BtB 2009-10 Conference USA Preview


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From Huntington, West Virginia to El Paso, Texas, cheers of celebration went up when John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky.  The Tigers' could be in a world of hurt this season, as a  roster that was already decimated by graduation and the NBA Draft lost a load of new talent when Calipari headed to Lexington.  Josh Pastner inherits a team that's low on bodies and thin on experience, which could result in an atypical down season at the FedEx Forum.    
The other 11 teams in the league, led by Tulsa, Houston, and UTEP, now have an excellent chance to break the Tigers' monopoly at the top.   Now, Calipari's departure doesn't solve Conference USA's biggest problem, earning multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, it does open up the title race considerably.  While all of the main contenders lost key pieces from teams that didn't break throuhg last year, they all bring back veteran leaders and have a bit more experience and depth than their former tormentors. 
More on the 12 teams who will compete in a suddenly competitive C-USA after the jump. 

Let's first take a look at the 2008-09 Conference USA standings.


Conference USA Standings

(updated 4.4.2009 at 12:56 AM EDT)

Conf Overall
W L W L
Memphis Tigers 16 0 33 4
Tulsa Golden Hurricane 12 4 25 11
UAB Blazers 11 5 22 12
UTEP Miners 10 6 23 14
Houston Cougars 10 6 21 12
Central Florida Golden Knights 7 9 17 14
Marshall Thundering Herd 7 9 15 17
Tulane Green Wave 7 9 14 17
East Carolina Pirates 5 11 13 17
Southern Miss. Golden Eagles 4 12 15 17
Rice Owls 4 12 10 22
SMU Mustangs 3 13 9 21

Now, here are my picks for 2009-10, presented in reverse order.

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Rice (last NCAA: 1970) Ben Braun's team struggled at both ends of the court last season, and things may not get much better this year.  Leading scorer Rodney Foster, the only Owl to average in double figure last season at 12 points a contest, graduated.  The top scorer of the returnees, 6-8 F Lucas Kuipers, only averaged 8.8 ppg in the games he played in 2008-09.  He should provide more this season; however, as he missed half of last year with a broken wrist.  Rice visits Arizona and LSU, but Texas comes to Autry Court.  The Owls also host Sacramento State, Houston Baptist, and South Alabama in a round-robin tournament.

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East Carolina (last NCAA: 1993)  The Pirates struggled to five wins last season, but should return to their traditional place at the bottom of the C-USA standings thanks to the departure of their two leading scorers from 2008-09.  But there is hope for Mack McCarthy's squad, as 6-8 sophomore Darrius Morrow (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and 6-10 C Chad Wynn (7.1 ppg, 4 rpg) are back to lead the frontcourt and the nation's second best assist man, junior PG Brock Young (10.6 ppg, 7.6 apg), will again run the offense.  6-6 3-point specialist Jamar Abrams, who averaged 10.5 points a game off the bench, is ready for a bigger role and 6-7 DaQuan Joyner (7 ppg, 3.4 rpg) will provide Morrow and Wynn more help this year now that he's recovered from a foot injury.  The Pirates will travel to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam, where they'll open with Tennessee.

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SMU (last NCAA: 1993) Matt Doherty is hoping for serious improvement in his fourth season at the helm.  Then again, it would be difficult to be any worse than the Ponies were in 2008-09.  SMU lost all of their road games and claimed only three league wins.  The Mustangs strength will continue to be their backcourt, as 6-1 senior PG Derek Williams (12.7 ppg, 3.5 apg), a JC transfer last season, and 5-11 sophomore SG Paul McCoy (13.4 ppg, 1.6 spg) should continue to grow in their second year in Doherty's system.  6-1 JC transfer Rodney Clinkscales comes aboard to provide them more support from the bench.  Doherty needs more out of his frontcourt, led by mistake-prone big man Mouhammad Faye (9.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.3 TO per game), especially now that 7-1 C Bamba Fall graduated.  SMU visits Texas A&M this season and will take part in the Diamond Head Classic, where they'll open with UNLV

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Southern Mississippi (last NCAA: 1991) It's hard to believe that Larry Eustachy is entering his sixth season in Hattiesburg.  However, you can't help but think season 6 will go better than a season 5 that resulted in only four league wins, thanks to the loss of three of the top four leading scorers from a team that ranked 8th in the C-USA scoring table.  The team's leading returning scorer, junior PG R.L. Horton (12.7 ppg), should be more prolific this season, as he moves over to the two spot.  USC transfer Angelo Johnson, a 6-foot sophomore will take over playmaking duties this season.  In the frontcourt, Eustachy will need more from 6-8 senior Andre Stephens, who only averaged a little more than 6 points a contest this year.  6-8 JC transfer Gary Flowers will see immediate minutes for the Eagles, as will his teammate from Chipola CC, 6-6 G Torye Pelham, who could've gone to the Big 12 instead.  USM visits Mississippi and Vanderbilt this season, and welcomes Canisius, New Orleans, and North Florida for a tournament over the holidays. 

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Tulane (last NCAA: 1995) Dave Dickerson needs more offense out of a team that held its own on the defensive end last season.  The frontcourt will be a concern for the Green Wave after the graduation of Robinson Louisme and Daniel Puckett.  6-7 senior Asim McQueen (7.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is back, but he'll need support from 6-7 senior David Booker (3.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and 6-5 Johnny Mayhane (3.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg).  On the other hand, Tulane's backcourt--led by 5-10 Kevin Smith (13.4 ppg, 4 apg) and 6-5 junior Kris Richard (10.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.9 spg)--should keep them in a lot of games.  6-5 Kendall Timmons, who missed time last year with a back injury, and former FSU signee Aaron Holmes, a 6-5 swingman who is a JC transfer, will also be key contributors. The Green Wave welcome Georgetown, George Mason, and VCU to New Orleans.  They'll also participate in the Charleston Classic before Thanksgiving, where they'll open with Miami.

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UCF (last NCAA: 2005) Kirk Speraw's squad won the Atlantic Sun twice in a row before moving to C-USA, where they've found the road considerably more difficult.  The Golden Knights will struggle to repeat an average season this season, even with three starters back and a big name recruit on board.  That's because they'll have a hard time replacing Jermaine Taylor's 26+ points per contest and 6-9 C Kenrick Zonervan's presence in the paint.  The backcourt will continue to be a strength, even without Taylor.  Speraw has two capable players to run the point--5-9 soph A.J. Rompza (4.5 ppg, 5.2 apg) and 6-1 junior Taylor Young (3.4 ppg, 3.5 apg).  Rompza's high school teammate, Marcus Jordan, son of Michael and owner of the mmost famous pair of sneakers in the country will see minutes at the 2 spot, along with 3-point specialist Issac Sosa (8.2 ppg, 45.2% from 3).  In the frontcourt, 6-9 A.J. Tyler (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and 7-4 Jakub Kusmier (2.2 ppg, 1.0 rpg in 5 mpg) will have to attempt to replace Zondervan.  The Knights will participate in the Glenn Wilkes Classic in nearby Daytona Beach.  They'll open the tournament at home against Howard before traveling up I-4 to face Niagara, Auburn, and Drake.  UCF also seems to be preparing for an oft-rumored life in the Big East, as they visit Connecticut, USF, and Notre Dame.

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UAB (last NCAA: 2006) The Blazers were the last C-USA team to earn a bid other than Memphis, back in 2006.  Hopes were high for Mike Davis' squad last season, but the team that stunned Arizona (after one of the classic brain freezes of all time) to reach the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals only managed a 22-12 mark and a first round loss to Notre Dame in the postseason version of the same tournament.  Now, the group that was supposed to lead UAB back to the Dance--Robert Vaden, Paul Delaney III, Lawrence Kinnard, and Channing Toney are gone, and so are the 56.5 points and 22.5 boards they averaged each game.  The two returning starters 5-8 PG Aaron Johnson (3.6 ppg, 3.6 apg) and 6-8 F/C Howard Crawford (7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) will see a lot of new faces around them, all of whom will have to contribute immediately for the Blazers to be competitive.  Davis has brought in some good ones though, including SEC target Dexter Field, a 6-2 point guard, and Australian guard Heath Gameren.  UAB will also suit up two transfers who'll be impactful--6-4 JC transfer Jamarr Sanders and 6-6 Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Elijah Millsap, Paul's younger brother.  Fittingly, for a team with a dragon for its mascot, the Blazers get a baptism by fire during their non-conference schedule.  They host Butler and Cincinnati, visit Arkansas and Virginia, and travel to Kent State for round-robin featuring Green Bay and Samford.

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Marshall (last NCAA: 1987) While Donnie Jones will have to do without the graduated Markel Humphrey, last season's leading scorer (12.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), the Herd has plenty of offensive options.  Marshall's four returning starters all averaged in the neighborhood of 10 points a game, and that includes 3-point specialist Chris Lutz (10.7 ppg, 37.4 % from 3) and 6-8 senior F Tyler Wilkerson (10.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg) who missed the last ten games of last season with a broken jaw.  The Herd's newcomers include Western Carolina transfer Cam Miller, another perimeter shooter, freshman scorer DeAndre Kane and JC transfer Antonio Hayman.  All of the scoring is great, but Jones really needs his team to play better defense to rise up the standings.  Marshall's two most challenging games this season are trips to Old Dominion and North Carolina.

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Memphis (last NCAA: 2009) I'm sure John Calipari is still on Josh Pastner's holiday card list, but the first year Tiger coach should probably drop him with all of the roster turnover and lost recruits that resulted from Calipari's move to Lexington.  6-5 senior Doneal Mack is Memphis' leading returning scorer, and he didn't even average 9 points a game last year.  6-6 Robert Sallie should improve on his 5.8 ppg with more minutes, especially as he made nearly half (47%) of his three-point attempts.  In the frontcourt, 6-8 Wesley Witherspoon (4.2 ppg, 2 rpg) and 6-11 Angel Garcia are the only returnees.  Memphis fans should expect to see a lot of new faces.  The two most prominent of thesea re 6-4 Duke transfer Elliot Williams and 6-9 JC transfer Will Coleman.  The Tigers will face Kansas in St. Louis, in a rematch of the 2008 National Championship game, and UMass in Boston.  They'll also host Tennessee on New Year's Eve and visit Syracuse.

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Houston (last NCAA: 1992)  The Cougars tournament chances took a hit when 6-8 F Qa'rraan Calhoun left for the professional game during the offseason.  That's because Tom Penders already had one giant hole to fill in the frontcourt thanks to the graduation of 6-11 C Marcus Cousin.  There will now be more pressure on little used 6-8 senior Sean Coleman and freshmen Kendrick Walsh and Kirk Van Slyke (a natural small forward) to take some pressure off the great crop of guards Penders has coming back.  Seniors Aubrey Coleman (19.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Kelvin Lewis (18 ppg, 3.2 rpg) will again be key producers for Penders, with junior PG Zamal Nixon (5.5 ppg, 1.6 apg) ready to make the point his own.  The Cougars will travel to Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout, where they'll face Oklahoma and San Diego.  Houston also travels to Nevada and hosts Mississippi State.

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UTEP (last NCAA: 2005) Don't expect the Miners to struggle too much after the graduation of Stefon Jackson, Conference USA's all-time leading scorer (24.5 ppg).  The CBI runners-up return 6-foot junior Randy Culpepper, a 3-point specialist who averaged 17.5 ppg last season.  He'll see the ball even more during this go round with Jackson gone.  It will be the job of 6-6 junior Julyan Stone (5.6 ppg, 6.4 apg) to get him--and Tony Barbee's other offensive performers--the ball. Those weapons include two transfers who showed they can score in their previous D-I stops, 6-3 Arizona State transfer Christian Polk (12 ppg in '07-08) and 6-2 JC transfer Myron Strong (10 ppg at San Francisco in '07-08).   While 7-footer Kareem Cooper and 6-8 Travis Watts are gone from the frontcourt, 6-11 sophomore Arnett Moultrie (8.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg) will be even more a force this season, and 6-9 Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter has a lot to prove after a stormy time with the Cards.  Looking at the schedule, the Miners will host BYU and Mississippi, along with the Sun Bowl Classic.  They'll take on Oklahoma in the All-College Classic in Oklahoma City and face New Mexico State in their traditional home-and-home.

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Tulsa (last NCAA: 2003) The Golden Hurricane will look to go two better after a season that ended with 1) a 25-point loss to Memphis in the C-USA Championship and 2) a 19-point loss to Auburn in the second round of the NIT.  While 10.3 ppg performer Ray Reese is gone, the bulk of last season's team is back and ready to replace the Tigers at the top of the C-USA heap.  7-foot senior C Jerome Jordan is back, and should improve on his already impressive numbers of 13.8 ppg and 8.6 rpg.  The supporting frontcourt cast, led by 6-6 senior Bishop Wheatley (4.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and 6-10 soph Steve Idlet (3.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg), needs to do more though.  In the backcourt, 6-3 senior Ben Uzoh (14 ppg, 4.9 rpg) should also be better this year, thanks to the arrival of 6-1 frosh Donte Meddler to play the point.  Justin Hurtt, a 6-4 junior who averaged more than 9 ppg last season, is an outside threat who could really explode by penetrating more.  6-2 junior Glenn Andrews, who averaged more than 7 ppg in '08-09, is a big question mark, as he'll at least miss the first month of the season with a knee injury.  Schedule-wise, the Golden Hurricane visit Duke in a rare February non-conference game.  They also host Oklahoma State and take on Nebraska, followed by either BYU or Nevada in the Las Vegas Classic.

So the Golden Hurricane will hold C-USA's auto bid in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9.  The main question for 2009-10 is, can the league do what it couldn't when Memphis distanced itself from its 11 conference-mates and grab multiple bids?

To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-C-USA team, featuring the best returning players from last season.  

Preseason All-C-USA Team

Player of the Year: Jerome Jordan, 7-0 C, Sr. (Tulsa)

Remainder of the Team
Aubrey Coleman, 6-4 G, Sr. (Houston)
Randy Culpepper, 6-0 G, Jr. (UTEP)
Kelvin Lewis, 6-4 G, Sr. (Houston)
Ben Uzoh, 6-3 G, Sr. (Tulsa)

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