Friday, October 21, 2011

NCAA Basketball Preview: C-USA

 So what's the deal now?  Conference USA is merging with The Mountain West, but only for football or something like that?  Seriously, I can't keep all this crap straight.  Too hard.  I need a flow chart or a Venn diagram or just someone to come sit with me for 20 minutes and explain what's going on.

I guess it doesn't really matter though because that's football and everybody knows basketball is way more important, and I don't think that merger or whatever touches hoops in any way, so C-USA is safe.  Well, kind of safe, as long as you don't count Houston and UCF going to the Big East (I think UCF is part of that, right?), and I don't know if that's like, just football or what.  I think it's a full on move.

Oh never mind.  Let's just get to the boring previews.

1.  MEMPHIS TIGERS.  After a couple of meh seasons, at least by Memphis standards, the Tigers are most definitely back and despite what's looking like and "up" version of C-USA this year it wouldn't be stunning to see them run the table in conference play.  They lose only one contributor from last year's team, which means at this point the team is loaded with ten guys on the roster who were Rivals Top 150s when they came to college.  Actually, with seven players who averaged between 6.6 and 12.3 points per game back from last season (and nobody over that 12.3) this reminds me a lot of those Calipari teams where they were just loaded with super athletic, super talented, interchangeable parts.  Good thing for those who hate Memphis that Pastner is looking like he's on the same "game coach" level as Calipari.

2.  CENTRAL FLORIDA KNIGHTS.  There are some very interesting things happening with UCF, and none of them involve either of the overrated Jordan brothers.  The most interesting thing, to me, is Keith Clanton, who made a huge leap in his sophomore year and was among the C-USA leaders in points, blocks, boards, and FG %.   Guy is a monster, and the Knights will be able to put Michael Chandler, the fifth best incoming center in the country according to Rivals, right next to him this year - and he picked UCF over Kentucky.  With those two, the Jordans, their starting point guard back, and some talented transfers, UCF has a very good chance at grabbing an NCAA bid - or starting out hot as fire and then collapsing like a dying star like last season.

3.  MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD.  It's been two years since Hassan Whiteside jumped to the NBA D-League, but somehow, improbably, Marshall is actually like, really really talented this year (for a C-USA team).  DeAndre Kane was freshman of the year last season, and Justin Coleman was stolen away from Louisville and then did this at their big not Midnight Madness event:  

And I'll just leave it at that.

4.  RICE OWLS.  You probably aren't smart enough to know this, but this is actually a really ballsy call.  Rice has been one of the worst college basketball teams in the world the last few seasons, but last year managed to win five conference games - which equaled their combined total for the previous 3 seasons.  A small step, but still a step in the right direction, and they still have Arsalan Kazemi, who is not that Lion from the Jesus movies but might be the best player in the conference outside of Memphis.  They also add a truly excellent mid-level play-making point guard in Dylan Ennis, who had offers from basically every mid-major and chose to become an Owl.  It's a down year in C-USA this season, so maybe Rice can actually make a postseason tournament.  WHAT AN ADVENTURE!

5.  TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE.  Justin Hurtt led C-USA in scoring last season and has graduated, but it looks like Tulsa has a player already waiting to take over for him in Jordan Clarkson who scored 12 per game as a freshman last year and closed out last year with seven straight games in double-figures.  Tulsa also returns two other double figure scorers including former UCONN transfer Scottie Haralson, who is the best long-range threat on the Hurricane, and Steven Idlet who gives them an inside presence.  I might actually be underselling them a bit with that much back, but it will take a while to adjust to not having Hurtt around.  Probably one of those teams that is a lot better in February than in November. 

6.  UAB BLAZERS.  The Blazers are a lot like several other C-USA teams in that they have an awful lot of talent from last year that's no longer available - in this case their three top guards are all history - but they have an advantage over many of the other squads because they have a solid base with a couple of very good post players, including Cameron Moore who was their second leading scorer and #2 rebounder in the conference last season, and rather than relying on freshmen or transfers to fill in for the departed they have a bunch of sophomores with some experience.  I don't really see an NCAA berth here, but I wouldn't rule it out either.  I'm like Peter King.  MAYBE.

7.  SOUTHERN MISS EAGLES.  Another team dealing with some major losses, the Eagles will have to replace leading scorer and rebounder Gary Flowers as well as two of their three starting guards.  Larry Eustachy did what guys like Larry Eustachy do, and went out and grabbed a ton of JuCo players to team up with starting point guard Angelo Johnson - yes the Minnesota kid - who led the team in assists last season.  The JuCos being brought in look good with three guys ranking in the top 150 JuCo players according to Rivals, including #2 Keith DeWitt who was originally a Missouri commit, but you never know what you're getting with Juco players - don't forget this same list had Devron Bostick ranked as a top 5 player (which he could have been if Tubby knew how to use him properly - arg.)

8.  SOUTHERN METHODIST MUSTANGS.  Despite losing one of the best players in C-USA last year, Papa Dia, SMU should still be competitive thanks to four other returning starters.  Robert Nyakundi is clearly the best returner - he was second on the team with 14.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season, and even though he is an excellent outside shooter, hitting 50% from three last seasons, he doesn't live out there and can score from anywhere, not to mention being an excellent rebounder.  Then there's some other guys too.

9.  UTEP MINERS.  UTEP was a pretty fun team to watch last year.  Randy Culpepper could score in bunches and I'm pretty sure is one of the all-time leading scorers for the Miners, Christian Polk had one of the most incredible games I've ever seen against Memphis in the C-USA Championship (27 pts on 11-14 shooting), Julyan Stone was a defensive standout and awesome rebounder, and Jeremy Williams was the team's third leading scorer who I don't remember  Now those guys are all gone.   Basically the whole team is new guys, either from high school or transfers, either JuCo or otherwise, and who knows that'll probably make them competitive here and there but it'll be a tough year. 

10.  TULANE GREEN WAVE.  Tulane loses three starters from last season, but the good news for them is they are at least retaining the most important two - swingman Kendall Timmons and point guard Jordan Callahan (who is probably related to that little wiener from South Dakota State).  Timmons led the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocks last year and can do it all, while Callahan was second in scoring and led the team (and was fifth in C-USA) in assists, so Tulane at least has a good backcourt to build around.  Of course I'm not sure what they're building around them with, since there are only two other returnees from last year's team on the roster.  Josh Davis is a transfer from NC State where he played in all 31 games as a freshman two seasons ago, so that's a good start, and those two guards are going to be good enough to engineer at upset or two at some point this year.

11.  EAST CAROLINA PIRATES.  By ECU standards, last season was a smashing success - they beat Memphis for the first time ever, won two CUSA Tournament games, and were granted an invite to the post-season tournament, their first postseason berth since 1992.  Of course, as it goes with these kinds of programs, that was the big shot and now three of their top four players are gone to graduation and it's back to the depths of the conference for the Pirates.  Although there is some reason for optimism - ECU landed transfers from both South Carolina and Missouri.  If ECU can become an attractive "second-chance" transfer school that might be their way to climb up the C-USA pecking order.

12.  HOUSTON COUGARS.  You know what's never good?  When you go 12-18 and lose all three of your double-digit scorers.  Welcome to Houston.   The good news here, however, is that nobody really cares about this year because this is just year #2 for their new coach and he's got recruiting moving in a very good direction.  The Cougars bring in a Rivals Top 150 recruit this year in PF TaShawn Thomas (#113) and have two more on their way next season in PF Chicken Knowles (#47), who chose the Cougars over Missouri and Baylor, and an incredible get in PF Danuel House (#15) who went with Houston and spurned Arizona, Kansas, Ohio State, and Texas amongst others to become a Cougar.  Very impressive stuff here, and maybe a hint that Houston could actually survive in the Big East.

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