Conference USA Season Preview
Can Southern Miss contend?
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Houston
Defending Regular Season Champion: Memphis
2) Southern Mississippi
5) Central Florida
8 ) Marshall
11) East Carolina
Summary: In a league that has been Memphis-dominated since the infamous Big East pillaging of 2005 (when we first started to see the impact NCAA football dollars could have on college basketball), last season bucked the trend. Baby-faced first year coach Josh Pastner inherited a program that, while still talented, did not have the pieces to dominate (or even be favored) in a conference that struggled to earn two bids to the NCAA Tournament (UTEP sweated out an at-large bid when Houston won the conference tourney as the seventh seed).
It’s not as if Memphis didn’t have a solid season, though. Pastner did the best he could with the players John Calipari left him (and the players who didn’t bolt once Cal left for Lexington), and that was good for a 24-10 overall record and nearly good enough for league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. Even Calipari couldn’t have done much better with last year’s Memphis Tigers. So while Pastner was earning his stripes with the Tigers on the court, off the court, the wunderkind coach was putting together a star-studded recruiting class that would make his former boss, perhaps the most famously (or infamously) skilled recruiter in coaching today, proud. Pastner has brought in impact freshmen in 6-6 swingman Will Barton, electric point-guard Joe Jackson, and Jelan Kendrick to highlight a class that is considered among the nation’s elite. Mixing these exciting, high-end players with returnees like Wesley Witherspoon (12.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg) easily makes the Tigers the league’s most talented team and should put them back in their familiar spot atop the conference.
I like Southern Mississippi’s chances to break through in the conference standings this season. Last year’s contenders UTEP, Tulsa and UAB all lost key players and figure to drop off considerably while the Golden Eagles return all-conference forward Gary Flowers (15 ppg, 8.3 rpb, 1.3 bpg). Coming off a solid 20-14 season and with a surprisingly deep recruiting class arriving, expectations are high in Hattiesburg for the first time since a (much) younger Brett Favre was trolling around campus. Unless Randy Culpepper can improve upon his monster junior season and Tim Floyd’s defense can make up for some major holes at UTEP, Larry Eustachy’s team could be Conference USA’s best shot at being a two-bid league this season.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.