With three teams boasting one loss or fewer a month into the season, could Conference USA repeat last year's two bids to the NCAA tournament?
We are finally far enough into college basketball season that we're starting to get a feel for where most teams stand. And I'm finally going to get off my lazy butt and start writing basketball. The most startling thought when looking at Conference USA is that there are at least three, perhaps even four or five teams who could theoretically end up with a case for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. The conference got two bids a year ago, but that has been an anomaly in recent times. Anyway, here are SB Nation Houston's Conference USA power rankings, and some in-depth thoughts on the home teams.
Houston Cougars - In search of that elusive "complete" game
Much as is the case with the Rice Owls, measuring how successful the Cougars have been so far this year depends largely on how you define success. Still, a 5-4 record against Division 1 teams is less than inspiring, especially given the weak schedule that Houston put together.
It's not that this team isn't talented, or is fatally flawed in any one facet of the game. They are young, however, and have had a difficult time playing well in every aspect of the game at the same time. One game, the Cougars get killed on the boards. The next, they have a big edge in rebounding, but turn it over. The next, they control the ball, but miss their free throws. And so it goes.
The most striking difference between last year's team and this year's is the scoring balance. A year ago, Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis combined to score 52% of the team's points. This year, the team's leading scorer is Adam Brown, averaging a dozen fewer points per game than Coleman did, but seven different players have chipped in to the tune of at least six points per game.
Heading into the year, an honest assessment of the Cougars would have been that they were looking at a rebuilding year, and it has played out that way so far. With Joe Young leading a strong class next year, there is plenty to look forward to. If home losses to UT-San Antonio get you down, just look for the team to build towards next season. There are some good signs.
Rice Owls - Crawl before you can walk
It was just three seasons ago when the Owls finished a miserable 3-27 overall. They have lost eight straight against the crosstown rival Cougars, and have finished a combined 5-43 in conference play the last three seasons. So to say that this season was expected to be Rice's best in the last few years wasn't setting the bar all that high.
Like Houston, Rice can still look forward to the future. Their top two scorers are just sophomores, including Arsalan Kazemi, who is averaging better than 15 points and 10 rebounds per contest.
Three of the team's four losses have come by three points or fewer, including a 62-59 defeat at the hands of Texas-Austin, in a game the Owls led at the half. Still, it's time for Ben Braun's team to come up with better than just moral victories. Rice can claim just two triumphs against Division 1 opponents so far. Upcoming contests against the likes of Miami, Oral Roberts, LSU and TCU will give the Owls a chance to earn some real wins.
Without further ado, onto the power rankings. Only games against Division 1 opponents are counted in the records.
1. Central Florida Knights (7-0)
The safe pick would be to put ranked Memphis here, but I don't see a reason to do so. The Knights, led by Marcus "Wow, who would have guessed he'd turn out to actually be good, too" Jordan, are the conference's only undefeated team, and have a signature win (over Florida) as good as anybody's.
2. Memphis Tigers (7-1)
Josh Pastner's boys had some decent wins over Miami and LSU, but failed the big test against Kansas. That's perfectly understandable. Kansas is amazing. What troubles me is that there isn't a signature win on the schedule yet, and the team doesn't play a road game until after the new year. (The LSU and Kansas games were at neutral locations.) How much can you really know about your team if you have to play in a hostile arena?
3. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (5-1)
The only mark against them is a tough road loss to Mississippi, and the Golden Eagles just pulled off a nice road win at Cal. Aside from those two contests, their strength of schedule leaves a lot to be desired, but if they can run up a good-looking conference record, they might have an impressive enough record to make the selection committee take a hard look at them. If this is the third-best team in C-USA right now, it's easy to envision the conference getting at least two bids for a second consecutive year. Fun fact: USM is leading the nation in rebounding.
4. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (7-2)
Is this team ever not competitive? The two losses have come at Arizona State and at Georgia by a combined five points. Best win is an overtime victory over Arkansas. Big question: Where in the heck did Cameron Moore come from? The junior has scored more points in nine games this year than he did in 56 contests as an underclassmen. He has posted five double-doubles for good measure.
5. Texas-El Paso Miners (6-2)
If Tim Floyd could wipe out that season-opening loss to Pacific, he'd have a genuinely impressive season under his belt thus far. Even the decision to bring preseason conference player of the year Randy Culpepper off the bench for a game worked out well, as he scored 56 points the next two contests, both victories.
6. Tulane Green Wave (4-2)
There is a huge drop-off after the top five, and not much difference between six and twelve. You could make an argument for most any of the remaining teams in this spot. I'll give Tulane the nod, given that what their wins have lacked in quality of opponent, they have at least made up in big numbers, coming by an average margin of 24 points.
7. Marshall Thundering Herd (4-2)
No hugely impressive wins. The loss at Louisville is excusable. The loss at home against Chattanooga, less so.
8. Houston Cougars (5-4)
The home defeat to UTSA is the first legitimately bad loss of the year. This team needs wins at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and at home against Sam Houston State (who they already beat in Huntsville) to get some momentum going heading into conference play.
9. Rice Owls (2-4)
They have, by far, the most impressive losses of any team in the conference. That's gotta count for something, right?
10. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (4-5)
The Tulsa resume consists of an inexplicable victory over Stanford mixed in amongst a bunch of bad losses. Call coach Doug Wojcik the new Tom Penders. He took a bad team to immediate respectability, but it looks like he may have hit the glass ceiling.
11. East Carolina Pirates (4-3)
I'm not sure ECU is any worse than Tulane, but there's a prevalent mediocrity throughout the bottom half of this conference. Maybe I'm subconsciously penalizing the Pirates for scheduling three non-D1 teams.
12. Southern Methodist Mustangs (4-4)
The Mustangs have a decent front court combo of Papa "Potato Day" Dia and Robert Nyakundi. But home losses to Arkansas-Little Rock and California-Riverside earns SMU the cellar, at least for this week.
Three games to watch
this week on Saturday:
1. Miami at UCF
2. Texas Tech at UTEP
3. Tulane at Virginia Commonwealth
Two songs to get you pumped up before that big pick-up game:
One unrelated shout-out:
To Houston Cougar softball coach Kyla Holas, who will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the first softball player to receive the honor. I will never forget the time I was ejected from a Cougar softball game by an overly-sensitive umpire, and Coach Holas personally called Conference USA offices to complain. Congrats to a great athlete, coach, and individual.