Memphis sets the pace in C-USA
That was the consensus on the University of Memphis when Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul packed up their toys for the Big East, and Charlotte and St. Louis bolted for the Atlantic 10. Most people presumed the Tigers, left with no one to play with, would fade into the basketball backdrop.
Instead, Memphis not only has lifted itself into a possible preseason No. 1 perch, it has pulled its entire conference along with it. Conference USA, tagged when the league broke up in 2005 as a one-bid league for eternity, is on the verge of becoming a multi-bid league again.
And it can thank the would-be basketball orphan Tigers.
"Having them out there as a Final Four-type team, that gives us credibility," Houston coach Tom Penders said. "We all want to catch up with Memphis. You need to have a target team in the league; I don't care who you are. When Syracuse and Connecticut aren't good, that hurts the Big East. We need Memphis to be good, and they've been great."
It's easy to say now that there were no worries.
But there were worries. In its heyday, C-USA earned six bids to the NCAA Tournament, with a surplus of excellence that put it right among the big boys. Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette regularly accounted for those bids.
Without those schools, there was a whole lot of Memphis, a sprinkle of Alabama-Birmingham and not much else.
"I was a little worried," admitted Memphis senior Joey Dorsey, who was a sophomore when the league fell apart.
John Calipari insists he wasn't. He dug into his coaching bag and pulled out the UMass model, figuring his Tigers, like his Minutemen, were going to have go outside the league to get their worth. He scheduled national opponents; recruited players here, there and everywhere; and argued that it's better to be the top dog than mixed in with a pack of similar pedigrees.
In the three seasons since things supposedly fell apart, Calipari's squads have been to the Elite Eight twice, and this season's team boasts talent that the Memphis Grizzlies would envy.
"Two things I considered," Calipari said. "The conference gives you the schedule for January and February. What you do with the rest of it is up to you. That's number one. Second, kids don't care. Ask them about the league, and what's the only league they care about? The league. They want to know if you can prepare them to go to the NBA."
But what's more important is that while Calipari has helped the league tread water, the other teams have started to catch up. The average RPI for C-USA members is moving in the right direction: 148 this season, up from 169 the previous season.
Realizing the sink-or-swim reality of college hoops, schools are starting to pony up the cash to make things happen. This season, Central Florida is getting a new arena, SMU is debuting a new practice facility and Rice is sprucing up its gym.
"The league sagged a little bit when everyone left," said acting East Carolina coach Mack McCarthy, whose program has owned the conference basement. "But the teams that have come in all have made a strong commitment to being nationally competitive. Teams are spending; schools are giving you the resources. There's no question that, sitting here today at East Carolina, we know that we have all the resources that we need to be competitive in this league."
No question there still is tons to be done. Central Florida, Southern Miss and Tulsa all won 20 games last season, but none won 20 of the right games, and they were left out of the Selection Sunday fun.
To truly declare itself rejuvenated and reborn, C-USA needs to give Memphis some Madness company.
"This league is headed strongly in the right direction," Penders said. "It's a good basketball league. We may never get six teams in the way we did before, but the league makes sense now. We all have a lot of commonalities; rivalries are forming. We're on our way again."
-- Dana O'Neil
Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.