Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Conference-USA Tournament Preview

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As expected, Conference-USA didn’t feature anything remotely resembling a conference race. Memphis went undefeated and easily took the league by four games over a 12-4 UAB team and an 11-5 Houston that struggled down the stretch to lose its grip on the second seed. Two other teams finished above .500 in league play, while three were 8-8. However, nobody else in the league besides the “big three” had an RPI above 100, which brought down the overall league rating.

Favorite: I think I’m going to go a little unconventional here and choose Southern Mississi – yeah, right. It’s not even close. Memphis is head-and-shoulders above anyone else in the league. The Tigers struggled somewhat in the middle of February, having a couple of close wins and a non-conference loss. However, it looks like they got their swagger back, judging by their 38-point win over UAB in the season finale. Chris Douglas-Roberts is an All-American, and he and Derrick Rose form one of the best perimeter tandems around. Joey Dorsey is a dominant defender and rebounder, while Robert Dozier creates match-up problems. Antonio Anderson can do a little of everything.

Contenders: UAB came into the season as a team primed to fight for an NCAA bid and make a run at Memphis. It didn’t seem like that in the non-conference portion of the season, as the Blazers started just 2-3 – before eventually dropping four more games to sub-120 teams. They’ve won seven of nine heading into the tournament, with both losses coming at the hands of Memphis. Robert Vaden is one of the best all-around players in the conference, while Lawrence Kinnard is a tough match-up at forward. Guard Channing Toney can score and Reggie Huffman is a dominant rebounder. Houston struggled down the stretch, losing four of its final eight to essentially ruin any chance it had at an at-large bid. Rob McKiver is one of the premier scorers in the country, as he put up 52 points in a game earlier this season and averages more than 23 per game. Dion Dowell is a solid forward and a decent second option, while Kelvin Lewis has shown flashes. Tafari Toney anchors the interior.

Sleeper: Although Memphis is going to win the conference tournament – and very easily – there is always room for a potential surprise run to the title game. From the bottom of the bracket, of course. That team could be Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane have won seven of their last nine games, with the only losses coming at UAB and Memphis. Ben Uzoh is a standout guard, while Glenn Andrews is also solid in the backcourt. Jerome Jordan is one of the better centers in the conference.

Prediction: I could make my projection in one word, but let’s see if I can make it an entire paragraph. Memphis is obviously going to win the tournament. The Tigers would if the tournament was at a neutral-site, but what makes it even more of a lock is the fact that the tourney is on the Tigers’ home-court. As for their opponent, it looks like it will be UAB. The Blazers need to make a run to the finals to get consideration for an at-large bid, and they are playing well lately. Tulsa will give them a tough game in the quarterfinals, as will Houston in the semifinals, but they have the talent to get to the title game -- and lose. Keep an eye on Southern Mississippi in the semifinals for Memphis, though. It played the Tigers tough last week and is playing very solid ball down the stretch.

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