Rice hosted a golf tournament last year designed to raise funds for the struggling basketball program. There was an auction that accompanied the event, and one of the items up for bidding was a trip for two to Memphis to watch the Owls play John Calipari's nationally-ranked Tigers.
A former player won the item.
|Joey Dorsey had some offseason shenanigans, but everything's OK now. (Getty Images)|
"So he sent his wife and son in his place," said Rice coach Willis Wilson. "They went to shoot-around and to pregame meal and then she made a comment to me."
What did she say, coach?
"She said it was unfair,' Wilson recalled with a laugh. "She said that Rice people had no idea what we were competing against."
Such is life in Conference USA, where every program is dwarfed by Memphis in terms of stature, publicity, budget, facilities and every other measuring tool imaginable. In the end, it all leads to a talent gap duplicated by no other league. And while it's absurd in concept, it's not ridiculous to think a team made of Memphis reserves -- Willie Kemp, Andre Allen, Doneal Mack, Jeff Robinson, Shawn Taggart, Pierre Niles and Hashim Bailey -- would be capable of challenging for second place in C-USA if the Tigers were allowed to field a 'B' team and run it through the schedule.
Meantime, Wilson must be shaking his head.
He has got a $23 million renovation under way that will finally make Autry Court presentable. But Rice will still be fighting a losing battle -- much like the rest of the league -- because Memphis is so far ahead of the pack that any C-USA loss is considered a huge upset. And though that's great for Memphis, it doesn't speak well for its C-USA brethren, which is why having a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament isn't enough to make Conference USA anything better than the ninth-best league in the nation.
The good: Five starters return for a program coming off its second consecutive Elite Eight, meaning this team that finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll last season should actually be better this season. Among the reasons (beyond veterans Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Antonio Anderson) is point guard Derrick Rose -- a lottery pick whenever he wants to be, which will most likely be at the conclusion of this freshman season.
The bad: The Tigers couldn't make it through the preseason without a little controversy, specifically the arrest of two players after an incident that was reportedly sparked by Dorsey. Granted, the off-the-court problem wasn't the only one in college basketball this offseason -- Auburn, Pittsburgh, UAB, Missouri, Tennessee and countless others have also endured incidents -- but it was exactly the type of thing that can curb Final Four hopes, exactly the type of thing that can turn a dream run into a nightmare.
The bottom line: Calipari hasn't ducked the expectations, repeatedly explaining how there are "only about five or six teams" that really have a chance at winning the national title, and that his team is one of them. So for this man, who has always seemed just one player away from competing on the first Monday in April, things have finally lined up perfectly, and nothing less than a trip to the Final Four will quench the thirst of Memphis fans.
The good: Mike Davis copied the Reggie Theus blueprint and loaded up on transfers who are now eligible in his second season at UAB. Channing Toney (from Georgia) and Walter Sharpe (from Mississippi State) should help immediately. But the star is Robert Vaden, a 6-5 wing who averaged 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists two seasons ago as a sophomore at Indiana.
The bad: Heralded recruit Keenan Ellis did not meet the NCAA's standards for freshman eligibility. He had to enroll in junior college. Meanwhile, Jeremy Mayfield didn't pass enough units to maintain his eligibility. So UAB is down a pair of 6-10 forwards, though Mayfield could return in December.
The bottom line: On paper, UAB has as much or more talent than any C-USA program not called Memphis. But in picking the Blazers to finish second and earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, I'm putting a lot of faith in those transfers to produce immediately. That's a risky venture, I admit.
The good: Lanny Smith is back and healthy after missing all but four games last season with a foot injury. Alongside Rob McKiver and Dion Dowell, the 6-3 guard will give Tom Penders some serious backcourt weapons with which to return to postseason play.
The bad: Houston has averaged 18.7 wins the past three seasons, but its record against NCAA Tournament opponents is just 5-16. That's yucky. And it's why I'm willing to take a wait-and-see approach with the Cougars as it pertains to any NCAA Tournament aspirations, because all the talk about how they're on the verge of turning the proverbial corner is talk I've heard before, pretty much every preseason.
The bottom line: Those associated with C-USA are hoping Houston can combine with Memphis and UAB to give the league three teams in the NCAA Tournament, but such optimism is far-fetched considering the bottom of the conference will pull everybody's RPIs down. In reality, this is at best a two-bid league. But the Cougars are talented enough to earn the second bid ahead of UAB if they accomplish something in the non-league portion of their schedule. Home games against Kentucky and Arizona will provide opportunities, and a real NCAA Tournament team would go no worse than 1-1 against those opponents.
The good: Jeremy Wise had a wonderful freshman season, averaging 17.5 points per game and scoring a career-high 28 in a three-point loss at Memphis. He's back, as are seven of the other eight leading scorers from a team that won 20 games last season while finishing tied for fourth in C-USA.
The bad: Though the "20-win season" sounds good in a media guide, it's a bit misleading. Four of USM's victories came against non-Division I opponents, and there wasn't a single win over a team with a Top 80 RPI. So when Larry Eustachy asks his players, "What did we really do?" -- and to his credit, that's exactly what he said he's asked them -- odds are they don't have an impressive array of answers.
|4. Southern Miss||NIT|
|6. Central Florida||none|
|12. East Carolina||none|
The bottom line: USM has a couple of road tests early: at Cal (Nov. 14) and at Alabama (Nov. 23). Win either of those, and a trip to the postseason becomes realistic. But a pair of losses might serve as an indication that the Golden Eagles are still a year away from breaking through.
The good: The three-guard line-up that helped Tulsa to 20 wins last season is back, namely Brett McDade, Rod Earls and Ben Uzoh. They combined to average 27.9 points and help Tulsa win four of its final five games.
The bad: Four forwards are gone from last season's team, among them Jamel McLean, who transferred to Xavier after averaging 6.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. That means the Golden Hurricane is short in the frontcourt with only three players 6-9 or taller. Of that group, one is a freshman (Steven Idlet) and neither of the other two (Jerome James and Sam Mitchell) averaged even 17 minutes per game last season.
The bottom line: Similar to Southern Miss, things are very much still a work in progress at Tulsa despite that 20-win season suggesting otherwise. The Golden Hurricane is good enough to finish third and vulnerable enough to slip to the bottom half of the league. It'll probably all depend on how those guards perform.
The good: Three starters are back, plus sixth-man extraordinaire Jermaine Taylor. A 6-4 guard, Taylor never started a game last season, but he averaged 12.7 points and shot 41.4 percent from 3-point range in 25.2 minutes per contest.
The bad: Josh Peppers and Lavell Payne combined to average 25.1 points per game last season. Both are gone, and with them a ton of experience.
The bottom line: Kirk Speraw is again living up to his reputation as a sure-I'll-do-it scheduler. He's got non-league games with Connecticut, Ole Miss, Villanova and then two additional games in the Old Spice Classic, one of which will be against either Kansas State or George Mason. And, oh yeah, he'll play Nevada twice. That's a strong slate of contests for a team without two of last season's top three scorers, but it's guaranteed to have UCF prepared for the C-USA portion of the schedule even if another second-place finish is doubtful.
The good: Tony Barbee's first real recruiting class is on campus, a group that's headlined by former DePaul signee Manuel Cass. When placed beside all-league performer Stefon Jackson, UTEP should have a dynamic pair of scorers to aid its fast-paced attack.
The bad: UTEP dismissed four players -- including three part-time starters -- from the team last May. That's hardly ever good, even if it's necessary to change the culture.
The bottom line: Barbee has taken advantage of his connections created while an assistant at Memphis, committing multiple recruits who are not quite good enough for Calipari but better than the type of player UTEP is used to signing. Fans will see the first of it this year in the form of Randy Culpepper, an athletic guard capable of scoring in bunches. And then three more players with Memphis connections -- including former Tiger Kareem Cooper -- will join the team in 2008-09, which is when UTEP will make a run at another postseason berth.
The good: David Gomez averaged 13.5 points and 5.8 rebounds last season. He's back alongside another double-digit scorer (Kevin Sims), so the Green Wave have a core of experienced players who are coming off a 17-win campaign.
The bad: Tulane's most productive shooter, Chris Moore, exhausted his eligibility. Moore made 50 3-pointers last season. All the returnees combined to make just 71.
The bottom line: Four of the five players who started Tulane's final game last season return, and that's the type of stability Dave Dickerson hasn't enjoyed since taking over the program. Still, there simply isn't enough talent on the roster to do anything other than hope to earn a first-day bye in the C-USA Tournament. That would require a top-four finish, and it would be a huge accomplishment.
The good: Donnie Jones is taking over after the uninspiring Ron Jirsa era. Jones was the perfect hire for a program in need of a change because he is from West Virginia and a longtime Billy Donovan assistant, meaning he understands the landscape and how to win basketball games.
The bad: Three high-level transfers -- Brandon Powell (Florida), Chris Lutz (Purdue) and Octavius Spann (Georgetown) -- are on campus, and that's great news. But none are eligible until the 2008-09 season. So Marshall's practices are going to look a lot better than its games.
|G - Derrick Rose, Memphis|
|G - Rob McKiver, Houston|
|G - Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis|
|G - Robert Vaden, UAB|
|F - Joey Dorsey, Memphis|
|G - Jeremy Wise, Southern Miss|
|G - Paul Delaney, UAB|
|G - Lanny Smith, Houston|
|G - Stefon Jackson, UTEP|
|F - David Gomez, Tulane|
| Player of the Year |
Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis
| Newcomer of the Year |
Derrick Rose, Memphis
| Breakthrough Player |
Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, Marshall
The bottom line: This is going to be a transitional year, and it's likely Jones will experience more losses than he did the last two seasons combined on Florida's bench. But there's no denying things are headed in the correct direction, and it's only a matter of time before Jones has the Thundering Herd competing in the top third of C-USA.
The good: Seven freshmen are on the roster, including Mike Walker and Alex Malone. That's proof that the rebuilding has begun, that second-year coach Matt Doherty has a core around which to build.
The bad: Unless a team's seven-player freshmen class includes names like Mike Conley and Greg Oden it probably isn't ready to compete from the start. So SMU will endure some growing pains without its only double-digit scorer from last season, namely Ike Ofoegbu.
The bottom line: Doherty is still building, and the long-term plans are better than the immediate future. Put another way, the Mustangs will be fine in a year or two, but this season should still be relatively rough.
The good: Six players return who have started games. The most experienced of the group is Patrick Britton, a 6-8 senior who averaged 5.1 points and 4.0 rebounds last season.
The bad: Morris Almond is gone, off to the NBA as a first-round pick of the Utah Jazz. That means the Owls will be looking for 26.4 points per game somewhere else, and there's no indication they'll find it on this roster.
The bottom line: This is set to be a tough year for the Owls considering Almond is gone and Autry Court is being renovated to the point where Rice will not have a true home court again until 2008-09. But the new facility offers some sort of hope that Rice can soon compete, if not with Memphis then at least with the Tulsas and USMs of the world.
12. East Carolina
The good: ECU ridded itself of Ricky Stokes. The official word was that Stokes made the decision, and in explanation he said the death of Wake Forest's Skip Prosser played a role. But the problem with that story is that Prosser died in late July and word of Stokes' imminent departure was circulating among basketball people in early July. So it appears Stokes is about as good at being honest as he was at winning games. And in case you didn't know, he was 14-44 in two years at East Carolina.
The bad: Though Stokes is gone, his players and recruits are not. So some of the same guys who went 1-15 in C-USA last season are back and fully capable of doing it again.
The bottom line: Athletic director Terry Holland missed big time when he hired Stokes, and now the program is as down as it's ever been. So even if Mack McCarthy is a solid replacement, it'll take him time to recover from the mess he inherited, which is why ECU is the obvious pick to finish last.
|2007-08 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 15||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Thursday, Oct. 25||No. 7: Missouri Valley|
|Tuesday, Oct. 16||Preseason All-Amercia Team||Friday, Oct. 26||No. 6: Big 12|
|Wednesday, Oct. 17||No. 13: West Coast||Monday, Oct. 29||No. 5: Big Ten|
|Thursday, Oct. 18||No. 12: Colonial||Tuesday, Oct. 30||No. 4: SEC|
|Friday, Oct. 19||No. 11: Mountain West||Wednesday, Oct. 31||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 22||No. 10: Western Athletic||Thursday, Nov. 1||No. 2: Big East|
|Tuesday, Oct. 23||No. 9: Conference USA||Friday, Nov. 2||No. 1: Pac-10|
|Wednesday, Oct. 24||No. 8: Atlantic 10||Monday, Nov. 5||Preseason Projecting the Field|