What, Who, When
The Conference USA Tournament takes place at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, from March 7-10.
The 12-team conference utilizes the standard 12-team bracket, with the top four teams receiving byes to the quarterfinals. It boggles the mind, however, to think about the tournament format when the "Mount USA" conference forms. They will have to start the tournament in mid-February.
Wednesday: No. 8 UTEP vs. No. 9 Houston, No. 5 UAB vs. No. 12 Tulane, No. 7 Rice vs. No. 10 East Carolina, No. 6 Marshall vs. No. 11 SMU
Thursday: No. 1 Memphis vs. UTEP/Houston, No. 4 UCF vs. UAB/Tulane, No. 2 Southern Miss vs. Rice/ECU, No. 3 Tulsa vs. Marshall/SMU.
Who The Numbers Like
Memphis. And it isn't close. The Tigers are the only Conference USA team in Ken Pomeroy's Top 65, and his simulations say they have a whopping 75.9 percent chance of winning the tournament. The Tigers hit a rough patch in mid-December, losing three of four to Murray State, Louisville and Georgetown, but they've won 17 of 20 since then, and their three conference losses came by a combined six points. With the tournament in Memphis, they truly are just about the most overwhelming favorite in any of this week's conference tournaments.
Who The Eyeballs Like
Memphis. Never mind that they are the best team in the conference -- they have been nearly impregnable at home, aside from a random glitch against UTEP on February 18. Their last five conference home wins (against UCF, East Carolina, UAB, Marshall and Rice) came by an average of 23 points.
UTEP. When your favorite has a three-times better shot of winning than everybody else combined, that makes everybody a dark horse, right? But when your No. 2 and No. 3 teams both limp into the tournament on a bit of a cold streak, the dark gets darker. So we'll take a huge reach for Tim Floyd's 14-16 Miners, who really are not very good but could not have ended up with a better draw. A miraculous path to the tourney title could feature wins over Houston, Memphis and Southern Miss, against whom they went 3-1 this year. It still isn't likely, of course -- a rematch versus Memphis would come against a pretty ticked off Tiger squad, plus their semifinal matchup would probably come against either UCF (UCF 63, UTEP 45 on Feb. 25) or UAB (UAB 61, UTEP 60 on Feb. 4). Still, the Miners have performed rather well against solid teams (and less so against lesser squads).
Best Possible Title Game
Memphis vs. Southern Miss. And it probably isn't close. The Tigers and Golden Eagles played two fantastic games this year, while the Tigers handled No. 3 seed Tulsa rather well at Tulsa this past Saturday.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
Memphis. Josh Pastner's Tigers are definitely in the Field of 68, but if they are not careful, they will fall into the danger zone of the 8-9 game.
Southern Miss. Chris Dobbertean gives the Golden Eagles an 11-seed, but if they lose to anybody other than Memphis, they could fall too far to pull off an at-large bid. At 20-3, Larry Eustachy's Golden Eagles were considered an NCAA Tournament lock a month ago after their 75-72 home win over Memphis. But they finished the regular season just 4-4, suffering a series of iffy road losses to UAB, Houston, UTEP and Marshall. They handled Memphis as well as anybody this season (they also lost by two at FedEx on Jan. 11), they play iffy defense, and their hit-or-miss shooting touch has missed a bit too much recently to make up for that. It would be a fantastic story for Eustachy's team to make the NCAAs, but they still have some work to do.
Players To Watch
Will Barton, Memphis. The conference's leading scorer, Barton could make Memphis a terrifying 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament. He is fifth in Ken Pomeroy's Player of the Year standings ($), and he is, at times, ruthlessly efficient. He is a nearly perfect player from a statistical perspective -- he gets to the line (and makes 74 percent of his free throws), he shoots well (58.0 percent on two-pointers), he doesn't turn the ball over much, he grabs defensive rebounds incredibly well for a wing, and he's got fantastic endurance. But Memphis is reliant on him enough that when he ISN'T scoring, the Tigers are in trouble. The Tigers have lost just twice since Jan. 19 (to Southern Miss and UTEP), and in those two losses, Barton scored just 24 points and made just one of seven 3-point attempts. Get him rolling, and Memphis will roll too.
Neil Watson, Southern Miss. Nobody personifies Larry Eustachy's own comeback story better than the sophomore from Kansas City, Kansas. Watson, at 170 pounds, has drawn fouls as well as almost any guard in the country. He is tough and resilient, and he can make an open jumper as well (39.6 percent on three-pointers). He comes and goes, however. He scored 23 points on 11 shots in a win over UCF, and he scored 18 on 14 against SMU last week, but he scored a combined 18 points (on 6-37 shooting) and got to the line just four times in recent losses to UAB, UTEP and Marshall. Good Watson can get the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament; Bad Watson will get them beaten by Rice.
Jordan Clarkson, Tulsa. Doug Wojcik's Golden Hurricanes draw fouls like nobody's business, and nobody does it better than Clarkson, another tough guard (the conference has a lot of them). Clarkson is a 6'4 sophomore and all-conference selection. He takes almost one-third of Tulsa's shots when he is on the court, and he takes quite a few three-pointers, but he still gets to the line almost six times per game and mixes in a reasonably healthy assist rate as well. Tulsa can hit three-pointer after three-pointer, but when Clarkson attacks the rim, the offense becomes nearly unstoppable.
John Bohannon, UTEP. Since I took a shot in the dark with UTEP above, I should feature a Miner down here; the 6'10 Bohannon is perhaps their best overall player (11.2 points per game, 7.3 rebounds), though he fouled out with just seven points in the Miners' surprise win over Memphis on Feb. 18. He was overpowered by UM's Tarik Black, and if UTEP is to somehow pull a second upset of the host Tigers (if they even get past Houston to start with), he will likely have to come up big. Jacques Streeter and Michael Perez (combined points per game: 18.2; combined points versus Memphis: 29) probably won't be able to bail him out again.
Ricky Tarrant, Tulane. The Green Wave almost certainly won't be around in the tournament for long, but that is not the fault of this six-foot guard who drew first-team All-Conference honors this year as a freshman. He is efficient, he draws fouls, he mostly avoids turnovers, he is a thief on defense, and yes, he is tough. The problem for Ed Conroy's Green Wave, of course, is that he can't score on every possession, and if he isn't doing it, nobody is. Since the start of February, Tulane has scored fewer than 55 points in a game five times, including in an overtime loss to UTEP (54-52).