If Conference USA (C-USA) had a theme song this season, it would have to be “Changes” by David Bowie because changes are, indeed, taking place in C-USA. The major NCAA violation waiting to happen, otherwise known as John Calipari, has taken his expansive ego, expensive designer suits, and hair gel to greener - as in greenbacks - pastures. Calipari’s departure from Memphis has actually made C-USA a much more compelling league. That should equate to a great CUSA Tournament in Tulsa, Okla.
Even though UTEP has done a great job of impersonating Memphis this season, winning 14 league games in a row heading into the tourney, the fact is the Miners aren't a prohibitive favorite. The top five teams in C-USA have talent to spare and the tournament is being played in Tulsa, so don't discount the Golden Hurricane’s home-court advantage.
(1) Texas-El Paso (24-5, 15-1)
Last 10: 10-0
Winners of 14 games in a row, Tony Barbee’s UTEP Miners come roaring into the C-USA tournament with the swagger and confidence of a boxing knockout artist. Call them the C-USA’s John “The Beast” Mugabe. Paced by junior all-conference performers Randy Culpepper and Derrick Caracter, a Louisville transfer, the Miners are arguably the best offensive, defensive, and rebounding team in C-USA.
Will Cut the Nets Down on Saturday if… Put simply, UTEP should win the C-USA tourney. The Miners have been the best team in the league all season and have shown no signs of slowing down. They swept 8-seed Southern Methodist and crushed 9-seed Central Florida 96-59 in Orlando during the regular season. Neither team figures to give the Miners much trouble in the quarterfinals. A potential semifinal scrap with an up-tempo Marshall team could be troublesome, but UTEP likes to run too, and the Miners are actually better in transition than the Thundering Herd. UAB figures to be the biggest obstacle between UTEP and a C-USA title, but that’s a match-up that would be for all the marbles on Saturday, in which case the Miners’ confidence would become a very strong intangible in their favor.
(2) Memphis (23-8, 13-3)
Last 10: 8-2
No “ Coach Cal” and no Tyreke Evans… and no problem for the Tigers. Well, sort of. Sophomore guard Elliot Williams has proved to be a more than capable replacement for Evans, while rookie head coach Josh Pastner put together a great recruiting class and has gotten a lot from players that Calipari recruited, like wings Doneal Mack and Roburt Sallie. However, the Tigers struggled in big games against good opponents this season, which seems to have Memphis out of the NCAA at-large invite conversation.
Will Cut the Nets Down on Saturday if… The Tigers would probably like to avoid a Thursday quarterfinal matchup with Houston, since the run-n-gun Cougars thrashed the Tigers, 92-75, when those teams met on February 24. Since Memphis swept potential semifinal opponent UAB, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise at all if the Tigers were on the court come the C-USA championship game at 10:30 a.m. (Eastern time) Saturday morning.
(3) UAB (23-7, 11-5)
Last 10: 5-5
The Blazers head into the C-USA Tournament being the team that can help itself most with a run to the championship game. It's not just the two losses in a row to UTEP and Memphis that got the Blazers bumped downward on the bubble, it's that after an impressive 67-57 win over Butler on December 22 - Butler's last loss, by the way - Mike Davis's squad has failed its last several times out against quality opposition. That really isn't going to impress the Selection Committee. A victory in the C-USA quarterfinals and a semifinal victory over Memphis should be enough to get high-scoring forwards Elijah Milsap, Howard Crawford, and their teammates back in the Selection Committee's good graces and perched, somewhat precariously, on the bubble.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... UAB needs to survive a likely quarterfinal scrap with a Southern Mississippi squad that gave it fits both times they played this season, even though the Blazers won both games. If Alabama-Birmingham can survive that first game and advance to the semis, the Blazers would need to beat Memphis, a team that swept them this season. As the saying goes, “revenge is sweet.” It would be even sweeter because of the stakes involved in that very significant showdown, which will be not a play-in game on the NCAA bubble, but definitely a “play-OUT” game for the loser.
(4) Marshall (23-8, 11-5)
Last 10: 8-2
Storming down the stretch are potential NBA lottery pick Hassan Whiteside and the rest of the Thundering Herd. Sure, Donnie Jones's squad had the benefit of playing four games against the bottom half of C-USA in its end-of-the-season sprint, but the Herd also won at UAB, held serve against Tulsa, and battled UTEP to a virtual standstill in an 80-76 loss. Thanks to Whiteside and his frontcourt partner-in-havoc, 6-8 senior Tyler Wilkerson, the Thundering Herd are the best rebounding team and the most accurate shooting team in the conference. Throw in the fact that Marshall also leads the nation in rejections, and it’s easy to see why the Thundering Herd are a threat to win the C-USA tourney.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... Marshall hasn't been all that good recently, going one-and-done in the three of the last four C-USA tournaments, so the Herd just aren't used to being favored or (for that matter) playing in the second week of March. How will they cope as seeded favorites in the quarterfinals? Beat Tulsa in the quarterfinals on Thursday and the Thundering Herd could be to UTEP what the accelerator pad is to Toyota.
(5) Tulsa (21-10, 10-6)
Last 10: 4-6
Meet the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, CUSA's resident underachievers. With 7-0 future NBA center Jerome Jordan manning the middle, and an experienced, talented backcourt featuring senior point guard Ben Uzoh and junior Justin Hurtt, the pieces seemed to be there for a stronger campaign. Instead, the Golden Hurricane spent the season beating up on C-USA bottom-feeders and traditionally solid mid-major programs like Arkansas-Little Rock and South Alabama that are rebuilding this season.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... they somehow end up playing Central Florida in the semifinals and Tulane in the C-USA championship game. The bottom line is that Tulsa just hasn't shown that it has the consistency to win four games in four days.
(6) Southern Mississippi (18-12, 8-8)
Last 10: 6-4
There are teams like the Golden Eagles in every league; teams that are otherwise pretty average, but are entirely capable of playing down or up to the level of their opponents. For the 2009-10 Golden Eagles, that meant a series of innumerably and agonizingly close losses to the likes of UTEP (59-56), Ole Miss (81-79), Memphis (59-57), and UAB (57-56 and 59-54). It also meant that Larry Eustachy's squad lost to North Florida and Canisius.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... Eustachy collects the players from the team the Golden Eagles are supposed to play, and takes them to a kegger that he was somehow able to sniff out. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Otherwise, the Golden Eagles will have to content themselves with beating a terrible Tulane side and giving UAB “40 minutes of hell” before departing the C-USA tourney.
(7) Houston (15-15, 7-9)
Last 10: 4-6
It’s not Phi Slamma Jamma, but the fun-n-gun Cougars sprinted and pressed to a place of, well, complete mediocrity this season. Sure, Tom Penders's squad plays a style of ball that's oodles of fun to watch, but produced results that had all the consistency of beer. Or gin. Or tequila. Or the liquid beverage of your choice. Not surprisingly, the senior backcourt tandem of Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis take care of the rock well - Houston had the least turnovers and the lowest turnover percentage in C-USA - and forced opposing backcourts into mistakes - the Cougars led C-USA in forced turnovers. It's for those reasons that Houston can't be completely written off despite its season-long inconsistency.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... The recipe for the Cougars bringing March Madness to the BOK Center in Tulsa is pretty simple: They scramble the game, forcing teams to play at their tempo, and make lots of triples. It will work against East Carolina on Wednesday, but beating likely quarterfinal opponent Memphis, a team that can play the 94-foot game, is almost certainly too much to ask.
In a league where teams like to get out and run, the Mustangs, despite the moniker, play the game at a more leisurely pace. Think bulldog as compared to Houston's greyhound. At times, Matt Doherty's squad has sprung a surprise thanks to taking the air out of the ball (see SMU 70, Memphis 60, January 30, 2010). More often than not, though, poor decision-making by SMU's guards has led to way too many empty possessions for a Mustangs team that struggles to score… and you've got to score points to hang with C-USA's big boys.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... Teams whose coaches have full, flowing manes of hair are spotted an extra 15 or so points per game. Failing that, it's tough to see how SMU accomplishes much more than beating Central Florida in the C-USA opening round. The Mustangs did play UTEP tough both times they squared off with the Miners, but UTEP has another gear or two (or several) to go to, which SMU does not.
(9) Central Florida (14-16, 6-10)
Last 10: 4-6
The Golden Knights don't immediately come to mind when one hears the phrase “March Madness,” and that's somewhat surprising when you consider UCF's March history. In the 1995-96 season, the Knights went into the (now extinct)Trans-American Conference tourney with an 8-18 (6-10) record. Three wins later they were an NCAA Tournament 16th seed with an 11-18 overall record, squaring off with UMass in the Big Dance. Fast forward to 2003-04, and UCF, the Atlantic Sun champs, gave Pitt about 36 minutes of hell in a first round scrap before succumbing 53-44. The very next season, UCF went dancing again, squaring with UConn in the round of 64. Once again, the Knights gave their Big East opponent all it wanted and then some, before losing 77-71. Based on their body of work this season, it doesn't seem like Kirk Speraw's side has much of a chance of making even the slightest squeak of noise in the C-USA tourney. History, however, indicates that the Golden Knights could have some March Magic up their sleeves.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... Everything we said in the above paragraph emerges - make a mental note of it, and file it away for when you find yourself at a pub quiz and the question is, “Which is the only team to have won the Trans-American Conference basketball championship with a losing record?” Otherwise, forget it, because it doesn't have anything to do with the 2009-10 Golden Knights. UCF just isn't a very good team that is staggering into the C-USA tourney having gone 1-4 in its last five games. UCF is likely one-and-done in the CUSA tourney.
(10) East Carolina (10-20, 4-12)
Last 10: 3-7
And on to the C-USA bottom-feeders. Finishing a game ahead of Tulane and three ahead of cellar-dwelling Rice, the Pirates can kindly be labeled the least abysmal of C-USA's terrible triumvirate. However, it's not all gloom-and-doom for Mack McCarthy's squad. The Pirates have virtually no contributors that are seniors. Junior guard Brock Young could be an All-CUSA player next season and forwards Darrius Morrow, Jamar Abrams, and Darrius Morales have the potential to be a dominant frontcourt. Next season, that is, of course.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... Doc Brown shows up and the Pirates take the DeLorean to March 2011. This isn't a team built to win this season. Playing Houston close on Wednesday would be a major step forward.
(11) Tulane (8-21, 3-13)
Last 10: 2-8
Tumbling down the stretch, like a drunk pushed down the stairs, are the Tulane Green Wave, losers of seven of their last eight games. Only college hoops fans that rooted for Drago to kick Rocky's butt could wish ill on Dave Dickerson's team. Unfortunately, the 2009-10 season hasn't been kind to Dickerson's undersized and poor-shooting bunch.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... It turns out the world is actually flat. Tulane doesn't have the chops to do anything more than make a cameo at the BOK Center.
(12) Rice (8-22, 1-15)
Last 10: 1-9
What is there to say about the Rice Owls? They're the worst team in C-USA in virtually every major statistical category (and even those that hoops stat geeks revere). The frosh inside-outside duo of guard Tamir Jackson and forward Arsalan Kazemi shows promise, but that's not really going to help come Wednesday.
Will Cut Down the Nets on Saturday If... Not gonna happen. Check back in March 2012.
WHAT WE THINK
Opening Round, Wednesday March 10 - BOK Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma