Long gone are the days when the Conference USA tournament was sarcastically referred to as the "Memphis Invitational." Last year, it was the Houston Cougars, coming off a 7-9 conference campaign, who stunned the rest of the field and earned C-USA's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. In the championship game, they defeated the 15-1 UTEP Miners.
This year, there is no clear favorite. UAB has the top seed with a 12-4 record, UTEP is back in the mix with the No. 3 seed and home court advantage, and No. 2 seed Tulsa is the biggest question mark, with wins over the Blazers and Miners, but losses to 6-10 UCF and 4-12 Houston. And of course, despite some bad losses of its own, you never can count out Memphis, the No. 4 seed.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi has UAB as the No. 12 seed in the NCAAs, and the conference's lone representative. Memphis is listed as his eighth-best non-tournament team, meaning that even a strong conference tourney showing that falls short of the championship is unlikely to get them an at-large berth. This figures to make the C-USA tournament competition even tougher, with no team able to coast into the NCAAs without winning conference.
If you're looking for a sleeper outside of the top four seeds, take a flier on the 9-seed UCF Knights. After a 13-0 non-conference campaign got them ranked, they absolutely fell apart in conference play, losing their first eight contests. The talent is still there, however, and they seem to have righted the ship. They scored a win over Tulsa late in the year, and even became the only team in conference to beat UTEP on its home court - a valuable skill with the tournament taking place in El Paso.
No. 7 seed SMU is another to keep an eye on. If they can beat Rice in the first round, they will get a second-round date with Tulsa, the top four seed with the biggest potential for a let-down performance, in my mind. Plus SMU has tons of post talent, so any opposing team on a cold-shooting night will have a very hard time with them.
If your money's on the hometown teams, it doesn't look good. The Cougars have lost 11 of 12, the lone win coming against dead-last Tulane. (They also managed to lose to the Green Wave in that stretch.) The good news is that their first-round draw is against Marshall, a team the Cougars played very competitively during that span, losing by a single point at home. Some Thundering Herd players made inappropriate gestures towards the Hofheinz Pavilion crowd after the game, a fact I'm sure hasn't been forgotten, in case the Coogs needed any further motivation. Should Houston manage to survive the first round, they'll get a date with the host Miners. UTEP and Houston always seem to play competitive basketball, regardless of the circumstances, and especially after the Coogs upset the Miners in last year's tournament, I wouldn't be surprised to see the El Paso faithful pulling for Marshall in the first round.
The Owls have a little bit more upset potential, as you can never count out a team with a strong interior presence (Arsalan Kazemi) and a plethora of outside shooters (Connor Frizzelle, Cory Pfleiger). However, for the Owls to make a run, they will need a huge tournament from slashing wing Tamir Jackson, to give them that other offensive option. The bracket didn't do Rice any favors, however. They get SMU (against whom they went 0-2 during the regular season) in the first round, and if they grab a win there, they will get Tulsa (against whom they went 0-2 during the regular season) in the second round.
Here are Three Gut-Reaction, Don't-Hold-Me-To-These Predictions for the tournament:
-Neither Houston-based team makes it out of the first round.
-At least one of the top four seeds loses on day two.
-UTEP rides the home court to the conference championship and a return trip to the NCAAs.