C-USA good for just one bid?
By Jim Masilak
January 10, 2007
There is good news and there is bad news for Conference USA men's basketball at the midway point of this second post-schism season.
The good news?
The league's Ratings Percentage Index ranking, according to Ken Pomeroy's figures at kenpom.com, is two places higher than it was a year ago.
C-USA, which was rated 11th as of Tuesday, has surpassed the Atlantic 10 Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association in terms of overall league RPI.
The bad news?
Despite that apparent improvement, it's doubtful whether C-USA will send more than one team to this year's NCAA Tournament, something it's done every year since its 1995 inception.
While eight of the league's 12 teams boast winning records as non-conference play gives way to the league portion of the schedule, only one of them -- No. 20-ranked University of Memphis -- can be considered an NCAA lock.
UAB, which joined the Tigers in the tournament a year ago, is 8-7 and has lost four of its last six games.
Houston, which thought it should have joined the Tigers in last year's NCAAs, is a disappointing 5-7 and has lost point guard Lanny Smith for the season to a toe injury.
Central Florida, SMU, Southern Miss and Tulsa have won 10 or more games, but they did so against non-league schedules ranking between 203rd and 330th in the country.
"You certainly don't want to get labeled a one-bid league," CSTV analyst and former Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "But this year it could be a one-bid league."
Gillen, however, thinks such an occurrence would prove in the long term to be an aberration.
"It's easy to take shots at the league right now," he said. "When you lose the teams they lost to the Big East, sure, that hurt. They're still feeling the reverberations of that now. But it will come back strong.
"The league has taken a tiny step back, but I think next year, its third year, it's gonna be really good. In the fourth year, it's gonna be one of the top seven leagues in the country."
Memphis coach John Calipari, who at times has bemoaned the reconfigured league's negative effect on the Tigers' RPI ranking, says he is convinced it is on the right track.
Calipari points to high-profile coaching hirings at SMU (Matt Doherty) and UAB (Mike Davis) and new, multimillion-dollar facilities at Central Florida, Southern Miss, SMU and UTEP as evidence of a commitment to leaguewide improvement.
Calipari also says C-USA will eventually be as much of a NCAA Tournament factor as it was before Charlotte, Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, St. Louis, South Florida and TCU left for supposedly greener pastures.
"This is a multiple-bid league," Calipari said. "... You watch. Within the next two to three years ... we'll be a three- or four-bid league ... which is what we were before the breakup."
Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy, whose Golden Eagles are off to a 10-3 start after winning just 10 games in 2005-06, senses that even if there are few standout clubs at the moment, C-USA is improving as a whole.
"I've been in leagues with some Hall of Fame coaches, and I think it's as well-coached a league as I've been in," Eustachy said. "It's terrific overall, and I think it's gonna continue to be on the rise from top to bottom."
But with six of the league's coaches in just their first or second seasons, Marshall coach Ron Jirsa said such general improvement is bound to take some time.
"It is year two for the format, but we've had a lot of coaching changes," Jirsa said. "There are some very good coaches coming into the league. Their teams have adjusted quickly and I think these other (teams) will as well."
One of those adjustments, first-year UTEP coach and former Memphis assistant Tony Barbee said, has been in scheduling.
"You talk about league RPIs and where your league falls, and the biggest part of that is winning games outside of your league and being creative in your scheduling," Barbee said. "Coaches this year were creative in scheduling, which helped us build non-conference resumes with a lot of wins."
The only problem is that few of those victories came against quality opponents.
Calipari cited his own team's lackluster play in losses to Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Arizona as being part of the league's collective problem.
"We haven't exactly lit it up either," Calipari said, "so I think we're all kind of looking at it and saying, 'OK, let's get this thing rolling.'"
-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311
Next for No. 20 Tigers
When, where: Thursday, 8 p.m., at Houston
Conference RPI rankings
According to collegerpi.com
2. Missouri Valley
5. Big Ten
6. Big 12
7. Big East
8. Mountain West
10. West Coast
11. Conference USA
12. Atlantic 10