Despite the hype surrounding Memphis heading into the season, to say that Conference USA is wide open heading into the 2011-12 men’s basketball season is an understatement. Two thirds of the conference finished within four games of first place last year. All six members of last year’s all-conference team graduated. The team that is considered the odds-on favorite this year – the Tigers, who else? – can claim that title based on little more than speculation about how recruits might pan out, or how players may have improved. Only one returning Tiger received any postseason recognition a year ago – an all-conference third team nod. Three of the four teams who did not finish last year within four games of conference-leading UAB had players named to the pre-season all-conference team this year, and the fourth such school has two recruits who were named to ESPN’s national top 100 coming in.
There probably isn’t a team in Conference USA who doesn’t have reason to believe they could wind up playing post-season basketball in some form this year. I’m not sure there’s any team that can pencil in any other team as an easy win. It should be fun.
1. #9 Memphis Tigers (10-6 in ’10-11, 25-10 overall, lost to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Belmont, vs Michigan, et al. (Maui Invitational), at Miami, at Louisville, at Georgetown, vs Tennessee, vs Xavier
The good: An incredible eight players played more than 20 games, averaged more than 19 minutes, scored more than 6.5 points, and grabbed more than 2.0 rebounds per contest a year ago, and seven of them are back. Joining the group is freshman phenom Adonis Thomas, widely considered one of the biggest potential impact freshmen in the nation. Memphis has the most overall talent on the roster of any team in the conference.
The bad: Can all of these players mesh as a unit, and play better fundamentally sound basketball than they did a year ago? Will Barton was the team’s leading scorer and face of the team as a freshman (12.3 ppg), but shot less than 43% from the floor, and just 26.5% (39-of-147) from beyond the arc. The distribution and control of the basketball is a concern, as well. The Tigers had more turnovers than assists as a team last year. While Memphis certainly had some good players last year, the C-USA dominance they used to be known for looked like a thing of the past. The Tigers only out-rebounded conference opponents by two. Not two rebounds per game, two total rebounds for the year. And Memphis was actually out-scored by 11 points overall in Conference USA play. Go ahead, read that last sentence again. I know it was a young team, but did that season, and two years of no NCAA tournament wins, really warrant a contract extension for head coach Josh Pastner? Are the expectations that low in Memphis now? Sure, the Tigers are the most talented team in the conference. But it’s not by as much as you might think. And those people who are calling Memphis a top-10 team are basing that on what could be rather than what’s been proven on the court.
The gimmicky: While many NBA players are responding to the lockout by playing professional basketball overseas, Luke Walton is using his newfound free time to become an assistant coach with the Tigers. Don’t agree with me calling it a gimmick? Take it from the horse’s mouth. Pastner himself said the hire is "not about for next year or the year after", but expects Walton to bring "instant credibility" in recruiting. Sorry coach, but recruiting hasn’t been your problem, coaching has, and hiring someone with no coaching experience who you don’t expect to be around long is the definition of a gimmick.
2. Marshall Thundering Herd (9-7 in ’10-11, 20-12 overall, lost to Ohio in the first round of the CIT)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: at Cincinnati, at Syracuse, vs/at Belmont, at West Virginia
The good: The stars are back, in Damier Pitts (16.2 points, 4.7 assists) and DeAndre Kane (15.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists). That’s as good a backcourt at there is in the conference. Dago Pena is an experienced, high-percentage shooter from beyond the arc. Nigel Spikes is an experienced big body. Justin Coleman is a big-time recruit.
The bad: The loss of Tirrell Baines will hurt, because after Spikes (6’10", 237) there isn’t a lot of size to be had. The next biggest player who has lettered for the Herd is Pena at 6’6", 220, but he’s more of a perimeter player, averaging less than 3 rebounds per game a year ago. Head coach Tom Herrion definitely did address the issue in recruiting, however. Junior college transfers Dennis Tinnon and Robert Goff, and freshman Jamir Hanner could all get minutes in the front court, as well as Marquette transfer Yous Mbao.
The cheerleader: The C-USA head coach who is highest on Marshall isn’t Herrion. It’s Memphis’ Pastner. He can’t shut up about how much he likes the Thundering Herd, calling them a "totally underrated", "top 25 team" that "could easily win the conference".
3. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (11-5 in ’10-11, 19-13 overall)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Western Kentucky, et al. (Charleston Classic), at Missouri State, at Oklahoma State, vs Arizona State, vs Wichita State, vs Creighton
The good: Seven of the nine players who appeared in at least 25 games for Tulsa a year ago are back in 2011-12, including senior big man Steven Idlet (11.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and sophomore scoring guards Jordan Clarkson (11.5 ppg) and Scottie Haralson (10.9 ppg). That makes Tulsa one of the deepest, most experienced teams in Conference USA.
The bad: One of the two players who aren’t around anymore is Justin Hurtt, who poured in a cool 20.0 points per contest last year. That will be hard to replace, even if Clarkson and Haralson step up. Also gone is Bryson Pope, and between Pope and Hurtt, Tulsa loses their only two players who recorded better than two assists per contest last year. It’s good to have scorers, but somebody’s going to have to distribute the ball. While head coach Doug Wojcik did a good job of quickly turning Tulsa into a respectable program upon his arrival, he’s starting to feel pressure to get over the hump and get his team to the Big Dance. (Stop me when you’ve heard this one before, Houston fans.) Wojcik’s top assistant, David Cason, left to take a similar position at Vanderbilt this off-season.
The long-distance: Not a single scholarship player for the Golden Hurricane hails from the state of Oklahoma. So Wojcik doesn’t recruit locally, either. Hmm…
4. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (12-4 in ’10-11, 22-9 overall, lost to Clemson in the opening round of the NCAA tournament)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Creighton, at Wichita State, at VCU, at Florida
The good: The Blazers finished first in C-USA’s regular season a year ago, and they return pre-season conference player of the year Cameron Moore, a 6’10" forward who averaged 14.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest last season. Junior Ovie Soko (9.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) makes up the "two" in UAB’s one-two frontcourt punch.
The bad: The Blazers will need to replace the scoring punch of the graduated Jamarr Sanders (17.8 ppg) and the playmaking ability of point guard Aaron Johnson (11.8 ppg, 7.7 apg). There are no proven entities in the backcourt, but there are a lot of potential candidates, from incoming freshmen K.C. Whitaker and Isiah Jones, to junior college transfer Jekore Tyler, to sophomores Preston Purifoy and Quincy Taylor, both of whom were role players for the Blazers a year ago.
The tall: Unless one of the two players makes a significant leap in talent level in his senior season, the Blazers may feature the tallest pair of benchwarmers in the conference. Beas Hamga, at 6’11", 230, is a JC transfer who played just 70 total minutes in his first year in Birmingham. Todd O’Brien, standing 6’11", 250, transferred from St. Joseph’s, where he scored just 23 points in 165 minutes a year ago.
5. Central Florida Knights (6-10 in ’10-11, 20-12 overall, lost to Creighton in CBI semi-finals)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: at Florida State, vs Charleston, et al. (Battle 4 Atlantis), vs Old Dominion
The good: Three of the team’s top four scorers from a year ago are back, including pre-season all-conference forward Keith Clanton and leading scorer Marcus Jordan. Three D-1 transfers will all be eligible this year, including Jeff Jordan, Marcus’ brother, and eldest offspring of a former Chicago Bull you may be familiar with. Josh Crittle from Oregon and Tristan Spurlock from Virginia will provide depth in the front court behind Clanton.
The bad: It’s still hard to assess what went wrong with last year’s team. They started out the season with 13 straight wins, including defeats of Florida and Miami, but they then lost a stunning eight straight games in conference play. They were hit and miss the rest of the way, winning five of six, losing two straight by a total of 29 points, and then making a nice run in the CBI. A lot of the talent from last year’s team is back, but can they figure out how to play with any consistency?
The troubled: Accumulating talent hasn’t been a problem, but keeping it on the court has been this off-season. All-everything recruit Michael Chandler failed to qualify academically, Jeff Jordan and starting point guard A.J. Rompza are currently sitting out as UCF tries to sort out their respective eligibility issues - bad news for a school that was already hit with an NCAA notice of inquiry in August. As the cherry on top, Marcus Jordan, Crittle and senior forward P.J. Gaynor were all suspended for the team’s recent exhibition game due to team rules violations.
6. Rice Owls (5-11 in ’10-11, 12-18 overall)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Northern Iowa, vs Iowa State, vs Temple, at Texas A&M, at Texas
The good: The top four scorers from last year are back, including star juniors Arsalan Kazemi (15.2 points, 11.0 rebounds) and Tamir Jackson (13.9 points, 3.6 assists). Connor Frizzelle and Lucas Kuipers are both threats from the outside, and freshman Dylan Ennis, who chose Rice over a number of mid-major offers, could give the Owls a true point guard that they haven’t had in a while.
The bad: With the graduation of Trey Stanton, there’s not a lot of size after Kazemi. Kuipers is 6’8", but is more of a perimeter player. Who will step up and provide a post presence next to Kazemi, or back him up when he takes a rest? Maybe a sophomore like David Chadwick, or 7’2" Egyptian center Omar Oraby, or a freshman like Seth Gearhart or Ahmad Ibrahim? We’re about to find out. It’s also worth mentioning that for all the promise Kazemi and Jackson have shown, we’re still talking about a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2004-05.
The coach: Ben Braun has been coaching Division 1 basketball since the 1985-86 season, and he’s never gone more than three years without making an appearance in either the NIT or NCAA tournament. He’ll have to have the Owls playing post-season basketball this year to avoid an unfortunate first.
7. Houston Cougars (4-12 in ’10-11, 10-18 overall)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: at Arkansas, vs Oakland, vs LSU, at Oklahoma
The good: Sophomore forward Alandise Harris is a physical presence inside who could benefit a lot with another year of development. Darian Thibodeaux and Kirk Van Slyke are high-percentage outside shooters, and Van Slyke has already showed a lot of improvement in his game from year one to year two. But the biggest cause for optimism surrounding this year’s team is the new recruits. Guard Joseph Young has future star written all over him, forward TaShawn Thomas is, like Young, an ESPN top 100 national recruit, and junior college transfer Jonathon Simmons is expected to have an immediate impact with his versatility and freakish athleticism.
The bad: Putting UH at #7 is, admittedly, something of a homer pick on my part. Harris, Thibodeaux, Van Slyke and sophomore forward Mikhail McLean are the only returning letterwinners for Houston, and Van Slyke is the only player who has been at Houston more than a year. Inexperience will certainly be a factor. And head coach James Dickey, for all his recruiting prowess, will have to start proving he can win games, especially given the way the team seemed to quit around him towards the end of last year.
The high-flying: It was only an exhibition, but in Houston’s season-opener with Concordia, it seemed like every player on the roster recorded a breathtaking dunk. That sort of athleticism has been a pretty rare occurrence in Hofheinz Pavilion in recent years, and if the team can’t make a big enough step forward to be competitive at the top of Conference USA, it may at least make for a more entertaining season for the Cougar faithful.
8. Southern Methodist Mustangs (8-8 in ’10-11, 17-15 overall, lost to Santa Clara in the semi-finals of the CIT)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Colorado State, et al. (NIT Season Tip-Off), vs Oklahoma State, at Ole Miss
The good: There are a couple of pretty good proven shooters on the team in point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas (7.4 points, 3.4 assists, 38.5% 3-point shooting) and forward Robert Nyakundi (14.3 points, 49.7% 3-point shooting), and both are members of the All-Name Team. Freshman big man Cannen Cunningham is a highly-touted recruit who could make an immediate impact, and there are some big-time Division 1 transfers coming in – guard London "Cotton" Giles from Nevada, forward Shawn Williams from Texas-Austin (becomes eligible in December) and potentially guard Nick Russell from Kansas State, pending an appeal to waive his transfer year.
The bad: The Mustangs were already bad on the boards last year, checking in at 280th out of 335 NCAA teams in rebounding margin, and they lose big man Papa Dia and his 9.6 rebounds per game. Guys like Cunningham and Williams could help replace that production, but it’s not the same as having a proven commodity. There will be a lot of hoping that promise trumps experience, as only three players who have played significant minutes for SMU are on the roster.
The bored: During Conference USA media days, head coach Matt Doherty referred to Samarrippas, his point guard, often getting "bored" during the early part of games last year. I’m not quite sure what else to say about that, other than perhaps, "Wow."
9. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (9-7 in ’10-11, 19-10 overall)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Ole Miss, at Arizona State
The good: Fifth-year seniors Maurice Bolden (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Angelo Johnson (7.5 ppg, 4.1 apg) lead one of the oldest teams in Conference USA. There are four seniors and five juniors on the roster. That could give Southern Miss an edge over the likes of Memphis, UTEP, Houston, and other teams who will be relying heavily on underclassmen…
The bad: …or maybe not. Age doesn’t necessarily equal Division 1 experience, and most of those older players came to Southern Miss by the junior college route. Adjusting to D-1 basketball coming from a JC may give you an edge over someone adjusting to D-1 basketball from high school, but it’s still an adjustment. And top scorers Gary Flowers, R.L. Horton and D.J. Newbill are all gone.
The transfers: Guess how many players Southern Miss has who came to USM straight out of high school, not transferring from another institution. Did you guess ‘three’? If so, you probably read ahead, but you’re still correct.
10. East Carolina Pirates (8-8 in ’10-11, 15-16 overall, lost to Jacksonville in the first round of the CIT)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: at Old Dominion, vs Charlotte, vs UMass
The good: Darrius Morrow is a legitimate low-post threat, and he is complimented by a pair of junior guards with some experience on the team in Corvonn Gaines and Erin Straughn. Guard Miguel Paul and forward Austin Steed are D-1 transfers from big programs who are eligible to play this year.
The bad: Three of last year’s Big Four for ECU – Jontae Sherrod, Jamar Abrams and Brock Young – are gone. Young’s ability at the point, and the scoring touch of Sherrod and Abrams will be sorely missed. The incoming recruits aren’t exactly the most heralded in the conference, so unless head coach Jeff Lebo found some serious under-the-radar guys, depth could be a serious issue, even if guys like Paul and Steed do fit in right away.
The ugly: East Carolina’s non-conference schedule is flat-out awful, featuring four (four!) non-Division 1 opponents. Yes, ECU fans, nearly a third of your non-conference games don’t count. Pitiful.
11. Texas-El Paso Miners (11-5 in ’10-11, 24-10 overall, lost to New Mexico in the first round of the NIT)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: at Oregon, at UNLV, vs Clemson, et al. (Diamond Head Classic)
The good: Sophomore center John Bohannon (5.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and senior forward Gabriel McCulley (6.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) were solid role players a year ago, and they return with the potential to blossom into stars with greater playing time in 2011-12.
The bad: I just listed the only two Miners on this year’s team who scored at least 50 total points for UTEP last year, and McCulley recently underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his leg. Yikes. There are some fairly well regarded freshman recruits on this year’s team, but there will certainly be a steep learning curve with so little experience around to ease the transition. There are two transfers debuting, including guard Jacques Streeter, who is eligible this year after playing two productive seasons for Cal State Fullerton, but it’s somewhat surprising that head coach Tim Floyd didn’t lean a little harder on the transfer route. How big of a rebuilding year could it be? Well, the Miners (minus some important players nursing injuries) lost an exhibition game to Division 2 Eastern New Mexico last week, by 11. (ENMU had recently lost an exhibition to New Mexico State by 50.)
The future: Regardless of where UTEP finishes in this year’s standings, the future looks bright. Much like Houston, the 2012 recruiting class features a pair of players – forwards Anthony January and Twymond Howard – who turned down several big-time programs.
12. Tulane Green Wave (3-13 in ’10-11, 9-17 overall)
Biggest Non-Conference Match-Ups: vs Georgia Tech, at Wofford, at Syracuse
The good: The Green Wave have a very good backcourt in point guard Jordan Callahan (13.7 points, 4.1 assists) and all-around swingman Kendall Timmons (17.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists). There are a couple of Division 1 transfers who could step in immediately in forward Josh Davis from NC State, and senior wing Dan Monckton from Penn. Freshman Ricky Tarrant is a highly-touted freshman who could have an impact.
The bad: Tulane finished dead last in conference play last year for a reason, and after Timmons and Callahan, they lose their next four top scorers, so those newcomers will have to be ready to play immediately. The return of Ben Cherry, who missed much of last year with injury, could help provide depth. Either way, the defense – Tulane was 285th in the nation in field goal defense last year – will have to improve significantly.
The unfortunate comparison: When asked about breaking in the new faces, head coach Ed Conroy called the situation "very similar to year two at the Citadel." I guess he was hoping nobody would notice that year two at the Citadel saw Conroy’s squad go 6-24 overall, and 1-19 in Southern Conference play.