Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season, which begins with the first games on Nov. 9, with a countdown of the nation’s top conferences. We will release one conference preview each day, counting down to the top conference. For profiles of every team in each conference, check out the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store.
A year before Conference USA undergoes another major recalibration, at least one school hopes the status quo remains.
Memphis returned to the top of Conference USA last season, winning both the regular season and tournament titles for the first time since 2009, but the Tigers have yet to win an NCAA Tournament game since John Calipari left for Kentucky.
Along with Houston, SMU and UCF, Memphis is in its final season in C-USA before joining the Big East. Marshall, which has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1987, has all the tools to spoil Memphis’ final season in a league it dominated from 2005-09.
ATHLON ALL-CONFERENCE USA TEAM
CONFERENCE USA FACTS AND FIGURES
G Joe Jackson, Memphis
2011-12 regular season champion: Memphis
G DeAndre Kane, Marshall
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: Memphis#, Southern Miss
G/F Adonis Thomas, Memphis*
New coaches: Larry Brown (SMU), Jerod Haase (UAB),
F Keith Clanton, UCF
Danny Manning (Tulsa), Donnie Tyndall (Southern Miss)
F Tarik Black, Memphis
*preseason player of the year
#conference tournament champion
2012-13 CONFERENCE USA PREVIEW
1. Memphis (26-9, 13-3)
Josh Pastner has done a tremendous job keeping Memphis relevant post-John Calipari, but he’s still looking for his first NCAA Tournament win. And though that might not be a problem nationally, it’s an issue locally and why Memphis needs to not only win C-USA but also advance in March. Otherwise, the program will be facing lots of questions as it transitions into the Big East next year. “But our focus is this year, not the Big East,” Pastner says. “We’re not thinking about the Big East. We just want to have the best year we can have this year because teams are not gonna want us to leave on a good note, which is why we’ll have to be extra sharp and extra good.”
Postseason prediction: NCAA two and out
Complete preview of No. 18 Memphis
2. Marshall (21-14, 9-7)
The return of DeAndre Kane — a 6-4 guard who averaged 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season — means Marshall will be really good in at least two spots. Joining him will be 6-8 forward Dennis Tinnon. In Tinnon, the Thundering Herd have a sixth-year senior who averaged 10.2 points and 10.0 rebounds as a junior to anchor their frontcourt in what could and probably should be a breakthrough campaign in Huntington. Put another way, the Thundering Herd can match C-USA favorite Memphis in at least two spots, and it’s possible they’ll also be improved at point guard thanks to the arrival of highly regarded freshman Kareen Canty. Canty is from Brooklyn and comes with the expected toughness people typically associate with such prospects. He probably won’t match the 14.7 points per game that the now-departed Damier Pitts averaged last season. But Canty should be better at creating scoring opportunities for Tinnon and Kane and thus could be better for this team in general.
Postseason prediction: NCAA First Four
3. UCF (22-11, 10-6)
UCF was undefeated, ranked nationally and widely recognized — back in December 2010 — as one of the nation’s emerging basketball programs led by an up-and-coming coach from the tree of Billy Donovan. Folks were excited about the future of the Knights, and for good reason. Things were headed in the right direction. But then a New York Times article uncovered recruiting improprieties, and the NCAA followed up. The result was a one-year postseason ban announced in July that ensures the Knights will not play in this season’s Conference USA Tournament or NCAA Tournament. Senior Keith Clanton (14.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg) resisted the urge to transfer without penalty, and he provides high-quality centerpiece. Isaiah Sykes (12.3 ppg) and Tristan Spurlock (7.2 ppg) are also back. But it still seems unlikely that the Knights will be capable of challenging Memphis at the top of C-USA, and, even if they do, they won’t play in the league tournament or NCAA Tournament, meaning coach Donnie Jones is guaranteed to enter his fourth year at UCF with zero NCAA appearances.
4. UTEP (15–17, 7–9)
Tim Floyd has spent 18 seasons as a college head coach and produced winning records in 16 of them. So he’s been consistently good — first at Idaho, then at New Orleans, Iowa State, USC and UTEP. But last season was not one of the good seasons. The Miners finished 15–17 after several key players from the Tony Barbee era departed. But four of the top six scorers from last season’s team are back, and the thought throughout the league is that the Miners could be the surprise of C-USA. For what it’s worth, Floyd seems to think so, too. He scheduled aggressively and thus provided his Miners with plenty of opportunities to earn quality victories that might be needed to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The star of the team figures to be John Bohannon, a 6'10" center who led UTEP with 11.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season. Bohannon shot 58.5 percent from the field and scored 10 points or more in all but four league games. Assist leader Jacques Streeter also returns to a team that defeated Auburn, Clemson and New Mexico State in the nonconference schedule. They’re two of four returning Miners who averaged at least 20 minutes in 2011-12 and the main reason — but far from the only reason — Floyd should record a winning record for the 17th time in 19 seasons as a college head coach.
5. Southern Miss (25–9, 11–5)
Larry Eustachy’s eighth season with the Golden Eagles doubled as his finest, and he predictably used the trip to the NCAA Tournament as a launching pad out of Southern Miss, where basketball just isn’t a priority. So now Eustachy is at Colorado State. His replacement in Hattiesburg is Donnie Tyndall, a man who averaged 22 wins per season over the past four years at Morehead State but will probably have a tough time hitting that number for a fifth straight year at this new job. Why? Because three of USM’s top five scorers from last season — namely Darnell Dodson, Maurice Bolden and Angelo Johnson — were seniors, and the team’s second-leading scorer (South Carolina native LaShay Page) transferred to South Carolina this offseason reportedly to be closer to his 5-year-old daughter. That leaves junior guard Neil Watson (12.3 ppg) and senior forward Jonathan Mills (9.5 ppg) as the lone returning Golden Eagles who averaged at least three points per game last season. Watson also led the team in assists (4.4 apg) and shot 37.5 percent from 3-point range. Mills, a 6'6" native of Chicago, led the Golden Eagles in rebounding with 6.1 per game. Help may be on the way in 2013-14 when four key transfers, including new faces from Temple and Minnesota, will be eligible. That injection of talent will be stuck on the practice squad, so don’t expect Southern Miss to challenge Memphis or even Marshall at the top of Conference USA. However, the Golden Eagles should still be solid enough to finish in the top half of the league.
6. Houston (15–15, 7–9)
It’s been a while since Houston was able to take advantage of the terrific talent in the area and field a reasonably interesting college basketball team, which is why what happened last September was such a big deal. That’s when Danrad “Chicken” Knowles and Danuel House committed to Houston and created a reason to be optimistic. Both Knowles, a power forward, and House, a small forward, are consensus top-75 national recruits who would be welcome additions almost anywhere. But their arrival at Houston is especially noteworthy because they project as a duo capable of helping the Cougars transition to the Big East next year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still one more season in C-USA to be played, and Houston will play it without its top two scorers (Jonathon Simmons and Alandise Harris) from last season. But Joseph Young (11.3 ppg) and TaShawn Thomas (10.7 ppg) are back in school. J.J. Thompson didn’t score much, but the point guard tied for the team lead in assists (75) in 19 starts as a freshman. He’ll need to trim his turnovers (64). Still, that’s two double-digit scorers and two heralded recruits on the roster, which isn’t a bad combination for this league. Bottom line, the Cougars are a smart sleeper pick in Conference USA.
7. East Carolina (15–16, 5–11)
The good news is that the Pirates return six of their top seven scorers — including Miguel Paul, a former Missouri guard who averaged 15.2 points and 5.9 assists per game last season. And Maurice Kemp (10.5 ppg), Shamarr Bowden (8.3 ppg), Erin Straughn (5.7 ppg), Robert Sampson (5.6 ppg) and Paris Roberts-Campbell (5.2 ppg) provide depth and a total of six players on the roster who have averaged at least 19 minutes per game at the Division I level. But what does it all mean? On one hand, it’s encouraging if you focus on the fact that East Carolina won three of its final four games last season — including an overtime victory over Marshall. But on the other hand, this is merely a returning core that lost twice as many C-USA games as it won last season, and, truth be told, it’s pretty difficult to lose twice as many games as you win in a league as devoid of talent as C-USA typically is. East Carolina’s veterans must improve across the board, but especially in rebounding margin. The Pirates were one of three teams in the league on the negative end of that statistic. Something like a mostly forgettable .500 record in the league seems like the safest bet for veteran coach Jeff Lebo in his third season at East Carolina.
8. UAB (15–16, 9–7)
Nobody was shocked when Mike Davis was fired from Indiana after missing the NCAA Tournament in two of his final three seasons in Bloomington, but his dismissal at UAB was somewhat surprising. Davis led the Blazers to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and averaged 21.4 wins over his final five seasons while finishing in the top three of the league four out of those five years. And that got him fired? Answer: Yes. The school hired North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase, who will probably need at least a couple of years to get UAB back to respectability (though the process should be expedited by the departures of Memphis, UCF, SMU and Houston to the Big East after this season), but he does have two of UAB’s top three scorers — Jordan Swing and Preston Purifoy — back from last year. Swing averaged 11.2 points per game last season, while Purifoy averaged 8.6. The Blazers also add guard Terence Jones, who started 73 games and averaged 9.4 points per game in three seasons at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. If either has a big junior season, the Blazers will crack the top half of C-USA but probably won’t be much better than that, regardless.
9. Rice (19–16, 8–8)
Arsalan Kazemi spent three years at Rice establishing himself as one of the best players in school history while averaging a double-double of 12.6 points and 10.1 rebounds in 95 career games. But after Rice had gone 14-34 in C-USA games in his career with the Owls, he transferred to Oregon. The defection of Kazemi was the biggest blow for a program that experienced an exodus of players this offseason, despite a rare winning season. Point guard Dylan Ennis transferred to Villanova, center Omar Oraby to USC, forward Jarelle Reischel to Rhode Island and forward David Chadwick to Valparaiso. Senior guard Tamir Jackson (10.5 ppg) will need to break out to give Rice a chance to remain competitive in Ben Braun’s fourth season.
10. Tulane (15–16, 3–13)
The Green Wave lost 13 of the 16 league games they played last season despite a nice freshman campaign from Ricky Tarrant. The guard from Alabama averaged 14.9 points per game, highlighted by a 33-point effort in a victory over SMU. He’s small but effective and the reason Tulane could make a move in the league after consecutive last-place finishes in Ed Conroy’s first two years in New Orleans. Tarrant headlines a group of five returnees who averaged at least 21 minutes per game last season and combined to average 58.7 points per game. The other double-digit scorers are Kendall Timmons (13.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg) and Jordan Callahan (11.8 ppg). Both are seniors. So don’t be surprised if the Green Wave use their experience to take advantage of the fact that 25 percent of the league has a new coach. The experience will come in handy in helping Tulane win on the road after going 0–8 in league road games last season.
11. SMU (13–19, 4–12)
The six-year run of Matt Doherty at SMU featured nothing better than a seventh-place finish in Conference USA (and four finishes of 11th or 12th). So regardless of how difficult the job might historically be, a change clearly needed to be made, and SMU made that change in the middle of last March to the surprise of absolutely no one. What came next was a coaching search of swings and misses at, among others, Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Memphis’ Josh Pastner before the school ultimately settled on Larry Brown — a 72-year-old icon with a history of changing jobs more regularly than TCU changes leagues. On the surface, the hire made little sense. Why settle on a man in his 70s one year before the program transitions from C-USA to the Big East? But then Brown hired a staff of associate head coach Tim Jankovich and assistants Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi, both of whom are established recruiters. So while there’s little reason to be excited about this season — the roster is mostly dismal with London Giles as the lone returning double-digit scorer — it’s now reasonable to be optimistic about the future of SMU basketball, provided, of course, that Brown sticks around for more than his usual couple of years.
Related: Larry Brown is back to school
12. Tulsa (17–14, 10–6)
A steady and troubling decline in attendance combined with a program headed nowhere prompted Tulsa officials to remove Doug Wojcik after seven seasons featuring zero NCAA Tournament appearances. His replacement is Danny Manning, a true legend of college basketball thanks to his march to the 1988 NCAA title — you remember Danny and the Miracles, right? — while playing for Larry Brown at Kansas. And though there’s reason to be optimistic about the hire — Manning is respected in coaching circles, for what it’s worth — the truth is that Tulsa is dealing with what most programs that endure coaching changes have to deal with, i.e., an exodus of talent that makes it difficult to compete immediately. In this case, the bad news was the departures of the Golden Hurricane’s starting backcourt — namely Jordan Clarkson and Eric McClellan. Clarkson averaged 16.5 points per game last season; McClellan averaged 8.5. Now Clarkson is with Frank Haith at Missouri and McClellan is with Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt. Consequently, Scottie Haralson (11.1 ppg) is one of only four scholarship upperclassmen on the roster, and that kind of inexperience is simply tough for almost any coach not named John Calipari to overcome. Manning should be fine in time. But this year will be trying for the first-time head coach.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame
More from the 2012-13 College Basketball Preview:
Top 10 Freshmen for 2012-13
Impact Transfers for 2012-13
Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2012-13
10 Players Returning from Injury
Gonzaga leads International Dream Team