Conference USA Nod Goes To Memphis
Shawne Williams
Shawne Williams
National Basketball Columnist
Posted Nov 15, 2005


Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette are now members of the Big East Conference. So what does that mean for the Memphis Tigers? It means they are still hanging out in Conference USA and it looks as if they have the opportunity to be the conference's dominant program indefinitely.

Remember all those great Conference USA struggles involving Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette we watched in recent seasons?

 

Well, cling tight to those memories because – at least in a Conference USA setting – we’ve seen the last of them.

 

Those schools, along with South Florida, are officially members of the Big East Conference now.

 

And Charlotte (a conference power of late), along with Saint Louis, has left for the Atlantic 10, while TCU has relocated to the Mountain West.

 

The conference picked up UTEP, Rice, SMU and Tulsa (from the Western Athletic Conference), Marshall (from the Mid-American Conference) and Central Florida (via the Atlantic Sun), leaving it revamped and – would opine – ripe for domination by holdover Memphis.

 

The Tigers averaged 23 wins during John Calipari’s five seasons as the Memphis coach but appeared in just two NCAA Tournaments (winning just one game) in that stretch.

 

As long as Calipari is in Memphis and he continues to pull in high profile recruits, the Tigers will find themselves favored to win this conference every season.

 

Projected finish:

 

1. Memphis

Frank’s Spin: John Calipari has a nifty blend of returnees (led by guard Darius Washington, Jr. and forward Rodney Carney) and newcomers (with wings Antonio Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts , forward Shawne Williams and center Kareem Cooper the freshmen most likely to make major contributions immediately). Barring injuries or defections, this should be Calipari’s deepest Memphis team.

Postseason possibilities: It will create some serious head-scratching if this group of Tigers misses out on a trip to the NCAA Tournament. If the pieces mesh, a Sweet 16 run isn’t out of the question.

 

2. UAB

Frank’s Spin: In twins Donell and Ronell Taylor (the latter an NBA rookie with Washington), Coach Mike Anderson lost two key elements to the teams that combined for 44 victories the past two seasons – 22 within conference play and two more in the NCAA Tournament. But Anderson does return three of the better players in the conference in forward Demario Eddins and guards Squeaky Johnson and Marvett McDonald. And the team’s all-court pressure defense will continue to disrupt opponents.

Postseason possibilities: Along with the next two clubs, the Blazers seem best equipped to a mount serious challenge to the Tigers for a conference title and to grab an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

 

3. UTEP

Frank’s Spin: Miners’ coach Doc Sadler knows what he is doing which is why the program’s transition to its new conference should be a relatively smooth one. Four players (returning starters Jason Williams and John Tofi, and key reserves Miguel Ayala and Will Kimble) will be surrounded by a multitude of quality newcomers, including JC transfer Kevin Henderson and Philadelphia freshmen Maurice Thomas and Stefon Jackson.

Postseason possibilities: The Miners have played in consecutive NCAA Tournaments. A third is a real possibility.

 

4. Houston

Frank’s Spin: The Cougars (while winning 22 games) exceeded all expectations in their first season under Coach Tom Penders, with the play of Andre Owens (a rookie with the Utah Jazz) a major part of that success. But he’s got a nice backcourt in Lanny Smith and Brian Latham (who combined for 23 points and almost seven assists per game last season), along with a decent undersized “power” forward in 6-7, 190-pound Ramon Dyer.

Postseason possibilities: If some of the players Pender recruited to play in the post come through, the Cougars should be playing somewhere after the conference tournament has been completed.

 

5. Central Florida

Frank’s Spin: The Golden Knights went to consecutive NCAA Tournament in their final two years in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Things will no doubt be considerably tougher in their new surroundings. But, with returning starters in Joshua Peppers, Anthony Williams and Will Bakanowsky, Coach Kirk Speraw’s team isn’t going to be overwhelmed by the night-in, night-out competition it faces in Conference USA.

Postseason possibilities: They won 24 games last season. Anything close to 20 this time should get it into the NIT* (*or whatever it’s called next March).

 

6. Rice

Frank’s Spin: The Owls were 19-12 in 2004-05 but three starters used up their eligibility, including one of the country’s most underrated players for a couple of seasons, forward Michael Harris (20.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per game as a senior). Coach Willis Wilson should still field a solid frontcourt with returning starters in J.R. Harrison and Patrick Britton, along with a player who got a lot of playing time last season, Morris Almond. Junior Lorenzo Williams should be the team’s playmaker.

Postseason possibilities: Most likely a year from now.

 

7. Southern Mississippi

Frank’s Spin: Larry Eustachy demonstrated what kind of a coach he is during stints at Idaho, Utah State and Iowa State. He’ll get the Golden Eagles into the upper-echelon of the conference, although it will probably take another season to do so. Senior Jason Forte should be among the better players in the conference, and Eustachy’s solid JC contacts brought five transfers, including post David Cornwell and point guard Kyle Lamonte.

Postseason possibilities: It will take a bit of time, but Eustachy will have this program in the hunt for NCAA Tournament bids sooner than some assume.

 

8. Tulsa

Frank’s Spin: A playmaker at the Naval Academy (where he hooked up with David Robinson for a lot of assists), Doug Wojcik was hired last spring after assistants’ stints at his alma mater, North Carolina and Michigan State. No one who has been around him doubts his ability to return this program to the same level of success it has enjoyed in the past. And he brought eight recruits with him, including JC All-America guard Roderick Earl, to start the rebuilding process.

Postseason possibilities: No later than in 2007-8, for sure.

 

9. SMU

Frank’s Spin: Senior guard Bryan Hopkins (17.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game as a junior), a high-flying sort, was one of the WAC’s best players for three seasons and that should immediately be the case in this conference, as well. Kansas State transfer Dez Willingham is capable of teaming with Hopkins to give Coach Jimmy Tubbs one of the conference’s most explosive backcourts. Forward Devon Pearson (10.4 ppg) also scored in double figures last season.

Postseason possibilities: Only if Tubbs can get post play that is on par with the kind of performances he can expected from his guards.

 

10. East Carolina

Frank’s Spin: Ricky Stokes (the former Virginia Tech head coach and most recently an assistant at South Carolina) inherited a program that lost its two top scorers from last season. Junior Japhet McNeil will be among the conference’s best playmakers, and 6-8 JC transfer Tyronne Beale will be a key inside. But La Salle transfer David Bell, a 6-7 forward with a lot of skill, will be lost indefinitely because of a knee injury.

Postseason possibilities: The Pirates will be improved – just not that improved.

 

11. Tulane

Frank’s Spin: It’s going to be a dizzying first season as the program’s head coach for former Maryland assistant Dave Dickerson, due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Kartrina on New Orleans and Tulane University. His players have been attending class and practicing at Texas A&M University but will play 10 of their “home” games in New Orleans. Dickerson inherited a solid player in 6-9 Quincy Davis (13.7 points and 6.1 rebounds) from a team that won just 10 games (four of those coming in conference) last season.

Postseason possibilities: Just being able to play a “regular season” is a victory for this program.

 

12. Marshall

Frank’s Spin: The Thundering Herd struggled in the Mid-American Conference (6-22 overall and 3-15 in conference) last season and there is no reason to believe that things will be any more enjoyable in this conference. Three players who averaged at least 9.6 points per game, led by 6-9, 240-pound Mark Patton’s 11.0 ppg, return for Coach Ron Jisa, whose Marshall teams have won just 18 games (in 57 tries) in three seasons.

Postseason possibilities: Three words – not real good – say it all.

 

Projected all-conference first team

  • Darius Washington, Jr. (6-1, So., Memphis)
  • Bryan Hopkins (6-0, Sr., SMU)
  • Lanny Smith (6-3, Jr., Houston)
  • Rodney Carney (6-7, Sr., Memphis)
  • Demario Eddins (6-7, Sr., UAB)

Projected all-conference second team

  • Jason Williams (6-5, Sr., UTEP)
  • Anthony Price (6-8, Sr., Tulsa)
  • Squeaky Johnson (5-10, Sr., UAB)
  • J.R. Harrison (6-6, Sr., Rice)
  • Quincy Davis (6-9, Sr., Tulane)

Most influential newcomers

  • Shawne Williams (6-8, Fr., Memphis)
  • Chris Douglas-Roberts (6-5, Fr., Memphis)
  • Roderick Earls (6-2, Jr., Tulsa)
  • Kevin Henderson (6-4, Jr., UTEP)
  • David Cornwell (6-8, Jr. Southern Mississippi)

Most underrated player

  • Demario Eddins (6-7, Sr., UAB)

Top pro prospect

  • Rodney Carney (6-7, Sr., Memphis)

An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com’s National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison’s pieces at www.FrankHoops.com



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