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The good news for Mack McCarthy? The Pirates can't possibly sink any lower. Long the doormat in the conference, ECU might have reached new depths of misery in Ricky Stokes' final year. The Pirates won just six games -- and half of those were against Division II opponents. They lost to Richmond. They scored only 59.3 points per game, 314th out of 325 ranked teams. McCarthy has some more good news in that Sam Hinnant, a conference all-rookie selection two seasons ago, is back, after playing only 14 games last season because of a leg injury.
Losing Lanny Smith after four games, Tom Penders once argued, was akin to the football team losing quarterback Kevin Kolb. A savvy playmaker, Smith gave his coach a scare this summer when he twisted his ankle. "He's fine, but we put him in a boot," Penders said. "He's the type of kid, if you don't put him in a cast or a boot, he'll be out there till midnight." Losing Smith would be particularly bad this season, when Houston seems to have the tools to complete Penders' reclamation project. Seton Hall transfer Marcus Cousin adds bulk inside, and a talented rookie class, highlighted by New York point guard Zamal Nixon and two-guard Brockeith Pane, gives the Cougars the sort of depth to maybe turn the corner for good.
Thundering Herd faithful are hoping some of Billy Donovan's pixie dust was sprinkled on Donnie Jones. The school reached out to the Donovan protégé, hiring the Florida assistant to replace Ron Jirsa. Now, Jones will have to pull a point guard out of his hat. Chris Ross is gone, and Marshall really doesn't have a true floor leader. Darryl Merthie did little to make anyone confident he could be the guy, struggling with turnovers when he subbed for Ross. The Herd also lost forwards Travis Aikens and Tre Whitted, putting a lot on Markel Humphrey's shoulders. Humphrey put up impressive numbers last year -- 14 points and 6.5 rebounds -- but one guy can't resurrect a team that hasn't had a winning conference record since 2001 (and the Herd was in the MAC then).
There is a reason the Tigers are virtually everyone's preseason No. 1 team. Well, actually, lots of reasons. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose, to name a few. Memphis is loaded, with enough talent to field an NBA team. Last March, the Tigers went to the Elite Eight. And now, they've added Rose, the No. 1 or No. 1A freshman (depending on whom you ask) in the country. If you really, truly need to find a weakness in John Calipari's squad, look at the free-throw line. The Tigers hit just 61 percent from the charity stripe last season.
Stumbling down the stretch with five losses in its six final regular-season games, Rice still managed to finish a respectable 16-16. Only that was with Morris Almond, the C-USA Player of the Year, who averaged 26.9 points per game. With Almond gone, along with point guard Lorenzo Williams and center Greg Killings, coach Willis Wilson is going to have to search for his offense. No returning player averaged more than 6.3 points per game. But at least the Owls will play in a nicer building. Autry Court, of which Wilson once said, "It's like going to work in a slum," is getting a much-needed facelift.
Two years into his new gig, Matt Doherty has lost four starters from a team that mustered just a 3-13 finish. Bamba Fall, sidelined with a finger injury for part of the season, and Derrick Roberts, bothered by knee pain, are back. But it is Doherty's first recruiting class that will need to grow up in a hurry. The guys who are coming in are his guys. Rookies Ryan Harp, Alex Malone and Robert Nyakundi, all of Texas, New Yorker Papa Dia and Iowa City's Mike Walker really are the linchpins for the Mustangs' immediate and future success.
The Golden Eagles weren't pretty, but they were effective. Ugly-ing up the game with serious defense, Larry Eustachy turned a 10-21 team into a 20-11 one. Southern Miss ranked 38th nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 62.4 points per game, and 24th in field-goal percent defense, holding opponents to 40 percent from the floor. Four newcomers started every game last season for a Southern Miss team that was the second-youngest in Division I. And that can only mean one thing: experience. Jeremy Wise, the C-USA Rookie of the Year, highlights the newbies who now are automatic veterans for a team that could make the postseason.
Given everything he's had to deal with, Dave Dickerson ought to be coach of the year. The Green Wave finished 17-13, its first winning record since 2003. He has reason for more optimism this season. Though long-distance threat Chris Moore is gone, forward David Gomez (13.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) returns, and the inside tandem of Robinson Louisme and Donnie Stith makes going in the paint against the Green Wave a nightmare. The tandem helped Tulane lead the league in blocked shots, averaging 6.25 per game.
Another potential sleeper team, the Golden Hurricane, won 20 games last season despite a serious youth movement. Four talented freshmen and all but two of the part-time starters are back, including Ben Uzoh (9.9 ppg, 5 rpg) and Rod Earls (11.2 ppg). Tulsa didn't do well taking care of the ball, averaging 16.3 turnovers per game, but that very well could have been just a sign of youth. If Doug Wojcik's colts can grow up, the Golden Hurricane could surprise some people.
After three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, UAB fans weren't exactly pleased with Mike Davis' inaugural 15-16 run. Patience, Davis preached; he was changing the team's style. Plus, he knew what was on his bench: transfers Robert Vaden (Indiana), Channing Toney (Georgia) and Walter Sharpe (Mississippi State), who should make big noise this season. Davis also has an incoming class that already was ranked ninth in the country before 7-footer Zisis Sarikopoulos signed. Last season, it was all Paul Delaney all the time, despite facing double teams for most of season. And that was with Delaney playing the point. Now, with Aaron Johnson directing the show, Delaney should be a more comfortable two-guard, and with additional help, shouldn't be the sole focus of opposing defenses.
The sleeper of the conference only two years after jumping from the Atlantic Sun, Kirk Speraw's crew returns eight of the top 10 scorers from a 22-9 team that still is fuming over its NIT slight. Point guard Jermaine Taylor (10.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) is the best of the bunch, but equally bright news comes from Dave Noel. Once a defensive specialist, he upped his offensive production to 9.1 points and 3.8 rebounds last season. Should the Knights make the postseason this March, they will have earned it, after dealing with a brutal schedule that includes Villanova, Connecticut, Ole Miss and Nevada.
Tony Barbee should get a mulligan on his first season. Inheriting the job after Doc Sadler bolted for Nebraska in August 2006, Barbee was in a mad dash to get anything done. Not surprisingly, UTEP suffered its first losing season since 2003. His job isn't much easier this season. In May, Barbee dismissed four players from the team, including Maurice Thomas, the team's most productive big man, and Malik Alvin, a sometimes starting point guard. How well the Miners respond depends on how quickly six new freshmen figure things out, particularly big man Manuel Cass. UTEP was manhandled inside last season, and with Thomas gone, it's up to Cass and junior college transfer Tavaris Watts to get good fast.
-- Dana O'Neil