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.