Next Year Projects by Jeff, a blogger from Wisconsin.
(I don't know him from Adam, but he was willing to write about C-USA, so he must be a dedicated basketball fan, ed.)
I've talked for a few years about how the C-USA situation was unsustainable. You can't have one team so much better than everybody else. Either the pack was going to start improving, or Memphis was going to fall back to the pack. With John Calipari heading to Kentucky, it looks like it'll be the latter. Their only chance was going to be hiring away some other big named coach that could save the recruiting class, but they couldn't pull that off. So the blue chippers appear to all be gone. The only incomers, to the best of my knowledge, are Juco transfers Darnell Dodson and Will Coleman. Tyreke Evans is going pro, and Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier graduate. Of course, there will still be plenty of talented players there for now: Shawn Taggert, Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, Roburt Sallie and Wesley Witherspoon will likely be the starting lineup next season, and that's a pretty athletic and talented bunch. But they will have almost no bench, and a lot of uncertainty as to how many of the recruits in the pipeline will stay there, and where this program will be headed in the future. Memphis should return to the Tournament, but their days as a Final Four contender are over.
Of the teams in Conference USA that have plateaued, probably none is more surprising than a UAB team that seemed to be in a good position with Mike Davis, who had brought many of his best Indiana players with him. And while he was known as a good recruiter, he just could not get anybody to come to UAB. And they had four regular starter this past season (the fifth starter position rotated between two different players), and all four graduate. They have a decent recruiting class, led by Dexter Fields (Scout: 32 SG), but I don't see any way that this team doesn't get far worse next season. My understanding is that they want Mike Davis out, but that it would simply be too expensive. So UAB is stuck in a bad place now, heading in the wrong direction with a dead man walking leading the squad.
The other Bubble team from the conference was Tulsa, and they're in a far better position to make a Tournament run again next season. They lose one starter and a key player off the bench, but retain their two highest scorers, their best rebounder and their leading assist man. The one question for them will be 7-footer Jerome Jordan, and whether he sticks around for his Senior season. From the reports I've seen, he'd be a marginal draft pick, and certainly not a first-rounder. If he can really dominate Conference USA next season and lead his squad into the Tournament he could play his way into the first round of the draft, which is why his best decision would be to stay in school one more year. At this point I will assume that he does that, but know that I will drop them in my projections if Jordan does go pro.
One very interesting squad to look for is UTEP. They had a Senior starter, and a key bench player will also be graduating. But other than that, every single player on the roster was a Freshman or Sophomore, which means that they've got a great young base. The trio that will lead the team for the next two years is Randy Culpepper (18 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 spg), Julyan Stone (6 ppg, 5 rpg, 6 apg) and Arnett Moultrie (9 ppg, 8 rpg). Of course, one of their graduations is leading scorer Stefon Jackson (24.5 per game), so the team might not be quite as good next year as they were this past year. But they could potentially win the whole conference in 2011, when this great Sophomore class has turned into a great Senior class.
Another team that might take a small step back next season but that has a great set of young players is UCF, which also loses a 25+ point per game star (Jermaine Taylor), but got a ton of production from Freshmen and Sophomores. They've also got a very nice recruiting class coming in, including Michael Jordan's son Marcus (Scout: 27 SG). Unlike UTEP, Central Florida is probably more than a year away from contending to win Conference USA. Kirk Speraw is an example of what happens when a school shows trust in a coach and stands behind him during a tough year or two. He's taken the school to its only four Tournament appearances, and he appears to be building up the program yet again for something special.
There are a couple of other teams to keep an eye on. One is Marshall, which loses only one starter and brings in a big man who can contribute immediately: 6'11" Hassan Whiteside (Scout: 13 C). Another real dark horse is a Rice team that had a very deep rotation but no stars last season. They bring in an outstanding and deep recruiting class, which means that they'll probably have something like a ten man interchangeable rotation. They won't have the overall talent or experience to compete with the best teams in the conference, but they should be much better. Here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:
4. Central Florida