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Conference-USA was one of the least exciting conferences in the country last year. Memphis was clearly the best team in the league heading into the year, and they dominated even more than most people thought. The Tigers were one of only two teams (Winthrop was the other) to go undefeated in league play. UCF finished in second at 11-5, while four other teams finished above .500. In the NCAA Tournament, Memphis garnered a No. 2 seed and knocked off North Texas, Nevada, Texas A&M, before nearly beating Ohio State. Expect a similar season in Conference-USA this year, with my national preseason No. 1 residing at the top.
Favorite: Memphis is my preseason number one team in the country, for a variety of reasons. John Calipari has the deepest group of talent in the country, after returning all five starters but losing sixth man extraordinaire Jeremy Hunt. The five starters will have to make room for freshman point guard Derrick Rose, though. Rose is the nation’s premier incoming point guard, and could be the best lead guard in the country by the end of the year. He has excellent court vision and is a very good passer. Joining him on the perimeter will be Chris Douglas-Roberts, an All-American candidate, and Antonio Anderson. Douglas-Roberts has developed into one of the best offensive players around, and has reportedly improved his jumpshot in the offseason, while Anderson can do a little of everything but needs to become more consistent with his shot. Willie Kemp and Andre Allen split the point guard duties last year, but will take a backseat to Rose this season. Both are quick players, but Kemp is a better scorer and Allen is a good defender. Doneal Mack is a prolific shooter who may take Hunt’s role as the scoring sixth man. Not as deep as the backcourt group, the Tigers’ frontcourt is a nice combination of size, athleticism, offense, and defense. Robert Dozier needs to become more aggressive offensively, as he has a variety of skills that make him a tough match-up. Joey Dorsey is one of the best centers in the country due to his shot-blocking and rebounding abilities. If he stays away from making inexplicable comments (see: Oden, Greg), he’s tough to outplay inside. Shawn Taggart and Pierre Niles will provide depth, while Jeff Robison will see minutes at forward.
Contenders: UAB struggled to a 15-16 campaign last year, but with the addition of several transfers, both from major-conference schools and junior colleges, the Blazers are going to be a force. It starts in the frontcourt, with three returning starters—each with a chance of not retaining that starting spot this season. That is due to the influx of multiple transfers, including Robert Vaden (Indiana), Reggie Huffman (Junior college), and Walter Sharpe (Mississippi State). Vaden is a good shooter who can play several positions and do a variety of things. Sharpe is a talented big man who will see time, while Huffman was a JC All-American who will make an immediate impact. Kinnard was a very solid player last season who can score inside and out, while Holmes played well at forward. In the backcourt, all-conference guard Paul Delaney returns. He is a very good all-around play who will get to play off the ball this season. At the point will be JC transfer Ed Berrios, a solid guard, freshman Aaron Johnson, or natural wing Terrence Roderick, a highly-touted freshman. Georgia transfer Channing Toney will also see extended minutes. Houston has won 57 games in the past three seasons after winning only 17 in the two previous seasons combined. The winning ways are likely to continue with Robert McKiver and Lanny Smith in the backcourt. McKiver is a big-time scorer and shooter, while Smith is a very good point guard who missed most of last season with injury. Marcus Malone started last season. Up front, Dion Dowell will start as a combo forward who can score and play defense, while Seton Hall transfer Marcus Cousins will man the inside. Auburn transfer Kelvin Lewis and a slew of newcomers will push for minutes. Southern Miss won 20 games last season, and return four starters from that group and will push for an NCAA Tournament bid. It all starts with Jeremy Wise, one of the top freshmen in the country last year. He can score very well and could be primed for a bigger year. Also on the perimeter will be Courtney Beasley and Sai’Quon Stone, a very solid inside-outside performer. Newcomers R.L. Horton and Wayne Turner will also fight for minutes in the backcourt. Craig Craft returns as well. Up front, Andrew Stephens, Gijo Bain, and Demar Dotson all return after playing key roles last year. Stephens needs to take the next step in the frontcourt.
Sleepers: Tulsa is the next in line after the top four teams in the conference. The Golden Hurricane, like Southern Miss, returns four starters from a 20-win team. They are led by the backcourt of Rod Earls, Ben Uzoh, and Brett McDade, a very good defensive trio. Earls is an all-conference candidate, while Uzoh and McDade are solid complements. Mark Hill is a good passer. Up front, Calvin Walls is the leading returnee, while Jerome Jordan and Bishop Wheatley also will see significant time. Ray Reese is solid on the wing. Tulane is yet another team that returns four starters from a successful—17-13 in the Green Wave’s case—team. They have one of the better inside-outside duos in the league in big man David Gomez, an all-conference candidate, and guard Kevin Sims, a double-figure scorer and solid distributor. Up front with Gomez will be Daniel Puckett, a solid scorer and rebounder, and Donnie Smith, a very good rebounder and shot-blocker. Robinson Louisme also figures into the mix due to his potential. Johnny Mayhane and Eric Vianney will step up on the wing. UTEP is led by one of the better players in the conference, Stefon Jackson. He is underrated on a national level, but can score, shoot, rebound, and just about every other aspect of the game. Starting next to him will be Marvin Kilgore, a solid point guard. Darren Clarke is another decent guard. Up front, Victor Ramalho and Jeremy Sampson both return, but newcomers Claude Britton and Manuel Cass will push for minutes. UCF finished a surprising second in the conference last year at 11-5 in the league, but fell in the first round of the league tourney. Wing Jermaine Taylor leads the way. He is a good scorer and will move into the starting lineup after playing as the sixth man a year ago. Mike O’Donnell, a good passer and shooter, and Dave Noel, a good scorer and distributor, will start on the perimeter as well. Kendrick Zondervan and Tony Davis are the leading returnees up front, with Stanley Billings, the oldest player in Division I basketball.
Rounding out the Pack: Marshall is led by a very solid perimeter group, which includes Gonzaga transfer Pierre Altidor-Cespedes and Kentucky transfer Adam Williams. “P-MAC” is expected to start immediately at the point. All-conference wing Markel Humphrey and Mark Dorris, a good scorer, will start on the perimeter with Altidor-Cespedes. Tyler Wilkerson and Jean Francois Bro Grebe will see time in the frontcourt. SMU finished 11th in the league last year and loses three starters from that group. However, the Mustangs have some solid pieces. 7-1 Bamba Fall is one of the best shot-blockers in the country at the center spot, while freshman Papa Dia is expected to start immediately down low. Senior guards Jon Killen, a very good distributor, and Derrick Roberts return in the backcourt, with Mike Walker looking to start on the perimeter. Rice loses Morris Almond, one of the best players in the country last year, and conference assist leader Lorenzo Williams; needless to say, it will take a step back. The backcourt will now be in the hands of part-time starter Chris Hagan, and fellow returnees Rodney Foster and Cory Pfleiger, as well as Texas A&M transfer Bryan Beasley. Patrick Britton is solid in the frontcourt, as is Paulius Packevicius. Aleks Perka could be primed for a bigger year. East Carolina went only 1-15 in the conference last year, but returns four starters and will look to improve. Point guard Darrell Jenkins would be an all-conference performer if he played for a better team, while Cory Farmer also returns in the backcourt. Sam Hinnant and Brandon Evans will see minutes. Up front, John Fields is a good defender and scorer, while Gabe Blair is a terrific rebounder.
Prediction: Obviously this is Memphis’ league—and country?—to lose. The Tigers have the most talent in the country, and are the deepest team around. John Calipari has a plethora of options, both inside and outside, and could mix-and-match a variety of players depending on the opponent. Memphis will get a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but Conference USA isn’t just Memphis anymore. UAB will also get into the NCAA Tournament, while Houston and Southern Miss will be left on the wrong side of the bubble come Selection Sunday, relegating them to the NIT. Tulsa will also be in the mix for an NIT bid. It should be a very good year in C-USA.
Player of the Year: Chris Douglas-Roberts, G/F, Memphis
G- Derrick Rose, Memphis
G/F- Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis
G- Robert McKiver, Houston
F- Robert Vaden, UAB
C- Joey Dorsey, Memphis
G- Stefon Jackson, UTEP
G- Paul Delaney, UAB
G- Jeremy Wise, Southern Mississippi
F- Robert Dozier, Memphis
F/C- David Gomez, Tulane
Photo Credit: US Presswire
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