Conference USA Preview
Plenty of competition for second beyond favorite Memphis.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Memphis
Top Player: Arasalan Kazemi Jr, Rice
Top Freshman: Adonis Thomas, Memphis
Most Underrated: Deandre Kane, Marshall
Tournament Teams: Memphis, Marshall
1. Beyond Memphis, are there any legitimate NCAA Tournament teams in this conference?
Unlike last season, when Memphis had to win the conference’s tournament to ensure its spot in the Big Dance and UAB earned a controversial final “Last 4 in” bid, Conference USA should feel confident in its ability to send two of its institutions to the NCAA Tournament. The obvious question is who, after consensus lock Memphis, will be the league’s second entrant?
You could easily make a case for one of Marshall, Tulsa, or Central Florida. Marshall surprised many last season and returns the majority of its roster, including potential conference player of the year Deandre Kane. Tulsa is one of those solid programs that, despite significant losses to graduation/pros, never seems to leave the postseason mix, and Central Florida’s inside-out duo of Marcus Jordan and forward Keith Clanton gives it the go-to players needed to win crucial games late in the season. Since all three of these teams are too even to predict the eventual Tournament participant based on talent alone (Central Florida is probably the most talented by a smidge on paper) looking at each’s non-conference strength of schedule is a solid tiebreaker. Marshall makes trips to Cincinnati, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Belmont, and hosts Iona. Those are five potential NCAA Tournament teams right there. Winning a couple (or at least showing respectably) in those games and performing as anticipated in conference play could give the Thundering Herd a solid enough RPI to merit at-large consideration.
2. Arasalan Kazemi: product of hype machine or real deal?
The first Iranian-born Division I college basketball player’s game is as real as Rice’s marked improvement since Ben Braun took over the program. At first, the 6-7 Kazemi was your typical long, athletic project that, while worth a flyer, was certainly not a sure thing.
But through dedication and hours of work with Rice’s coaching staff, Kazemi has turned himself into a legitimate NBA prospect and Rice into a team that schools no longer look forward to on the schedule. In less than 30 minutes a game last season, the forward averaged over 15 points and 11 rebounds per game. Easily averaging a double-double as sophomore against competition that focuses roughly 80 percent of its game plan around stopping you is mildly impressive. With an improved outside game and teammates surrounding him, expect Kazemi to eclipse those numbers in his junior year.
3. Will conference realignment’s tentacles reach Conference USA?
What doesn’t conference realignment touch? Now East Carolina and Central Florida are rumored to have caught the desperate Big East’s eye in a last ditch attempt to save the league’s BCS football slot. Of course, the Big East could cut its losses, abandon its ambition as a football conference, and simply try to create the sickest basketball known to mankind (Butler, Xavier, Temple, and others join—why is this becoming a Big East conference realignment blog?).
In any event, like many other leagues out there, this could be the final season of C-USA basketball as we know and (maybe?) love it. I’m not sure many would lose sleep over losing East Carolina and Central Florida the way a lot of people screamed bloody murder when Syracuse and Pitt left the ACC. But it’s worth pointing out that the tidal wave of conference change could be crashing into C-USA sometime very soon.
Predicted Finish + Bottom Line:
The Tigers are the clear class of the conference. There shouldn’t be a serious challenger to Josh Pastner’s team; it will be curious to see whether Memphis can reach high national expectations.
The Herd was easily the league’s most surprising team last season. Coach Tom Herron might boast the best backcourt in conference (including Memphis) in senior point guard Damier Pitts and fast-rising sophomore Deandre Kane.
3. Central Florida
Central Florida’s best team in years is overshadowed by the program’s off-court drama (in general, top recruits + runners = mess). In spite of that, Marcus Jordan returns to lead an exceedingly talented roster in search of the NCAA Tournament bid that slipped away at the end of last season.
The loss of last year’s offensive mainstay Justin Hurtt will sting at first for the Golden Hurricane. But there are plenty of pieces capable of filling that void, making this year’s team a potentially more balanced and dangerous matchup. Keep an eye on Connecticut transfer Scottie Haralson.
Remember when UAB was the other team not named VCU to barely squeak in to the Big Dance (the Blazers’ season obviously ended a little differently than did the Rams’). Mike Davis will have to do some rebuilding this season now that standout point guard Aaron Johnson has graduated. Senior forward Cameron Moore will be expected to pick up the slack.
Arsalan Kazemi reels in the press-clippings for the Owls, but Ben Braun has finally built this program up to the point where his team is more than a one-man show. Few realize that guard Tamir Jackson was the team’s leading scorer in conference play last season.
7. East Carolina
With Jontae Sherrod’s graduation, the Pirates are senior forward Darrius Morrow’s team. Point guard Corvonn Gaines needs to develop an outside shot for the Jeff Lebo’s squad to improve on last season’s 18-16 record.
After a breakthrough 20-win season on the back of monster big man Papa Dia, Matt Doherty needs to do a bit of reloading. But at least there is some momentum for the Mustangs. Point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas effectively ran this team as a freshman; expect even more growth in his second tour through college basketball.
9. Southern Mississippi
Last season was supposed to be the year in Hattiesburg. Things didn’t unfold as Lary Eustachy planned, so now that the studs from last year have moved on, the program must do the same. Angelo Johnson, a USC transfer, is the most notable holdover for the Golden Eagles.
New coach James Dickey has already struck gold in recruiting, landing top-100 2012 recruits Danuel House and Chicken Knowles. In the meantime, Houston will have one of the youngest teams in C-USA.
Rebuilding is what many of the other teams in the league are doing. Starting from scratch is what Tim Floyd’s Miners must do after losing the top seven scorers from last year’s team.
Green Wave juniors Kendall Timmons and Jordan Callahan return to solidify the backcourt, so a won-loss improvement is likely. But rising up the standings beyond 11th (UTEP is also a candidate for the C-USA cellar) will be a chore.