Ben Braun: An Uncertain Future at Rice

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 23rd, 2012

When Ben Braun was hired to be the head coach at Rice University in 2008, it looked like a home run hire. For Rice’s standards anyway. Here was a guy who did a great job with Eastern Michigan, taking a five-win team in year one of his tenure to an NCAA Tournament appearance two years later and then a Sweet Sixteen two years after that. He took the California job in 1996 and went on to four more Tournaments in his first six years in the Bay Area. He was Mr. Fix It. But walking into Tudor Fieldhouse last night was like walking into the old Autry Court. It was the same school that hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 1970. It was still the place where Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, not former athletes, get more attention even in an athletic facility. It was still the place where visiting team’s fans outnumbered Owls’ diehards. It had the same feel of a program stuck between neutral and reverse, the worst feeling a program can have.

Ben Braun has had some trouble getting Rice basketball off the ground. (Houston Chronicle)

Ben Braun has had some trouble getting Rice basketball off the ground. (Houston Chronicle)

But then Mr. Fix It was methodically at it again.  The Owls finished last season 19-16 and had a solid core returning to make a run at some kind of postseason action with second team all-CUSA forward Arsalan Kazemi along with Tamir Jackson, Dylan Ennis, Ahmad Ibrahim and Omar Oraby. Everything was going according to plan. Or so it seemed.

Then a May article in the Houston Chronicle announced that Rice assistant Marco Mocros, an integral part of the recruitment of Kazemi and Oraby, would not return to the staff and unfortunately set off a dangerous domino effect. Ibrahim was the first who decided to leave the program to play basketball overseas. Ennis transferred to Villanova, Oraby left for Southern Cal and Kazemi alighted to Oregon. CBSSports.com then reported that the transfers of Kazemi and Oraby were both due to racial discrimination by Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan. The AD and Braun vehemently denied those dangerous accusations (which can put a black eye on the program for years) but as far as this season was concerned, they were already cooked. All the hard work Braun had put in for four years at Rice was gone in a matter of  months.

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Checking In On… Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 13th, 2012

Steve Coulter is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA. You can also find his musings online at http://www.duclarion.com/sports or on Twitter @broncos2thebowl.

Reader’s Take:

 

The Week That Was

  • UCF Hits Speed Bump With Transfers: Usually at this point in the season it’s all about lacing up the sneakers and getting to business. However, the challenges striking the Central Florida men’s basketball program persist. Transfer guard Jeffrey Jordan, Michael’s oldest son, left the Knights over the weekend citing “personal reasons” and Central Florida Future announced Thursday that senior forward Dwight McCombs will be following suit after he was handed a season-ending suspension on Wednesday. The losses may not seem like that big of a deal with Jordan sitting on the bench and McCombs only averaging 2.4 points and 2.5 rebounds a night; however, the decisions of both players to leave the school only adds additional trouble to a program that has been marred with the departure of its athletic director this season.
  • Memphis Continues Success Against Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles took the nation’s seventh-longest winning streak into FedEx Forum on Wednesday night (11 games), but exited with their third loss of the season and their 18th consecutive loss to the Memphis Tigers. On the other sideline, the Tigers enjoyed their 135th home victory since the 2004-2005 season. Memphis is the winningest home team in the nation at 135-16 since that year. The Tigers were able to hold to a close victory behind a pair of Chris Crawford free throws with 31.7 seconds remaining.
  • Dennis Tinnon Has A Career Night: Marshall barely escaped with a victory last night, defeating UAB 60-58 and setting up a marquee conference matchup with UCF on Saturday night.  Junior forward Dennis Tinnon led the Thundering Herd, grabbing a career-high 19 rebounds. Another unheralded junior, forward Robert Goff, sealed the victory for Marshall with a gigantic three-point play with under a minute to play. DeAndre Kane also enjoyed a successful evening, scoring 21 points and recording 10 rebounds. UAB senior Cameron Moore put the Blazers up late, but failed to convert on what would have been a game-tying basket in the final seconds.
  • Kazemi Keeps Rolling: Rice’s Arsalan Kazemi continued his case for conference player of the year last night in a 68-52 rout against Southern Methodist. The junior forward recorded his 40th career double-double, the 13th of the season, which ranks him as the nation’s best. The Iran native finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Freshman Ahmad Ibrahim made a solid first career start for the Owls, recording 14 points.

Head Coach Donnie Jones (left) Hit A Bump In The Road When Dwight McCombs And Jeffrey Jordan Decided To Leave The Knights.

Power Rankings

  1. Memphis (11-5, 2-0): They may not have the conference’s best overall record, but the Tigers are the deepest team in conference and they have the most offensive firepower. Wednesday’s win over Southern Miss proved that the Tigers can win defensive bouts too. Memphis has won six of its last seven after falling from the national rankings. Will Barton continues to put forth a First-Team All-Conference effort, averaging 18.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per night.
  2. Southern Miss (15-3, 2-1): The Golden Eagles were unquestionably the best team in conference until last night, which should be a great learning lesson for a relatively young team. Southern Miss can rebound the ball almost better than anyone in conference, averaging 38.1 boards a night as a team, which is third only to UCF and Marshall in C-USA. Senior guard Darnell Dodson has elevated his play.
  3. UCF (13-3, 3-0): With guard A.J. Rompza back in the lineup, the Knights have been unbeatable, winning both at home (carrying a 16-game home win streak) and on the road. Forward Keith Clanton and guard Marcus Jordan continue to be the conference’s best duo for coach Donnie Jones in what has been an up-and-down season for the Knights.
  4. Marshall (12-4, 3-0): If Marshall—the same team that has wins over Cincinnati and Iona—is the fourth best team in conference, then C-USA could be presenting a reasonable case for four teams come March. The Thundering Herd have revived from a two-game losing streak by winning their first three conference games. DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts have found a force in the low post in junior forward Dennis Tinnon. Marshall is fourth in the country in rebounds with over 42 a night.
  5. Rice (10-7, 1-1): Arsalan Kazemi continues to be the story here. The junior forward is averaging 14.4 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, leading the nation in double-doubles with 13 this season. Fellow junior Tamir Jackson has been a pivotal player, running the team’s offense and averaging 12.9 points per game. The Owls don’t seem to be in the upper echelon of the conference, but with Kazemi they will contend throughout the season.
  6. Tulane (12-4, 0-2): After a 9-0 start, the Green Wave has stumbled; however, there isn’t a team in the conference that has played a tougher schedule in recent weeks. Since their December 22 loss to top-ranked Syracuse, the Green Wave has played two of the conference’s best teams in UCF and Southern Miss.
  7. Houston (9-7, 1-2): The Cougars have followed a five-game win streak with back-to-back conference loses at UTEP and UCF. With the losses, Houston has fallen to the middle of the conference rankings, but have a huge opportunity this weekend when they play host to the Memphis Tigers. If the Cougars can continue shooting the way they have this past month, then they can contend with anybody. Currently, Houston ranks 25th in the country in shooting percentage, knocking down 48.3% of their shots from the field.
  8. SMU (9-7, 1-1): Senior forward Robert Nyakundi continues to lead the Mustangs, averaging 15.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. The Arlington native hasn’t had to do it alone, though, with the addition of Texas transfer Shawn Williams. The sophomore swingman has been an immediate contributor in Dallas since joining the team on the court eight games ago. Williams isn’t the only transfer making a difference. Junior guard London Giles, a Nevada transfer, has been a crucial performer at SMU all season, averaging 11.5 points per game.
  9. Tulsa (8-9, 1-2): Another team on the outside looking in, the Golden Hurricane have struggled consistently this season in close games, losing three times in overtime and four times by three points or less. Jordan Clarkson will end up on an All-Conference team, but he hasn’t much help thus far.
  10. UTEP (8-9, 1-2): Tim Floyd’s squad enjoyed a bit of a revival before the holidays, but has floundered since, failing to win consecutive games since December 22. The Miners enjoyed a nice home victory over Houston, but haven’t been able to win a true road game all season. Although they haven’t found a replacement for Randy Culpepper, the Miners are extremely deep with a bench of 11 players.
  11. East Carolina (9-6, 0-2): The backcourt has been stout this season for the Pirates. Junior Miguel Paul has emerged as one of the best point guards in the conference, scoring 16.2 points and dishing out 5.7 assists per night. Senior forward Darius Morrow has also been a force for ECU, averaging 13.6 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. In addition, the big man is shooting 54 percent from the field for a streaky Pirate club that won five straight heading into conference play, but have gone 0-2 early on.
  12. UAB (5-10, 0-2): The Blazers have continued a porous non-conference run with a rough conference start, dropping contests at home to Memphis and Marshall. UAB’s offense is still the worst in conference, averaging less than 60 points per game. Even worse, preseason conference player of the year Cameron Moore has been spectacular, but hasn’t been able to abate the Blazers’ woes. With their next four games scheduled against Southern Miss, Rice, UCF and Marshall, the losing skid could very well continue.

Looking Ahead

  • UCF at Marshall, January 14 at 7 p.m. ET: While the Southern Miss-Memphis showdown lived up to the hype, C-USA fans will be watching this one with a close eye as first place in the conference is on the line. It will be extremely interesting to watch the backcourt duo of A.J. Rompza and Marcus Jordan duel against DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts. Marshall boasts a three-game winning streak; however, it is UCF that is undoubtedly the hottest team in the conference. The Knights have won nine of their last 10.
  • Rice at Tulane, January 14 at 8 p.m. ET: Two of the conference’s best individual talents will square off on Saturday when Arsalan Kazemi leads the Owls into New Orleans against Kendall Timmons and the Green Wave. Tulane is coming off a full week’s rest and is arguably the most rested team in conference, which should play into their favor against a Rice team that has played five games since the holiday break.
  • Memphis at Houston, January 14 at 9 p.m. ET: The Tigers are riding an emotional high into Saturday’s contest at the Hofheinz Pavillion, which gives the Cougars the perfect opportunity to pull the upset. Houston is probably the best team in conference to matchup against Memphis’ high-powered offense. Currently, the Cougars are 39th in the nation in points per game with 76.6 a night. Houston has developed a quartet of double-digit scorers in addition to three other players that average more than six points a night. The Cougars are surprisingly deep and shouldn’t be overlooked.
  • SMU at UTEP, January 14 at 9 p.m. ET: Neither of these clubs is able to rebound well, lacking frontcourt talent and depth. The Mustangs rank 326th in the nation in rebounding with an average of 30.4 boards a game, while the Miners are even worse at 335th with 29.6 rebounds a night. However, UTEP has been able to improve its field goal percentage in recent weeks, shooting 47.4% from the field. Last time they played in the Don Haskins Center, the Miners shot 61.2% in a 70-50 thumping over Houston on January 7.
  • Marshall at West Virginia, January 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN3): This game serves as the conclusion for Marshall’s non-conference schedule and provides head coach Tom Herrion’s club with another opportunity to showcase their talent on national TV. Of course, this is an in-state rivalry so the emotions will be as high as any game this season. So far, Marshall is 1-1 against Big East competition. Another win against the nation’s deepest conference, in addition to their victory over Iona, could serve them come March if they fall short in the conference tournament.
  • Memphis at UCF, January 18 at 8 p.m.: It’s not too early to look towards next week’s conference schedule with Memphis traveling to take on Central Florida in a matchup that could be for first place in the conference. Another marquee game to look ahead at is Marshall at Southern Miss, which won’t be played until January 21 and will be aired on national television. These are the four top teams in conference and for the second straight week in a row, there will be a pair of pivotal conference matchups that feature all four.

Spotlight On…Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan

UCF has greatly benefited from the addition of A.J. Rompza and from the development of sophomore guard Isaiah Sykes. However, it has been the tandem of Clanton and Jordan that has fueled the Knights this season with consistent performance. Clanton is arguably the best post player in the conference, averaging 15.4 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. His latest performance against Houston, a 18 point and 13 rebound outing that included 5 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals, showed that he will be able to dominate teams with inferior big men, which the conference is chock full of. To further understand Clanton’s importance, one only needs to evaluate the Knights as a team. They are ranked 200th or lower in every major statistical category other than rebounding, where they rank 38th in the country with an average of 38.9 boards a night. In addition to Clanton, Marcus Jordan has been playing top-notch ball for head coach Donnie Jones. In addition to be the team’s leading scorer, Jordan has been the epitome of consistency, scoring in double-digits in all fourteen games he has played in so far this season. In a season filled with tons of upheaval for the UCF athletic department, the Knights basketball program has weathered the storm, winning nine of its last ten. They couldn’t have done it without the stellar play of both Clanton and Jordan.

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Checking In On… Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 26th, 2011

Steve Coulter—is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA. You can also find his musings online at http://www.duclarion.com/sports or on Twitter @broncos2thebowl.

Reader’s Take:

 

The Week That Was

  • Rice Upsets Texas A&M; Kazemi Records 36th Career Double-Double: The conference had arguably its best night of the season on Thursday, posting a 6-2 overall record, which was highlighted by Rice’s 65-58 upset victory over Texas A&M at College Station. Junior forward Arsalan Kazemi led Rice with 10 points and 13 rebounds, recording his ninth double-double of the season and 36th of his career, as the Owls snapped the Aggies’ 80-game regular season, non-conference home win streak. Kazemi is now six double-doubles shy of the conference record. The junior carried the scoring load in his sophomore season, but has found help this season from fellow junior Tamir Jackson and senior Lucas Kuipers.
  • Tulane Drops Second Game, Falling to Syracuse: The conference’s only losses Thursday night came against ranked competition. Tulane took on #1 Syracuse, losing 80-61 in a lopsided contest. However, the team’s trio of top scorers Kendall Timmons, Jordan Callahan and Ricky Tarrant were not shut out, combining for 41 points. Timmons was the top performer, scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
  • Memphis’ Continues To Tumble: The high-powered Memphis Tiger offense was contained and exposed on Thursday night when it faced the #16 Georgetown Hoyas, falling 70-59. Despite averaging 80 points a contest, Memphis was held in check throughout the game, which has become a trend when the Tigers take on tougher competition. Sophomore guard Will Barton continued his fantastic play, contributing a double-double in the losing effort. Barton finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but fellow sophomore Chris Crawford led the team with 17 points. Barton currently leads the conference in scoring with an average of 19.9 points per game, which is more than two points higher than UCF’s Marcus Jordan, who is second in scoring.
  • UTEP Builds Mo’ In Hawaii: In the first game of the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, UTEP had a chance to make a statement and did, dominating Clemson. The Miners walked away with a 61-48 victory, following a 23-8 run during the game’s final 13 minutes. The Tigers recorded a lone field goal during that span. With the win, UTEP improves to .500 for the first time this season. Though they fell to the streaking Wildcats in the semifinal game, UTEP bounced back in the consolation round, holding off Auburn 83-76. The Miners are streaking at the right time, winners of four of their last five. Sophomore guard Michael Perez is finally filling the void left by Randy Culpepper, as he averaged over 17 points per game in the Diamond Head Classic.

Marcus Jordan Is Second In Conference USA In Scoring And The Knights Boast Two Of The League's Top Five Point-Scorers (Credit: Chris Schubert).

Power Rankings

  1. Tulane (11-2): The Green Wave suffered its second loss of the season on Thursday night, but they take a lot of experience away from facing the top-ranked team in the country. Tulane is the best defensive team in conference, allowing only 55.1 points a night. In comparison, the league’s worst defensive team, Memphis, allows 74.3 points per night. Kendall Timmons has found a long-term running partner in freshman Ricky Tarrant, who has blossomed into a star in the early part of this season.
  2. Southern Miss (10-2): It’s hard to pick nits on a team that has won six in a row. Southern Miss has emerged as one of the best teams in conference because they play complete team basketball. Lacking a consistent top performer, the Golden Eagles have relied on several players to make plays.  A lot of credit goes to the Golden Eagles seniors such as Darnell Dodson and Maurice Bolden, who each recorded a double-double in Thursday night’s win over South Florida. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking In On… Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 14th, 2011

Steve Coulter is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA. You can also find his musings online at http://www.duclarion.com/sports or on Twitter @broncos2thebowl.

Reader’s Take:

 

The Week That Was

  • Memphis Drops From Top 25: Memphis is unranked following the program’s 76-72 loss to Murray State last week. The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for Memphis and catapulted the Racers into the Top 25. The Tigers received 13 votes in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 Coaches poll along with 27 votes in the Associated Press poll, neither number being high enough to keep Memphis in the rankings with a mediocre 5-3 start. The Tigers have a chance at redemption this Saturday when they travel to No. 4 Louisville for a pivotal non-conference game. Following that contest, they travel to No. 17 Georgetown on December 22, where they will look to avenge an early season overtime loss to the Hoyas.

Once Again, Memphis Has No Shortage Of Mental Miscues To Iron Out

  • Tulane Gains Votes, Syracuse Looms: Before losing its first contest of the season last week, the Tulane Green Wave were marching to the beat of an undefeated drum. And the national media took notice. In the December 5 USA Today Top 25 Coaches Poll, the Green Wave received some votes following a 9-0 start. Although the team didn’t receive any votes in Monday’s poll, they have a chance to prove themselves against top-ranked Syracuse on Dec. 22.
  • Washburn Gets Dap: UTEP freshman swingman Julian Washburn claimed his first C-USA Freshman of the Week Award on Monday, following a career-best performance in the Miners’ 73-69 win over non-conference rival New Mexico State. In the contest, Washburn recorded a career-high 16 points, three rebounds, four assists and a block. The win snapped a three game losing skid for the Miners and avenged an early season road loss to the Aggies on Nov. 19. Next up for UTEP is UNLV tonight at 10 PM ET. The Runnin’ Rebels are off to a 9-2 start, including a win over then-top ranked UNC. The Miners are statistically one of the worst offenses in the NCAA, ranking #320 overall. UNLV has had no problems offensively so far this season, averaging over 80 points a game, which is good for 24th in the nation.
  • Tarrant Gathers Accolades: Tulane freshman guard Ricky Tarrant chose a good time to deliver the best performance of his young career, gashing the Georgia Tech defense for 24 points, 20 of which were scored before halftime, en route to a 57-52 upset victory. Tarrant’s performance, which included a seven rebound effort, was good enough for him to take home both Conference USA Player and Freshman of the Week honors on December 5. It was Tarrant’s second consecutive Freshman of the Week honor, winning his first honor just a week earlier. The sweep marks the first time a freshman took home both weekly awards since 2008. In addition to the win over Georgia Tech, Tarrant helped the surging Green Wave past Southern earlier in the week.

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Checking in on… Conference USA

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 14th, 2011

Stephen Coulter is the RTC correspondent for Conference USA.

A Look Back

  • Memphis Earns Big Conference Win, Knocks Off Southern Miss.: Although the Tigers have won their last three games by a total margin of 11 points, Memphis has been good enough of late to position itself only a half-game back of the conference lead. The team’s win over Southern Mississippi on Saturday may have been their biggest, knocking the Golden Eagles a game back in the conference standings. Tarik Black, who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, led the Tigers. Will Barton added 16 points, extending Memphis’ streak to 16 straight wins over Southern Miss.
  • Sanders and Johnson carry UAB to Victory Over Rice: Jamarr Sanders scored 37 points in a career night, while fellow teammate Aaron Johnson also enjoyed a career night as he became UAB’s all-time leader in assists. The Blazers overcame a four-point halftime deficit, dropping the Owls 74-68 following a 16-5 second-half run that gave the Blazers a lead with under eight minutes remaining. Johnson had nine assists, four of which came in the run.
  • Houston Survives At Home, Drops Tulane to Basement: Tulane’s descent in the conference standings continued last weekend as the Green Wave lost 79-68 on the road to Houston. The Cougars cruised the entire game, leading by as many as 17 points in the second half. Maurice McNeil played a big part in the win, finishing with a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
  • UTEP Stays Atop Conference Despite Dia’s Double-Double: Papa Dia scored 18 points and grabbed ten rebounds in a 67-57 loss to UTEP last weekend as the Miners stayed atop of the Conference USA standings. Christian Polk and Randy Culpepper led the way, finishing with 18 points and 14 points, respectively. SMU got within four late in the game, but the Miners limited the Mustangs to only three shots the rest of the way, and held them scoreless.
  • UCF Snaps Losing Streak, Nips Tulsa at Home. The Knights snapped their eight-game losing streak as the beat Tulsa 58-57 last weekend. Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan scored 16 and 15 points, respectively, as UCF escaped the conference cellar for the first time in a few weeks. Justin Hurtt led all scorers, dropping 23 points and grabbing five rebounds.
  • Pitts Leads Thundering Herd in Crucial Road Win. With the threat of being 3-7 in conference looming, Marshall earned a huge win on the road, dropping East Carolina, 78-65. The Thundering Herd went up 13 points in the first half and held on to win by that margin. Damier Pitts scored a career-high 28 points in the win, leading the Herd with seven late points to ward off the Pirates.

Power rankings

  1. UTEP (19-5, 7-2) – The top of the conference will see some hearty action in the middle of this week as UTEP takes on the fourth place So. Miss, while No. 2 and No. 3 will square off the very same night. Randy Culpepper continues to be a team leader, while Christian Polk, Jeremy Williams and Julyan Stone continue to be key role players. Everything is going nicely for Tim Floyd’s club.
  2. Memphis (19-6, 7-3) – Josh Pastner has his club playing for its 20th win of the season this week. However, the Tigers are still a half-game back of UAB in the conference standings, but get a chance to correct that when the two teams face off this week. The 42nd-ranked scoring offense has been stabilized in recent weeks, the Tigers haven’t scored more than 70 in their last five contests.
  3. UAB (18-6, 8-3) – The Blazers have won five of their last six and have a big matchup looming against Memphis this Wednesday. The team has three alpha dogs in Jamarr Sanders, Cameron Moore and Aaron Johnson, but it also has two trustworthy supporters in Ovie Soko and Dexter Fields. Moore and Soko have combined to average a little under 16 rebounds. Johnson has been a force in the backcourt, averaging 7.5 assists.
  4. Southern Miss. (18-6, 7-4) – The loss to Memphis hurts a little bit, but the Golden Eagles can erase that if they can top UTEP on Wednesday. So. Miss continues to battle for the top conference spot, a position that undoubtedly would help their at-large chances come March. The 19th-ranked rebounding team in the country will need to continue to thrive under the basket.
  5. SMU (15-9, 6-4) – The Mustangs got beat by the best team in conference, but Papa Dia and Robert Nyakundi are still enjoying great seasons as they have SMU solidified in the fourth spot in the conference rankings. Upcoming games against Houston, Tulsa and Rice are all must wins.
  6. Marshall (16-9, 4-6) – DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts have kept the Thundering Herd alive as the team prepares for its final stretch of the regular season. If these two guards can continue to flourish, then this team has a chance to contend.
  7. Tulsa (13-11, 6-4) – Justin Hurtt carried the team in its worst loss of the season last weekend as the Golden Hurricane fell to lowly UCF. Tulsa needs to redirect itself at this point.
  8. East Carolina (13-11, 5-5) – Inconsistent play has bogged down the Pirates as they yet to compile a two game winning streak since January 22. However, ECU has avoided multiple losses in a row. The schedule gets tough this week and doesn’t ease up as UTEP and Memphis still loom following bots against Tulsa and Southern Miss.
  9. Houston (12-11, 4-6) – The Cougars lost five games in a row until beating Tulane last weekend. Senior Maurice McNeil is trying to rally the troops again as he leads Houston with 13 points and eight rebounds a night.
  10. Rice (11-13, 3-7) – Following a two-game win streak in January, the Owls have lost three of their last four, including back-to-back losses against conference powerhouses UTEP and UAB. Sophomore Arsalan Kazemi continues to be the talk of the team, averaging 15.9 points and 11.6 rebounds a night. Fellow sophomore Tamir Jackson is having a notable season as well, averaging 13 points a game, while adding 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game.
  11. UCF (15-8, 2-8) – With six games remaining, the Knights have a chance at going 8-8 in conference, however the reality is that the Knights have put themselves in too much of a hole to overcome at this pint. Games against UAB, UTEP and So. Miss. will determine this teams fate.
  12. Tulane (12-12, 2-9) – The Green Wave haven’t won since January 8, and a string of nine losses as them as the undisputed bottom team in conference. A strong season from sophomore Kendall Timmons has gone to waste.

A Look Ahead

  • Conference Game of the Week: No doubt about it, the game of the week takes place on Wednesday night when the Miners travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., to take on the Golden Eagles. Both teams boast talented lineups spearheaded by preseason First-Team Conference USA players. Senior Randy Culpepper leads UTEP, while senior forward Gary Flowers has made a pretty good case for Conference Player of the Year this season for Southern Miss.
  • Marshall Hosts Rice In Must-Win Game: It hasn’t been defined as a “must-win” game yet, however this mid-week contest between Marshall and Rice is just that for each team. With the Owls rising from the cellar of the conference and the Thundering Herd trying to stay alive in the standings, both teams need this win. DeAndre Kane versus Arsalan Kazemi is the main story line, as these to lower classmen will showcase their skills.
  • UAB and Memphis Square Off In Key February Showdown: The top of the conference standings is congested with several teams within a game of the top spot. Memphis and UAB duel on Wednesday in a game that features two of the conference’s top teams. Last time the Tigers and Blazers squared off, UAB fell three points short. This time around, there is a lot more on the line in terms of position for the conference’s postseason tournament.
  • SMU Finds Itself In Heart Of Conference, Road Game In Houston Looms: The Mustangs have put themselves in a good position with three weeks remaining in the regular season. However, this team needs to rebound from last week’s loss when they travel to in-state rival Houston on Wednesday night.
  • Pirates Look to Survive Golden Hurricane in Battle Between Revamped Squads: East Carolina and Tulsa have fought this season to stay alive in the conference standings, following slow starts out of conference and early in January. Guard play will be key in this one as Brock Young, one of the conference’s best passers, squares off against Justin Hurtt, arguably the best scoring guard in the conference.
  • Bottom Two Clubs Face Off in New Orleans as UCF Travels to Tulane: It hasn’t been the season that Tulane and UCF thought it was going to be when they entered the conference season with 10 or more wins from non-conference play. Despite the strong early starts, both teams have faltered to pathetic conference records, struggling equally the same the past four weeks. The Knights have lost all their conference road games this season, and bring with them a nine-game losing streak.

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Checking in on… Conference USA

Posted by rtmsf on January 19th, 2010

Change

Bob Dylan wrote a famous song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” One could make a valid argument that this could be the theme song for the Conference USA Men’s 2009-10 basketball season. For the first time since conference realignment and the 2005-06 season, a new preseason champion was selected (Tulsa), the conference tournament will not be held in Memphis (again, Tulsa) and the de facto commissioner of the league is no longer with us (John Calipari).

How will this “change” translate for the rest of the league? In speaking with many of the coaches around the league by the national media, most coaches are drooling at the chance of being the first to knock off Memphis and their amazing conference winning streak (currently the streak stands at 64 games lasting since March 2, 2006). While Memphis might not be the runaway favorite that so many have become accustomed too, this should translate into a positive for the league giving the conference regular and postseason a competitive edge it hasn’t seen in over five years. Nipping at the heels of Memphis this year will be the usual suspects of UTEP, Houston and Tulsa. The surprise of the year so far has been the excellent play of Marshall. Young, long, and talented, this will be one of the most exciting Marshall teams to date and one of the most competitive. CUSA shouldn’t sleep on this year’s sleeper team.

In the wake of John Calipari’s voluntary departure (or declaration of war as most Memphis fans have described) from Memphis, many coaches throughout the league are finding themselves on the proverbial hot seat. Fan bases are seeing this as the year certain coaches need to produce before Memphis has a chance to recuperate from its losses (Memphis brings in the #1 ranked recruiting class for the 2010-11 season) and return to league dominance. We start with Houston. Coach Tom Penders brings back one of the elite scorers in the league named Aubrey Coleman and a team that always seems to give Memphis a run each time they play. However, his lack of production in the postseason has put the coach in a sticky situation. Coach Mike Davis at UAB also finds himself looking over his shoulder more and more year after year. After initially getting a commitment from one of the top big men in the country last year in DeMarcus Cousins, it seemed that Coach Davis was finally going to turn the corner on recruiting in the state of Alabama. Unfortunately, Mr. Cousins is wearing blue not green this year, and to make matters worse, another seemingly solid pick up for Davis left the state for bluer pastures as well in Eric Bledsoe. Pair these mishaps with a disappointing season last year and Davis needs to produce this season with a team capable of pulling off some upsets. Lastly, Matt Doherty at SMU seems to already have a foot out of the door. This has been one of the biggest mysteries in my mind. With immaculate facilities, one of the largest cities in the US to recruit, and a fan base with deep pockets looking for a winner, Doherty has continually underachieved. A record of 33-58 over three years for Doherty looms ominous over a coach without a signature win.

What should be an entertaining year for the league has only gotten better with the improved play of Marshall and UAB. Both of these teams have some signature wins already under their belt this year along with currently being undefeated in league play. Tulsa and Memphis also find themselves undefeated but with a few losses that will not help the resume come NCAA tourney time. Let’s take a look at each team and see how their season is going.

Team Reviews

Marshall (4-0, 15-2) - HASSAN WHITESIDE HASSAN WHITESIDE HASSAN WHITESIDE… Remember that name folks. What is possibly the feel-good story of the year depending on if you are playing Marshall or not, Marshall has consistently improved year after year under coach Donnie Jones. With the addition of possible CUSA newcomer of the year Hassan Whiteside, Marshall boasts on of the best frontcourts in the league with he (13/9) and Tyler Wilkerson (13/7). Marshall trails only Tulsa in team rebounding at 40.1 per game. The post presence for Marshall will be the key all year.The early development has been the storyline of the year for the Thundering Herd. Throw in Tirrell Baines and Dago Pena and you have quality depth in your frontcourt along with guards Chris Lutz, Shaquille Johnson and Damier Pitts and Marshall could be poised to make a run not only at the regular season title but the conference title as well. Key out of conference wins for the Herd includes a win against an Old Dominion team who can boast a defeat of Georgetown. So long as this team can stay healthy and continues to play the uptempo style of ball that fits their personnel, the sky is the limit for the Thundering Herd in CUSA this year.

Tulsa (4-0, 14-3) – Even with the loss of shut down defender Ray Reese, Tulsa seems poised to snap Memphis’ streak of conference wins and tourney titles. Doug Wojcik returns a team with a lot of firepower both in the frontcourt and backcourt with many upperclassmen. Scouts are salivating over 7’0 PF/C Jerome Jordan. Jordan (14/8) continues to grow as a player with a developing back to the basket game and toughness on the defensive end of the court, and he is the star of this team. Bishop Wheatley, while undersized for a power forward, consistently outworks and outhustles bigger opposing players with his nonstop motor. Not a go to scorer or rebounding machine under the basket, Wheatley is the “glue” guy of this team giving minutes and hustle plays that don’t show up on a stat sheet.  In the backcourt, Tulsa relies on Ben Uzoh. A tweener in the mold of Elliot Williams for Memphis, Uzoh (17/5/4) is not a true PG but can get the job done and is a terrific on the ball defender. Justin Hurtt (16/4) is also a reliable threat with the ball in his hands. Tulsa can boast they have possibly the best backcourt in CUSA along with Memphis.  With wins against Oklahoma State and Nebraska out of conference and a big conference win at Houston, Tulsa has solidified themselves as the team to beat so far in CUSA. The season and conference tourney position could come down to the final game March 6 at Memphis. Tulsa travels to Duke on February 25 in what will obviously be used as a measuring stick for not only Jerome Jordan’s development as a play but Tulsa’s chances in the NCAA tournament. 

UAB (3-0, 15-2)Mike Davis has the Blazers on a roll. With the only truly bad loss on the schedule coming against a mediocre Kent State team early in the season, there is legitimate talk about UAB being the other sleeper in CUSA. With wins against solid SEC opponents Georgia and Arkansas and a solid Big East team in Cincinnati and mid-major power Butler, UAB has also quietly built a nice resume for the NCAA tourney. Consistency will be the key with this young team.  Transfer Elijah Millsap is as versatile of a player you will find in CUSA. At 6’6 and 218 lbs, Millsap (17/10) has the ability to break down a defender and get to the basket with his size and strength. Posting solid minutes against Cincinnati and super frosh Lance Stephenson, Millsap put up a solid line of 22 points and 15 rebounds in a win. Howard Crawford, starting at forward for the Blazers, has a developing inside-out game but is more comfortable around the basket where he can use his 240 pound frame to impose his will on opposing defenders.  With a bulk of their tough conference games still remaining, home/home with UTEP and Memphis, and home versus Houston, Tulsa and Marshall, it will remain to be seen how UAB will hold up against opponents that are familiar with their game plan. UAB will be a top four team come conference tournament time. 

Memphis (3-0, 13-4) – The streak continues. Some things have changed for the University of Memphis, this has not. Over 1100 days have passed since their last defeat in conference play. Will this be the year that streak comes to an end? All signs point to yes; however, don’t tell this team that or their new coach Josh Pastner.  Contending for Player of the Year honors with Aubrey Coleman and Newcommer of the Year honors with Hassan Whiteside, Elliot Williams (20/4/4) has been a true gift to Memphis in the wake of the turmoil that ensued in March. The key to the season for the Tigers will be who can step up as another reliable scorer for Memphis when teams key on him. Roburt Sallie (10/4) and Doneal Mack (10/2) have been inconsistent at best this year for the Tigers and no real inside presence has been established. Wesley Witherspoon (11/4) is a utility player able to play the 2, 3, 4 or 5 position for Memphis but is most comfortable on the wing. Will Coleman (7/6), the number two ranked JUCO player for 2008-09, has yet to produce consistently and adapt to the D1level. A prime example of Memphis’ erratic play can be seen in their one bad loss this year at UMass. Constantly outrebounded by smaller and less skilled players due to lack of hustle and poor positioning was the Achilles heel for Memphis in the UMass game. Usually one of the top rebounding teams in conference, it is rebounding by committee this year for the Tigers due to their lack of frontcourt depth. Will the streak continue? Watch ESPN on January 20 and 23 to find out.

Houston (3-1,10-7) – The roller coaster ride continues for a Houston squad that came into the season with high expectations. Losing starters Marcus Cousins (10/8) and Qa’rraan Calhoun (10/5) in the frontcourt obviously has hurt the Cougars. JUCO transfer Maurice McNeil (8/8) has helped weather the storm in the loss of Cousins and Calhoun but he is not getting much help from his cast of supporters: Sean Coleman, Nick Mosley and Kahmell Broughton. While the frontcourt is struggling for the Cougars, the back court tandem of Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis is thriving. Coleman (25/7/3 apg) and Lewis (17/4) could be considered the top backcourt in the league. Coleman continues to be Mr. Reliable with the basketball getting to the rim with ease due to his size and speed and Lewis could be described as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Houston leads the league in scoring at 83 points per game. Get ready for a track meet when UH comes to play. The lone “signature” win of the season for the Cougars comes against a struggling Oklahoma team dealing with frontcourt losses of their own in the Griffin brothers. Losses to Nevada, San Diego, Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio will leave Houston fighting in conference play and the conference tournament for a shot at the NCAA. The seat is getting a little hotter for Coach Penders down in Houston.

UTEP (2-1, 11-5) – Head coach Tony Barbee got a wonderful Christmas present this year named Derrick Caracter. The biggest question about Caracter will be his character. Can Barbee control this super-talented kid? Will he be able to ever produce like he did in high school and was recruited to do the same at Louisville? Can UTEP replace the scoring production vacated by Stefon Jackson? Many questions surround Tony Barbee down in El Paso.  The knock on Caracter about his attitude and overall approach to the game seems to have subsided somewhat now that he is playing under control. Averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds a game, it seems as he is showing a renewed commitment to the game and to his coach who, like his mentor John Calipari, is giving his star pupil a second chance. Randy Culpepper is not disappointing on the offensive end, averaging 16 points and 2.5 assists a game. The knock on Culpepper is his size. Listed at 6’0, Culpepper is more 5’9 to 5’10. However, you can’t teach will power, hustle or the way he can put the ball in the basket. After securing the starting job opposite Culpepper, Christian Polk as turned into a viable offensive threat averaging 11 points and 2 assists per game. After a big summer with USA basketball, Arnett Moultrie has gone from an under the radar forward — the kid with big potential — to averaging a solid 12 points and 7 rebounds a game. His production has slipped some since the arrival of Caracter, but he still continues to be a force in and around the basket that could earn him a big paycheck one day.  With a tough loss on the road to Houston, people have begun to question UTEP. I, on the other hand, feel this is as dangerous of a team as Marshall, Tulsa or UAB. The problem I see is effort for the whole game. With a frontcourt of Moultrie and Caracter, there is no reason UTEP should not be in the top five of the league in rebounding. This will be a scary team come conference tournament time and a tough out.

UCF (1-2, 9-8) – UCF will be a scary team this year in the conference as their overall record does not depict properly the type of team they have shown to be this year. Wins over UMass and Auburn and close defeats at the hands of USF and UConn, the Knights have a solid yet very young and inexperienced team. Consistency will play a key role with this team all year long.  Going up against Marshall earlier last week, UCF showed poise down the stretch running with a team that honestly was just better than they were. Guards Isaac Sosa and A.J. Rompza are good with the ball in their hands and excellent defenders even if they are undersized. Scoring distribution for this team is even as six players on the team average between 10 and 6 points per game.  While this is still a developing year for UCF, a #5 or #6 seed in conference play is not out of reach. Look for UCF to surprise some people at home this year.

Tulane (1-3, 6-11) – Tulane coach Dave Dickerson has amassed a record of 60-62 in his four-year tenure at Tulane. Quite a feat considering the academic standards he must abide by and a school still struggling in many ways post-Katrina. Posting a win already this year over conference foe Rice, Tulane relies heavily on the play of their guards Kris Richard (14/4/3) and Kevin Sims (12/3/3). As with any team that relies heavily on their guards, rebounding will be the biggest enemy of the Green Wave as they rank last in CUSA in rebounds per game. With recruit Rakeem Brookins on deck for the 2010-11 season, Tulane will only get stronger.

SMU (0-3, 6-10) - Coach Matt Doherty enters his fourth year with the Mustangs with an experienced roster yet not many expectations. Most recently against UAB the Mustangs were leading by 24 points yet lost the game 63-62. With the low post presence of Papa Dia (12/8) and Mouhammad Faye (12/6) and guard play of Derek Williams (16/3) and Paul McCoy (8/4), few can find a reason as to why the Mustangs aren’t more competitive. Consistently underachieving year in and year out, Doherty is running out of excuses. Boasting some of the best facilities in the league and being able to recruit from one of the largest cities in the US, SMU has to produce better. Non-conference games against Occidental College, Florida Gulf Coast, and Houston Baptist are unacceptable in D1 basketball. The four-point win against Huston-Tillotson was laughable at best.

Southern Mississippi (0-3, 10-7) - Larry Eustachy finds himself with one of his more talented teams in recent memory at Southern Miss. Newcommers Maurice Bolden and Gary Flowers give the Golden Eagles something to cheer about down in Hattiesburg. Flowers (14/8) is a physical small forward that can use his size and strength to get to the basket at will. Highly recruited out of high school from Texas, Flowers spent the last year at Chipola Junior College before transferring to the Golden Eagles to give them more depth in the frontcourt.  As with any young team, the Golden Eagles have experienced some growing pains this year but have displayed the ability to hang with teams more talented than they. After leading for a majority of the Ole Miss game, Southern Miss fell 81-79 in the final minutes. Against a Memphis team that came out firing on all cylinders, the Golden Eagles trailed by 15 at the half, yet came out with much more intensity in the second half holding Memphis to only two made FGs only to fall by a bucket, 59-57. Another team that is looking to the future, Eustachy has a talent base growing down in Hattiesburg that will cause the rest of the conference to take notice in the coming years.

East Carolina (0-4,6-12) – East Carolina finds themselves struggling this year. Losses to Wake Forest and Clemson can be deemed acceptable for a team continuing to build; however, losses to Campbell and Northern Iowa hurt the overall conference RPI and can deal a blow to a team that was expecting to win between 14 and 16 games this year. Brock Young is possibly one of the best players in America you haven’t heard of. Playing with a lack of interior post presence, Young is a 5’11 PG putting the team on his shoulders and getting what he can while averaging 16 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists a game. While 0-4 in conference, the meat of their conference schedule is behind them (@UAB, @Memphis, Houston, Marshall) and the rest of the conference schedule sets up nicely for this young team to continue to grow and develop the young talent they have in Wakefield Ellison, Corvonn Gaines and Erin Straughn. While eight wins in conference play might be asking a lot for a young team without much frontcourt help, it is a solid goal that I believe the Pirates can achieve.

Rice (0-4, 6-11) - With a newly renovated arena and one of the best freshman classes the Rice basketball program has seen, the future looks bright for the Owls. Unfortunately, this year will be a year of growing pains for a team with a bright future. With the only true loss from the 2008-09 season being Rodney Foster (13.4 ppg), the Owls return Trey Stanton, Conor Frizzelle and Lawrence Ghoram. The additions of highly touted Tamir Jackson and Arsalan Kazemi will be a solid foundation for the Owls to build on.  Having watched the Rice versus Memphis game this past week, I came away very impressed with Stanton (9/4), Jackson (12/3) and Kazemi (10/8). Kazemi is a basketball coach’s dream. He is a  hard-nosed player who has a knack for always attacking the basket. With Memphis’ lack of size and aggressiveness inside, Kazemi (15/11 vs. Memphis) had an array of putback dunks and a quick first step to the basket driving against his defender. Trey Stanton, while not your typical low post player, is a versatile big man that can step out and hit the mid-range jumper to the three-point line. He will not be much of a force against powerful low post players but can use his speed and range to exploit slower lumbering defenders. Against Pierre Niles and Will Coleman for Memphis he put up 18 points on 6-12 shooting from the field and 2-3 from the 3-point line. Tamir Jackson had a tougher night going up against two of the better on-ball defenders in the league in Willie Kemp and Elliot Williams. Yet, he showed poise and tempo under pressure that should make Ben Braun a happy coach for the next few years.

Games of the Week (January 17-23)

1/20 - #12 West Virginia @ Marshall – How far would this go in solidifying Marshall as a legitimate power in Conference USA? It would put them ahead of Tulsa as league leader in my book. Marshall averages 40.1 rebounds per game and relies heavily on Hassan Whiteside who Bob Huggins will almost assuredly key all of his defensive focus. Da’Sean Butler, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks will be a tough threesome for Marshall to handle. Tyler Wilkerson and Whiteside will have their hands full inside. Coming off a one point loss to Syracuse, West Virginia will be looking to rebound. Marshall would love to pick up this win as their next stretch of games includes UAB and Memphis at home. This is a critical stretch of games in the schedule for the Thundering Herd as it could spell huge success for the season or whether there is still growing to do. 2-1 through this stretch would work wonders for the Herd’s confidence but I see more along the lines of 1-2.

Prediction: West Virginia comes out on top in this one, 85-70.

1/20 – UTEP v. Memphis (CSS) – Tony Barbee returns to Memphis with probably his best chance of beating the Tigers at home for the foreseeable future. The frontcourt of Moultrie and Caracter will be a lot for Pierre Henderson-Niles, Will Coleman, Wesley Witherspoon and the undersized DJ Stephens to handle. The backcourt tandems provide intriguing matchup possibilities. Randy Culpepper returns home to Memphis with Julyan Stone and Christian Polk to match up against Willie Kemp, Elliot Williams and Roburt Sallie. Kemp, Williams and Sallie are three of the most tenacious on ball defenders in CUSA routinely shutting down threats from outside every week. Randy Culpepper always seems to put on a show when he comes to Memphis so look for some fireworks in this matchup. The key to this game will be whether Memphis do a good enough job by committee on Caracter and Moultrie while the guards go to work. You could see a lot of zone from Memphis in this game if Niles, Coleman or Witherspoon get into foul trouble.

Prediction: I think FedEx Forum and the crowd Memphis will have on their side keeps the streak alive, 73-68.

1/23 – Houston v. Memphis (ESPN2) – Memphis will be coming off an emotional game against UTEP three days earlier, while Houston will be coming off a game against UCF. Memphis matches up much better against Houston than UTEP but Aubrey Coleman can keep Houston in any game. Houston faces some of the same interior problems Memphis faces when it comes to play of their big men. JUCO big men Will Coleman and Maurice McNeil will go head to head in this one at some point. This will be a good game to gauge how far each has come since the beginning of the season as each of their skill sets mimic each other. In this one, the battle again will be between the guards, Elliot Williams and Aubrey Coleman. Coleman has not seen a defender like Williams. Elliot can play on both ends of the court while Coleman is a much greater offensive threat than defensive. I believe you will see Tom Penders run a team of defenders against Elliot Williams or at some point play a zone if Memphis is cold from outside the arc. Games like these are where Elliot’s supporting staff needs to step up. The solid play of Willie Kemp again has been a surprise, but Doneal Mack, Roburt Sallie and Wesley Witherspoon need to step up and make plays. 

Prediction: Memphis escapes again thanks to the Sixth Man, the FedEx forum crowd, 79-71.

1/23 – UAB v. Marshall – Marshall will be coming off a highly emotional game against West Virginia. Elijah Millsap will be key getting to the basket and taking advantage of his mismatches. This game could determine conference positioning from #2-#5. A must-win at this point early in the season for both teams.

Prediction: Marshall takes it at home, 68-63.

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