CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider

Conference Countdown: No. 8 -- Conference USA

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Marshall's DeAndre Kane, coming off a 15.1 ppg season, will continue to turn heads. (Getty Images)  
Marshall's DeAndre Kane, coming off a 15.1 ppg season, will continue to turn heads. (Getty Images)  

Remember how John Calipari's Memphis teams used to run through Conference USA?

This season might look like one of those seasons.

The Tigers are ranked ninth in the CBSSports.com Preseason Top 25 (and one) because they return every relevant piece from a team that won last season's C-USA tournament, then played Derrick Williams and Arizona to the buzzer in the NCAA tournament. Memphis has four players on the CBSSports.com Top 100 list. The rest of the league has two. Combined. So there is an undeniable gap in talent between Josh Pastner's team and its C-USA brethren. The only question is whether the Tigers can take advantage of that gap and actually live up to the preseason expectations.

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

2012 Tournament:
March 7-10 -- Memphis
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champion:
UAB
Defending tournament champion:
Memphis
Top returning scorer:
Kendall Timmons (Tulane), 17.0 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Arsalan Kazemi (Rice), 11.0 rpg
Accolades
First team
G - Marcus Jordan, UCF
G - Will Barton, Memphis
G - DeAndre Kane, Marshall
F - Arsalan Kazemi, Rice
F - Tarik Black, Memphis
Second team
G - Joe Jackson, Memphis
G - Kendall Timmons, Tulane
F - Adonis Thomas, Memphis
F - Keith Clanton, UCF
F - Cameron Moore, UAB
Player of the year
Tarik Black, Memphis
Newcomer of the year
Adonis Thomas, Memphis
Breakthrough player
Tarik Black, Memphis
Coach on the hot seat
Matt Doherty, SMU
Click here for more
conference previews

1. Memphis: The truth about the Tigers is that they got good last season at just about the same time Joe Jackson started performing like the talented playmaker he was supposed to be from the start. Jackson went from being benched in February to winning C-USA tournament MVP honors in March, and he needs to be good for Memphis to be great. Will Barton, Chris Crawford, Wesley Witherspoon and Tarik Black are the most talented experienced players surrounding Jackson. Add McDonald's All-American Adonis Thomas to the rotation, and, again, on paper this team is built to win at least 14 league games.

2. Marshall: Donnie Jones got Marshall headed in the right direction. Tom Herrion has continued it. The second-year coach could have the Thundering Herd in the NCAA tournament thanks to a trio of talented guards -- Damier Pitts, Shaquille Johnson and DeAndre Kane, the last of whom could challenge any of the Memphis players for C-USA Player of the Year honors. Kane averaged 15.1 points last season. He's a legitimate NBA prospect, a 6-foot-5 wing good enough to play for any team -- and in any league -- in the country.

3. UCF: The Knights started 14-0 last season then collapsed -- somewhat because of injuries -- and finished 21-12, proving they weren't quite ready to be nationally relevant. That put a damper on what, in December, seemed like would be a program-changing season. Allegations of possible rules violations didn't help change the mood. That said, Jones, formerly the coach at Marshall, still has a roster that could get off to another nice start if Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton play well. Then they could then take another shot at finishing respectably.

4. Tulsa: Doug Wojcik should tally a winning record for the sixth time in seven seasons, but a lot of that will have to do with Tulsa playing on the obviously weaker side of C-USA. The Golden Hurricane play Memphis, Marshall and UCF only one time each -- and each of those games is at home. That's an advantageous schedule. Tulsa must take advantage of it.

5. UAB: Mike Davis has won at least 20 games in four straight seasons despite having rosters that constantly change and seem underwhelming. For that reason alone, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. But UAB finishing in the top four will require Cameron Moore being really good. The 12 C-USA coaches voted him their Preseason Player of the Year. If he wins the postseason award, UAB might actually be better than this prediction.

6. Texas-El Paso: The top five scorers -- including former Conference USA Player of the Year Randy Culpepper -- are gone from last season's team, which was mere minutes from beating Memphis in the title game of the C-USA tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament. That means second-year coach Tim Floyd is in rebuilding mode, but he'll still win enough to get into the top half of the league.

7. Rice: Arsalan Kazemi is a terrific college basketball player, and he'll be a good pro, too. But as Morris Almond showed us a few years back, it's just really, really difficult to win at Rice. Ben Braun has things headed in the right direction. But, most likely, he's not there yet.

8. Southern Miss: Speaking of difficult jobs, Larry Eustachy is about to start his eighth season in Hattiesburg. He's made the Golden Eagles respectable, but they've never broken through and received a bid to the NCAA tournament. Will this be the season? No. Not with Gary Flowers and R.L. Horton both gone.

9. Tulane: Kendall Timmons is C-USA's top returning scorer, but there probably aren't enough pieces around him to push Tulane into the top half of the league. Ed Conroy is still rebuilding, and nobody should be surprised if he gets where he wants to go. But it's almost certainly not happening this season.

10. Southern Methodist: The Matt Doherty era hasn't gone the way anybody wanted, including Doherty. But the Mustangs' recruiting is improving, and a possible move to the Big East could help spark the program. That said, it's a long way to the top from here.

11. Houston: Some surprising commitments from notable prospects have provided a reason to believe James Dickey might just make Houston relevant again. But those prospects aren't enrolled and eligible to compete this season, and that's too bad for Houston. It'll be a tough season.

12. East Carolina: The Pirates lost most of their top players from last season, and they weren't very good last season -- just 8-8 in the league. That's not a good recipe for success. That's why there won't be much success at ECU.

2011-12 Season Preview
DateFeatureDateFeature
Oct. 13Preseason Top 25 (and one) Nov. 1Top freshmen
 Projected NCAA tournament field Nov. 2Top transfers
 Goodman and Parrish bracket picks Nov. 3Under the radar players
Oct. 14Team profiles: 'Cuse | UConn | UK | UNC Nov. 4Breakout players
Oct. 17Preseason All-Americans Nov. 5Best shooters
Oct. 18Top 100 players Nov. 6Best defensive players
Oct. 19Positional rankings: Point guards Nov. 768 things ...
Oct. 20Positional rankings: Wing men Nov. 8Ranking the preseason tourneys
Oct. 21Positional rankings: Big men Nov. 950 can't miss games
   Nov. 10Coaches on the Hot Seat

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com 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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