Thursday, November 3, 2005

Conference USA Preview


The final year of Conference USA as we know it was one that saw nine teams go above .500 overall, and eight teams at .500 or better within the conference. The regular season title came down to the final week, and Louisville ended up winning it by two games at 14-2. Two teams followed at 12-4, and two more finished at 10-6. The conference tournament will be remembered for Memphis' Darius Washington falling to his knees after missing two free throws that would have sent the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament. Nonetheless, the conference received four bids, with DePaul just getting left out. Louisville made a run to the Final Four; Cincinnati and UAB both won their first round games; and Charlotte lost their first-round game to NC State. However, only UAB returns from that group after the house cleaning of the conference. Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, and South Florida jumped ship to the Big East, while Charlotte hopped over to the Atlantic-10. After the dust cleared, Memphis emerged as the obvious favorite in a watered-down conference.

Favorite: Memphis, along with Winthrop, might be the biggest favorite to win their conference. It will be surprising if they lose more than a game or two. They are that far ahead of the rest of the league. It all starts with the two best players in the conference, Darius Washington and Rodney Carney. Washington improved as the season went on, and can do everything on the court. He is difficult to press, and can stop on a dime and hit a mid-range shot. Carney is one of the best athletes and dunkers in the country. He is an excellent scorer and is unbelievable out in the open court. Down low, Joey Dorsey returns. He is a monster on the boards, and should improve his numbers with a bigger role. With starting guard Jeremy Hunt kicked off the team in October, two freshman will start. Shawne Williams has the potential to be one of the best freshman in the country. He is a great passer and will be a versatile option in the frountcourt. Guards Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson will fight for the starting guard spot vacated by Hunt. Douglas-Roberts will most likely get the starting nod due to his all-around game, although Anderson will see minutes. Depth in the frontcourt will come from returnee Waki Williams and freshmen Kareem Cooper and Robert Dozier. Cooper, Dozier, Williams, and Anderson were all prep school teammates at Laurinberg Prep in North Carolina.

NCAA Contenders: Houston loses do-everything wing Andre Owens, but are led by all-conference guard Lanny Smith. He is a very good shooter and scorer, and can also distribute well. He needs to decrease his turnover total though. Wings Ramon Dyer and Brian Latham also return. Dyer is a good three point shooter and is also a good defender. Latham was second in the confernece in steals, and was also a decent scoring option. Chris Lawson provides depth, as does freshman gunner Corey Bloom. The froncourt is a bit of a question, but JC transfers Richard Young and Jahmar Thorpe are expected to make impacts down low. UAB loses several key players from an NCAA Tournament team, but returns their usual host of athletes that will keep up the Blazers' version of "40 Minutes of Hell." Their perimeter is loaded. Cardell "Squeaky" Johnson is a very good point guard whose importance doesn't show up in the boxscore. He doesn't turnover the ball often and is an excellent defender. Wing Marvett McDonald is a very good scorer and shooter. DeMario Eddins is one of the more versatile scorers in the league, capable of scoring inside and out. Three more wings, Richard Jones, Paul Delaney and Derrick Broom will also see minutes on the perimeter, with Eddins likely starting at power forward. Down low, a post option needs to emerge. The leading candidates are Ernest Little and Brandon Tobias.

NIT Hopefuls: UTEP won the automatic bid out of the WAC last season, but lose their two best players in point guard Filberto Rivera and forward Omar Thomas. The returning group is led by Jason Williams, a versatile forward. He is very athletic and is one of the best defenders in the league. Miguel Ayala is a good option on the wing whose numbers will improve as his minutes increase. Inside, John Tofi is a solid rebounder, while Will Kimble was a part-time starter a season ago. Replacing Rivera will be either Texas transfer Edgar Moreno or JC transfer Kevin Henderson. Oklahoma State transfer Tremaine Fuqua could make the biggest newcomer impact of anyone in the conference. Rice loses one of the best players in the country in Michael Harris, but returns a solid forward duo in J.R. Harrison and Morris Almond. Harrison is a very good all-around player, while Almond is an excellent shooter and a good scorer. Patrick Britton will rejoin the aforementioned two in the froncourt. On the perimeter, Lorenzo Williams returns, as does Jamaal Moore. Williams is a very good distributor but needs to improve his scoring, while Moore is a good scorer going to the basket. Tulane is led by all-conference big man Quincy Davis. He is a very efficient low-post scorer that can also rebound and play defense. Forming a decent inside-outside combo with him is point guard Taylor Rochestie. He is a good passer and a solid scorer. Outside those two, however, the other three starting jobs are wide-open. There are no less than 6-8 players vying for minutes at those positions. Forward David Gomez should grab one of those starting nods, after increasing his production down the stretch. Donnie Stith and Matt Wheaton split starts last season on the wing, while Vytas Tatarunas and Vicent Campter will look to bounce back from disappointing seasons a year ago.

Rounding Out the Pack: Central Florida returns an all-conference performer in wing Josh Peppers. He is one of the best scorers in the conference, and should improve the rest of his game this season. Joining him on the perimeter are UNC-Wilmington transfer Dave Noel and North Carolina State transfer Mike O'Donnell. Noel is a physical wing that can play solid defense as well as score and distribute. O'Donnell was a part-time starter for the Wolfpack that should step in at the point for UCF. Justin Rose was productive last season for UCF, as was Troy Lindbeck. They will see extensive minutes on the perimeter. Down low, Anthony Williams retrns. He is a solid low-post option on offense and is a good rebounder. Marcus Johnson and Will Bakanowsky will compete for the other starting job on the baseline. SMU returns a very good trio in all-conference guard Bryan Hopkins, wing Derrick Roberts, and forward Devon Pearson. Hopkins is one of the best scorers in C-USA, but he is also productive in nearly every aspect of the game. Roberts is athletic, and, if healthy, should have a big year. Pearson is an underrated low-post option. Kansas State transfer Dez Willingham should contribute in the backcourt, but the paint position besides Pearson needs work. Southern Miss is led by all-conference guard Rashaad Carruth. Carruth is a potentially dominant scorer. Jason Forte and Jarekus Singleton are two other solid players on the wing. Forte is a decent scorer, while Singleton is very quick going to the basket. The point guard spot is up for grabs. Freshman Craig Craft and JC transfer Travis Hall are the leading candidates. Up front, forwad Mildon Ambres leads the way, while freshman David Cornwell is also expected to start. East Carolina has one of the best big men in the conference, although he is vastly underrated nationally. Corey Rouse averaged a double-double a season ago, and is a very solid scorer as well. The likely starter in the frontcourt next to him is returning forward Mike Castro, although Tyronne Beale is a JC transfer that will see major minutes. In the backcourt, gunner Tom Hammonds and point guard Japhet McNeil return as starters. Hammonds needs to improve his accuract but is a good scorer, while McNeil is a good passer. Tulsa returns a possible all-conference performer in center Anthony Price. He is a very good scorer down low, but could stand to improve his rebounding if he wants to become an elite player in C-USA. Guard Brett McDade forms a nice inside-outside combo with Price. He is a very good perimeter scorer. Chris Wallace and Deion James also return in the backcourt, while JC transfer Roderick Earls will also see minutes. At the available starting forward spots, several newcomers are looking to step in. JC transfer Darold Crow could start, as could low-post option Ashton Hall. Marshall has several very solid players, but that amounted to a 6-22 record last season in the MAC. Underrated forward Mark Patton is a potential double-double threat that leads the way for the Thundering Herd. LaVar Carter will join him up front. Guards Tre Whitted and Joe Miles will start in the backcourt. Both are capable scorers. Several newcomers will have to play extensive minutes for the Herd.

Prediction: There is no way Memphis won't dominate and win this league. On paper, they are light years ahead of the competition. After a banner year a season ago, Conference USA is going to have a down year. That is expected when a conference loses the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati, Charlotte, DePaul, etc. The Tigers might be the lone NCAA bid recipient. Houston and UAB will be bubble teams down the stretch, but will have to live with bids to the NIT, joining UTEP. It looks to be a year filled with questions after Memphis in the new-look Conference USA.

Player of the Year: Darius Washington, PG, Memphis

All-Conference Team:
G- Darius Washington, Memphis
G- Bryan Hopkins, SMU
G- Lanny Smith, Houston
F- Rodney Carney, Memphis
F- DeMario Eddins, UAB

Second Team:
G- Rashaad Carruth, Southern Miss
G- Josh Peppers, Central Florida
F- Jason Williams, UTEP
F- Corey Rouse, East Carolina
C- Quincy Davis, Tulane

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