Much like the Missouri Valley Conference, Conference-USA has one dominant team, and several others looking up hoping and praying they will get an NCAA Tournament berth.
C-USA Preseason Rankings:
1. Memphis. The Tigers have all of the tools to not only easily win the conference, but to also make a deep tournament run for the first time in Josh Pastner’s reign. Memphis lost their best perimeter scorer in Will Barton, but an Adonis Thomas-led frontcourt will be the backbone of this team. The best news for the Tigers this year? They’ve got Shaq! Shaq Goodwin that is, a 6’8″ big man who was rated the 31st best recruit by ESPN. Replacing the scoring of Barton will be Joe Jackson, who averaged 11 a game last season. Chris Crawford will also be a key wing player for the Tigers. An easy schedule will benefit Memphis, at least until postseason play — Memphis plays only one team, Louisville, currently ranked in the top-25 in the nation.
2. Marshall. You’re going to want to learn DeAndre Kane’s name this year. After a stellar sophomore season for the Thundering Herd where he did a little bit of everything, including leading the team with 16.5 ppg., Kane is back for his junior year to lead Marshall. Joining him for Marshall will be Dennis Tinnon, who averaged a double-double last year (10 ppg., 10 rpg.). Marshall struggled in conference last year, going 9-7, this coming after beating Cincinnati in out-of-conference play and having a close game with Syracuse. The Thundering Herd have one of the toughest schedules in the nation this year, playing Kentucky, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Villanova.
3. Central Florida. The Golden Knights return three of their top four leading scorers, led by Keith Clanton who has averaged at least 14 the last two seasons. Isaiah Sykes will join in on the offense with Clanton. I like Sykes to be a big breakout candidate as he averaged 12 points and six rebounds last year, after not doing much at all his freshman year. He will need to pick up the offense with Marcus Jordan deciding not to return to UCF. If Sykes improves on his three-point field goal percentage (29 percent), he could very well be the team’s leading scorer this year. Unfortunately, UCF is barred from postseason play due to recruiting violations, so even an improvement off their 20-win season last year won’t take them dancing.
4. Tulane. No really, Tulane. Plagued by injuries last year, this team finished dead last in the conference, but I have reason to believe they belong in the top-five. Ricky Tarrant is fresh off of a 15 ppg. season last year, and he will be joined by Kendall Timmons, who only played half of the year last season after tearing his Achilles. Timmons is the long-distance threat Tulane needs (48 percent 3P%). With Jordan Callahan and Josh Davis returning, the Green Wave return almost all of their scoring, and will also likely get back Tomas Bruha, one of their big frontcourt weapons. An NCAA Tournament berth may be a stretch, but don’t be shocked if they make the NIT.
5. UTEP. There’s about five teams I could put here, and with expectations so high for the Miners I’m giving them the nod. UTEP returns five of their top seven scorers and four of their top five rebounders. If that wasn’t enough, they got high school All-American Twymond Howard, as well as fellow freshman Chris Washburn. I really like what UTEP is doing, and if all the pieces click, this could easily be a top-three team in the conference. Leading scorers John Bohannon and Julian Washburn both return for UTEP.
Preseason C-USA First Team
Adonis Thomas- Simply put, this man is a beast. At 6’7″ and 242 points, Thomas averaged just 8.8 points per game last season, but that was in his freshman season where he was only getting 24 minutes a game. Look for improvement in every category this year, and for his minutes to get over 30 a game. He needs to become a better rebounder, as he averaged just 3.2 a game last year. But this physical specimen has all of the tools to be a top contributor for the Tigers.
DeAndre Kane- This guy can do it all, probably because he has to. Averaging 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists is good enough to get on this list. He had very similar numbers his freshman year, which makes me believe if he still has room to grow. His field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages were all down from his freshman year, but if those go up he could be a guy that challenges for Player of the Year in the conference.
Keith Clanton- For a while it looked as if Clanton was on his way out, as the NCAA gave UCF heavy recruiting sanctions. Thank God he’s not, because there is no way the Golden Knights would contend for an NCAA Tournament berth without him. The double-double machine averaged 14.5 and 8 last year, and he can also hit from deep (1.2 three’s a game). A guy that can shoot in the post and from outside, as well as being a solid rebounder is a tough guy to guard.
Rick Tarrant- This sophomore guard will be the reason behind Tulane’s surge to the top half of the conference. Averaging 15 points, with 3 assists and 3 rebounds last year, Tarrant had a freshman season as good as anyone last year. He poured in 24 points and seven rebounds when Tulane beat Georgia Tech last year.
Dennis Tinnon- As a junior college transfer for his junior year, Tinnon averaged a double-double for the Thundering Herd. He, along with Kane will be counted on to keep Marshall in the hunt this season. He had 12 double-doubles last season, including an 18 and 11 performance in Marshall’s NIT loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Coach of the Year:
Ed Conroy- Tulane is going to surprise some people, let me tell you. Conroy is now in his third year at Tulane, and we all know the third year is when team’s make that big jump. They may not be the fourth best team in the conference like I’m predicting, but I guarantee they will be in the top half of the conference.
Player of the Year:
Keith Clanton- You know you’re good when you turn down the chance to play for University of Kentucky. Clanton could have jumped ship and went to Lexington this summer, but he decided to stay with UCF despite no chance at postseason play this year. UCF lost several key members of their team last year, so Clanton will be counted on even more this year. He led the team in points and rebounds a year ago.
Just when you thought the Big East Conference was about to fall apart, they go and do something like this —and totally redeem themselves!
Since they are losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia after this season, the Big East had to do something big to stay at/near the top of the college basketball stratosphere. Enter Memphis. The Conference-USA powerhouse is set to join the Big East in 2013, adding a bit of life to a conference that needed a jolt.
They have already added Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist — but none of those teams can provide the star-power that the Tigers will provide. It is a great move for both sides, certainly as far as revenue is concerned. And Memphis will no longer have to beef up their non-conference schedule to impress the NCAA come March.
Memphis entering could be a big move in trying to keep Louisville from joining the Big 12 as well. Rick Pitino has publicly vouched for the Tigers entering the conference, and now the Louisville-Memphis rivalry can possibly get back to what it used to be in the mid-2000′s, when the Cardinals were a member of the C-USA. They played this year for the first time since Louisville defected, and this really has a chance to be one of the premier Big East rivalries.
With Connecticut, Georgetown and Villanova, the Big East was already going to be a top conference even with the departing teams, but it was likely that the Atlantic Coast Conference or Big 10 could have overtaken them. With Memphis coming in, they will still have a strong chance to be near the top still.
Right now, Memphis would not be a top-tier Big East school, but that’s no fault against the Tigers. The guys they have on their team were recruited to play in the C-USA. Think about the new, different recruiting pitches Josh Pastner and his staff can make with his team now being able to play at Madison Square Garden every year for the Big East Tournament. It’s a win-win for every party. They should be a top five team in the conference in the foreseeable future.
But what happens to the C-USA? They already had three schools leave, and now their most relevant school is on its way out. You’d think this would kill them, but with a scheduled merger with the Mountain West Conference on the way, this will still be one of, if not the top, mid-major conference. After the merger, their conference will span literally the whole country.
C-USA will lose much of its exposure in the key markets of Memphis, Houston, Orlando and Memphis — that’s why a merger is. necessary. Memphis leaving won’t be the end of the world for the C-USA, just as it was not when Louisville and Marquette left in 2005.