|This is the best team that Josh Pastner has ever had at Memphis. The fans are expecting a huge year. (US Presswire)|
This is the final season of Conference USA as we know it because four members -- Memphis, UCF, Houston and SMU -- soon will be leaving to join the Big East. Consequently, Marshall, UAB and UTEP have a realistic opportunity going forward to dominate C-USA and consistently earn trips to the NCAA tournament.
But that's a year away from happening. For now, this league still belongs to Josh Pastner's Tigers because of the talent differential between them and everybody else. Yes, Marshall will be good this season. UTEP and UCF might be, too. But Memphis simply has too much talent and experience at every position to be challenged in C-USA, meaning the only real question is whether the Tigers will win the league by one game, two games or more. And it could easily be more, which arguably makes Memphis the biggest favorite to win a league title among all the favorites of all the nation's leagues.
Last year's regular-season winner: Memphis
Last year's tournament winner: Memphis
Conference tournament: March 13-16 (BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.)
Five best nonconference games:
1. Louisville at Memphis (Dec. 15)
2. Marshall at Kentucky (Dec. 22)
3. Memphis vs. VCU in the Bahamas (Nov. 22)
4. Marshall vs. West Virginia in Charleston (Dec. 5)
5. UCF at Florida (Nov. 23)
What I like: Memphis' experience and talent; Marshall's potential.
Why: Josh Pastner has had talent each of the past two years, but his roster has mostly been a collection of inexperienced players still adjusting to Division I basketball. But the Tigers are now talented, experienced and adjusted. Pastner is expected to start a senior, three juniors and a sophomore when he opens against North Florida on Nov. 12. That's the main reason that Memphis should cruise through the league and advance in the Field of 68 for the first time in the Pastner era.
Meantime, don't sleep on Marshall. No, I do not believe the Thundering Herd will challenge Memphis for the C-USA title. But I absolutely believe they'll be good enough to compete for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, especially if Tom Herrion's team takes advantage of a nonleague schedule featuring games against West Virginia, Cincinnati and Kentucky.
What I don't like: UCF's postseason ban; Rice's troubling exodus.
|Keith Clanton and UCF could be so good -- but can't make the NCAAs due to NCAA penatlies. (US Presswire)|
Why: UCF violated NCAA recruiting rules, got caught and is now paying the price. Fine. I've got no problem with that. But it's still hard to understand how the Knights could get a postseason ban for what happened within their program when so many schools before them -- most notably, Connecticut -- never got a postseason ban for worse recruiting violations. That's why UCF coach Donnie Jones was frustrated by the punishment, and rightfully so. What could've been a breakthrough season for UCF will now amount to little more than a transitional year to the Big East.
Meantime, what's going on at Rice? Ben Braun lost six transfers this offseason, including Arsalan Kazemi. Consequently, his fifth season at Rice will be a tough one, and nobody is certain he'll get to coach a sixth.
Player of the Year will be: Adonis Thomas (Memphis). This 6-foot-5 wing has long been described as a future lottery pick based on little more than his athleticism and body. But this preseason, he has looked more like a polished player. Thomas is shooting the ball at a high level in practice, was clearly the Tigers' best player at a recent scrimmage and is completely healed from the foot injury that sidelined him for much of last season's league schedule. In short, he's terrific. So you'd be wise to expect a breakthrough sophomore season that results in Thomas being a millionaire this time next year.
The next best five:
And the five after that:
Best freshman: Shaq Goodwin (Memphis). This Georgia native will likely take a few weeks (or even months) to catch up to his mostly more-experienced teammates, but his size and natural abilities could make him the league's best big by March. Goodwin won't start for Memphis to begin the season, but he is the Tigers' second-best pro prospect behind Adonis Thomas.
|BEST GUESS ON FIRST TO WORST|
|1. Memphis Tigers|
|The Tigers have a roster of experienced and talented players for the first time under Josh Pastner, and the result should be one last C-USA title before moving to the Big East. Look for Joe Jackson to be steadier, Chris Crawford and Adonis Thomas to provide breakout seasons, and Shaq Goodwin and Tarik Black to establish themselves as nationally relevant bigs.|
|2. Marshall Thundering Herd|
|The Thundering Herd are probably the only team in this league equipped to even push Memphis at all. Freshman point guard Kareem Canty paired with junior guard DeAndre Kane and senior forward Dennis Tinnon give Tom Herrion a solid core capable of leading Marshall into the Field of 68.|
|3. UTEP Miners|
|The fact that Tim Floyd scheduled aggressively suggests the veteran coach believes his Miners are positioned to make a move in the league and, perhaps, compete for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Every C-USA coach I've spoken with has labeled UTEP as better than most realize. Me picking them third is based on that.|
|4. UCF Golden Knights|
|The NCAA sanctions that eliminated the possibility of playing in the postseason and allowed C.J. Reed to transfer without penalty are a killer. Still, UCF should be respectable thanks to senior forward Keith Clanton.|
|5. Houston Cougars|
|The expectations at Houston took a hit when it was determined heralded recruit Danrad "Chicken" Knowles will not join the program until next season. But the Cougars still have Danuel House, a 6-foot-6 forward who could challenge Memphis' Shaq Goodwin for C-USA Freshman of the Year honors.|
|6. Southern Miss Golden Eagles|
|Larry Eustachy used last season's trip to the NCAA tournament as a launching pad out of town -- specifically to Colorado State. There isn't much of note left behind at USM. But the Golden Eagles should still finish in the top half of the league.|
|7. Tulane Green Wave|
|Injuries, as much as anything else, contributed to Tulane's 3-13 record in C-USA last season. But Ed Conroy should get things turned around to some degree this season thanks to the return of Ricky Tarrant and Kendall Timmons, both of whom averaged at least 13 points per game a year ago.|
|8. East Carolina Pirates|
|Miguel Paul averaged 15 points per game last season and should be aided now by the arrival of Akeem Richmond, a transfer from Rhode Island. Richmond is the second-leading high-school scorer in North Carolina history.|
|9. UAB Blazers|
|Fans of the Blazers no longer have Mike Davis to kick around. They also won't have many things to cheer for this season as former North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase transitions into his first head-coaching gig.|
|10. SMU Mustangs|
|The arrival of Larry Brown -- and his impressive coaching staff -- has created a buzz in Dallas, but that buzz won't help the Mustangs win many games this season. Simply put, they don't have enough good players to be relevant in their final season in Conference USA.|
|11. Tulsa Golden Hurricane|
|Jordan Clarkson's transfer to Missouri will be among the things that make Danny Manning's transition from Kansas assistant to Tulsa head coach a difficult one. But, with time, the former KU star and top pick of the NBA Draft should be good in this role.|
|12. Rice Owls|
|There aren't many who had a worse offseason than Ben Braun. Six Rice players transferred, including star forward Arsalan Kazemi. History suggests it's difficult to win at Rice regardless of the circumstances. But these circumstances make it borderline impossible.|