It looks bad, but ... C-USA coaches say progress being made
By Phil Stukenborg
March 7, 2007
Matt Doherty said he has packed four suits for the Conference USA men's basketball tournament.
That's one for today's opening round, another for Thursday's quarterfinals, another for Friday's semifinals and the last for Saturday's championship game.
Doherty, in his first season at SMU, may not be lacking courtside attire or confidence as his 11th-seeded Mustangs open play in the Conference USA men's basketball tournament today at FedExForum against sixth seed Southern Miss.
But Doherty, like most of his first-round coaching colleagues, understands a postseason invitation is unlikely unless there's a need for a fourth suit.
Top seed Memphis (27-3) is the only league member assured of an NCAA Tournament berth. And the Tigers, the nation's fifth-ranked team, are heavily favored to repeat as C-USA tournament champions, which earns an automatic spot in the 65-team bracket.
If that happens, C-USA will be a one-bid league for the first time since the conference's inception in 1996 and the first time since the league was revamped two years ago.
And UCF, Houston and Tulane, the tournament's Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds will be left hoping for an NIT bid, along with two 19-10 teams -- Tulsa and Southern Miss.
So what will it take for C-USA to become a multiple-bid league again?
''It all starts with out-of-conference wins,'' said Tony Barbee, a former Memphis assistant and first-year UTEP coach. ''We've got to go into our non-conference schedule and win, and win against some of the better teams in the country. That's when I think this league will start to get some national respect.''
Memphis, with an early season win over then 20th-ranked Kentucky, was the only C-USA team to beat a Top 25 opponent. League teams went 1-22 against ranked foes. As a result, the league's RPI rankings were dismal outside of Memphis. Memphis (7) and Houston (95) are the only C-USA teams with top 100 RPI rankings.
''You've got to win your non-conference games,'' said UAB coach Mike Davis. ''It builds up your RPI so forth and so on. That's what we're going to have to do.''
No. 7 Rice and No. 10 UTEP open C-USA Tournament play today at noon. No. 6 Southern Miss and and No. 11 SMU follow at 2:30 p.m. The evening session begins at 6 with No. 8 Marshall playing No. 9 UAB, followed by No. 5 Tulsa vs. No. 12 East Carolina.
Memphis will play the Marshall-UAB winner Thursday at 6.
While the league's postseason numbers will be down, there has been subtle improvement. The league finished the 2005-06 season ranked as the No. 14 conference in the final RPI report but has climbed to No. 11. Three teams -- Southern Miss, Tulsa and UCF -- have advanced 80 or more points in the RPI rankings.
Barbee said the league has ''improved tremendously'' from a year ago.
''Now it has to keep advancing,'' Barbee said.
To continue making strides, Barbee said, it's the non-Memphis C-USA schools' responsibility to ''try and catch Memphis, not bring them back to the pack.''
''The biggest thing is coaches win games, administrations win championships,'' Barbee said. ''There's got to be a commitment from the administrations. And that's happening all around the league.
''Look at SMU and the improvements they are making to their facility. They also are in the process of building a new practice facility. We have a practice facility coming in a year. It takes those kinds of commitments, outside of the play on the court, which has to continue to improve.''
UCF is scheduled to open a 10,000-seat Convocation Center in the fall. SMU broke ground on its Crum Basketball Center -- a $13 million, 43,000-square-foot practice facility -- in December. UTEP is set to open The Foster & Steven Basketball Complex in the fall of 2008 and Rice recently announced a $23 million renovation of Autry Court, a nearly 60-year-old facility that will be gutted this summer.
''That's important,'' Davis said. ''But we've got to bring good players in the league and beat some teams you're not supposed to beat. Then we'll have the argument in March about how many teams should be in the (NCAA) tournament.''
Doherty understands there won't be much of an argument this week. It's one team if Memphis wins the tournament. It's two if someone knocks Memphis off.
''I think it's tough (for a second NCAA bid) unless somebody wins it besides Memphis,'' Doherty said. ''I think Central Florida is in position to do that, but I don't think any of our teams have done enough outside the league to warrant that. That's just a fact.''
Eventually, multiple bids will come, Doherty said.
''I think the programs have to mature,'' he said. ''You look at all these programs (today). They're just now (getting accustomed) to being in the league. We weren't in Conference USA (three years ago). Tulsa wasn't. UTEP wasn't.
''It's like any organization. At the beginning, it takes usually three to five years for an organization to mature, whether it be a basketball program or a business. I think our league is the same. I do know that a lot of teams are investing (financial) resources to upgrade facilities, recruiting budgets and coaching staffs. I think in the next three to five years our conference will receive multiple bids.''
Doherty said C-USA is fortunate to have a national power like Memphis, a team that spent most of the season's second half in the Top 10.
''That's something we sell to recruits,'' Doherty said. ''We tell them you'll get to play Memphis twice every year. I was stupid enough to say I wanted to play Memphis twice a year.''
SMU finished 3-13 in the conference and 14-16 overall but pushed Memphis to the buzzer last weekend in Dallas before falling, 64-61.
''Hey, if we played Memphis that close, we can beat anybody in this tournament,'' Doherty said. ''We just have to get on a roll (but) why not us?
''This is the beautiful thing about college basketball, it puts the madness in March. I told 'em I packed four outfits. I plan on being here through Saturday and playing in the championship game. If you don't have that attitude, there's no way you're going to win.''
-- Phil Stukenborg: 529-2543
C-usa tournament first round
Tickets: $50, $30, $15, and $5, available at the FedExForum box office and through Ticketmaster (by calling 555-1212 or at ticketmaster.com)
Today's TV: none
Today's radio: All games on WHBQ-AM (560)