Calipari is gone, taking most of an incredible recruiting class with him, and Memphis lost enough talent to be a top 10 team all on their own, meanwhile three other C-USA teams are geared up for a run at the title. What this means is that looking at this conference is not as simple as penciling in Memphis for the first time in a whole lot of years. It's wide open.
1. MEMPHIS. It was very tempting to pick one of the other schools that look poised to knock off the Tigers, but don't forget the guys they have coming back were still signed by Calipari when he could get nearly anyone he wanted, you just don't remember because they were behind so much other talent. Wes Witherspoon is a 6-8 combo guard/forward play anywhere do anything type guy, and he was #34 on the Rivals 150 when he came out. Junior guards Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack were #s 53 and 47 when they came out, and forward Pierre Niles was #117. And don't forget Elliot Williams who transferred from Duke - he was #16. So yeah, there's plenty gone, but there's still plenty around.
2. TULSA. If you were going to put up a blueprint for a mid-major to make some noise in a season, the Golden Hurricane would be it. Senior point guard who can score and control a game? Check, Ben Uzoh. Monster center who dominates the paint, offensively and defensively? Check, Jerome Jordan. A bunch of juniors and seniors who are quality role players and know their responsibilites? Yep, all over the place. They have gotten a little press already (I think Katz or somebody had them on their early Top 25), and it's worth noting that the C-USA tournament is in Tulsa this year.
3. UTEP. I almost had the Miners in first (which explains why I had a UTEP photo at the ready), but then I remembered that I was mostly putting them there because I have an irrational love of Derrick Caracter, the fat discipline problem who got booted from Louisville - yes, he's at UTEP now. If he has it together, they will be very tough on the front line, and also return Randy Culpepper, a 17.5 point per game scorer who, although being very Robet Vaden-like, really seemed to hit his stride in the Miners' run to the CBI championship game.
4. HOUSTON. I'm not a huge fan of the Cougs this year, but any time a team returns two 18+ ppg senior guards you at least have to pay attention. Of course, they also lose all the size they had without much coming back to replace it, but you know Penders can coach, you know they're going to play up tempo, and you know they will probably give a few teams fits this year. Houston is playing in the Great Alaskan Shootout this year, which will be a good litmus test to see where they stand.
5. MARSHALL. Randy Moss U returns four starters from last season's 6th place team, although they do lose their top scorer. The Thundering Herd's strength lies in the backcourt, where they get most of their scoring including Chris Lutz who scored 37 against Tulane and recently won a roster spot on the Phillipines' National Team (note: I have no idea how impressive this is or isn't.) Marshall also brings in the best recruit in C-USA not going to Memphis in center Hassan Whiteside (#87 rivals 150), a 6-11 center who should compliment the perimeter guys, although it sounds like his academics might not be in order.
6. TULANE. At this point it's now a total crapshoot, as the remaining teams are all pretty much bottom of the barrel. The Green Wave get the nod at the top of the scrap heap simply because they are the best defensive team of the bunch, and they return a three-year do everything starter at point guard in Kevin Sims. They also add Juco transfer wing Aaron Holmes, who was ranked #117 on Rivals list coming out of high school in 2006.
7. SOUTHERN METHODIST. Slightly better than the rest due to a returning backcourt of Paul McCoy and Derek Williams, who averaged over 25 points between the two of them last year and both of whom had positive assist-to-turnover ratios, a rarity amongst the guards in the bottom tier of this conference. They also return power forward and former transfer from Georgia Tech Mouhammad Faye, who closed out last season with four straight games scoring in double figures and played for Senegal in the FIBA Africa Championships, averaging 17 points per game. Oh, and if you were expecting Matt Doherty to turn SMU around through recruiting, it ain't happening thus far.
8. SOUTHERN MISS. Partyboy Larry Eustachy seemed to have the Golden Eagles moving in the right direction, but then 3-time All C-USA guard Jeremy Wise decided to jump into the NBA draft (note: he wasn't drafted) and that knocks the team back down a peg. With three other starters gone, the new talent Eustachy is bringing in has to help immediately. Minneapolis boy Angelo Johnson will likely start at the point right away, and there are three new JuCo players who are all ranked in the top 60 by Juco Junction, with Gary Flowers ranked #1 in the country. As with all Jucos, you never know what you're gonna get.
9. CENTRAL FLORIDA. UCF loses Jermaine Taylor, last year's C-USA scoring leader at 26.2 ppg and returns not much outside of 3-point specialist Isaac Sosa, who shot 45% behind the line last year to lead the conference. The Knights do bring in a nice class, including a trio of 3-star players who collectively had offers from teams such as South Carolina, Alabama, Providence, Iowa, Stanford, and Butler. One of the newcomers will bring increased media attention - Michael Jordan's son Marcus. At least until he quits like his quitter brother.
10. RICE. Do you know who Rice's coach is? It's Ben Braun. The same Ben Braun who had a good amount of success with Cal not that long ago. It's going to be quite a task to turn the Owls around (they were 10-22 last year, Braun's first season), but he's already starting to make inroads. He signed a couple of three-stars this year (no small feat for Rice) in PG Tamir Jackson, who also had an offer from UAB, and power forward and likely terrorist Arsalan Kazemi from Iran, who had offers from Cincinnati and Maryland and may or may not be related to the lion from Narnia. It's still a long road ahead, but looking to get better.
10. UAB. Everything was aligned for UAB to make a run at Memphis last year, and at least make the NCAA tournament. Oops. And now everybody is gone, with the Blazers losing more than 75% of their scoring from last season and 90% of their shots with Robert Vaden finally graduating. The recruiting class fell apart as well. UAB had a verbal from both Rivals #2 DeMarcus Cousins and were thought to be in the lead for hometown PG and #23 prospect Eric Bledsoe, but both ending up signing with Kentucky, as Mike Davis still can't beat Calipari. After losing out on almost every other recruiting battle, the cupboard is pretty bare. Transfer Elijah Milsap, who I think is Paul's brother, transferred in from LA-Lafayette and will pretty much instantly become the Blazers' best player.
12. EAST CAROLINA. One of the worst defensive teams in all of college basketball last year (ranking 336/344 in defensive efficiency) did very little to address that, at least in terms of signing anybody of relevance. They also lost their two best players to graduation, with not much behind them to step up. The bright side is they have junior point guard Brock Young who was second in the country in assists last season with 7.6 per game - the only problem is there is nobody left to score.
So there you have it. Will C-USA be a multi-bid league this year? Will Memphis finally be dethroned or can Josh Pastner pick up right where Calipari left off? Has Derrick Caracter finally grown up? With coaches like Tom Penders, Ben Braun, Matt Doherty, and Larry Eustachy in the conference, when will it's national profile start to rise? Will Arsalan Kazemi blow up a stadium?
It's going to be an interesting year in C-USA.