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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

C-USA Contenders Improved - Houston and Sou Miss Figure to Push Memphis

C-USA contenders improved
Cougars, Golden Eagles figure to push Memphis

By Dan Wolken
May 20, 2007

DESTIN, Fla. -- Houston Coach Tom Penders has an interesting theory about Conference USA last season: Memphis' undefeated rampage through the league was more about Memphis than its competition.

"The league was better," Penders said. "Memphis was just a great team."

Penders and his colleagues expect Memphis to be a great team once again. One coach who shall remain anonymous said, "We might as well not even show up." He was only half-kidding.

But if Penders' theory is correct, C-USA will once again have a hard time getting any recognition for being a better league in 2007-08 unless somebody beats Memphis. And barring injuries or other unforeseen developments, it's possible the Tigers could once again go 16-0.

The consensus among the coaches here, however, is that C-USA should have five very solid teams, a group of three decent teams in the middle of the pack and four at the bottom that will probably struggle.

Based on those conversations, here's an early look at how the league will shape up behind the Tigers.

2. Houston: By the end of last season, Penders had the league's second-best team. There's no reason to think he won't once again. Say what you will about his sometimes reckless style of play, but he's got legit guards in Robert "Fluff" McKiver and a finally healthy Lanny Smith. Houston's lack of size was a problem last year against good teams, but Penders said 6-11 Seton Hall transfer Marcus Cousin is "for real," and he's raided the Northeast prep scene for depth at other positions. With a home-heavy non-conference schedule, Houston has a chance to be ranked by the time league play starts.

3. Southern Miss: Larry Eustachy is a terrific coach, and he finally has the kind of talent to get him into the NCAA Tournament -- probably sooner rather than later. Though Eustachy said his team is still a year away, Southern Miss has enough athletes, toughness and swagger to overcome its youth. The freshman core of Jeremy Wise, Sai'Quon Stone and Andre Stephens really opened some eyes last season and should improve as sophomores. Eustachy is excited about adding 7-foot Brazilian Gustavo Lino, who practiced with the team for the second half of last season.

4. UAB: A lot of people will pick the Blazers to finish second based on a roster overhaul led by Indiana transfer Robert Vaden (a likely first-team all-C-USA guard) and Georgia transfer Channing Toney, plus a top-100 recruit in Keenan Ellis. But can those guys, while talented, really push UAB past teams like Houston and Southern Miss that have roughly equal talent and more experience playing together? Mike Davis' performance as head coach last season doesn't inspire much confidence he'll be able to take this group of vagabonds from eighth place to the NCAA Tournament.

5. Tulsa: Doug Wojcik is on schedule with what should be the league's second-best program. Despite inheriting a mess, Wojcik won 20 games in his second season, and the Golden Hurricane appears poised to move forward in 2007-08. Though Tulsa took a hit when talented forward Jamel McLean transferred, it has a solid backcourt with Rod Earls and Ben Uzoh and a promising big man in Jerome Jordan. Wojcik's teams are always good defensively; the question is whether there's enough offensive skill there to consistently beat the high-level clubs.

6. UTEP: Tony Barbee's team probably falls into the "one year away" category. Junior Stephon Jackson is one of the best scoring guards in the league, and Sheffield High product Randy Culpepper will add instant offense as a freshman. But UTEP will feature one of the league's youngest lineups, which makes it difficult to envision a top-five finish.

7. Tulane: Hiring Dave Dickerson, a former Maryland assistant, was the best thing Tulane ever did. His performance last season -- taking Tulane from 1-4 in the league to a fourth-place finish -- was perhaps the best under-the-radar coaching performance in the country. The Green Wave will have to replace sharpshooter Chris Moore, but don't expect this program to fall too far with talents like David Gomez and Kevin Sims still around.

8. UCF: After losing a couple solid players to graduation, this looks like a season where the Knights should take a step back. Then again, UCF has outperformed expectations each of its two years in the league, including last season's out-of-nowhere second-place finish. Out of respect for how far Kirk Speraw has taken the program and his solid incoming class, it wouldn't be a surprise to see UCF in the top half.

9. SMU: Anybody who questioned whether Matt Doherty could recruit to SMU should look at his incoming class: seven players, many of whom had high-major offers. While Doherty's future looks solid, SMU will be very young next season. Picking the Mustangs here, there or anywhere is a complete guess.

10. Marshall: Hiring Donnie Jones off Billy Donovan's Florida staff was a good move. He inherits a couple nice building blocks in senior guard Mark Dorris and junior forward Markel Humphrey, who could very well lead the Thundering Herd to a higher finish than this.

11. East Carolina: Ricky Stokes has had a couple rough years in Greenville. Expect to see some improvement in Year 3, but the Pirates won't move into the upper division any time soon.

12. Rice: With the Morris Almond era now over, it's no wonder Willis Wilson went job hunting this spring, interviewing for positions at Denver and Hawaii.

To reach reporter Dan Wolken, call 529-2365

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