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October 16, 2008

C-USA coaches expect multiple NCAA berths

MORE: Jordan in middle of Tulsa's improvement plan

MEMPHIS Conference USA coaches believe their league is ready to assert itself this season and earn multiple at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.

Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said the league was much better last season than it got credit for.

"Our league was strong last year," Eustachy said Thursday at the FedEx Forum during the Conference USA Media Day. "The problem with the league last year was nothing has happened like what has happened at Memphis except when Jerry Tarkanian was at UNLV. To say this league was down or just OK last year look at those guys from Tulsa; they proved it (by winning the inaugural College Basketball Invitational).

"Memphis beat good teams by 30 and 25 points. Ask Rick Barnes how good Memphis was, ask Tom Izzo. He told me before he sat down they were down by 30. Memphis wasn't just dismantling our league; they dismantled the country."

It's a fair point. The Tigers beat Barnes' Texas team by 18, and they also beat the Spartans by 18. Memphis played eight C-USA games that had closer margins.

"I thought we were good last year, and I think we've taken a huge leap this year," Eustachy said. "Whoever finishes sixth or seventh in our league will be very good. This mid-major crap is crap."

The coaches agree that the breakthrough will come only with winning important non-conference games. Cutting to the quick, no one is worried about Memphis, the coaches' pick to win the league in the C-USA preseason poll. The Tigers will be back in the NCAAs.

So it's up to No. 2 pick UAB, which has non-conference games against Cincinnati, Louisville and Butler and potentially a date with Arizona. It's up to No. 3 choice Tulsa, which has non-conference games against Oral Roberts, Texas A&M, BYU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. It's up to No. 4 UTEP, which has non-conference games with UNLV, Saint Mary's, New Mexico State and New Mexico.

"I'm part hard-pressed to think of another conference in this country that has the quality of coaches in their league," UTEP coach Tony Barbee said. "It's scary the guys you have to prepare for. You've got Coach (John) Calipari and what he has done, some national coaches of the year in this league Tom Penders, Larry Eustachy. You bring in Ben Braun (at Rice) and his experience.

" We'll have five to six teams in postseason play and a minimum of three in the NCAA tournament."

Because of some of the big non-conference matchups already mentioned, we'll know before Christmas whether the C-USA will be collecting presents in the form of NCAA bids in March.

"I've said this all along that people have been impatient with our league," Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik said. "How many coaches are in their second, third, fourth year in our league? It takes a little while to build your program."

Eight C-USA coaches qualify, with four years or less at their respective schools. Wojcik and Barbee are two, but as their programs transition to mostly players recruited by them. there is a tangible difference. The hope and belief is that will translate into a reason to watch CBS on Selection Sunday.

"Now it's on us as coaches to rise to the challenge and gauntlet Memphis has laid down," said Barbee, a former assistant under Calipari. "We have to go outside of our league and win games."

WOE IS CALIPARI

Memphis' Calipari couldn't resist singing a bit of a sad tune about his team's prospects during Thursday's news conferences.

"We lost Lawrence Taylor in Joey Dorsey," Calipari said. "We lost Earl Monroe, a guy who could score in a thousand different ways in Chris Douglas-Roberts. And we lost 'Superman' in our point guard (Derrick Rose)."

In the same breath, he went into a dissertation about the depth of the league.

"Larry's team (Southern Miss), on the other hand, has five starters back," he said. "What's great with our league now the Tulsa guys won their tournament. Barbee's team, he's walking with a foot between his feet and the floor so that tells you how good he believes his team is going to be. Mike Davis' team (at UAB), everybody is talking about. And all of you people are falling asleep on Marshall. They'll be outstanding.

"Every team in our league has gotten better. There's a number of NBA-caliber players. I'm excited about the league and a little worried about my team. We've got good players, we just have to figure out who's going to be where and figure out how we're going to play."

There were no visible tears from the other coaches in the league.

LOCATING LEADERSHIP

The contenders in C-USA already know who they will turn to in times of need.

Calipari has two returning starters who are seniors. Davis has four returning starters who are seniors. Wojcik has two preseason all-conference picks juniors Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh who started all 39 games last season, as well as returning senior starter Ray Reese.

Not so for the rest of the league. Mack McCarthy at East Carolina has eight freshmen and sophomores. Matt Doherty at SMU has 11 freshmen and sophomores. Braun, the new coach at Rice, has only 10 scholarship players. Kirk Speraw at UCF has eight freshmen.

"We think we'll be pretty good, but we're young," Speraw said. "We have eight freshmen, and a number of them will have to play significant roles and significant minutes. We will have some trial and error through the beginning of the season, and we hope to be playing good basketball by the time we get into league play. Jermaine Taylor will have to carry the load early on."

Fortunately, Taylor has load-carrying capability. He ranked fourth in the league in scoring last season (20.8 ppg).

"With that many freshmen, I don't have a choice," Taylor said. "I have to lead."

C-USA TIP-INS

Two coaches, UAB's Davis and Houston's Penders, were late arriving at the event and missed the general news conferences, but were here for individual sessions. Penders had airplane delays because of inclement weather. Davis said he felt ill in the morning and debated not coming. He called one of his assistant coaches and warned him that he might have to go in Davis' stead. Instead, he felt OK in the morning and slept in the car on the drive from Birmingham to Memphis. Marshall swingman Markel Humphrey attended Thursday despite being in a walking boot. He has a stress fracture in his left foot but will not require surgery. Coach Donnie Jones said he expects Humphrey to be available for the season opener against West Virginia Tech on Nov. 16. Tulane coach Dave Dickerson believes his guards have a chance to be exceptional this season. "I think Kevin Sims (a junior who averaged 12.2 ppg) is one of the best guards in our conference," Dickerson said. He also said rising sophomore guard Kris Richard had a great offseason and will play a major role. Two players who played shooting guard last season are making the transition to the point. At Memphis, Willie Kemp will get the first crack at filling the spot vacated by Rose. Tulsa's Uzoh also will move to the point. "It wasn't that hard," Kemp said. "That's where I started when I came here. Now maybe I would get more shots at the '2,' but I just want to make my teammates better." The league's only new coach is Braun at Rice. He was fired at California after last season. "We have a lot of young players," Braun said. "I'm just trying to get to know them. The challenge as coaches is to get them to mature quickly and be ready to play. That involves scrimmaging and just playing."

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.



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