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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

C-USA Preview Charleston (WV) Gazette

Doug Smock
Will C-USA’s hoops hierarchy remain intact?

The split in Conference USA basketball was painfully clear last season, the league’s first in its 12-school, all-sports format.

There was Memphis, Alabama-Birmingham, Texas-El Paso and Houston. Then there was everybody else.

The demarcation was so great, the league so top-heavy, that 7-7 merited a fifth-place finish and a clear-cut “championship” of the “Little Eight.” Congratulations to the University of Central Florida.

Accordingly, the entire “Little Eight” was drop-kicked out of the Conference USA tournament on day two. It was one of the least suspenseful league tourneys, with the seedings holding to form in nine of 11 games.

It was so bad, the “Big Four” went a combined 23-1 at home in conference games. Those teams lost exactly two games to the other eight, home or away.

Is it more of the same this time around? With conference play firing up this week, here’s a one-man January poll.

1. Memphis (11-3 overall, 1-0 C-USA): Rodney Carney is gone. Shawne Williams is gone. The Tigers’ ranking is top-25 instead of top-five. So what? The Tigers are still the playground bullies and their fans are still the league boss. The conference tournament is back at the FedEx Forum on Beale Street, with few complaints.

Coach John Calipari still has players, and still brings them in waves. You may remember Chris Douglas-Roberts and Robert Dozier from the Tigers’ sold-out visit to Marshall, but several newcomers have made a splash and Jeremy Hunt returned after a season’s absence.

2. UAB (8-7, 0-1): After the Blazers were thumped 76-63 Saturday night at UTEP, this becomes a shaky pick. Missing Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson, they have suffered some stinkers, the worst being 53-44 and 56-42 losses at Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion, respectively. No truth to the rumor that they bused to Appomattox and surrendered.

Ex-Indiana coach Mike Davis will be a well-scrutinized hire. With Paul Delaney III running the point, Wen Mukubu raining 3-pointers and 6-foot-10 Jeremy Mayfield emerging underneath, the Blazers should survive. Beware: Davis has transfers from Mississippi State, Georgia and Indiana stashed away for 2007-08.

3. UTEP (9-6, 1-0): With big man John Tofi gone and Calipari protégé Tony Barbee beginning his head coaching career, the Miners are running more — and they all but ran UAB out of El Paso Saturday night. When Marshall comes to town Wednesday night, I guarantee there will be no repeat of the 53-51 chess match last year in Huntington.

Stefon Jackson (19.8 average) has taken on the scoring duties, and has plenty of help from Saint Louis transfer Darren Clarke and energetic freshman Malik Allen. But home losses to Chicago State and Jackson State, plus a two-game sweep by New Mexico State, indicate that the Miners will lose games they shouldn’t.

4. SMU (10-3): Let the guessing game begin. If you think Houston is going to slip, somebody has to rise. With the Mustangs pulling off the best coaching hire in the league, this is a decent candidate. Matt Doherty spent a year figuring out where he failed at North Carolina, dipped his feet back in the water at Florida Atlantic and has perked up the troops in Dallas.

There isn’t a surefire scorer, but Jon Killen is coming on at point guard and the inside duo of Donatus Rackauskas and Bamba Fall should be daunting. On the other hand, Kansas State transfer Dez Willingham has been a disappointment and the non-league schedule was a bit fluffy.

5. Houston (5-7): The Cougars have had a bumpy ride against a decent schedule, and point guard Lanny Smith will miss the rest of the season after figuring out he hasn’t recovered from surgery on his big toe. But they still have good scorers in Robert McKiver, Oliver Lafayette and Dion Dowell, a 6-7 transfer from Texas.

We’ll get a better read on this team this week, as it plays host to Memphis and SMU.

6. UCF (11-3): The Golden Knights fattened up on cupcakes in November but took a few lumps in a creative schedule afterward. With Jermaine Taylor, Josh Peppers and Mike O’Donnell back, this team is the hottest-shooting from 3-point range at 43.4 percent. A hard early test awaits — if the Knights are 3-4 by the end of the month, they’ll be a factor.

7. Marshall (5-9): It’s like watching the Chicago Cubs, only in green shorts. These guys show glimmers of promise, then blow 20-point leads instantly. But hey, the Herd can erase deficits, too.

So, I’ll play the semi-optimistic homer. In exchange, I want progress — no worse than 7-9 in the league and a first-round victory in the C-USA tournament. A third win in a row over West Virginia wouldn’t hurt.

I figured this team would take some knocks, but it shouldn’t be 5-9. Surely, Darryl Merthie shot better at some point in his life. And Robbie Jackson could be dangerous some day — at times, he plays like a 7-foot center on defense but a 6-foot center on offense. And Travis Aikens ... oh, just hits the boards when he shoots the 3-pointer.

8. Tulsa (10-3): This is the shakiest pick. Coach Doug Wojcik’s team has been pretty good, except perhaps for a 65-63 loss at North Texas. But with freshmen Ben Uzoh, Mark Hill and Jamel McLean in key roles, this team could be a year away from a good C-USA run.

9. Southern Miss (10-3): I would have nominated this team for Fraud of the Year, but the Golden Eagles lost Saturday 54-52 at Savannah State. Yes, the Eagles played home-and-home with the Tigers, which gives you an idea what kind of schedule Larry Eustachy cooked up. Ten of the first 12 were in Hattiesburg, which translates into visits by Belhaven, Spring Hill and Reinhardt.

With Courtney Beasley back and a good freshman scorer in Jeremy Wise, the Eagles won’t be an easy out, however.

10. Rice (6-7): The Owls have the nation’s leading scorer in Morris Almond, but part of the reason he’s pouring in 30 per game is because he has to. He has no supporting cast.

To illustrate that, consider the Owls’ visit Saturday to Princeton. The Tigers held Almond to eight points, which resulted in a 51-28 smothering.

11. Tulane (7-5): As Memphis bolted out to a 41-12 lead in the second round of last year’s C-USA tournament, this much was clear: Marshall should never have lost twice to the Green Wave. David Gomez is a good enough player, but without Quincy Davis, this team is cellar-dwelling material.

12. East Carolina (4-8): The only thing worse than scheduling Morgan State home-and-home is splitting those games. Perhaps Ricky Stokes and top assistant Mack McCarthy can do something with this program, but I don’t see it this year.

The Pirates might go 4-4 at home, but will equal its number of conference road wins last season — none.

To contact staff writer Doug Smock, use e-mail or call 348-5130.

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