Thursday, September 19, 2013

32 In 32: Conference USA

Considered by many to be among rising stars among college basketball coaches, Michael White hopes to add another season like last year's 27-win campaign to his resume at Louisiana Tech. (Photo courtesy of the Shreveport Times)

Our "32 In 32" series returns tonight with a look at a league that has once again become a melange of different conferences after the widespread reaffiliation in the offseason. Welcoming seven schools to make up for the loss of three to the American Athletic Conference, here is our attempt to make sense of the madness that is the newly restructured, 16-team Conference USA:

1) Southern Mississippi - With longtime C-USA powerhouse Memphis among the trio of teams that defected in favor of the AAC, the Tigers' former spot at the top becomes vacant, and Donnie Tyndall's Golden Eagles are among a prime candidate to fill the void. Leading scorer Dwayne Davis and his long-range marksmanship are gone, but Southern Miss retains the 44 percent three-point clip of Davis' former partner Neil Watson, the 5-11 dynamo who also runs the point and averaged nearly five assists per game last year. Jerrold Brooks returns for his senior season as well to be Watson's running mate in the backcourt, while fellow fourth-year players Michael Craig and Daveon Boardingham look to pick up the slack up front in the absence of leading rebounder Jonathan Mills.

2) Louisiana Tech - A great portion of our colleagues in the industry have done a wonderful job of talking up the prowess of Bulldogs coach Michael White, who at just 36 is among the rising stars of the coaching ranks. With four starters returning to join incumbent sixth men Alex Hamilton and Kenyon McNeail, last year's 27-7 mark may not be an aberration, even if junior guard Raheem Appleby was the team's lone double-figure scorer. Junior point guard Kenneth Smith is Louisiana Tech's X-factor, a glue guy who averaged nearly seven points per game to go with five assists and four rebounds.

3) Charlotte - One of the seven newcomers, Alan Major and the 49ers return to C-USA after a stint in the Atlantic 10, and will come back to reclaim the spot at the top they held during the mid-2000s, when Brendan Plavich drained three-pointers like they were going out of style. The best part of the season for Charlotte is that guard Pierria (pronounced PERRY-ay, like the water) Henry is only a junior who once again reprises his role as the heart and soul of the Charlotte attack. Burgeoning big man Willie Clayton will have a breakout sophomore season up front in the absence of Chris Braswell, and will have the underrated defensive ability of junior wing Terrence Williams to help him along.

4) Tulsa - Danny Manning has come a long way in a short time at the helm of the Golden Hurricane, quickly restoring Tulsa's credibility to a level not seen in the Sooner State since Tubby Smith and Bill Self were at the helm. Sophomore swingman Rashad Smith returns from a medical redshirt that cost him all but four games last year, and will have sophomore guard James Woodard as a potent second scoring option while fellow-second year forward D'Andre Wright helps in the paint. Casual fans will recognize senior guard Pat Swilling Jr. for being more than just an eleven-point scorer and dangerous outside shooter, as his father, Pat Sr., was the face of the New Orleans Saints defense for several years under Jim Mora in the early 1990s. Two more sophomores add to the depth in the Tulsa backcourt in the form of Rashad Ray and Shaquille Harrison.

5) UTEP - Julian Washburn and John Bohannon give Tim Floyd and the Miners one of the best frontcourts in C-USA with their 6-8 and 6-10 statures, respectively, as well as their combined average of over 22 points and 10 rebounds per game. Junior swingman McKenzie Moore will be counted on heavily in the backcourt alongside new point guard C.J. Cooper, a junior who will take over for Jacques Streeter and the five-plus assists he averaged per game. At 6-9, junior Cedrick Lang is on his way to becoming a force in the paint that can average a double-double on his best effort.

6) UAB - Under the direction of Roy Williams player and disciple Jerod Haase, the Blazers have quickly closed the gap on their competition and moved closer to the C-USA dominance they enjoyed under Mike Anderson in the mid-2000s. Do not be surprised to see UAB finish much higher than this spot, being that five of their top six scorers return. Seniors Rod Rucker and Robert Williams are swingmen on a major program's roster, but their hard-nosed rebounding skills make them valuable weapons for Haase, who also has Jordan Swing and Preston Purifoy on the wings of his long and athletic team to accompany 6-10 center Fahro Alihodzic up front.

7) North Texas - The biggest challenge for former Marquette assistant Tony Benford will be how to go about replacing forward Tony Mitchell, the Mean Green's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer last season. However, the primary offensive option, junior swingman Jordan Williams, returns off a year that saw the Dallas product average over fourteen points per game and shoot 34 percent from three-point range. Alzee Williams and Chris Jones will anchor a North Texas backcourt that welcomes the services of Vertrail Vaughns, a graduate transfer who is eligible immediately after spending his first three years with Jim Larranaga and Paul Hewitt at George Mason.

8) Florida International - The Panthers are now on their third coach in as many years, as Anthony Evans makes the jump from Norfolk State to replace Richard Pitino following the 31-year-old's hire at Minnesota after just one season as the successor to Isiah Thomas. A native New Yorker, Evans wasted little time in bringing local flavor to Miami, with one of his first recruits being Bronx swingman Jason Boswell. The freshman will join incumbent locals Joey De La Rosa and Jerome Frink, who played for high school legends Kevin Boyle and Bob Hurley, respectively. In addition, Tymell Murphy, a Brooklynite who was FIU's leading scorer last season, returns for his senior year after posting nearly fifteen points and seven rebounds per game on a team that nearly won the Sun Belt championship last season.

9) Middle Tennessee - Following a spectacular 28-win season in which Kermit Davis and the Blue Raiders were able to celebrate an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, Middle Tennessee; much like Florida International, leaves the Sun Belt for their new C-USA home, and will do so without leading scorers Marcos Knight and sharpshooter Ray Cintron. Senior forwards Shawn Jones and Neiko Hunter will be the focal points for the Blue Raiders this year, while Kerry Hammonds provides a lethal weapon of an outside shot alongside new starting point guard Tweety Knight, who takes over for Bruce Massey as the floor general.

10) Marshall - Tom Herrion loses the services of all-world point guard DeAndre Kane, who will prove difficult to replace for the Thundering Herd this year, even though freshman Kareem Canty, best known for his standout career at Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn, is now eligible to replace Kane. Canty will team with 6-9 wing Elijah Pittman to form a vastly underrated inside/outside scoring duo.

11) East Carolina - Big man Maurice Kemp and prolific passer Miguel Paul, who averaged over thirteen points and seven assists at the point, are both gone, leaving sharpshooter Akeem Richmond at the controls of the Pirate offense in a deep league from top to bottom on the heels of a junior campaign where the Rhode Island expatriate made 105 three-pointers and shot 42 percent on his triple attempts despite not starting a single game. Ty Armstrong and Paris Campbell will be Richmond's running mates for Jeff Lebo, with Campbell taking over for Paul at the point guard position.

12) Old Dominion - Jeff Jones comes over from American to guide the Monarchs into their new league just several months removed from a 5-25 Colonial Athletic Association swan song that saw longtime coach Blaine Taylor fired midway through the season. Leading scorer DeShawn Painter is no longer around, leaving guards Dimitri Batten and Keenan Palmore to run the offense alongside Aaron Bacote, while Richard Ross will be relied upon heavily as one of the few options up front.

13) Texas-San Antonio - The Roadrunners arrive in their new league with an inside/outside scoring duo of Australian big man Jeromie Hill, who posted averages of over thirteen points and six rebounds per game, and senior guard Jordan Sims, who is a possible candidate to replace Michael Hale at point guard. Pay close attention to 6-7 big man Edrico McGregor, who will be a potential X-factor in the paint for UTSA.

14) Florida Atlantic - Sometimes it's easy to forget about the Owls and head coach Mike Jarvis, the one-time leader at George Washington and St. John's before being axed as the coach of the Red Storm almost a decade ago. This season, Florida Atlantic has a long road ahead in replacing the 21-point production of Greg Gantt, as well as second-leading scorer Stefan Moody. The onus will be on Argentine guard Pablo Bertone to lead a supporting cast into contention for a team with only one senior in seven-foot Serbian Dragan Sekelja.

15) Rice - The other team in C-USA nicknamed the Owls will also have a steep climb uphill this season, with Ben Braun looking to guide a 5-26 Rice team closer to the top of the ladder. Sophomore guard Max Guercy becomes the face of the roster after a rookie season in which he shot 37 percent from three-point range, and will have senior sharpshooter Austin Ramljak as a backcourt running mate on a team that brings eight freshmen into the fold to go with a new starting point guard in sophomore Keith Washington.

16) Tulane - The Green Wave ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back when the program was being considered as a potential new member in the Big East. Instead, they return to C-USA with five of Ed Conroy's six leading scorers having departed. The massive exodus offensively leaves just 20 percent of Tulane's production remaining, with the small fraction led by junior forward Trevante Drye, who showed flashes of brilliance against Hofstra at the Barclays Center last December.

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