Saturday, September 24, 2011

30 In 30: Conference USA

After coming from behind to win Conference USA tournament last year, Josh Pastner and Memphis are now favorites to win league. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Once among the best mid-majors in Division I college basketball before five of its programs defected to the Big East, Conference USA still rolls on as one of the more regarded leagues despite usually being a group where only two or three teams have a shot to win. It may be a little deeper this year, as the following preview will profile each of the twelve C-USA institutions.

1) Memphis - The class of the league since the beginning of the John Calipari era is still among the teams to beat year in and year out under Josh Pastner, now in his third year replacing Coach Cal after he left for Kentucky. Pastner brings back the core of last year's conference tournament championship team that lost to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, including C-USA Player of the Year candidate Will Barton and point guard Joe Jackson. The Tiger frontline gets help with the returns of Tarik Black and swingman Wesley Witherspoon, not to mention Ferrakohn Hall. Although the Seton Hall transfer will not be eligible until December, the 6-8 Hall should make an immediate impact at the power forward position.

2) Marshall - Don't be surprised to see the Thundering Herd and second-year coach Tom Herrion make a serious run at Memphis for the conference championship. Point guard Damier Pitts joins Pittsburgh native and sophomore DeAndre Kane in the backcourt, while Kane's rebounding prowess will be a boon to 6-10 center Nigel Spikes as he dominates the glass for Marshall. Incoming freshman Jamir Hanner, a former Seton Hall commit, could also be among the top rookies in the league for an up-and-coming program.

3) Central Florida - The casual fan will recognize two names on the Golden Knights' roster right away, and both will be major factors for second-year head coach Donnie Jones. Leading scorer Marcus Jordan returns for his junior season, and the combo guard will have former Illinois transfer and older brother Jeff sharing the backcourt with him this time around. These two just happen to be the sons of one Michael Jordan, only the greatest professional basketball player of the last three decades. Leading rebounder Keith Clanton also returns for his junior campaign after averaging nearly two blocked shots per game last season.

4) Tulsa - Three of the top four scorers from last season return for the Golden Hurricane, led by 6-11 senior Steven Idlet, also the team's leading rebounder. Sophomore guard Jordan Clarkson joins former UConn transfer Scottie Haralson in the backcourt while D.J. Magley and Joe Richard will get full-time opportunities to join Idlet as inside presences in the Tulsa lineup.

5) Rice - The Owls could be the surprise team that every conference possesses on a yearly basis, one that comes up from the second half of the conference to establish themselves among the league's elite. Former Cal coach Ben Braun enters his fourth year in Houston with most of his team coming back. Iranian forward Arsalan Kazemi was a double-double per night player last year, and will have more chances to contribute with junior point guard Tamir Jackson returning to anchor the backcourt and facilitate the Owl offense.

6) Alabama-Birmingham - Former Indiana coach Mike Davis enters his sixth season at UAB with only two starters returning, but enough weapons for yet another winning season. Leading scorer and rebounder Cameron Moore is back for his senior season, which should feature a double-double per night average for the 6-10 big man. Ovie Soko could become the X-factor inside with opposing teams focused on Moore, but the loss of the almost eight assists per game generated by outgoing point guard Aaron Johnson may be too much for the Blazers to overcome.

7) East Carolina - Last year, the Pirates were the team no one expected to make a run, nearly stealing the C-USA tournament in the process. This year, head coach Jeff Lebo may be preparing another quiet success story while the program's administrators consider a move to the Big East. Leading rebounder Darrius Morrow returns to the frontline for his senior season, while 6-5 combo guard Corvonn Gaines will be a steady hand in the backcourt following a season with an assist to turnover ratio of greater than 2:1.

8) Southern Mississippi - The return of senior point guard and former Southern Cal transfer Angelo Johnson to the Golden Eagle backcourt is good news for coach Larry Eustachy and the Southern Miss fan base. One of the better ballhandlers in the nation with a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio, Johnson's productivity should go up now that 6-10 Maurice Bolden will likely become a full-time starter.

9) Tulane - The Green Wave started last year 12-3 and with aspirations of being a force to be reckoned with in C-USA. Unfortunately, things changed when Ed Conroy's team lost thirteen of their last fourteen to finish with a 13-17 record. This year, Tulane returns with the intent of avoiding the "tale of two seasons" description. Combo guards Kendall Timmons and Jordan Callahan are back for their junior seasons in New Orleans after leading the team in scoring a year ago; and they will be rejoined by Ben Cherry, who returns for his junior season after suffering a torn ACL last year.

10) Texas-El Paso - Tim Floyd's Miners lose leading scorer Randy Culpepper and Julyan Stone, the team's "Mr. Everything" among their four departed starters, leaving senior swingman Gabriel McCulley as the top returning player. McCulley and John Bohannon will be immediate starters inside for UTEP as Michael Perez will look to establish himself as a combo guard in an inexperienced backcourt.

11) Southern Methodist - Matt Doherty is building for the future in Dallas after his stint at North Carolina in the early 2000s turned out to be a bust, and the Mustangs will prove that with only four returning players on the roster this season. Senior forward Robert Nyakundi could actually be one of the more underrated players in Conference USA. Last year, the 6-8 swingman shot 90 percent from the free throw line and a scorching 50 percent from three-point range.

12) Houston - Much like SMU, the Cougars have less than half the team coming back from a season ago, as only five players on this year's roster saw action in the 2010-11 campaign. Senior guard Darian Thibodeaux shot 44 percent from beyond the arc a year ago, which should keep him off the ball despite being Houston's incumbent assist leader.

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