Checking in on… Conference USA

Posted by rtmsf on November 23rd, 2008

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
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2008-09 Conference Primers: #8 – Conference USA

Posted by rtmsf on November 3rd, 2008

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Memphis  (34-1, 16-0)
  2. UAB  (26-9, 12-4)
  3. Tulsa  (22-13, 11-5)
  4. UTEP  (21-12, 10-6)
  5. Houston  (20-13, 9-7)
  6. Southern Miss  (19-15, 9-7)
  7. Marshall  (18-15, 8-8)
  8. UCF  (17-16, 8-8)
  9. Tulane  (14-18, 6-10)
  10. SMU  (13-20, 5-11)
  11. ECU  (11-21, 4-12)
  12. Rice  (9-23, 2-14)

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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.

Neat-o Stats. 

  • 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.

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