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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

C-USA improved, but still can't make headway in RPI

C-USA improved, but still can't make headway in RPI
Low profile affects Tigers, tournament hopefuls
By Dan Wolken
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

In a span of about four hours last Wednesday night, three Conference USA teams had opportunities to not only boost the league's national image but its all-important Ratings Percentage Index. Had those teams gone 3-0, it would have been legitimate to begin talking about C-USA once again as a league capable of putting multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament.

But as University of Memphis coach John Calipari watched Houston and Texas-El Paso, respectively, blow late leads to UMass and New Mexico -- sandwiching a Tulane victory over LSU -- he was left without much more than rhetoric in his annual campaign to promote the conference his team plays in.

"We're so close to bumping through," Calipari said. "We're talking baskets away from saying that we can change the impression out there that the league hasn't gotten better. It has."

Though every coach maintains that C-USA has improved, the numbers don't necessarily reflect it. Last season, C-USA finished as the 11th-ranked league in the RPI, the primary tool used by the NCAA Tournament committee. As of Monday, C-USA was 12th, behind the West Coast Conference, the Mountain West and the Horizon League.

And despite the fact that a few teams besides Memphis have stepped up and beaten recognizable opponents -- both UAB and Houston beat Kentucky, Tulane is 3-0 against the SEC and even East Carolina notched a victory over N.C. State -- others have been just that close to attention-grabbing victories.

The net effect is that only Memphis (first) and Tulane (70th) begin conference play with RPIs in the top 100, hardly what the league hoped for in a year when it anticipated sending at least two and perhaps even three teams to the NCAA Tournament. Now, C-USA's only realistic hope for an at-large bid (besides an upset in the conference tournament, of course) is for Tulane to finish a strong second to Memphis in the standings or for Houston to beat Arizona on Saturday, then try to upset the Tigers later this season.

"So much of college basketball is on the RPI now, and you can't judge the teams in our conference on RPI," Tulane coach Dave Dickerson said. "Even though the media will and sometimes the officials of our conference will, our teams are good. They're well-coached. They play hard. Some teams have had some bad losses, and some teams have had some good wins. It's one of those things where worrying about the conference RPI isn't on our radar. Hopefully if we win enough games, we'll have a chance. But our conference is much better, regardless of the RPI."

Because Memphis notched early wins over Oklahoma, Connecticut, Georgetown, Arizona and Southern California, the Tigers' RPI should not suffer too badly, as long as they keep winning. Though playing as many as 10 sub-100 RPI teams will certainly hurt their strength of schedule, Memphis has banked enough power points to stay in position for a No. 1 seed and can make up some ground if necessary against Gonzaga (25th) and Tennessee (fourth) later in the year.

On the other hand, it will be difficult for Memphis to get much credit for its league dominance until others break through nationally.

One example is UTEP, which pushed Texas A&M to the wire on Nov. 14, lost by seven points at Texas Tech last weekend and had a lead on 14-2 New Mexico within the final minute. Still, the Miners, at 9-4, lack a victory over a top-100 RPI team.

Central Florida is just 7-7 but could have beaten Villanova (the Knights lost 76-68), had free throws to upset Kansas State (they lost 73-71 in overtime), and came within one basket of Connecticut (losing 85-82 at home).

"The schedule has been extremely challenging, and we're right there," UCF coach Kirk Speraw said. "Possessions here or there that we don't get the ball to bounce our way, and it has been frustrating."

Meanwhile, others in the league have simply been disappointing. UAB was a media darling this offseason, with coach Mike Davis hyping his transfer core of Robert Vaden and Walter Sharpe among others. But UAB has had eligibility issues, injury issues and road issues. At 10-5, UAB's best RPI win was over Cincinnati (164th) and simply has not done enough to build its non-conference resume.

Southern Miss was supposed to take forward steps this year after going 20-11 with a young team. After close road losses to California, Alabama and South Alabama -- all credible teams -- the Golden Eagles' RPI has taken a nosedive with recent losses to McNeese State and Savannah State.

Houston has not stumbled but still can't make any RPI headway. The Cougars are 11-2 with credible losses against Virginia Commonwealth (59th) and at UMass (16th). But with only one victory over a top-100 team (64th-ranked Marist), the Cougars are in catch-up mode.

"I think it's a very flawed system, and it has been since the beginning and always will be," coach Tom Penders said. "We had an RPI expert from the NCAA at our league meetings, and I asked him how Notre Dame played nine teams at home (ranked 200 or lower) and they had a higher RPI going into the conference than anybody in our conference. I think they ought to throw it out and come up with a better one."

That won't happen any time soon, so as Calipari might say, it is what it is. And until someone besides Memphis can figure out the numbers game, C-USA's reputation will continue to suffer.

"There were four games last week that if we win, we're probably 10 (as a conference)," Calipari said. "And they were all winnable games. That's how close we are. Before the split, the league was the 9th-rated lead. We're getting close. Everybody's trying to make the strides we need to make. We're looking for breakthrough games. When you have those, it kind of opens up the dam, and the water rushes through."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at

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