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What C-USA lacks in star power it makes up for with balance


Conference USA will have two members make the NCAA tournament this season.

Which two?

I'm not sure. But Wednesday night will almost certainly help answer that question because the top four schools in the league standings -- UTEP, UAB, Memphis and Southern Miss -- are playing each other in a possible preview of next month's C-USA Tournament semifinals.

Memphis coach Josh Pastner on Conference USA: 'Everybody is good.' (US Presswire)  
Memphis coach Josh Pastner on Conference USA: 'Everybody is good.' (US Presswire)  
UAB at Memphis tips first.

UTEP at Southern Miss tips second.

Depending on the outcomes, either UTEP, UAB or Memphis will be in first place by the time you wake up Thursday, which is a good place to start when trying to explain just how competitive this league has become. The current state of things can be attributed partly to Memphis still transitioning into the post John Calipari era and partly to the rest of the league (Southern Miss, especially) improving. Either way, the result has C-USA with four schools in the top 55 of the RPI and all within a game of each other in the league standings, meaning this is the best and most balanced version of C-USA since Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, Charlotte and Saint Louis exited after the 2004-05 season.

"No question about it," said Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy.

"Everybody is good," added Memphis coach Josh Pastner, which is a statement I rejected before looking at the information Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway published earlier this week. Gasaway compiled what each team from the top 14 leagues is doing against league opponents on a per-possession basis both offensively and defensively to determine everybody's "efficiency margin." What he found is that UTEP is C-USA's best and Tulane is C-USA's worst, but that "the per-possession difference between first place [UTEP] and last place [Tulane] in C-USA is exactly the same as the difference between first [Texas] and third [Missouri] in the Big 12."

Translation: Conference USA is uniquely competitive from top to bottom.

Which brings me back to Pastner's quote.

"Everybody is good."

I still reject that statement because, let's be honest, not everybody in C-USA is good. But Pastner's larger point was that there are almost no simple games for anybody in this league, and I agree on that point. Though four members still have a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, none of them are so overwhelming that they can expect to cruise to a victory regardless of the opponent. That's why more than 20 percent of games between C-USA members this season have been decided by one possession and nearly 70 percent of C-USA games have produced single-digit margins.

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Expect more of the same late Wednesday.

Memphis (19-6 overall, 7-3 in C-USA with a 33 RPI) is a 2.5-point favorite over UAB (18-6 overall, 8-3 in C-USA with a 35 RPI); Southern Miss (18-6 overall, 7-4 in C-USA with a 48 RPI) is a 2.5-point favorite over UTEP (19-5 overall, 7-3 in C-USA with a 53 RPI).

In other words, both games are likely to be decided in the final minutes (or seconds). The winners will add a "quality" win to their resumes while the losers miss a nice opportunity, and Jerry Palm's next projected bracket at will reflect the very much up-in-the-air results from this very much up-in-the-air conference. You looking for a better league with better teams? There are plenty -- like the Big East, Big 12 and Big Ten. But no league is more balanced and competitive than the 2010-11 version of C-USA, and that alone makes it worth following through the final 2½ weeks of the season.

Two members will ultimately do enough to make the NCAA tournament.

That's my official prediction.

But trying to determine which two remains a tough projection to make.

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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