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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fox Sports - C-USA Team Breakdown

Conference USA team-by-team breakdown
Sports Xchange

Central Florida

Last year: 22-9 overall, 11-5 in C-USA, lost in C-USA first round
When Conference USA started over two seasons ago following the loss of some of its best programs and welcomed in some programs with questionable basketball pedigrees, Central Florida was expected to be the team most likely to bring up the rear.

Instead, UCF has risen to the upper levels of the conference the past two seasons, finishing 7-7 and in fifth place in 2005-06 and 11-5 and in second place last season.

"Of all the changes that took place with the realignment of the conferences, we had the biggest jump to make, coming from the Atlantic Sun and competing in C-USA," said coach Kirk Speraw, now in his 15th season at UCF. "But we've been able to weather that jump in pretty good fashion."

Now the Knights are preparing to move into the new 10,000-seat Convocation Center, sending another signal that the program is serious about competing in C-USA.

"We leap-frogged a number of years there in regards to being competitive in the league," Speraw said. "And that's raised expectations, which is good. Now our kids have to follow through. We've moved faster than what we thought we might be able to, and now we have to maintain and continue to build. But our facility gives us the opportunity to do that."

The next step is to reach the postseason, something UCF accomplished twice as a member of the A-Sun in 2004 and 2005. That task is a lot more difficult now that the competition is tougher, but with the return of nine letterwinners, including five seniors and three starters, led by senior point guard Mike O'Donnell and junior guard Jermaine Taylor, the Knights are at least in position for a run at a postseason spot.

East Carolina
Last year: 6-24 overall, 1-15 in C-USA, lost in C-USA first round

Everyone at the Conference USA Basketball Media Day wore a name tag but it's safe to say most of them didn't need them when they returned home. That might not be the case with East Carolina interim coach Mack McCarthy.

"We have six new players, plus it's my first year," McCarthy said. "We're probably going to have to wear these name tags for awhile."

It might be McCarthy's only year, depending on how things work out. He already faces a tough challenge after former coach Ricky Stokes quit in early August. With 44 losses in 58 games in his first two seasons at ECU, Stokes read the writing on the wall and saw the word "fired" and admitted he didn't want to endure the protracted speculation about job security that would come with another losing season.

Elevating McCarthy from assistant to interim coach was a logical choice based on both the timetable and McCarthy's experience as a head coach at Chattanooga and Virginia Commonwealth. Even the players realized it was the right move when they found out.

"When I got the call, I was excited from Day One," senior point guard Darrell Jenkins said. "I was a little surprised, but at the same time, I was so frustrated with how the season went. I know it wasn't entirely Coach Stokes' fault. I know we had a lot to do with it. But it was a breath of fresh air to start new."

The Pirates return four starters and eight lettermen but 11 of the current players are in their first or second year at ECU. That's going to make for a lot of learning and teaching in the first three months of the season.

"I've changed things in midstream," McCarthy said. "The year we went to the Sweet 16 (in 1996-97 with Chattanooga), I think we were 5-7 after Christmas. So we went back to (the) drawing board and completely changed everything we were doing.

"That's one of the more fun things that you do, trying to come up with a plan that fits the team."

Last year: 18-15 overall, 10-6 in C-USA, lost in C-USA finals

After going 18-14 and 21-10 and reaching the NIT in his first two seasons at Houston, coach Tom Penders expected his third team to take the next step and make a run at a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

What he didn't expect was to lose starting point guard Lanny Smith to an injury that forced him to miss all but four non-conference games. He didn't anticipate that JUCO transfer post Tafari Toney would play only 9.0 minutes per game following preseason knee surgery or that two other valuable reserves would leave the team for personal reasons.

The Cougars played the entire season without a true point guard and, according to Penders, that made the difference between Houston's final record of 18-15 and the possibility of winning at least 22 games.

One year later, Smith is back and ready to go at the point, joined by all-conference senior guard Robert McKiver, senior guard Marcus Malone and senior forward Dion Dowell -- eight returning lettermen in all and a group of seven newcomers that has Penders believing he's never been in a better position to reach the NCAA Tournament.

"This is, by far, the best team I've had at the University of Houston," Penders said.

The key newcomers are transfers Marcus Cousin, a 6-11, 245-pound junior from Seton Hall, and Kelvin Lewis, a 6-4 sophomore guard from Auburn. Cousin brings the potential for the kind of post production Penders has lacked at Houston and Lewis gives the Cougars another tough on-ball defender, which is even more important now that ball-hawk Oliver Lafayette has completed his eligibility.

Last year: 13-19 overall, 7-9 in C-USA, lost in C-USA second round

Before coach Donnie Jones' first Marshall team learns anything, it had to learn how to run, run and run some more.

Jones comes to Marshall from Florida, where he served as an assistant coach on two national championship teams that ran early, often and well. Jones isn't promising any national championships, but he is promising that the Thundering Herd will push the tempo on both ends of the floor.

"Everything we do is kind of fast," said Marshall point guard Pierre-Marie Altidor Cespedes. "(Jones) calls it controlled chaos, which means we're going to look for the best shot possible, then if we don't have it, then we're going to run the (halfcourt) offense.

"But we're going to play fast, so things go fast (in practice)."

Altidor Cespedes, a transfer from Gonzaga who is eligible to play this season, will be a key to the system as a point guard. Jones is also hoping for some immediate help from newcomers such as Kentucky transfer guard Adam Williams, freshman forward Tirrell Baines and freshman point guard Matt Walls, but he's not going to go very far this season without making the most of the team he inherited.

Jones inherits a program that never won more than 13 games under former coach Ron Jirsa. The returning roster includes three starters and eight letterwinners, led by all-conference wing Markel Humphrey and a cast of role players.

"Markel has been terrific; he's a real leader for us," Jones said.

Last year: 33-4 overall, 16-0 in C-USA, lost in NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

If this season is everything the Memphis Tigers believe it can be, if they really do make a serious run at a national championship, there will be plenty of distractions along the way.

The Tigers, who are ranked in the top five in most preseason polls, are already taking two steps to handle two of those distractions.

After two newcomers, transfer center Shawn Taggart and freshman guard Jeff Robinson, were arrested following a ruckus outside of a bar on Sept. 2, coach John Calipari laid down a tight curfew and a new rule that made all nightclubs and bars off-limits to his players.

By all reports, the players have accepted the new restrictions with the best possible response.

"We thought it was going to be real bad at first, but when we look at it, it's not as bad," junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, the 2007-08 Conference USA preseason player of the year, told The Commercial Appeal. "It makes us closer, helps our chemistry. We find things to do. It's not like we're a team that doesn't like each other anyway, so that just helps us. It's all basketball now, and that's not doing nothing but helping us. Curfew, it's like a blessing in disguise."

The players have also agreed to set aside thoughts on the future beyond this season. Calipari knows he will lose all-conference senior center Joey Dorsey and understands he could lose Douglas-Roberts, junior guard Antonio Anderson, junior forward Robert Dozier and possibly others to the NBA Draft, but he wants his team to focus on one and only one thing before those decisions need to be made.

If the offseason work habits and chemistry of his team are any indication, the Tigers are spending their time preparing for a season of high expectations instead of focusing on pre-draft workouts and agents.

"I don't think these guys are thinking of (leaving early)," Calipari said. "They're thinking of one thing right now, winning. You've got a team that is self motivated, on a mission, and they like each other.

"I don't mind that being their goal and what they're striving for themselves personally, but the whole way of doing it is, do you know what they want to see? It's rebounds per minute, points per minute, where are you at physically? Are you able to make game-winning plays? Are you a good teammate?"

Calipari is constantly reminding his team that those are the factors that build a championship team. The Tigers have talent, depth and versatility, and the addition of Taggart in the middle and highly regarded freshman Derrick Rose at the post only add to those factors, but it's the intangibles that often separate the true contenders from the pretenders.

"The thing you're trying to do is keep building a swagger within your team," Calipari said. "You do that by playing great defense and being very unselfish and having more of a team mentality as far as leadership -- where it's always different players who are leading.

"One player may lead for two weeks and then another jumps up and leads for awhile. You're just trying to build -- game to game, week to week, month to month -- a swagger where they feel a little bit of invincibility."

Last year: 16-16 overall, 8-8 in C-USA, lost in C-USA semifinal

When Rice coach Willis Wilson arrived at the Conference USA Basketball Media Day, he sounded a little like a man whistling while walking past the graveyard.

"I'm wearing a black suit because I'm mourning the loss of Morris Almond to the NBA," Wilson said.

Almond led C-USA and finished third in the nation in scoring last season with 26.4 points per game. Now he's gone, a first-round NBA draft choice playing with the Utah Jazz, and there's no possible way the Owls can replace him with any one player.

"I knew everybody would ask about Morris and what his loss would mean to our team," Wilson said. "We've been in this situation a number of times over the years, and we've been fortunate that we've had guys step up.

"Not long ago, guys were saying how are you going to replace Michael Harris, he's the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in school history. Morris was right there in the wings waiting to step in. Our problem hasn't been building around a marquee guy like a Morris Almond, it's been more having the supporting cast to go with him to get us over the hump."

Wilson will attempt to replace Almond and two other starters, point guard Lorenzo Williams and center Greg Killings, with a cast of many led by junior guard Rodney Foster and sophomore guard Cory Pflieger. The Owls would like to count on guard Bryan Beasley, a transfer from Texas A&M, but as of mid-October they were still waiting for an NCAA ruling on his eligibility.

The Owls will also be playing without a true home court this season while antiquated Autry Court undergoes some major reconstructive surgery. It's a $25 million investment in Rice's basketball future but it will only add to the steep challenges the Owls face without Almond.

Last year: 14-17 overall, 3-13 in C-USA, lost in C-USA first round

SMU lost three starters from a team that finished 14-17 last season but it's not the past or even the immediate future that's important right now.

The long-term future is the more interesting aspect of Matt Doherty's program. In his second season at SMU, Doherty will depend on immediate help from seven freshmen as he attempts to build a winning program.

Those won't be easy at a school that hasn't been to the postseason since 2000 and the NCAA Tournament since 1993, but the support for Doherty's program is growing. Doherty and athletic director Steve Orsini have spent considerable time and effort attempting to raise interest and financial support and a $13 million, 43,000-square-foot basketball facility will be open early in 2008.

Even the court at Moody Coliseum will have an updated look, complete with all those newcomers joining senior guard Jon Killen, senior guard Derrick Roberts and 7-1 junior center Bamba Fall.

Among the freshmen, Doherty is counting on plenty of help from point guard Mike Walker, shooting guard Ryan Harp, 6-6 wing Bennie Rhodes, 6-8 forwards Alex Malone and Robert Nyakundi and 7-1, 245-pound center Tomasz Kwiatkowski. Doherty is also hoping for some impact from 6-9, 250-point forward Papa Dia, but Dia might be forced to miss the season because of a back injury.

The biggest challenge Doherty faces will be to keep his team positive and moving forward in the face of what will most likely be a losing season.

"You want to put those guys in position to develop confidence," Doherty said. "If they don't win, especially young kids, all of a sudden losing just unravels a group."

Southern Miss
Last year: 20-11 overall, 9-7 in C-USA, lost in C-USA second round

All it took was one winning season for the expectations to rise substantially at Southern Miss.

After five consecutive losing seasons and eight in the past nine, coach Larry Eustachy's rebuilding plan finally kicked in with a 20-11 record, including a 9-7 finish good for fourth place in Conference USA.

Now, with the return of four starters and seven letterwinners from a team that featured five first-year players (and three freshmen) among its top eight players, the Golden Eagles have gone from being near the bottom of C-USA to the top of the conference.

"I think it's a big year," Eustachy said. "We had some success, but it's like I've told the players, ‘What did we really do? What have we really done?'

"From where the program was, yes, we've done some positive things and made a lot of progress, but on the national scene, you haven't arrived until you've made the postseason."

Eustachy believes the biggest key will be getting all those young players to realize they still have a long way to go and can't get caught up in the success of one season. That's particularly true of two sophomores -- guard Jeremy Wise and forward Sai'Quon Stone -- who will play a key role in any Southern Miss has.

It helps that Eustachy has brought in a recruiting class that can push the returning players for playing time and even starting jobs.

"The foundation is definitely there, and now, we're going to be more competitive than ever," Eustachy said. "Minutes are going to be harder to come by. We're still young, but to me, it's the ideal coaching situation -- a team where you have great competitiveness, great numbers and great character."

Last year: 14-17 overall, 6-10 in C-USA, lost in C-USA second round

If the rest of Conference USA wants to pick UTEP to finish in the bottom half of the conference in the preseason poll, that's just fine with Miners coach Tony Barbee.

"My philosophy has always been sell low and deliver high," said Barbee, who enters his second season at UTEP. "Expectations outside of El Paso are not that high, which is fine by me. I'd rather be picked eighth and finish second than be picked fourth and finish ninth, like we did last year. Ultimately we have to do it on the court. I think that ranking will motivate our players and drive them to have a very successful year."

What the poll recognizes is the graduation of guard Kevin Henderson, the team's second-leading scorer from last season's 14-17 team, as well as the offseason dismissal of four players, including three part-time starters in point guard Malik Alvin, power forward Maurice Thomas and small forward Dale Vanwright.

What the poll doesn't recognize is the early signs Barbee is seeing from his team, especially junior Stefon Jackson, one of the best overall players in C-USA, and four seniors -- guards Marvin Kilgore and Pearson Smith and centers Victor Ramalho and Jeremy Sampson.

"We have a new level of commitment from our older players," Barbee said, "and they have done a good job directing our younger guys through the program. We need the older guys to carry us and the younger guys to catch up early."

It's those young guys who will have to come through for the Miners to exceed those low preseason predictions. Barbee signed six freshmen who comprise one of the nation's top-50 recruiting classes. In addition to 6-9, 210-pound junior Tavaris Watts, a JUCO transfer who sat out last season, the Miners will need immediate help in the frontcourt from highly regarded 6-7, 215-pound Manuel Cass, 6-11, 285-pound Claude Britten and 6-10, 240-pound Wayne Portalatin.

"I'm excited about them, but they're freshmen," Barbee said. "They'll have their ups and downs. One of the biggest things we did was address our lack of size. I was the biggest guy on our team last year."

Last year: 17-13 overall, 9-7 in C-USA, lost in C-USA second round

In two seasons at Tulane, coach Dave Dickerson has endured Hurricane Katrina, the loss of two starting guards early in each of the past two seasons and a general lack of talent and depth in relation to most Conference USA teams.

Yet his second Tulane team still managed to finish 17-13 with a 9-7 record in C-USA, giving the Green Wave its best season since 1999-2000. Now, even with the loss of perimeter sharpshooter Chris Moore and two other solid contributors, Dickerson expects more of the same improvement this season.

"I am going into my third year at Tulane and this has been the best offseason with the least amount of distractions," Dickerson said. "We are very excited about the upcoming season because of the way we finished last year, winning nine of our last 12 games, and capturing a fourth-place finish, which was very good for us. We earned a first-round bye in the conference tournament and that was exciting for our team."

Dickerson will need plenty of help from eight sophomores and freshmen for that to happen, but those young players can build around one of C-USA's best seniors in 6-7, 235-pound post David Gomez. In addition to his 13.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, Gomez brings experience, leadership and much-needed toughness.

Dickerson also expects continued improvement from sophomore point guard Kevin Sims, who grew up in the fire last season and improved with time and experience.

Beyond Gomez and Sims, Tulane needs senior forwards Donnie Stith and Matt Wheaton and junior forwards Robinson Louisme and Daniel Puckett to be more assertive and become more than the role players they've been in the past. The Green Wave is also looking for immediate backcourt help from two newcomers, redshirt freshman Johnny Mayhane and transfer Eric Vianney.

Despite last season's success and its own high expectations, Tulane once again enters the season predicted to finish in the bottom half of the conference.

"Obviously, I disagree with where we were picked, but I do realize the conference has become more talented. We will take this motivation into the season and it could be a good thing for us because it gives us the chance to prove people wrong," Gomez said. "This is just continued motivation for us to get into the gym and play hard against every team in the conference, and not just the teams picked ahead of us."

Last year: 20-11 overall, 9-7 in C-USA, lost in C-USA second round

It's been done before at Tulsa and coach Doug Wojcik is convinced it will happen again.

Tulsa played in the NCAA Tournament eight times from 1994-2003. After tumbling down to 9-20 in both 2003-04 and 2004-05, the program hired Wojcik, who led the Golden Hurricane to a 20-11 finish in his second year on the job.

Wojcik and the Golden Hurricane finished 9-7 and tied for fourth in Conference USA with a roster that included five freshmen and seven first-year players in all.

With the return of four starters and eight letterwinners, the next logical steps are clear:

First, beat a team from a top conference.

"It's just the natural progression of our program," Wojcik said. "It would be nice to have a big win. That would energize our fan base."

Second, reach the postseason. "I want to get to postseason play," senior point guard Brett McDade said. "That's why we've worked so hard in the summer and preseason. We want to make sure we do it."

For that to happen, the Golden Hurricane must build on a deep backcourt by getting more production out of a frontcourt that lost four players. Even if the big men do come through, Wojcik knows it's still possible the Golden Hurricane's improvement might not show in the record, the rewards or the RPI.

"It's easy to measure, but if you don't do one and do the other things, does it mean an unsuccessful season? No," Wojcik said. "We're just planning on progressing and moving forward."

Last year: 15-16 overall, 7-9 in C-USA, lost in C-USA first round

When Gene Bartow talks, people at UAB and Memphis listen. Bartow took Memphis to the Final Four in 1973 and established the UAB program, coaching the Blazers from 1978-96. He is still highly respected at both schools so his opinion carries significant weight.

So when Bartow says coach Mike Davis' second UAB team is going to be loaded, Memphis coach John Calipari pays heed.

"Gene Bartow told me I'm not going to believe how talented Mike's team is down there," Calipari said. "He said it's one of the most talented teams in UAB history. I don't know if he's trying to scare me or not."

UAB could be scary -- scary good or scary bad, depending on how well Davis merges all his new talent with his returning players and how willing all those players are to come together as a team.

Davis returns three starters from a team that finished 15-16 last season after going to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years under former coach Mike Anderson. UAB fans were confused and confounded by the Blazers' sudden demise but Davis had a plan.

First, he already had three transfers on campus, bringing in guard Robert Vaden from his old job at Indiana, as well as guard Channing Toney from Georgia and Walter Sharpe from Mississippi State.

Davis also knew he was on the verge of signing a strong recruiting class. The addition of two JUCO standouts, 6-7, 220-pound forward Reggie Huffman and 5-11 point guard Ed Berrios, and three freshmen -- 5-8 point guard Aaron Johnson, 6-6 guard Terrence Roderick and 6-10, 200-pound forward Keenen Ellis -- comprised the nation's ninth-ranked recruiting class.

Ellis didn't qualify academically but the Blazers also added 7-footer Zisis Sarikopoulos from Greece.

Ideally, some combination of Berrios, Johnson and Roderick will come through at the point so senior Paul Delaney III can move to the off guard. The lack of a true point guard forced Delaney to move last season and he still managed to earn first-team all-conference honors. Davis thinks he will be even better at the two.

Returning forwards Lawrence Kinnard and Frank Holmes will have to fight for their starting jobs but at least the Blazers will finally have some size and depth inside after going without for the past several years.

"(The depth) jumps out because last year we had none," Davis said. "We had three or four guys who had to play 30 or 40 minutes. They were playing tired a lot. We'll be able to get guys some rest and that will help us."

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