There's Memphis ... and everybody else
Yoni Cohen / Special to FOXSports.com
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Without Cincinnati, Louisville, Charlotte, and Marquette, Conference USA's national standing last year declined. Whereas in 2005 the league sent four teams to the NCAA tournament, the conference in 2006 sent only two. While in 2005 the conference ranked as the nation's ninth-best, in 2006 it checked in at No. 13, three worse than the Colonial Athletic Association and only one better than the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
This season, the league hopes to regain its footing. Without Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, and Darius Washington, that won't be easy to do. The three last year combined for more than half of Memphis' scoring. Fortunately for fans of the Tigers, the conference's standard bearer, John Calipari doesn't rebuild, he reloads. Top 100 guards Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack join the fearless sophomore foursome of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier and Kareem Cooper. Junior Joey Dorsey returns to crash the glass and troubled senior point guard Jeremy Hunt is back after a one-year suspension. Though young, Memphis will be talented and deep.
It's the rest of the conference — especially the bottom half — that needs fixing. In 2006, eight of the league's 12 teams had losing records and RPIs of 190 or worse. Part of the problem was a lack of success against non-conference opponents. A bigger concern was poor planning. Only three squads assembled a top-100 schedule. Overall, the conference played the nation's fifteenth-toughest schedule, shooting itself in the foot on Selection Sunday. If the league hopes to again send four or five teams to the NCAA tournament, its teams must elevate not only their play, but also the caliber of their opponents.
In addition to a massive grind for credibility, what should you expect from Conference USA, and what might we reasonably predict?
What do Matt Doherty, Mike Davis, and Tony Barbee have in common? Each is about to spend his first year as head coach of a Conference USA club. Doherty, the former North Carolina and Notre Dame head coach, spent a single year at Florida Atlantic before accepting an offer to lead Southern Methodist, a school that last participated in the NCAA tournament in 1993. The Mustangs return several key contributors, including frontcourt workhorse Devon Pearson, but lost star point guard Bryan Hopkins from a team that won only four conference games last year.
After six turbulent seasons as Bob Knight's successor at Indiana, Mike Davis takes over for Mike Anderson at UAB. Though the Blazers' cupboard is hardly bare, it is also far from full. Wen Mukubu and Frank Holmes are back, but assist factory Squeaky Johnson and prolific scorer Marvett McDonald are gone. A longtime assistant to Calipari at Memphis, Barbee is already familiar with league opponents' preferred style of play. But because all four of UTEP's leading scorers have moved on, he must build around his nine incoming players.
With a year under their belts, East Carolina's Ricky Stokes, Tulsa's Doug Wojcik, and Tulane's Dave Dickerson are slightly more experienced. But they, like two-year veterans Larry Eustachy at Southern Mississippi and Tom Penders at Houston, have yet to fully settle in. Even in today's game, few conferences have two-thirds their of coaches with two or fewer years of experience. As recent hires mature, the league's identity will solidify.
Memphis will run away with the regular season crown. But the race for second — and the conference's single at-large bid — is sure to provide more drama. The return of Lanny Smith and Oliver Lafayette rightly made Houston the coaches' pick in a recent league poll. But only five total letter winners return for Tom Penders' club, which remains undersized and last year went 4-4 in conference road games. The Cougars shoot poorly from the field and the free-throw line and last season had the league's worst rebounding defense.
UAB will not continue to play Anderson's "Forty Minutes of Hell." Under Mike Davis's more measured offensive attack, forward Lawrence Kinnard can expect more touches inside. Guard Paul Delaney should be a double-digit contributor, particularly if his shot improves from outside. Former Oklahoma signee Jeremy Mayfield will contribute immediately, as should junior college Andre White, Davis' first signee as the Blazers' head coach. Still, despite several solid parts, UAB will lack the toughness and depth necessary to make a compelling whole.
Thanks to the return of league-leading scorer Morris Almond, Rice is in the unusual position of having a legitimate shot at postseason play. Almond is a silky-smooth All-American candidate who knows when to shoot and when to pass. He averaged 21.9 points and 5.8 rebounds a game last year. Backcourt mate Lorenzo Williams is also no slouch, tallying 10.5 points and 6.1 assists a game. Unfortunately for the Owls, only role player Patrick Britton returns from last year's frontline. Both 6-foot-8, 230-pound Romanian forward Marius Craciun, a junior college transfer, and 6-foot-9, 230-pound Lithuanian forward Paulius Packevicius will be tested early and often.
Junior college transfers
White and Craciun are just the beginning. Houston welcomes six junior college transfers, including second-team All-American Robert Lee. UTEP's roster includes six juco transfers, the largest of whom is 7-footer Franklin Jones. After an impressive first season in conference, Central Florida brings aboard 6-foot-11 center Stanley Billings, who spent eight years in the Marines. Tulsa's Roderick Earls could make an impact after red shirting last season, as might East Carolina's Darrell Jenkins. Finally, bigs Gjio Bain and Demar Dotson enter Conference USA this year through Southern Mississippi's revolving door. Given Larry Eustachy's record, who knows how long they'll stay around?
Is Jahmar Thorpe ready to step up his game? The Houston Cougars need help down low.
Can David Gomez step his game up another level? If so, the Green Wave could make a splash.
Will Patrick Britton have a breakout season? Rice needs a third scoring option.
Can Doug Wojcik improve Tulsa's offense in year two? The Golden Hurricane scored fewer points per possession last year than any other conference club.
Who will assume leadership responsibilities for Memphis? Talent and depth only take teams so far.
Can Matt Doherty cajole Southern Methodist to take better control of the basketball? The Mustangs were done in last year by turning the ball over too frequently.
Predicted order of finish
1. Memphis: The Tigers are in a class by themselves.
2. Houston: Sensational defense will separate the Cougars from the rest of the pack.
3. Rice: Almond didn't return to lead the Owls to another sub-.500 conference finish.
4. UAB: A solid non-conference schedule well prepares the Blazers for league play.
5. UTEP: Stefon Jackson and Kevin Henderson form a talented backcourt.
6. Central Florida: Josh Peppers has all-conference talent.
7. Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane must limit their turnovers.
8. SMU: It didn't take Doherty long to make an impact at Florida International.
9. Tulane: There's no place like home.
10. Southern Miss: Courtney Beasley isn't much of a shooter.
11. Marshall: The Thundering Herd need to play better defense.
12. East Carolina: Corey Rouse will be sorely missed.
Player of the Year: Morris Almond, Rice. Most players see their shooting accuracy decline as their scoring average rises. Not Almond. In his breakout junior season, Morris made 50 percent of attempts from the field and 44 percent from behind the arc.
Newcomer of the Year: Dion Dowell, Houston. Tom Penders was more than happy to steal the talented forward from Texas.
Game of the Year: Houston at Memphis in late February. A wonderful opportunity for the Cougars to snag a quality victory before Selection Sunday. The Tigers will be coming off a tough test against Rice.
NCAA tournament team(s): Memphis and Houston. Tom Penders' club has precious few opportunities to make a good national impression. The Cougars must win at Arizona or Kentucky, go perfect in the balance of nonconference games, upset Memphis in conference, or pack their bags for the NIT.
NIT tournament team(s): Rice. A final opportunity for Almond to shine before moving on to the NBA.
Coach who might get fired: Larry Eustachy, Southern Mississippi. To call Eustachy's time with the Golden Eagles a disappointment would be too kind.
Yoni Cohen is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com. He writes about college basketball on his blog, yocohoops.com.