Ever since Conference USA lost eight teams to the Atlantic 10, Big East, and Mountain West after the 2004-05 season, the league has struggled to gain national respect and NCAA bids. Thanks to some poor scheduling choices, the majority of the loop's 12 teams will likely have to rely on the conference tournament championship to get in, even if the Selection Committee seems to like handing 11 and 12 seeds out to C-USA teams with questionable profiles. Yet, there are three teams who have the ability to build a decent case here in mid-December. More on them and the remainder of Conference USA after the jump.
For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.
Records are accurate as of 12/15/2011.
Marshall Thundering Herd (6-2)
The Thundering Herd has two impressive wins on their profile, a four-point overtime win at Cincinnati that won them a five-team round-robin event and a 19-point home victory over MAAC favorite Iona. In between, Marshall suffered two losses by eight points combined, to Ohio in Huntington and at Syracuse, but there's no shame in either of those defeats. The remainder of the Herd's non-conference schedule is quite tricky, as they have to play Belmont in a late December home-and-home, host Akron on New Year's Day, and play their annual game against West Virginia in Charleston. Wins in all of those contests may be necessary, especially since the Cincinnati win may not have much mileage this season. In C-USA play, Memphis, UCF, and Southern Miss are the highlights among the repeat opponents.
Memphis Tigers (5-3)
Memphis still has quite a bit of work to do to earn an at-large, particularly after being stunned by Murray State at home Sunday night. Right now, the Tigers' best win came against struggling mid-major power Belmont, and that was during the Tip-Off Marathon. Along with home-and-home series with UCF and Marshall in Conference USA play, Josh Pastner's team still has plenty of quality opponents left to play, starting with Saturday's trip to former league rival Louisville. Later on, they'll have the opportunity to avenge an overtime loss to Georgetown in Maui (December 22nd), defeat Tennessee for a second time (January 4th), and knock Xavier down a peg (February 4th). However, if the Tigers struggle through those contests and the conference season for that matter (remember last year's 10-6 C-USA record), they may need to win the automatic bid again. It's a good thing for them that the conference tournament returns to the FedEx Forum in March.
UCF Knights (7-2, 6-2 vs. Division I)
The Knights haven't gotten off to the hot start they did in 2010, when they rattled off 14 straight wins, but they're still in the NCAA picture, thanks a five-point win over UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals. Losses at Florida State and against Harvard in the Atlantis final are certainly forgivable, but the proof as to whether this team can actually mount a run will come once league play begins. Recall that once the C-USA schedule rolled around in 2011, UCF followed its 14-game winning streak with eight consecutive losses, en route to a 6-10 league record and berth in the College Basketball Invitational. The most difficult non-league game remaining for Donnie Jones' team is Saturday's visit from Old Dominion, while they must play both Memphis and Marshall twice in conference play.
Tulane Green Wave (11-1, 9-1 vs. Division I), Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (7-2, 6-2 vs. Division I), Rice Owls (7-2, 4-2 vs. Division I), SMU Mustangs (5-3, 4-3 vs. Division I)
Don't be fooled by the gaudy 23-8 mark these three have against Division I opposition. They simply don't have the quality wins necessary to be considered a threat for an at-large. Tulane's best win came against Georgia Tech (and Wofford handled them three days later in Spartanburg); Southern Miss. owns two wins over New Mexico State, and losses to mid-major darlings Denver and Murray State; Rice's four victories came against Florida A&M, Houston Baptist, Maryland-Eastern Shore, and Southern--not exactly Murderers' Row; while SMU's triumphs over Florida Gulf Coast, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Georgia Southern, and Arkansas-Little Rock are only slightly more impressive. The best hope for this trio is to make a nice run through C-USA play to get a decent seed in the conference tournament. With that event's unpredictability, a you can't rule out a run at the auto bid.
Houston Cougars (4-4), Tulsa Golden Hurricane (4-6), UAB Blazers (2-6), UTEP Miners (2-5), East Carolina Pirates (4-4, 1-4 vs. Division I)
Even though Houston's topped Arkansas in Little Rock and UTEP took out New Mexico State at the Haskins Center, these five are struggling mightily--a real surprise in the case of the Miners, Tulsa, and UAB. At least Tim Floyd's squad still has a trip to Hawai'i to look forward to. The Miners open their Diamond Head Classic run with a quarterfinal against Clemson on December 22nd.