Jan. 8, 2014
Who are these guys?
The question will undoubtedly be asked frequently over the next couple of months, and the learning curve will be sharp and steep for UTEP coaches, players and fans.
The Conference USA lineup has been retooled for the 2013-14 season. Out are Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF. In are Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion and UTSA.
East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, Tulane, Tulsa and UAB are still around. But East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will all depart at year's end.
It's transition time for C-USA with new teams, new colors and new logos.
Over the next two months, the contenders will be separated from the pretenders, leading into the Conference USA Championship March 11-15 in El Paso.
Here's a primer on all the teams, with league play tipping off on Thursday, Jan. 9 when Florida Atlantic takes on Louisiana Tech in Ruston (records in parentheses through games of Jan. 5).
Charlotte (9-4): The 49ers have been to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, but not since 2005. They made the NIT a year ago and aspire to take the next step in 2013 with four starters returning from a 21-win squad. Charlotte has improved steadily in three years under coach Alan Major. The 49ers secured a signature win when they topped no. 14 Michigan, 63-61, at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 24. Five Charlotte players average 10 points or more, and Miner fans might recognize Tulane transfer Ben Cherry, who is shooting 51.1 percent from three-point range.
East Carolina (11-4): The Pirates have gotten off to a somewhat surprising start after losing four of their top five scorers from last year's 23-win team. Senior guard Akeem Richmond has led the way, averaging a league-leading 20.0 points per game with a league-high 71 three pointers. East Carolina lost 83-74 at Duke on Nov. 19. After falling behind by 18 points in the first half, the Pirates rallied to pull within a point (62-61) of the Blue Devils with under seven minutes remaining. East Carolina leads C-USA in three-point percentage (.383) and three pointers per game (8.8).
Florida Atlantic (4-10): The Owls are coached by Mike Jarvis, who is best known for taking St. John's to the Elite Eight in 1999. He is trying to establish a winning tradition at a school that has been to one NCAA Tournament (2002) and enjoyed two 20-win seasons (1989-90 and 2010-11). Florida Atlantic is led by senior guard Pablo Bertone, who averages 19.3 points per game. The Argentinian averaged 9.4 points as a junior. The Owls were near the bottom of the league in all three shooting categories, however, and one of three league teams with no road wins (Marshall and Tulsa were the others).
FIU (8-7): The Panthers are in their first season under the direction of Anthony Evans, who led Norfolk State to 26 and 21 wins the last two years. He took over for Richard Pitino, who left for Minnesota after orchestrating an 18-14 mark in 2012-13. With only five letterwinners returning, FIU has reloaded by adding transfers Cody Mann (Colorado State), Rakeem Buckles (Louisville) and Dennis Mavin (Florida Atlantic). FIU recently resurfaced the court at U.S. Century Bank Arena to incorporate a beach scene, although the Miners won't take a look at it until the 2014-15 season.
Louisiana Tech (12-3): The Bulldogs entered the season as C-USA favorites with four starters and 11 letterwinners back from a 27-7 club that won the WAC regular season title. They haven't disappointed thus far, compiling the second-best mark in the league and the top scoring margin (+18.6 ppg). LA Tech had won 19 consecutive games at the Thomas Assembly Center before coming up on the short end of an 89-80 decision to Louisiana Lafayette on Dec. 4. This is a veteran group with four juniors and four seniors listed in its top nine scorers. La Tech is tops in C-USA in blocks (6.3 avg.), assists (16.2 apg), steals (9.6 avg.) and turnover margin (+4.4).
Marshall (6-9): Tom Herrion's fourth Marshall team has a host of fresh faces. Only DeVince Boykins and Tamron Manning saw significant action in 2012-13 (Elijah Pittman was a starter in 29 games, but he was suspended indefinitely from the team in early December). The Herd entered the season with nine newcomers to tie UTSA for the conference lead. Following a 4-2 start, Marshall lost seven of its next nine games. In Pittman's absence, guard Kareem Canty is the team leader in scoring at 16.4 points per outing. He is also the second highest-scoring freshman in C-USA behind Tulane's Jonathan Stark (16.7 ppg).
Middle Tennessee (9-5): The Blue Raiders had a banner 2012-13 season, fashioning a 28-6 record and going 19-1 in the Sun Belt en route to an NCAA appearance. In fact, Middle Tennessee captured the Sun Belt title in three of the last four years before moving to C-USA. Eight lettermen return, although the top two scorers are gone. MTSU is second in C-USA in rebound margin (+8.0 avg.) and blocks (5.1 bpg). Kermit Davis is in his 12th season as head coach and has engineered nine winning seasons. The Blue Raiders had won 35 of their last 36 games at the Murphy Center entering the year and will pose a stern test for the Miners in their first league road contest on Jan. 16.
North Texas (9-5): The Mean Green is led by second-year head coach Tony Benford, who was an assistant at UTEP for a week or two in 2006 before following Doc Sadler to Nebraska. North Texas also has former Miner director of basketball operations David Anwar on its staff. The Mean Green is in rebuilding mode but is already closing in on last year's win total (12). Before last season, North Texas enjoyed five 20-win seasons in six years. The Mean Green's top two players are both guards, they're both from Dallas and both of their last names are Williams. But Alzee Williams (14.4 ppg) and Jordan Williams (10.7 ppg) are not related.
Old Dominion (6-9): The Monarchs also have a big-name head coach in Jeff Jones, who led Virginia to the Elite Eight in 1995. He took over for Blaine Taylor, who was fired in February of 2013 after compiling a 2-20 record. Old Dominion joined the Division I ranks in 1976 and has made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances since, including four times in seven years from 2005-11. With only one senior this season, the Monarchs' future looks a lot brighter than their present. They have lost eight of 10 and were last in C-USA in scoring offense (65.4 ppg) and free throw percentage (.587). Old Dominion does have a high-scoring guard in sophomore Aaron Bacote, who averages 18.6 points per game.
Rice (5-8): After last year's slog to 5-26, things are looking up for Ben Braun's Owls. They had already matched their 2012-13 win total entering the calendar year and were competitive in losses to Texas A&M (68-65) and Houston (54-52). A year after Max Guercy established himself as one of Conference USA's top freshmen, Rice has another rookie standout in forward Sean Obi. The Kaduna, Nigeria native is averaging 11.5 points and 9.3 rebounds with a .577 field goal percentage. Guercy continues to be a pest at 5-9, 165 pounds, and senior Austin Ramljak fires away from three-point territory. In fact, Rice averages 8.5 three pointers made and 25.4 attempts per game.
Southern Miss (13-2): The Golden Eagles have the best Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in the league (no. 35). Coach Donnie Tyndall still has a lot of pieces in place from last year's 27-10, NIT squad, including guard Neil Watson (11.8 ppg), forward Daveon Boardingham (10.5 ppg), guard/forward Michael Craig (10.0 ppg) and guard Jerrold Brooks (9.2 ppg). All are seniors, making Southern Miss a tough out this winter. Transfers Chip Armelin (Minnesota), Aaron Brown (Temple), Jeremiah Eason (College of Central Florida) and Deonte Houston (Olney Central CC) have also made contributions. Southern Miss continues to hang its hat on the league's best defense, yielding 62.1 ppg.
Tulane (8-7): The Green Wave looked like it might drown after a mass exodus claimed top scorers Josh Davis and Ricky Tarrant (Davis is now at San Diego State and Tarrant is sitting out at Alabama). But Tulane has remained surprisingly competitive while fielding a roster that includes eight freshmen. The best of the bunch is guard Jonathan Stark, who averages 16.7 ppg. Sophomore guard Louis Dabney and junior guard Jay Hook may be the most improved duo in the country. Dabney has hiked his scoring average from 2.2 ppg to 18.3 ppg, and Hook has raised his from 1.8 ppg to 15.4 ppg. Hook is second in C-USA in three-point field goal percentage (.493).
Tulsa (5-9): The Golden Hurricane have played the 23rd-toughest schedule in the country, battling the likes of Creighton, Maryland, Oklahoma and Wichita State. That hasn't translated to a good record, but don't be surprised if Danny Manning's troops turn it around at the sound of the C-USA bell. Tulsa is still awfully young as six of its top seven scorers (James Woodard, Rashad Smith, Shaquille Harrison, D'Andre Wright, Lew Evans, Rashad Ray) are sophomores. The Golden Hurricane had difficulty stopping people during its non-conference run, surrendering 74.5 points per game.
UAB (11-3): The Blazers and Southern Miss as the only C-USA teams with perfect home records. They are 9-0 at Bartow Arena. Jerod Haase has done a nice job in two seasons as UAB's head coach. His first team won eight of its final 13 games versus C-USA competition. This year the Blazers have already scored an upset of no. 16 North Carolina in Birmingham. UAB's top two scorers a year ago, Rod Rucker and Jordan Swing, rank no. 3 and no. 6 respectively in points this season as newcomers Chad Frazier and C.J. Washington have bolstered the offensive attack. Frazier is averaging 17.6 ppg, and Washington is contributing 14.5 ppg. UAB's rebound margin is an imposing 13.3 boards per game.
UTSA (4-9): The Roadrunners are competing in their third league in as many seasons after playing in the Southland Conference from 1991-2012 and the WAC in 2012-13. UTSA lost its top two scorers off a 10-22 team a year ago. The Roadrunners received a dose of bad news in December when senior forward Jeromie Hill was shut down for the year with a knee injury. He will redshirt in 2013-14 and give chase to 1,500 points and 700 rebounds a year from now. UTSA has four players with double figure scoring averages, headlined by junior guard Keon Lewis (15.3 ppg), but last in C-USA in field goal percentage defense (.484) and scoring defense (78.6 ppg).