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Friday, January 18, 2008

Calipari: C-USA is headed in the right direction

Calipari: C-USA is headed in the right direction
By Bill Knight / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 01/16/2008 12:08:50 AM MST

UTEP got the day off Tuesday, getting one last day of rest before its next Conference USA basketball matchup at noon MST Saturday against the University of Houston at Houston's Hofheinz Pavilion.
The Miners joined Memphis and Central Florida in jumping out of the gate at 2-0 in the Conference USA race. Alabama-Birmingham is 1-0 after a thrilling one-point win overTulane, and Houston will not play its first conference game until tonight in Dallas.

On the flip side of that coin, Tulane and Rice stumbled out of the gate and each are 0-2 in league play. Tulsa, East Carolina and SMU all are 0-1. The Mustangs play host to Houston tonight in Moody Coliseum.

Of course, no one is starting like Memphis. The Tigers, ranked No. 2 nationally, have won 41 straight games in the FedExForum and the Tigers simply mashed their first two league opponents -- 68-45 over Marshall and 99-58 over East Carolina.

UTEP had no trouble with SMU and Rice, running away from the Mustangs, 79-66, and the Owls 71-43. UCF outlasted Tulsa, 97-91, in three overtimes and won at Southern Miss, 52-41.

Memphis seems to be in a league of its own. But Tigers coach John Calipari said the rest of the league is not as far behind as you might think.

"I don't think anyone in the country has played a tougher non-conference schedule than we have," Calipari said. "The Connecticuts and USCs andOklahomas, Georgia and even Siena, whose RPI is in the 50s. But the league is getting close, and we've been at this now three years as a league ... three years. When we split, the league was about ninth, the ninth-rated league in the country. We had four games that could have gone either way, four games that all went against us. If we win those four -- and all were winnable games -- we are probably No. 10 as a conference.
"Houston is playing well. UAB came back and beat Kentucky. You have what Tony's (Barbee) doing at UTEP. New Mexico shoots 52 free throws in his building and they lose that (in overtime), and then they lose another close one at Texas Tech. Southern Miss is playing well, Tulsa's come on and Central Florida is playing well. We're moving in the direction we're trying to get the league to go. We're that close, and we're talking being baskets away from saying we can change the impression the league has not gotten better -- and it has."

Dave Dickerson at Tulane said, "Our conference is the best it's been since I came in it, and I came in right after the split."

Tonight brings another interesting night of C-USA basketball. Tulane will be at Tulsa in a CSTV game. Southern Miss is at UAB, Houston at SMU, Marshall at East Carolina and Memphis will be at Rice. Saturday's UTEP-Houston game, which will betelevised live on CSTV, will be a key matchup. Southern Miss will be where no one wants to go -- at Memphis. Tulsa will visit SMU, UAB will be at Marshall, UCF will be at East Carolina and Rice will be at Tulane.

UTEP's Stefon Jackson continues to lead the conference in scoring. The 6-foot-5 junior averages 23.7 points a game, seventh best in the nation. UAB's Robert Vaden and Houston's Robert McIver are tied for second at 20.4 points a game. Miner freshman Julyan Stone leads the conference and is 10th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. The 6-foot-6 freshman guard has 51 assists toonly 17 turnovers. Miner senior Marvin Kilgore is third in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and second in assists at 5.4 per game. ECU's Darrell Jenkins leads the league in assists and is third in the nation, averaging 7.3 per game.

The league only has just begun. But the race will get a bit more interesting after this week.

Bill Knight may be reached at; 546-6171.

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