A Conference USA Primer: Plenty of Question Marks
Jan. 6, 2013
The 2013 Conference USA schedule tips off on Sunday night with a marquee matchup in Dallas, as SMU (10-5) hosts Tulsa (8-6). Twenty-five years after leading Kansas to the NCAA title, Hall of Famer Larry Brown will coach the Mustangs against the Golden Hurricane and former pupil Danny Manning, the hero of the '88 title run.
Brown and Manning are two of four new coaches in the league this year, along with Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall and UAB's Jerod Haase. More than half of C-USA's 12 teams have had significant turnover in personnel from 2011-12. With so many new faces both on the court and on the bench, it's difficult to gauge how the conference race will shake out in the next two months.
Memphis has 11 lettermen and four starters back and is the odds-on favorite. Marshall has nine lettermen returning from a 21-win squad and should be in the title hunt as long as DeAndre Kane is healthy. Tulane is the only school in C-USA to return all five starters and is poised to make a major leap in the standings. And if experience counts, don't sleep on East Carolina. The Pirates have four starters and eight letterwinners back in the fold.
Here's a capsule look at every Conference USA team, listed alphabetically (RPIs through Jan. 5, courtesy of CBSSports.com, listed in parentheses).
East Carolina (192): The Pirates drubbed the likes of Washington & Lee, Methodist, St. Andrews and North Carolina Wesleyan in rolling to a 9-4 record out of league play. But they were competitive in road losses to North Carolina (93-87) and Massachusetts (88-81) and can't be discounted as a contender. East Carolina will likely go as far as its two senior leaders Maurice Kemp (18.1 ppg/8.8 rpg) and Miguel Paul (12.1 ppg/4.9) take it. Kemp had 15 points and 14 boards in the loss to the Tar Heels.
Houston (215): The Cougars have the best overall record in the league (11-2), but they have also faced the nation's easiest schedule. The combined winning percentage of their 13 opponents to date is .279. Houston has one of the top big men in the league in TaShawn Thomas, who averages a double-double (18.0 ppg/10.5 rpg), and a high-scoring guard in Joseph Young (16.7 ppg). Both are sophomores. In fact, Houston's top five scorers are underclassmen, including promising freshman forward Danuel House (12.5 ppg).
Marshall (269): At first glance, the Herd has wallowed in mediocrity with a 7-8 record. Marshall is just days removed from a 53-51 home loss to a Delaware State team that was missing four of its top players, including its leading scorer. But C-USA Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Kane (14.2 ppg) missed four games in the last month with a hand injury, and returned for a 94-57 loss at Ohio on Saturday. Once he returns to form, the Herd should be a tough out. Kane has been playing point guard after freshman Kareem Canty was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Marshall has plenty of muscle inside in 6-9 Elijah Pittman (14.5 ppg), 6-8 Dennis Tinnon (10.7 ppg/9.3 rpg) and 6-10 Nigel Spikes (6.3 ppg/8.7 rpg).
Memphis (58): The Tigers were scrutinized after starting the year 2-2, but losses to VCU (12-3) and Minnesota (13-1) don't look so bad now. Memphis trailed the Gophers (no. 9 AP poll) by two points with under five minutes to play. They were also down three to no. 4 Louisville with four and a half minutes left. Junior guard Geron Johnson (11.1 ppg), a Garden City Community College transfer, was inserted into the starting lineup for the last three games and scored 16 points at Tennessee on Friday. Memphis has plenty of firepower with Johnson joining junior guard Joe Jackson (13.7 ppg), sophomore forward Tarik Black (10.9 ppg) and sophomore swingman Adonis Thomas (10.7 ppg). Veterans Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford and D.J. Stephens are still around too.
Rice (332): The Owls are in major rebuilding mode with Tamir Jackson and Julian DeBose as the only recognizable returnees from last year's squad. Jackson is enjoying a great senior year (17.2 ppg), and UTEP fans will remember DeBose, who swished the game-winning jumper in a 77-75 win over the Miners at Tudor Fieldhouse last season. The Owls have struggled mightily in 2012-13 while blending a host of newcomers. They are shooting 39 percent as a team, averaging 58.2 points and getting clobbered on the boards (-12.1 rebound margin).
SMU (177): What to make of the Mustangs? They were a nice story early in the year with an 8-1 start, but have come down to earth with a 2-4 mark in their last six games, including a blowout loss at Rhode Island. However, they gave undefeated Wyoming all it could handle at Moody Coliseum on Wednesday before falling 59-56. SMU should be particularly tough at home, and Brown's coaching will keep the Mustangs in games. Sophomore guard Jalen Jones is enjoying a breakout year (14.5 ppg/8.3 rpg), and Kansas State transfer Nick Russell has really bolstered the backcourt (14.2 ppg/4.2 apg).
Southern Miss (49): Southern Miss has quietly fashioned the league's best RPI while putting together a win at Georgia and competitive road losses to Arizona (63-55) and Wichita State (59-51). The Golden Eagles have played 10 of their first 15 games away from home, but they're unbeaten (5-0) at Reed Green Coliseum. This team looks quite a bit different from last year's NCAA Tournament qualifier, with junior college transfers holding the top three scoring spots - senior forward Dwayne Davis (13.3 ppg), junior swingman Michael Craig (10.1 ppg) and junior guard Jerrold Brooks (9.9 ppg). Even without Larry Eustachy as coach, Southern Miss continues to be stout defensively (57.9 ppg) and on the glass (+6.4 rebound margin).
Tulane (116): UTEP Coach Tim Floyd believes that the Green Wave could finish in the top-two of the C-USA standings when all is said and done. He likes the fact that Tulane plays great defense (56.7 ppg) and packs plenty of scoring punch in junior forward Josh Davis (18.1 ppg/10.3 rpg), sophomore guard Ricky Tarrant (14.5 ppg), senior guard Jordan Callahan (12.3 ppg) and senior guard Kendall Timmons (6.9 ppg). Callahan and Timmons are both 1,000-point scorers. The most improved player in the league, Davis is the circuit leader in both scoring and rebounding. Tulane is 10-0 at the renamed and refurbished Devlin Fieldhouse.
Tulsa (132): The Golden Hurricane has regularly started three freshmen this season - guards Shaquille Harrison (5.2 ppg) and James Woodard (14.2 ppg) and forward D'Andre Wright (8.2 ppg). That should change when sophomore guard Rashad Smith returns from a foot injury. Smith averaged a team-leading 14.5 ppg before going down four games into the season. Kauri Black, a 6-7 senior transfer from Northeastern, has started all 14 games and given Tulsa some much-needed experience. Senior guard Scottie Haralson (9.8 ppg) and junior guard Tim Peete (2.6 ppg) are the lone holdovers from the Doug Wojcik era. It will take coach Danny Manning some time to get Tulsa basketball back to where it used to be, but at least his youthful squad gets the Conference USA Tournament at home March 13-16.
UAB (134): Haase spent 13 years on Roy Williams' staff at Kansas and North Carolina before landing the Blazers' gig. He inherited a team with three returning starters, although junior guards Preston Purifoy (8.3 ppg) and Quincy Taylor (1.8 ppg) come off the bench these days. Junior forward Jordan Swing (14.7 ppg) is the team's leading scorer, and transfers Rod Rucker (Northwest Florida State Community College) and Terence Jones (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) are averaging 14.0 and 10.5 ppg respectively. The Blazers are 7-0 at home but 1-7 outside of Birmingham. They are last in C-USA in scoring defense, surrendering 73.3 points per game.
UCF (130): The Knights were ruled ineligible to participate in the Conference USA Tournament due to sanctions handed down by the NCAA in August. How they'll respond to playing a lame duck league schedule is anybody's guess. Senior forward Keith Clanton is one of the league's top players (16.9 ppg/9.6 rpg), and junior guard Isaiah Sykes has flourished in his move to point guard (15.4 ppg/6.2 rpg/4.9 apg). Sophomore forward Kasey Wilson (10.6 ppg) has more than tripled his scoring average from last season, and guard Calvin Newell (8.3 ppg) is a transfer from Oklahoma who became eligible in mid-December. UCF shoots well from the field (.497) and three-point land (.392), but not so much from the line (.626).
UTEP (87): Nobody in the league played a tougher non-conference slate than the Miners. UTEP's six losses have come to teams with a combined record of 64-18. The Miners' strength of schedule rates no. 7 nationally behind Duke, Miami (Fla.), Colorado, Kansas, UC Santa Barbara and McNeese State. There's no question that they are playing their best basketball right now. Taking the next step and challenging for a top-five league finish will be contingent on bettering their 1-13 road mark from the last two years. They will be tested early with a road game at Tulane (Wednesday) and a home matchup with Marshall (Saturday).