Monday, October 23, 2006

Conference-USA Preview


Conference-USA was not held in high-esteem last season, as many saw it as Memphis' playground, and most thought that it would bring down the Tigers' RPI and eventual seeding. However, it didn't turn out exactly that way. Memphis did win the title, but only by one game over UAB, while UTEP finished one game back of the Blazers. Houston was also competitive much of the season. The bottom two-thirds of the league was pretty atrocious, though. The conference tournament was dominated by Memphis. The Tigers won their three games by an average of just less than 15 points, and won the automatic bid with a win over UAB. Both the Tigers and the Blazers made the NCAA Tournament, with #9 seed UAB getting knocked out in the first round by Kentucky, and #1 seed Memphis making a run to the Elite Eight before falling to UCLA. This season should be similar to last season, with Memphis running the show, a couple of also-rans coming in behind them, and an awful bottom group.

Favorite: Memphis, like last season, is clearly the class of the conference. The Tigers had one of the best seasons in Conference-USA history a year ago, going 33-4 overall and 13-1 in the conference. They reached the Elite Eight, defeating Oral Roberts, Bucknell, and Bradley by 16 points each before losing to UCLA in a low-scoring, 45-40 game. While the Tigers may not reach a regional final this year, they won't fall too far and are a team to watch for on a national level again. Two first-round draft picks are gone in Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams, as is Darius Washington, who made the ill-advised decision to enter the NBA Draft. Even with the losses, John Calipari will have a very deep team with plenty of interchangeable parts. Leading the returnees will be the wing combination of Antonio Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Anderson was a part-time starter who is capable of contributing in many aspects of the game. He is a very good shooter and defender who is also one of team's best passers. Douglas-Roberts was also a part-time starter who could become one of the nation's best small forwards this year. He is extremely versatile and can score in a variety of ways. His length also makes him a decent defender. Providing depth on the wing is former starter Jeremy Hunt. He was kicked off the team last season and was seemingly gone for good, but Calipari allowed him back this year. He is a very good defender and a solid shooter who could be a double-figure scorer off the bench. Freshmen Doneal Mack and Tre'von Willis will also see minutes. At the point, Andre Allen and Willie Kemp will form an excellent two-headed option. Allen was actually playing better than Washington for much of the season. He is more of a pure point guard, and he is an excellent distributor. Kemp is a playmaker who is explosive. Up front, Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey lead the way. Dozier showed flashes of brilliance last season with his athleticism and length. He is an outstanding rebounder and shot-blocker who could develop into a star. Dorsey is not much of a scorer, but dominates the interior with his shot-blocking and rebounding prowess. If he develops more consistency, look out. Returnee Kareem Cooper is a space-eater, while freshmen Pierre Niles and Hashim Bailey will provide depth behind Dozier and Dorsey. Niles could make a big impact with his size.

Contenders: Houston looked like a legit contender after beating Arizona and LSU during non-league play, but their inconsistency in conference play left them in 4th place. The Cougars did finish with 21 wins, though, and could be even better this season. They return one of the best backcourt duos in the country in point guard Lanny Smith and two-guard Oliver Lafayette. Smith is an outstanding player who is one of the best passers around. However, he had surgery on a toe fracture over the summer and might not play until January--if he plays at all. Lafayette is potentially explosive scorer who needs to improve his shooting. He is also arguably the best on-ball defender in the conference. Four transfers are ready to make an impact on the perimeter in Marcus Malone, Robert McKiver, Robert Lee, and Charlie Jones. Up front, Jahmar Thorpe leads the way. He is a versatile scorer and a solid rebounder who can also contribute on the defensive end. Texas transfer Dion Dowell is expected to make an immediate impact. He is a good shooter and is very athletic, which helps him defensively and on the glass. Sam Anderson and JC transfer Tafari Toney will add depth. UAB only finished one game back of Memphis last season, even handing the Tigers their lone league loss. With the loss of two starters, though, they could have trouble repeating an NCAA Tournament appearance. Wen Mukubu leads the returnees. He is a potential all-league player with great athleticism. He is a very good all-around performer. Forwards Frank Holmes and Lawrence Kinnard also return. Both are decent scorers and rebounders who need to become better offensive options for the Blazers. Guards Paul Delaney and Maurice Gibbs will fight for a starting job on the perimeter. JC transfer Andre White and 6-10 freshman Jeremy Mayfield could round out the starting lineup. White has to replace Squeaky Johnson and has the leadership ability to do so. Mayfield is a former Oklahoma signee who needs to make an impact down low right away.

Sleepers: Rice has a chance to have a surprisingly good season. The Owls finished tied for sixth in the conference and only went 12-18 overall, but their is a lot of optimism in Houston. The main reason for that is the return of All-American candidate Morris Almond. Almond is one of the premier players in the country. He put his name into the NBA Draft, but decided that he would be better off with one more season in college. He is an outstanding scorer who has the potential to lead the nation in points. Moreover, he can contribute well on the defensive end and on the boards. His backcourt mate, Lorenzo Williams, combines with Almond to make up an outstanding backcourt. Williams is one of the top distributors in the country but needs to improve his scoring ability. Rodney Foster and Cory Pflieger will fight for minutes on the perimeter, and could push for a starting job on the wing. Up front, Patrick Britton leads the way. He is a decent scorer and rebounder who has to become a go-to-player in the frontcourt. Paulius Packevicius is a solid performer. UTEP was a tough team all season, winning more than twenty games for the third straight year and finishing third in the conference with an 11-3 record. However, the Miners lose three starters and coach Doc Sadler, which will make a repeat performance unlikely. Kevin Henderson and Stefon Jackson make up one of the best backcourts in the league, though. Henderson is a very good all-around player who can score, rebound, and pass the ball well. Jackson came on strong late in the season and could have a breakout year. Transfers Darren Clarke, Marvin Kilgore, and Corey Speight will see plenty of minutes on the perimeter. The Miners are lacking players in the froncourt. Freshman Dale Vanwright is a former Colorado signee who will make an immediate impact. JC transfer Jeremy Sampson and returnee Maurice Thomas will fight for a likely starting spot up front. Tulsa had a respectable season last year, winning six league games but going only 11-18 overall. However, the Golden Hurricane loses four starters from that team and need to rebuild. On the other hand, they return a lot of rotation players and will be deep. The frontcourt will be the strong point. Charles Ramsdell could develop into an all-conference player. He is potentially a double-figure scorer who is also a very good rebounder. Darold Crow could be a good scorer for Tulsa, while Ray Reese is a solid all-around performer at small forward. JC transfer Calvin Walls will be counted on for an immediate impact. Sam Mitchell and Jerome Jordan will fight for the center spot. Brett McDade is the go-to-guy on the perimeter. He could have a big year in the backcourt. JC transfer Rod Earls and freshman Ben Uzoh will see playing time right away. After several seasons of mediocrity, SMU welcomes Matt Doherty as their new coach to help turn the program around. The Mustangs return four starters, which gives Doherty a good starting spot. A very good frontcourt duo leads the way. Devon Pearson is an all-conference-caliber player down low who could average double-double this season. Bamba Fall is an excellent defensive presence. He is an outstanding shot-blocker who also pitches in with points and boards. Donatas Rackauskas and Ike Ofoegbu will fight for a starting spot in the frontcourt. On the perimeter, Dez Willingham and Derrick Roberts are the anchors. Willingham is a good scorer who needs to become more of a distributor at the point guard spot, while Roberts is a good all-around performer who could have a breakout season. Brian Epps adds depth. Tulane played well last season despite playing half the season with a true home gym, finishing 6-8 in the conference and winning a respectable 12 games. They do lose four starters, but the Green Wave will be in the middle of the pack once again. Ryan Williams and Andrew Garcia are two solid wings who need to step up their production, but freshman Kevin Sims will likely step in at the point guard slot. That trio is a solid trio of perimeter players that will add outside balance to the post play of 6-7 David Gomez. He is the team's go-to-guy who could become a dominant inside player with more touches. Robinson Louisme adds depth behind him. Chris Moore is a potential double-figure scorer at the forward spot, while Donnie Stith and Matt Wheaton will see minutes. Marshall was much improved last season, increasing their win total by six and going 5-9 in the conference. They should be okay this season as well. It all starts with Markel Humphrey, a potential all-conference performer who contributes in several aspects of the game. Returning as the starters in the backcourt are Chris Ross and Mark Dorris, who need to improve their production this season if they are to keep their jobs. Daryl Merthie will push for minutes. Travis Aikens and Tre Whitted are two of the top three returning scorers for the Thundering Herd but will need to fight for minutes on the wing due to the depth that Marshall has on the perimeter. Jean Francois Bro Grebe and Robbie Jackson are the best options up front.

Rounding Out the Pack: Quick, who finished fifth in Conference-USA last season? That's right, UCF. The Golden Knights had a very solid season, going 14-15 overall and 7-7 in the conference. They lose three starters from that team, though, including Justin Rose. However, one of the best players in C-USA returns in Josh Peppers. The 6-6 wing is an outstanding shooter who could have a huge year this season if he improves on his lack of consistency. Joining him on the perimeter will be Mike O'Donnell and Jermaine Taylor. O'Donnell is a former North Carolina State transfer who does a solid job of running the point. He takes care of the ball and has an excellent assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.30. Taylor is a solid role player. Up front, Adam Gill and Lavell Payne lead the way. They must improve their production this season. JC transfer Stanley Billups will make an immediate impact. Southern Miss finished next-to-last in the conference a year ago, going 3-11 in the league and 10-21 overall. Four starters return for the Golden Eagles. Whether that is a good thing or not remains to be seen. Guard Courtney Beasley is the go-to-guy. He is a good scorer who is also a solid rebounder, passer, and defender. He has quick hands and is adept driving to the basket. Craig Craft and Kyle LaMonte are combo guards that will see plenty of minutes, while JC transfer DeWayne Green will make an immediate impact at the point. Fellow JC transfers Gijo Bai and Demar Dotson will anchor the interior. East Carolina might be the worst team in the conference. The Pirates went 8-20 overall last season, and only 2-12 within the league, finishing in last place. Moreover, they lost three starters, including leading scorer and rebounder Corey Rouse. ECU is led by the guard trio of Sam Hinnant, Jeremy Ingram, and Courtney Captain. Hinnant was chosen to the all-freshman team last season. He is a good scorer who can also pass and rebound. Ingram could have a big season scoring the ball if healthy, and Captain should become more of a scorer this season. A trio of freshmen need to step up quickly in the frontcourt. Justin Ramsey is a space-eater; John Fields is a solid athlete; and Gabe Blair is a versatile offensive player.

Prediction: Conference-USA is going to look very similar to last season at the top of the standings. Memphis is obviously the cream of the crop again this year and will make another decent run in the NCAA Tournament. They are extremely deep and have a plethora of players at each position that can produce and make an impact on the game. Outside of the Tigers, the pickings are slim in C-USA. Houston will be good late in the season once Dion Dowell gets acclimated, but they might have too much work to do to get an at-large bid, while UAB and UTEP lose too much to make a run at the Big Dance. It looks like a one-bid year this season for Conference-USA.

Player of the Year: Morris Almond, SF, Rice

All-Conference Team:
G- Lanny Smith, Houston
G- Oliver Lafayette, Houston
F- Morris Almond, Rice
F- Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis
C- Joey Dorsey, Memphis

Second Team:
G- Lorenzo Williams, Rice
G- Josh Peppers, UCF
G- Antonio Anderson, Memphis
F- Wen Mukubu, UAB
F- Devon Pearson, SMU

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