely heavily on their guard play from Millsap, using his size and strength to get to the basket with ease in a conference where size at the guard position is at a premium. Aaron Johnson will be the “Big Man on Campus” this week for the Blazers, hitting the game winner against Southern Miss and canning five free throws in the final five minutes of play against Marshall to help seal the win. UAB will continue to need this type of play from their guards Johnson and Millsap if they want to continue to lead CUSA as the play of their low post players has left people desiring more. Howard Crawford continues to have a solid season (12.5/4.8) against Marshall with 19 pts and 8 rebs. The rest of league play will be much easier for the Blazers if they can rely on low post scoring from Crawford and the continued emergence of Johnson since his streaky beginning to the season. While UAB might not be the deepest or most talented team in CUSA, they have been battle-tested in out-of-conference play. The Blazers have a home-and-home remaining with Memphis and UTEP, and home games against Tulsa and Houston. The bulk of their schedule remains, but a regular season conference title is not out of the question.
Tulsa (5-0, 16-3)
The Golden Hurricanes struggled this week against what can only be defined as inferior opponents. Tulsa trailed by as much as 15 in a game where, to be honest, Oral Roberts should not have been on the court with them. But in rivalry games like the Mayor’s Cup, anything can happen. Should Tulsa worry from this game? I think so. Against a smaller, faster team, the Golden Hurricanes were clearly out-hustled in this game. Tulsa, who led the country in rebounding differential at 9.9 RPG, was out-rebounded with Jerome Jordan in foul trouble and on the bench for most of the game. Tulsa trailed in this game for almost 34 minutes. The Golden Hurricanes shot 22% behind the arc and a paltry 61% at the free throw line. Fast-forward to the Rice game, and the numbers aren’t much better. Tulsa’s trouble from behind the arc continued, shooting just 18%, and 68% from the free throw line. Can this be considered just a mid-season slump, or are there underlying issues that coach Doug Wojcik must take care of as the bulk of conference play remains and a date against Duke looming in the near future (Feb. 25.)
Marshall (4-1, 15-4)
In what can be described as a moral victory in the mold of Memphis’ game versus Kansas, Marhsall lost to West Virginia this week, 68-60. This game will be used as a measuring stick for the Marshall coaching staff down the road. Hassan Whiteside continues his assault on college basketball this year, turning in a solid outing against the Mountaineers with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. The Herd used a stifling zone in the first half that held the Mountaineers without a field goal for the first five minutes of the game. The use of this zone will come in handy in CUSA play against the likes of Memphis, UTEP, and Tulsa, who all like to drive to the basket and pound the ball down low. Against UAB, the Herd held the Blazers without a field goal for almost seven minutes in the second half, yet could not make it over the hump to finally take the lead for good. The Herd struggled mightily from behind the arc against UAB’s man defense, shooting just 11%, and only 59% from the free throw line. Youth can be blamed for many of the mid-season struggles that Marshall had this past week. With a Wednesday game this week against Memphis, Herd fans will finally be able to see…is this the year we make it over the hump, or will we have to wait another year?
Memphis (4-1, 14-5)
The streak is over. The world is ending in Memphis, some fans would say. Not the time to get down on your Tigers, Memphis. Memphis’ failure to execute down the stretch cost the Tigers the game against UTEP. Alternating between man defense and a solid zone, UTEP hit some amazing shots down the stretch and the ball just didn’t bounce the Tiger’s way on Wednesday night. Tiger fans should take solace in the play of Pierre Henderson-Niles and Wesley Witherspoon. Showing a renewed toughness, Witherspoon has begun to use his size and versatility to get to the basket for shots and rebounds. Against UTEP, Witherspoon totaled 12/4 and against Houston he tallied 20/6 in what was his best line of the year. Niles has produced solid numbers as well over the past week with 7/9 and 8/7. This developing low post presence for the Tigers bodes well down the line. The breakout half for Roburt Sallie against Houston also is a welcome sign for coach Josh Pastner. While earning just three points in the first half against the Cougars, Sallie finished with 20/7. It was a welcome sight for Tiger fans that their players did not show any signs of a hangover against Houston, and actually showed new signs of life. You never want to lose, but especially not to UTEP where former Memphis coach Tony Barbee currently resides. But after this loss, the Tigers seemed to play a little less tight and enjoyed the game more. The final Memphis box score for the game:
|Pierre Henderson-Niles, F||24||4-7||0-0||0-3||1||7||0||1||1||2||1||8|
|Roburt Sallie, G||36||4-10||3-8||9-12||2||7||4||1||0||0||1||20|
|Wesley Witherspoon, G-F||29||7-11||2-2||4-6||2||6||2||2||2||2||5||20|
|Elliot Williams, G||23||3-3||0-0||4-6||0||0||1||0||0||2||4||10|
|Doneal Mack, G||34||7-11||2-4||1-1||1||2||5||1||2||1||3||17|
|Willie Kemp, G||30||4-5||2-2||1-2||0||0||4||2||0||4||2||11|
|Will Coleman, F||18||1-2||0-0||2-5||2||6||0||0||1||0||4||4|
|D.J. Stephens, G-F||6||0-0||0-0||2-4||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||2|
One could make the simple assumption early in the year that as Elliot Williams went, so did the Tigers. If Williams was on the bench, this would equal bad news. Against the Cougars, Williams was on the bench for approximately 17 minutes. This night, your role players stepped up and contributed. Could this be the game that finally turns the corner for many of these players? Solid contribution from Witherspoon on a game-by-game basis will propel the Tigers to the next level. Contribution on a nightly basis from either Doneal Mack or Roburt Sallie will also push the Tigers to further success. With games on the horizon against Marshall, UAB and Gonzaga, the Tigers will need solid contribution from their entire core to come out on the winning side in this stretch.
UTEP (4-1, 13-5)
Randy Culpepper could be the poster boy for the saying “size doesn’t matter.” Culpepper, it seems, has the green light to take a shot once he crosses onto the Miners’ side of the court. Culpepper (17/3/2) had a solid night in his return home to Memphis along with the two other Memphians on the UTEP bench, ending Memphis’ run on Conference USA. Playing with chips on their shoulders, Jeremy Williams chipped in 18/12, Culpepper tossed in 13/1 and Arnett Moultrie added 6/4 but was solid on the defensive end, keeping the Memphis wing players from driving to the basket. Is there much that can be taken from this game? I believe it further displayed what many have known all year about the Tigers. The trio of Williams, Moultrie and Derrick Caracter exposed Memphis’ lack of depth in the front court, and their energy around the basket on the offensive end of the court tipped the scales in their favor. Down the stretch, being able to alternate subbing between Caracter and Moultrie will spell big success for the Miners in conference play. If they can continue to get solid play from Williams after his breakout game against the Tigers, the Miners will be a top contender for the regular season title. If, however, the Memphis game was an aberration, with players playing over their heads coming home to play in the forum, this could spell trouble. Against a solid UCF team, UTEP took a step in dispelling this train of thought. Once again winning the rebounding battle against the Black Knights, the Miners leaned on their sharp shooter Randy Culpepper who threw in 39. With games against UAB and Houston on the schedule in the upcoming week, we will know more about the consistency of the Miners and where they really stand.
Houston (3-3, 10-9)
Aubrey Coleman will be a rich man this time next year. Having the opportunity to watch him a number of times this year, it is a joy to see him shoot the basketball. Not having much of a supporting cast, Coleman continued his assault on the CUSA record books this week with 30 and 32, respectively, against UCF and Memphis. You know what you are going to get from this super scorer every game. The question for the Cougars is: where is the rest of our offense going to come from? Kelvin Lewis has been streaky at best this year. Most teams that have played the Cougars seem to take the stance that Coleman will get his points and we are not going to let the rest of the team beat us. Lewis tossed in 14/6 against the Black Knights but was a non-factor in the Memphis game. The other factor in Houston not having the year many thought they would is the inconsistent play of their low post players Maurice McNeil, Kahmell Broughton, Kendrick Washington, and Sean Coleman. McNeil has had solid games against UCF and Memphis, putting up 10/9 and 10/11, respectively, but he has received no help from any of the other players consistently throughout the year. If Houston wants to turn the corner for the rest of the year, S. Coleman, Broughton and Washington will need to put up better numbers off the bench to help the backcourt of Lewis and A. Coleman. This lack of production can be directly related to the close loss against the Black Knights and the blowout loss to the Tigers. Another thing that should worry the Cougars — though they usually take good care of the ball, the Tigers forced Houston into a new team high 16 turnovers.
UCF (2-3, 10-9)
“I wanna be like Marcus.” Marcus Jordan keyed the Black Knights’ big upset road victory Wednesday against Houston. Jordan tossed in 23 while A.J. Tyler had a career high 19 as the Black Knights used the same stifling defense they used to swarm Marshall in that close loss at home. UCF held the usually hot-shooting Cougars to 25% from the field. This game could be huge down the road as Houston and UCF could be jockeying for that 6-7 position come conference tournament time. Suffering from what could have been a hangover from the Houston win, UCF ran into a buzz saw on a hot streak called the UTEP Miners. This game further exploited what was said in the conference round up about the Black Knights, their lack of size. Out-rebounded 42-30, and held scoreless for the first five minutes of the second half, UCF cannot afford these lapses in offensive productivity and this lack of effort on the boards. UCF must use the same tactic that Memphis has had to use this year: rebounding by committee. That did not happen in their game against UTEP. UCF has to capitalize against teams at home where they can use the crowd noise from their wonderful fan base. While not out of the race yet, UCF needs to use their speed in the back court to create havoc for teams with larger, slower guards.
SMU (1-3, 8-10)
While not a signature victory on which Matt Doherty can hang his hat, the Mustangs’ win over Rice can be a solid step forward for an SMU program looking for relevance in the league. Showing perseverance down the stretch when Rice had closed the gap to 69-65, SMU used solid free throw shooting to get their first conference win of the year against a team that pushed Tulsa and Memphis throughout their games with them. Getting solid production from Papa Dia and Derek Williams for most of the year, SMU can use this win as a building block and should key on games remaining against UCF, Tulane, Rice and East Carolina to build a conference record that will be respectable come tournament time.
Southern Miss (1-4, 11-8)
Larry Eustachy should be proud of the way his young team is performing in the face of adversity this year. Having already taken UTEP and Memphis to the wire earlier in the season, Southern Miss took it on the road to UAB. Gary Flowers continues to play outstanding basketball in his first year in CUSA. Currently, Flowers is fourth in CUSA in blocks per game (4) and sixth in rebounding per game (8). Flowers (25/10) was the only contributor for the Golden Eagles in that heartbreaking 57-56 loss to the Blazers, though USM used their man defense to hold the Blazers to 27% from behind the arc and only 40% from the field. If Southern Miss continues to play solid defense throughout the year, they will knock a few teams off down the road.
Tulane (1-4, 6-12)
Tulane dropped two games this week when it should have been 1-1. Tulane traveled to Marshall on Wednesday and dropped that game by ten, then came back home and dropped a game to a rebuilding ECU team by 15. Many of the Green Wave’s problems can be attributed to key injuries to starting PG Kevin Sims (12/3/3) and junior swingman Aaron Holmes (7/4/2.) Senior Asim McQueen has tried to pick up some of the slack for the Green Wave with a solid 20/10 effort against the Thundering Herd of Marshall and then faded back to obscurity with a 0/5 effort against ECU. This form of inconsistency has plagued a depleted and undersized Green Wave team all year. With Sims out, there is no real floor leader for the Green Wave or comforting factor for coach Dave Dickerson. Tulane is in for a long stretch down the road with these key injuries.
Players of the Week
Wesley Witherspoon (v. UTEP 12/4/1, v. Houston 20/6/2)
While this might seem like an off-the-wall pick, I am making this pick based on what it means to your respective team. Memphis has been looking all year for a consistent second scorer, and an alternate playmaker behind Elliot Williams. Witherspoon is slowly starting to turn the corner for Josh Pastner in providing that for his team. The question about Witherspoon is whether or not he can bring it every game, and be there mentally for the whole 40 minutes. Since the East Carolina game, “Spoon” has averaged 15 PPG and almost 5 RPG. This total would have possibly been higher if it wasn’t for an injury scare in the Rice game. If Witherspoon can provide that low post versatile wing compliment to Pierre Henderson-Niles on a consistent basis the rest of the year, they sky is the limit for the Tigers.
Aubrey Coleman (v. UCF 30/9/2 v. Memphis 32/4/1)
Of course I wasn’t going to leave off a player that puts up these types of numbers, even if they are in a loss. A 6’4 physical specimen that can create matchup problems at the 2, Aubrey Coleman is wowing many scouts at the next level with his solid shooting stroke and consistently beating most team’s best and second-best defenders at one time. Against UCF, Coleman showed his ability to get to the basket not only to score, but to get rebounds as well. Against a Memphis team that threw top perimeter defenders Roburt Sallie and Elliot Williams at him, Coleman threw in 32 while shooting 8-9 from the free throw line. That is possibly the most telling statistic about Coleman. While he might be shooting a lower percentage from the field, many of these misses are on drives to the basket where he gets fouled. He is shooting 72% from the free throw line, but over the last five it’s closer to 85%. If you have an opportunity to see Mr. Coleman play on TV or in person anytime soon, go watch this baller. He is well worth the admission.
Freshman/Newcommer of the week — Hassan Whiteside (v. West Virginia 18/6/2 blocks, v. 11/13/5 blocks)
This week, Hassan Whiteside was able to show on ESPN why many are beginning to believe he might be a one-and-done diaper dandy. Against Da’Sean Butler and West Virginia’s frontcourt, Whiteside showed an athletic ability to get to the basket and rebound against bigger more experienced defenders. UAB used double teams against Whiteside but he contributed in other areas, like rebounding and altering shots under the basket. While both of these games were losses for his team, without Whiteside, Marshall is not the same team. Teams now have to alter game plans for Whiteside and in my mind that makes you an all-conference caliber of player.
Games of the Week
Tulsa v. UAB on Tuesday, January 26
This game could be a preview of the Conference USA Championship matchup. A few teams could have a say in that statement between now and then, but this game will be a good one. UAB cannot afford to fall behind by double digits in this one and Tulsa is a deep and talented team that can slow the game down if need be, and limit possessions for the Blazers. The key to the game will be whether or not UAB can slow down Jerome Jordan like Oral Roberts and Rice did with smaller big men and double teams. Tulsa leads the league in rebounding, but UAB is not far behind. Both teams take care of the ball, averaging only 13 TOPG a piece. Elijah Millsap will have another opportunity to shine and will not disappoint as Ben Uzoh will have his hands full.
Since this game’s in Birmingham and with the the home crowd behind the Blazers, UAB comes out on top 65-59
Memphis v. Marshall on Wednesday, January 27
Can Memphis contain Hassan Whiteside? If they can, how will they contain Trey Wilkerson? The Memphis frontcourt will be tested again, just like against UTEP. The emergence of Wesley Witherspoon is a positive for the Tigers and Pierre Niles’ play has been a pleasant surprise. The Tigers will need solid play from Will Coleman to match the athleticism of Whiteside when Niles is on the bench. I expect Memphis to play zone for a portion of this game and force the Herd to try and beat them from the outside, if the Memphis bigs get into foul trouble. Memphis has not always had an easy time playing in Huntington so this will be another good game between top teams in CUSA.
Marshall comes out on top in this one, 68-64.
UTEP v UAB on Saturday, January 30
UAB gets another big game at home in terms of conference positioning. UTEP has played well on the road this year in conference so far and I do not expect this to change. The front court of Arnett Moultrie and Derrick Caracter will challenge the Blazers more than Jerome Jordan of Tulsa, because Moultrie and Caracter are much more polished offensively than Jordan. Christian Polk and Randy Culpepper will extend the UAB man defense and I believe it will be too much for UAB. An ESPN analyst made the comment that UAB was the most talented team in CUSA; I tend to disagree. If Caracter can continue to play with his head on straight and play team basketball, UTEP can be a scary prospect.
UTEP wins another one on the road in an up and down affair, 85-79.