Whatever happened to Conference USA?
Posted on: February 4, 2011 10:02 am
Edited on: February 4, 2011 2:52 pm
Posted by Eric Angevine
For years, the only team that mattered in Conference USA was Memphis. The Tigers had historically been a good to great team anyway, but John Calipari brought star power and the attendant riches in talent and support that go along with it. Starting in 2005, when Cincinnati, Marquette, Louisville, South Florida and TCU left the fold, Memphis topped the league standings four years running, going undefeated in conference play the final three seasons of Cal's tenure. Memphis was an apex predator of a program, and C-USA's other programs got a little fame out of the deal in the same way that the gazelle co-stars with the cheetah in a National Geographic documentary.
These days, Josh Pastner still has Memphis humming, but the 16-0 seasons are -- at least temporarily -- a thing of the past. Last year, it was another Calipari protege, then-UTEP coach Tony Barbee, who captured the league title. This season, the Miners are there again, but with veteran head coach Tim Floyd in charge. In fact, the league's retreads are bunched around Memphis in the standings, with Floyd and former Iowa State leader Larry Eustachy (with Southern Miss) slightly ahead of the Tigers, and Mike Davis (Indiana to UAB) and Matt Doherty (UNC to SMU) nipping at his heels. Jeff Lebo (ex-Auburn) and James Dickey (ex-Texas Tech) are in the mix as well.
Now, this could have gone very differently. One of the most baffling collapses of the season thus far must be owned by the UCF Knights. The Knights were 14-0 and ranked in the national Top 25 on January 5, having just beat Marshall for their first C-USA win of the season. It was also their last C-USA win of the season, as they added six straight losses to the ledger, including a home flame-out against league doormat Rice. It has been a stunning reversal of fortune for a team that upset in-state big boys USF, Florida and Miami along the way. The Knights quite simply became one of the most turnover-prone teams in the nation, seemingly overnight.
With the Knights falling off the face of the planet, C-USA's chances for two bids to the dance have gone to practically nil. UTEP, currently leading the league with a 5-2 record, has ugly losses to Pacific, Georgia Tech and, most recently, Tulsa to overcome. Eustachy's non-conference losses to Ole Miss and surging Colorado State aren't devastating, but three losses to league foes of varying strength put the kibosh on Golden Eagle hopes for an at-large. Memphis will go to Spokane to play Gonzaga this weekend in what could have been a real resume-booster if the Zags weren't also a shadow of their former selves.
If it's to be a one-bid league, then the league's best representative would have to be UTEP. With Floyd directing Randy Culpepper (above) alongside fellow seniors Julyan Stone, Christian Polk and Jeremy Williams, the Miners could be rounding into prime giant-killing shape.
For the future of the league at large, however, things must change. Memphis, UAB and Southern Miss can solidify the upper echelon of the league if they can find some consistency, meaning they should only lose to one another if they want to be taken seriously. The teams in the middle of the conference seem to often be able to challenge in the league race as well. It's tough to champion parity in a league like this one, because the outside world tends to view it as mediocrity. The NCAA selection committee knows what's up, though, and they'll no doubt notice that Memphis, UAB and Southern Mississippi have RPI numbers above 60, with the Blazers' 45 standing out. UTEP and Marshall are in the 60s.
The seeds are there for this league to more closely resemble the Mountain West or A-10 than the Horizon League. In fact, kenpom.com currently has C-USA ranked eighth in his conference standings based on the average rating of its member teams, just under the SEC and just above the A-10. Establishing three or four consistently dangerous teams at the top, and winning some of those big non-con matchups in the future will go a long ways toward balancing the ledger a bit, and getting this league to live up to its multi-bid potential.