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October 24, 2010
League preview: Conference USA
We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
9. Conference USA
By Mike Huguenin
Memphis dominated C-USA for the early part of this century, but the Tigers finished second last season.
That's bad news for the rest of the league because the Tigers have received a huge influx of talent and will be back on top this season. Frankly, given the relatively lackluster feel of the rest of the league, the Tigers can get comfortable on their throne for the next few years.
Coach Josh Pastner reeled in an unreal recruiting class, with three of the top 20 players -- all guards -- in the nation in Will Barton, Jelan Kendrick and Joe Jackson. That trio, along with a few other touted freshmen, joins frontcourt holdovers Will Coleman and Wesley Witherspoon to form what should be a highly potent attack.
Southern Miss, which returns all five starters, and UTEP, which has to rebuild a bit, are the top challengers. F Gary Flowers is the key player for Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy, while new UTEP coach Tim Floyd knows he can count on G Randy Culpepper and F Jeremy Williams but needs some complementary players to emerge.
Floyd resigned amid an NCAA probe at USC and spent last season as an assistant with the NBA's New Orleans Hornets. The recent NCAA issues made Floyd, a former UTEP assistant under Don Haskins, the surprise choice to replace Tony Barbee when Barbee left for Auburn.
Floyd is one of six new coaches in the league, including a rare intra-conference move when Donnie Jones left Marshall for UCF. The Knights return an experienced team, and if the players can adapt to Jones' fast-paced attack, UCF could win 20 games.
UAB is the wild card. The Mike Davis-coached Blazers lost their best player when Elijah Millsap left early for the NBA, and UAB could struggle to score. But the Blazers will play good defense, and that might be enough to get them into the top four.
ORDER OF FINISH
MAKING A LIST
Best frontcourt: Memphis. Wesley Witherspoon is a solid all-around talent who can score, rebound and pass. Will Coleman is a nice low-post presence. Angel Garcia, if healthy, adds an active big body. Freshman Tarik Black arrives with the rep of a low-post bruiser.
Best backcourt: Memphis. Joe Jackson and Will Barton are two of the best freshmen guards in the nation, and they should team for a potent duo. Freshman Jelan Kendrick also is highly rated and adds good size (he's 6 feet 6), and another true freshman, Chris Crawford, also is highly touted. New Orleans transfer Charles Carmouche should be a nice complementary player.
Program on the rise: Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are coming off a postseason appearance (the CIT), and coach Larry Eustachy finally seems to have them on the right path. All five starters return and another postseason bid is extremely likely.
Program on the decline: Houston. The program had grown stagnant under former coach Tom Penders, even if the Cougars were the surprise winner of the league tourney. They are going to take a step back this season, and how soon can new coach James Dickey turn things around?
Coach on the rise: Memphis' Josh Pastner. Pastner's recruiting ability wasn't a question, but his incoming class is so good that Pastner may be an even better recruiter than expected. He's still growing as a tactician, but after a one-season lull last season, Memphis should be back on top of the league this season -- and for the foreseeable future.
Coach on the hot seat: SMU's Matt Doherty. He's heading into his fifth season but has yet to have a winning record. He is going to have issues in his backcourt this season and might be lucky to finish as high as ninth. If the Mustangs do finish 10th or worse, Doherty likely is gone.
Most underrated player: F Jeremy Williams, UTEP (6-7,220, Sr.). Williams, a Memphis native, was overshadowed in the Miners' frontcourt last season by Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie, but both those guys are gone. That just means Williams will get the attention he deserves when he averages about 15 points and seven rebounds this season.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Ed Conroy at Tulane (had been coach at The Citadel), James Dickey at Houston (had been out of basketball), Tim Floyd at UTEP (had been assistant with NBA's New Orleans Hornets), Tom Herrion at Marshall (had been assistant at Pittsburgh), Donnie Jones at UCF (had been coach at Marshall), Jeff Lebo at East Carolina (fired as coach at Auburn)
Regular-season winner last season: UTEP
Tourney winner last season: Houston
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons:11th in 2009-10, 10th in 2008-09, 10th in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 9-12, El Paso, Texas