In terms of men's hoops, 2007-08 probably was the best season C-USA has had since realignment. A couple teams made enough steps to be considered at-larges for the NCAA Tournament, and will have a chance at challenging Memphis going into next season for the conference title. After watching plenty of league play this past season, here are my thoughts on each team and what to expect from them now and next year as the C-USA tournament gets underway this week.
Mike Davis' arrival at UAB did not get off to a smooth start, with a 15-16 record and a 9th-place finish in the league in 2006-07. He brought questions with him last year, but is already providing answers when Robert Vaden (#3 scorer in C-USA) came with him. The streaky-shooting Indiana transfer sank 138 three-pointers this year, and took over a number of notable games (41 vs. UTEP, 33 vs. Kentucky, 33 vs. Southern Miss).
Let's not forget that this quick turnaround occured without the services of Paul Delaney III. Four games into the season, the senior tore an ACL in his left knee, and is expected to apply for a medical redshirt. Last year Delaney averaged over 15 points per game, so expect him to team up with Vaden next year to immediately contend for the C-USA title.
'08 C-USA Tournament: UAB will face the winner of Tulsa/East Carolina. The Blazers recorded a 14-point victory in their only meeting with the Golden Hurricane, and blew out the Pirates. With them putting the biggest scare in-conference into Memphis, expect them to reach the finals. With the tournament in Memphis, it will be a tough task - the Blazers were steamrolled 94-56 at the FedEx Forum on Saturday.
There wasn't just a pop...an EXPLOSION could be heard at Williams Arena in Greenville. The Cougars' bubble burst (probably in flames) when they lost to lowly East Carolina. Houston was creeping into the tournament picture, and will probably need to at least make the championship game to be considered. Prior to the disappointing loss, Houston was playing great basketball, especially at home with a 14-1 mark inside the Hofheinz Pavilion, with the lone loss being to Memphis. Time is running out for UH's top three scorers (all seniors) to make a lasting impression. If this is to happen, Robert McKiver has to lead the charge. The 2nd-highest scorer in C-USA is capable of putting up numbers, with 52 against Southern Miss and 41 against UAB.
Tom Penders will have his work cut out after losing McKiver, Dion Dowell, Tafari Toney, and 5th-year senior guard Lanny Smith to graduation. Houston will be competitive in C-USA, but probably not for a title in '09.
'08 C-USA Tournament: The Coogs will await the winner of UTEP/SMU. With the stinker fresh on the mind against ECU, this is not a gimme game. Houston swept SMU, and split against UTEP. If they get past either of these teams, they lost a 2-point thriller to UAB in Birmingham. So if they favorites win all prior match-ups, look for a dogfight to advance to the C-USA championship game.
They ran a perfect campaign through the conference slate for two years in a row, so why did I wait to mention the Tigers? Well, if you are reading this, you probably know all about them already. Memphis needs to win this tournament to get that all-important 1-seed and easiest route to the Final Four after back-to-back exits in the Elite 8. The addition of Derrick Rose has been fantastic for the Tigers, and when needed, the freshman phenom takes over games and gels this well-oiled machine together. Unlike last year, Chris Douglas-Roberts appears to be healthy down the stretch, and will get this team rolling. If they can start hitting free throws (dead last in the NCAA), look for them to appear in the Final Four.
UH was mentioned earlier as a team that needs to win now, and the same couldn't be more true for the Tigers. Rose will likely head for the NBA, Douglas-Roberts is a junior but unknown whether he will return, and Joey Dorsey is a senior. John Calipari will return a nice group of players and will contend for the conference title next year, but expect this unit to finally drop a conference game next season.
'08 C-USA Tournament: Tourney is on their home floor, undefeated in Conference Play for over two seasons, ranked #2. It would take a monumental upset to take out this team at the FedEx forum.
As for the rest
- With Southern Miss taking out Marshall on Saturday, Central Florida locked up the last of four first-round byes in the conference tournament. The Knights limped to the finish, losing to Houston and Tulsa, and also losing senior leader Mike O'Donnell somewhere in-between with a broken foot. UCF always has a player that acts as the 'glue' on its team, and with O'Donnell likely done, it's not looking good for the Knights. It's just the latest in a slew of injuries that include centers Stanley Billings and Jean-Michael Yotio, and 4th-leading scorer Jermaine Taylor. UCF did not lose to possible first-game opponents Southern Miss and Rice this season, but they will have their hands full without O'Donnell, regardless of the opponent. Look for them to follow up last year's 2nd round exit with another one against the Golden Eagles. What a shame for 2006-07 C-USA C.O.Y. Kirk Speraw; he did an exceptional job keeping this team afloat through the injury woes.
- Speaking of the Eagles, they are my most-disappointing C-USA team. Despite having no seniors on their roster last year, they went 20-11, finishing 6th. This year they finished one spot better, but posted the same 9-7 in-conference record, and regressed overall with a 17-13 tally. Southern Miss will have arguably the most favorable path of the non-bye teams. They will take on winless in-conference Rice first, and then an injury-hampered UCF team. Don't be surprised if Southern Miss advances for a tilt against Memphis.
- Tulane gets honorable mention as most-disappointing, especially after finishing 4th in the standings last year and toppling three SEC teams (LSU, Georgia, Auburn) in the non-conference slate this year. After losing the first two C-USA games, the Green Wave ran off five straight, then followed that up with eight losses in a row. Ending the regular season in ninth place, they will take on Marshall.
- The standings don't reflect it after back-to-back 8th-place finishes, but the Thundering Herd made huge strides under former Billy Donovan assistant Donnie Jones. They will finish over .500 for the first time this century. Provided that Donnie Jones stays for a few years, expect the Herd to be relevant in basketball for the first time in decades.
As for the here and now, Marshall faces a reeling Tulane team, with the winner meeting Memphis in the 2nd round.
- Tulsa regressed from last year, dropping from 5th to 7th this year, but the good news for Doug Wojcik's team is that they are 8-3 in their last 11 contests. Provided they get by East Carolina, they would face UAB next, and the Blazers may be vulnerable after losing by 38 to Memphis on Saturday. So it's a good time for the Golden Hurricane to play UAB, despite losing to them by 14 on March 5th.
- Former John Calipari assistant Tony Barbee's UTEP team has shown improvement, going from 10th to 6th. Did you know that the Miners also have the league's leading scorer? Junior guard Stefon Jackson averages over 24 points per game, and dropped in 27 vs. Memphis, giving the Tigers a scare in El Paso. Provided they get by SMU, the Miners will have a huge opportunity against the suddenly vulnerable Cougars.
- Congrats SMU and Rice, you've joined ECU in the doldrums of C-USA. The Pirates showed improvement behind interim head coach Mack McCarthy, with an upset against NC State and a late-season shocker against Houston. Other than that, they really were not a factor in-conference. As for SMU, the Mustangs are still waiting for their big coaching hire Matt Doherty to make a difference. The squad improved by one game in-conference, but stayed at 11th in the standings, and had a weaker record overall than last year.
Lastly, it would be expected that Rice would not come back as strong after losing Morris Almond, now tearing up the NBDL. But wow, didn't expect it to be this bad. The Owls were winless in-conference and 3-26 overall. Do they care about anything other than baseball over there?
So, as good as the top teams got in 2007-08, the bottom teams got that much worse, so the league has plenty to do in order to regain the status of "power conference" when it comes to college hoops. That aside, officials should be happy that C-USA looks like it is making progress.
Below is the C-USA tournament schedule (local time):
Wednesday, March 7
(7) Tulsa vs. (10) East Carolina Noon
(6) UTEP vs. (11) SMU 2:30p
(8) Marshall vs. (9) Tulane 6:00p
(5) Southern Miss vs. (12) Rice 8:30p
Thursday, March 8
(2) UAB vs. Tulsa/East Carolina - Noon
(3) Houston vs. UTEP/SMU - 2:30p
(1) Memphis vs. Marshall/Tulane - 6:00p
(4) UCF vs. Southern Miss/Rice - 8:30p
Friday, March 9
*Semifinal # 1 (CSTV) 3:30p
*Semifinal # 2 (CSTV) 6:00p
Saturday, March 10
Championship (CBS) 10:35a
Wednesday Winners: Tulsa, UTEP, Marshall, Southern Miss
Thursday (winners in bold): UAB vs. Tulsa, Houston vs. UTEP, Memphis vs. Marshall, UCF vs. Southern Miss
Friday: UAB vs. Houston, Memphis vs. Southern Miss
Saturday: Memphis vs. UAB