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Friday, January 05, 2007

Effects of C-USA Split Still Being Felt

Effects of C-USA split still being felt
Bearcats struggling in expanded Big East

By Dan Wolken
January 4, 2007

When the news came in September 2003 that the Big East had chosen to invite Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, South Florida and DePaul, leaving the University of Memphis in a depleted Conference USA, the outrage was shared among nearly everyone in the Tigers' universe, from the most casual fans to athletic director R.C. Johnson.

Coach John Calipari shrugged his shoulders.

"Things happen for a reason," Calipari said at the time. "I wasn't as hyped up (about the Big East) as some others."

More than three years later, there is an undercurrent of frustration within the UofM's athletic department at the state of C-USA, especially with regard to basketball. At the same time, of the eight programs that split for either the Big East, Atlantic 10 or Mountain West, only one -- Marquette -- is thriving.

The rest -- including Cincinnati, which visits FedExForum tonight -- have struggled to maintain the level they reached in the old league.

Cincinnati's move to the Big East, of course, has coincided with a rebuilding effort following the dismissal of Bob Huggins and then interim coach Andy Kennedy, who's now at Ole Miss.

Mick Cronin, who took over the program last March and has guided the team to a 9-4 record, said he feels good about the program's long-term future in the Big East.

"I think it's the best basketball league ever assembled," Cronin said. "That makes it tough to win in, but it helps recruiting, no question about that. Kids want to go to the best conference, and in kids' minds, the Big East is the best league.

"For the betterment of our program as well as our school and athletic department, we're better off where we're at for a multitude of reasons."

On one hand, things seem to be better than ever in the Big East, which thrived in football this season -- Cincinnati is playing in the International Bowl on Saturday -- and sent eight teams to last year's NCAA Tournament.

But the logistics of a 16-team behemoth basketball conference have been difficult to navigate, especially in forming an equitable conference schedule and workable conference tournament format.

And bubbling below the surface is the idea that the Big East is simply too big and too tough; with powerful programs like Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Georgetown at the top, simply getting into the upper division is harder than ever. And next year, it will be even tougher, with teams playing 18 league games instead of 16.

Last year's Cincinnati team was a classic example of the conference's strength cutting in both directions. Though the Bearcats' 8-8 Big East record was mostly lauded, they still finished in eighth place and weren't invited to the NCAAs.

That begs the question, how does a coach explain that an eighth-place conference finish constitutes a good year? Or better yet, how long will Big East programs stand for it?

Cronin said he doesn't envision another shift anytime soon.

"From my one time going to the league meetings, everybody was elated with the first year," he said. "If you look at the football side, that only strengthens the situation

"Our fans are pretty knowledgeable. Somebody could finish sixth in our league and go to the Final Four. That's the type of league we have. It's an adjustment for most fans that just haven't been around that."

Cincinnati isn't the only former C-USA program going through tough times. Louisville and DePaul missed the NCAAs last year and have struggled to start this season. And South Florida was out of its element in the Big East, finishing 1-15 last year.

Charlotte, which was one of C-USA's most consistent winners, has struggled since joining the A-10 and enters conference play 6-6. TCU finished last in its first Mountain West season.

Meanwhile, as Calipari is happy to point out, Memphis' first year in the reconfigured C-USA yielded the program's first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Tigers are again in the top 25, currently ranked No. 22. And just two months ago, Calipari signed point guard Derrick Rose, the highest-rated player he's ever recruited.

"My comment at the time was, be careful what you wish for," Calipari said. "As long as we're national, as long as we're on national television and as long as it hasn't affected recruiting -- and it hasn't -- the only reason we're in a league is to give us a schedule in January and February.

"If I had to do the whole schedule myself, it would be hard. But they give me a January and February schedule, and then we're preparing for the highest seed we can possibly get to advance as far as we can. The higher your seed, the farther you normally advance."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365


No. 22 Tigers vs. Cincinnati

When, where: Today, 8 p.m., at FedExForum

TV, radio: ESPN, WREC-AM (600)

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