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This was expected to be the year that Conference-USA was no longer Memphis’ playground. Well, that was both true and false. Sure, the Tigers lost three games and didn’t win the conference, but they still went 13-3 and finished in second-place. On the other hand, surprising UTEP won its final 14 games en route to a 15-1 C-USA record and regular-season championship. UAB and Marshall finished 11-5, while preseason favorite Tulsa was down in fifth place at 10-6. There is a lot at stake in Tulsa this week.
Favorite: After losing do-it-all senior Stefon Jackson, UTEP did not come into the season with a ton of expectations. After a nondescript non-conference campaign in which it had some close losses but no impressive wins, the Miners’ hype didn’t rise much. That all changed once Derrick Caracter came on board and UTEP got into conference play. The Miners dominated the regular season, going 15-1. They are an excellent defensive team that forces turnovers and defends both twos and threes. Offensively, they are effective and very accurate from two-point range. Randy Culpepper is an explosive scoring guard who can really fill it up, while Caracter has provided a dominant force inside. Jeremy Williams and Arnett Moultrie are solid forwards, and Christian Polk can shoot. Julyan Stone is a great distributor and defender at the point.
Contenders: Memphis is still in the mix for an at-large bid and could use a deep run in the conference tournament. The Tigers have won seven of their last eight games, including two wins over Tulsa and a road victory at UAB. Memphis is a very efficient offensive team, taking care of the ball and getting to the free-throw line. They are accurate inside and outside the arc. On Defense, they force turnovers and block shots. Elliot Williams has carried the offense all season, although Roburt Sallie and Doneal Mack are good from three. Willie Witherspoon is versatile on the wing, and Willie Kemp is a solid point guard. Like Memphis, UAB needs to make a deep run in the conference tournament to get an at-large bid. The Blazers lost their final two games of the season and one only one conference game by more than 11 points. UAB attacks the rim and creates contact, but struggles from three. On defense, the Blazers control the glass and force tough shots. Elijah Millsap is a 20-10 threat every night, while Howard Crawford is solid up front. Jamarr Sanders and Aaron Johnson are double-figure scorers. Outside of those two teams, Marshall could make a run. The Thundering Herd are carried by the all-conference frontcourt tandem of Tyler Wilkerson and freshman sensation Hassan Whiteside. Tulsa, because it is at home and has the inside-outside duo of Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan, is also a threat.
Sleeper: I’m not sure another team in the league is going to make a run, but be wary of Houston. The Cougars are a run-and-gun team that can put up points in a hurry and turn teams over at the other end. Aubrey Coleman is one of the nation’s top scorers, and Kelvin Lewis is also capable of monster games on the offensive end. Furthermore, Houston was the only team in C-USA to defeat UTEP.
Prediction: This could be one of the most-watched conference tournaments in the country, as both Memphis and UAB are firmly on the bubble and need to make a run to garner an at-large bid. Moreover, some are wondering if UTEP can continue its winning ways in the postseason. And what about Tulsa? The home team was the preseason favorite and could certainly win some games. In the end, though, I think that UTEP has all the pieces necessary to win the conference tournament and be a threat in the NCAA Tournament. The Miners are extremely balanced, have a great duo in Culpepper and Caracter, and lock up teams defensively.
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