Jan. 7, 2007, 1:44AM
It's Memphis and everybody else
Rest of field have much to prove entering conference play
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
CONFERENCE USA BREAKDOWN
• Most overrated team: Houston. The Cougars (5-7) may ultimately live up to their preseason billing as the second-best team in C-USA, but a four-game losing streak, four double-digit setbacks and the recent news of Lanny Smith opting to redshirt makes UH anything but a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team.
• Anticipated matchup: Memphis at UAB, Feb. 8. The Tigers dropped just one C-USA game last season, falling 80-74 at Bartow Arena on March 2, 2006. Memphis should carry a 9-0 conference record to Birmingham, and the Blazers might be the only team standing between the Tigers and a 16-0 C-USA run.
• Player to watch: UAB guard Paul Delaney III. Rice's Morris Almond, the nation's leading scorer at 31.4 ppg, is C-USA's top player, but Delaney has doubled his scoring (8.7 to 17.6 ppg) from last season, is averaging 5.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists and is key to the Blazers' NCAA Tournament hopes.
Somewhere off in the distance, almost out of sight from the rest of Conference USA, the Memphis Tigers run alone, carrying the C-USA banner both literally and figuratively.
After posting a 16-1 record en route to claiming last season's C-USA regular-season and tournament titles, Memphis represented its conference mates with an impressive charge to the Elite Eight.
However, while riding roughshod over the rest of C-USA does wonders for the job security of Memphis coach John Calipari, the league would be better served if a few more programs elevated their level of play to match that of the Tigers'.
With UAB serving as the only other C-USA representative to participate in the NCAA Tournament, that scenario didn't play out last season. And with No. 22 Memphis alone in the Top 25 rankings and the lone C-USA program with an RPI worthy of consideration for an NCAA at-large berth, there appears to be scant hope for improvement this season.
"At the end of the day," Rice coach Willis Wilson said, "you've got to win games."
As a handful of C-USA teams ramp up for the opening of league play this weekend, the stark reality is that, outside of Memphis, few quality wins have been amassed.
Heading into the weekend, only four C-USA teams (Memphis, Southern Miss, Central Florida and SMU) have reached double digits in victories, and only three — Memphis (21), UAB (69) and SMU (81) — have RPIs in the top 100.
Houston (5-7), which was tabbed by league coaches to finish second, is mired in a four-game skid.
Rice (6-6) and UTEP (8-6) were picked to finish tied for fourth behind UAB (8-6), but with bloated RPIs (Rice, 187; UTEP, 230), neither has a chance to reach the Big Dance outside of the automatic bid.
"None of the three of us have won as many games as we would have hoped," Wilson said of the Owls, Cougars and Miners. "And that's not good for the league."
A disastrous, worst-case scenario would involve Memphis lapping the field, repeating as regular-season and tournament champs, and receiving the automatic — and lone — NCAA bid. Such a notion seemed implausible when Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati called C-USA home, but the reconfigured league has struggled to muster even a modicum of respect.
"That would be disappointing for all of us if that were the case," second-year Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik said. "(It's scary to think that) the second-place team in our league can't get into the Tournament."
But there are signs the growing pains are temporary. Wojcik is one of six league coaches in the first or second season with their programs. Such transitions initially produce periods of inconsistency followed by improvement, with Tulsa (9-3), which was 11-17 last season, validating that theory via spirited scrapes against Oklahoma and Arkansas.
"Considering we've been here 20 months, from where it was to now I'm really pleased with our progress," Wojcik said. "Now what does that mean in terms of results in the conference at this stage of the game? I don't know, because I do think the conference is much improved."
Whether the other C-USA teams can provide the Tigers with some company in the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. Merely closing the gap between Memphis and The Little 11 would qualify as a timely, and sorely needed, step forward for everyone.