Tigers still king of the jungle in Conference USA

Published 9:44 am Wednesday, November 12, 2008

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
When evaluating Conference USA there really is no other place to start then Memphis. The Tigers had one of the best seasons of all-time last year as they went 38-2, and came a Mario Chambers jump shot away from the national title.
The Tigers took a huge hit in the off season as they lost star freshman point guard Derek Rose to the NBA draft, as well as Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey. However, as long as John Calapari is on the bench, Memphis will always be one of the top teams in the conference and the country.
The Tigers bring back three seniors, two of whom have played major roles for the team in the last three years, in Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson. Dozier is a burly forward who scored nine points and ripped down nearly seven boards a night last season, while Anderson is a solid all-around guard that scored eight points per game and dished out 136 assists.
Memphis is also expected to get a big boost from promising freshman Tyreke Evans. The 6-6 shooting guard was named one of the top recruits in the nation in several magazines and could be a big factor this year in helping the Tigers win their fourth straight Conference title.
Once you get past Memphis, UAB is clearly the next best team. The Blazers went 23-11 (12-4) last year to place second in the Conference, and they return just about all of their key players. Despite UAB’s poor effort in the conference tournament, where it got bounced in the first round, it is still a big time team that can play big games. Don’t forget that the Blazers almost upset Memphis late last year, but fell 79-78.
After transferring from Indiana University to UAB, Robert Vaden destroyed C-USA competition and averaged 23 points per game. That effort led Vaden to be voted the conference’s preseason player of the year. Vaden will be joined by 6-8 forward Lawrence Kinnard (C-USA third team 2008) and Paul Delaney. Delaney was a 2007 C-USA first-teamer in 2007, but missed most of last year due to injury. Don’t be surprised to see UAB in the field of 64 come March.
Since taking over at Tulsa, coach Doug Wojcik has done a really nice job with the program. His team’s have gradually won more games each year, going from 11 wins, to 20 and then 25.
The Golden Hurricane will give UAB a good run for second in the conference this year as it is led by a pair of star juniors in guard Ben Uzoh (15 ppg) and center Jerome Jordan (10 ppg, 8 rpg). At seven-feet tall, Jordan is a massive man who knows how to use his size and is good on both sides of the ball. Last year Jordan led the conference with an astounding 3.7 blocks per game.
Predicted to place fourth by C-USA coaches, UTEP is a talented team and will be breathing down the necks of the two teams picked ahead of it. The Miners finished last year 19-14, and return their top player Stefon Jackson (23.6 points per game). UTEP also brings back the conference’s sixth man of the year in freshman Randy Culpepper, and all-conference freshman team selection Julyan Stone.
Stone is a real big time talent, and dished out 3.45 assists last year. His growth as a sophomore could dictate how hard the Miners will push the upper echelon of the conference.
Southern Miss was predicted to place fifth in the conference, but it will be challenged by UCF. Both teams feature a dynamic scorer. Southern Miss is led by Jeremy Wise (18 ppg),while the Knights rally behind Jermaine Taylor (20 ppg).
The biggest difference between the two teams is that the Golden Eagles bring back more proven talent with players like R.L. Horton (11 ppg) and Courtney Beasley (10.5 ppg).
After Wise, UCF’s next best returning scorer is Tony Davis who averaged six points per game.
After the top five or six teams, the bottom of the conference becomes harder to predict, but look for Marshall to be the best of the rest.
Thundering Herd second-year coach Donnie Jones did a nice job last year guiding his team to a 16-14 (8-8) record and returns some key players. Though Marshall lost its top scorer from a year ago in Mark Dorris, it brings back its next best four. A group that is led by senior swingman Markel Humphrey (13 ppg).
After Marshall look for Matt Doherty’s SMU club to show some signs of life after a porous 10-20 season a year ago. His team is loaded with height and foreign talent which is highlighted by 7-1 senior center Bamba Fall (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and 6-9 sophomore Papa Dia (9.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg). SMU will be one of those intriguing teams that could either get it together and with 20 or so games, or just make a slight improvement and record 13 wins. A lot of its success will depend on who, and how, well Jon Killen’s replacement at point guard does.
Last year Killen dished out 154 assists, SMU’s next best passer was Mike Walker with 56.
Coming in somewhere around eighth or ninth should be Tulane, which brings back two of its top three scorers in Kevin Sims (12.2 ppg) and Robinson Louisme (9.8 ppg). In any other year, this team might be able to make a run at the top five, but with the conference being so heavy at the top that would be an extraordinary feat for the Green Wave.
Trailing behind Tulane will more than likely be Houston, which lost a ton of scoring when Robert McKiver (23.6 ppg) and Dion Dowell (10.9 ppg) graduated. The Cougars do bring back junior guard Kevin Lewis who averaged 10 points per game.
East Carolina had its periods where it really played some nice ball last year, most notably in its wins over N.C. State and George Mason, but it was just so inconsistent. There is no way the Pirates should ever lose to Liberty and only be able to top Lee by two points.
Give credit to Pirates’ coach Mack McCarthy, who directed the team with the interim tag over his head, but never acted like it. McCarthy freely substituted his players throughout the season as if it was one big tryout for this year. That takes guts.
Last year East Carolina lived and died by the three-point shot, but if it wants to make progress it will really need to find a swingman who can make something happen off the dribble. They have not had one in at least three years.
ECU will need sophomore Brock Young to make a big leap this year, and learn how to run the offense, and will also need to see a lot of growth out of center Chad Wynn if it wants to move up in the standings.
After a 3-27 record last year, Rice made a big time move and brought in former Cal coach Ben Braun. Braun has been a coach for over 30 years, and brings over 500 wins to the Owls’ bench. It’s not sure how much of a difference he will make this year, maybe he can bring their win total up to nine or 10, but four years from now don’t be surprised to see Rice challenge for the upper class of the conference.