If there is any league in America that can be described as wide open entering into the conference tournament, it is Conference USA. In part because of the rise of programs such as UTEP, Southern Miss and Marshall and in part because of the fall of Memphis, there has never been a league campaign more wide open or a tournament more difficult to predict. At least six teams go into the tournament on Wednesday in El Paso with a legitimate chance to cut down the nets, and predicting the winner is virtually impossible.
To the extent there is a favorite, it is regular season champion UAB (22-7, 12-4). Mike Davis put together one of the best seasons in his tenure, led by seniors Jamarr Sanders and Aaron Johnson. Both players were named First Team All-Conference USA and played at a high level since the start of the season. But Johnson has been the straw that stirs the Blazers’ drink, averaging an astounding 7.9 assists a game. That total places him first in the country in assists and has solidified his standing as one of the premier passers in the game. When the Blazers play at a high level, they are the best team in the conference and they would provide the league with its most potent team for the NCAA tournament.
Memphis (22-9, 10-6) missed its first NCAA tournament since 2005 last season and without a win in the conference tournament, it will likely once again be NIT bound. It has been a painful year for coach Josh Pastner, who has had to deal with problems on and off the court with his program obviously in transition. Most of the problems this season stem from the inability of Wesley Witherspoon to give the production level expected of him prior to the season. The combination of an early suspension for mocking an assistant coach and a late injury have left Memphis without the dominant presence that was supposed to be the focus of the team. Freshman Will Barton has played well, and Memphis probably has more raw talent than any team in the league. However harnessing that talent for continued stretches has been difficult for the Tigers, who come into the C-USA tournament having lost 3 of their last 5.
In wide open tournaments, I tend to go with the teams with the best individual players and if that holds true in C-USA, then Southern Miss and UTEP should be watched. Gary Flowers finished his great career for Southern Miss (21-9, 9-7) averaging 19 points a game and once again being named first team All-Conference USA. When Flowers plays under control, he is the most dominant scorer in the league. But he struggled down the stretch, leading to three straight losses for the Golden Eagles.
As for UTEP (23-8, 11-5), the Miners host the conference tournament for the first time in recent memory and thus are my favorite to win the title. Randy Culpepper has been the best overall player in the conference now for two seasons running and this season he has helped keep his team playing well after its NCAA berth last season. With El Paso as far away from civilization as any locale in Conference USA, the crowd should be decidedly pro-Miner and help lead UTEP to its first ever conference tournament title.
Top Three Players
- Randy Culpepper UTEP
- Gary Flowers Southern Miss
- Aaron Johnson UAB
Kenpom.com Ranking: 8
Conference RPI: 8
Sagarin Conference Rating: 8
NCAA Tournament Locks: None
NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams: UAB, Memphis
Last NCAA Appearance
UAB: 2006 (lost to Kentucky in first round)
UTEP: 2010 (lost to Butler in first round)
Tulsa: 2003 (lost to Wisconsin in second round)
Memphis: 2009 (lost to Missouri in Sweet 16)
Southern Miss: 1991 (lost to NC State in first round)
Marshall: 1987 (lost to TCU in first round)
SMU: 1993 (lost to BYU in first round)
East Carolina: 1993 (lost to North Carolina in first round)
Central Florida: 2005 (lost to UCONN in first round)
Rice: 1970 (lost to New Mexico State in second round)
Houston: 2010 (lost to Maryland in first round)
Tulane: 1995 (lost to Kentucky in second round)
Posted by MATT JONES
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