Conference USA Preview: Memphis Looks To End Era Of Domination With Dominant Season

Mar 9, 2012; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Tigers guard Will Barton (5), forward Ferrakohn Hall (0), guard/forward Wesley Witherspoon (11), and guard Chris Crawford (3) celebrate their victory in the game against the UCF Knights during the second half of the semi finals of the Conference USA Tournament at the FedEx Forum. The Memphis Tigers defeated the UCF Knights 83-52. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

The distance between Memphis and the rest of Conference USA again appears sizable as the Tigers head into their last season before making the jump to the Big East.

The fallout from this most recent helping of conference realignment madness has resulted in a handful of leagues preparing for some awkward final seasons with programs that already have one foot out the door. Perhaps at the top of that list is Conference USA, which will bid farewell to Memphis and its powerhouse basketball team when the Tigers head to the Big East next fall.

The natural reaction in this situation is resentment, which the league displayed when it moved the 2013 men's and women's basketball tournaments from Memphis to Tulsa. On the other hand, some respect has to be shown for the fact that the Tigers have pretty much been the only thing keeping Conference USA in the vicinity of college basketball's national radar since 2005.

Memphis has earned the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament six times over the past seven years. Oh yeah, and they've also produced every single victory the conference has earned in the big dance since Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and company fled during the last major dose of realignment. C-USA doesn't have to treat Memphis like the retiring Hall of Fame coach who everyone in the league has always had the utmost respect for, but they also can't behave like the spurned lover who just got railroaded by someone who did nothing but take.

They say you dance with the one who brought you. Well, Memphis and Conference USA have brought each other to this point, and it appears their final jig will be an awkward 8th grade slow dance with about three feet of separation between torsos.

FINAL 2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS

STANDINGS CONFERENCE OVERALL
Conference USA W-L GB PCT W-L PCT STRK
Memphis 13-3 -- .813 26-8 .765 W7
Southern Miss 11-5 2 .688 25-8 .758 L1
Tulsa 10-6 3 .625 17-14 .548 L3
UCF 10-6 3 .625 22-10 .688 L1
Marshall 9-7 4 .563 21-13 .618 L1
UAB 9-7 4 .563 15-16 .484 L1
Rice 8-8 5 .500 17-15 .531 L2
UTEP 7-9 6 .438 15-17 .469 L1
Houston 7-9 6 .438 15-15 .500 L1
East Carolina 5-11 8 .313 15-16 .484 L1
Southern Methodist 4-12 9 .250 13-19 .406 L1
Tulane 3-13 10 .188 15-16 .484 L8

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION

(1) Memphis defeated (6) Marshall (83-57)

NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS

Round of 64

(8) Memphis lost to (9) Saint Louis (61-54)

(9) Southern Mississippi lost to (8) Kansas State (70-64)

THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. Goodbye Beale Street

Memphis has dominated its league as thoroughly as any team in Division I since the last major dose of conference realignment, winning five conference regular season championships and six tournament titles over the past seven seasons. The Tigers have pretty much been to Conference USA what Matt Damon is to the Bourne trilogy; you can keep going on without them, but it's a change people are going to notice. C-USA will get its Bourne Legacy on after UM bolts for the Big East next summer.

2. Hello Larry Brown And Danny Manning

Larry Brown will be coaching his first collegiate season since winning the national championship at Kansas in 1988 as he takes the reigns of an SMU program which hasn't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since that same year. The Hall of Famer -- and only coach to win a title in both the NBA and college -- inherits a team that won just four league games last season, but an elite staff and some nice recruits have hopes (relatively) high for future life in the Big East. The major concern for the Mustang powers that be is that the Brown era devolves into the same embarrassing sideshow that the Isiah Thomas era at Florida International ultimately did.

Equally worthy of mention (and probably deserving of it's own numeral, but the budget's tight here and we've only got three to work with so deal) is the fact that Danny Manning, the star of that '88 Kansas team, is also in the league as the first-year head coach of Tulsa. His inheritance is slightly more bountiful than Brown's, as the Golden Hurricanes won 10 conference games in 2011-12. Still, it's a program which hasn't heard its name called on Selection Sunday in nine years.

Basically, Conference USA is the "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" of college basketball: you don't watch it, you can only name one of the stars, but people around you mention the juicy storylines so often that you can't help but have at least a mild understanding of what's going on.

3. No Postseason for UCF

Once Memphis made it apparent that they were headed to the Big East, the league made the decision to relocate the conference tournament (also could be a numeral) from the Bluff City to Tulsa. It's a move that matters not to Central Florida, which will be serving a one-year postseason ban after an NCAA investigation discovered a relationship severalUCF coaches and runner Ken Caldwell. The school has elected to appeal the ban in football, but not men's basketball, which means the Knights will not be able to participate in the conference tournament, the NCAA Tournament or any other postseason tournament. It also means that all of UCF's four seniors - including star Keith Clanton - are free to transfer to another school and play immediately.

EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Memphis

The Tigers are the clear class of the conference for what feels like the 35th year in a row, and the only realistic option to occupy this spot. The bigger issue for Memphis is the fact that after making it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive seasons, they suddenly haven't won a game in the big dance since 2009. The good news for coach Josh Pastner is that he has both the talent and experience to change that.

Do-everything forward Will Barton is gone to the NBA, but Joe Jackson, Adonis Thomas, Tarik Black and Chris Crawford are all returnees with all-conference potential.The addition of four-star recruit Shaq Goodwin won't hurt either. Out of that group, the play of the sometimes erratic Jackson might be the most important. He doesn't have the pro potential that Thomas does, but Jackson's incredible quickness makes him one of the most potentially dangerous players in college basketball. He just needs to learn how to make the right decision after gaining an advantage on his defender.

Missing the tournament in his first season and then going one-and-done in his next two has left more than a few Memphis fans frustrated with Pastner. Seeing what ex-coach John Calipari is doing at Kentucky hasn't helped matters much either. Whether or not the criticism up to this point has been warranted will be a moot issue in a few months, because Pastner finally has a team which, on paper, looks like it could compete with one of Calipari's Tiger squads. If he can't get out of the first weekend with this group, then the heat will (justifiably) be ratcheted up another notch or 12.

2. Marshall

Marshall didn't exactly look like challengers to the throne in their 83-57 loss to Memphis in last year's conference championship game, but that Thundering Herd were still just a couple of quality wins away from warranting an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. They have a chance to take another step forward in 2012-13 with a core group of key returnees, including leading scorer DeAndre Kane (16.5 ppg) and the senior duo of Dennis Tinnon (10.2 ppg) and Robert Goff (6.1 ppg/4.6 rpg). Freshman Ryan Taylor, who originally was headed to Louisville, could be one of the league's top rookies.

The Herd will have two chances to pick up a quality win in December when they face West Virginia and Cincinnati in a pair of games that will be played in Charleston. An early January test at Akron as well as an exempt event which includes New Mexico State are the other highlights of the non-conference slate.

3. Houston

In terms of sheer talent, the Cougars might be the only team in the conference that can measure up with Memphis. The difference is James Dickey's talent is largely raw and unexperienced.

Dickey was dealt a major blow when leading scorer Jonathon Simmons announced that he was turning pro instead of returning to UH for his senior season. The transfers of second-leading scorer Alandise Harris and rising senior Kirk VanSlyke were rubbing alcohol on an open wound (way worse than salt).

The cause for optimism lies in a youth movement highlighted by 2012 C-USA All-Freshman Team selections Joseph Young (11.3 ppg/3.6 rpg/2.4 apg) and TaShawn Thomas (10.7 ppg/8.2 rpg), as well as blue chip recruits Danuel House and Danrad "Chicken" Knowles. The former member of that duo was a five-star Jordan Brand Classic participant who could have played for just about any school in the country.

We've seen young and talented work at the highest level of college basketball for several years now. There's no reason why the combination can't thrive in Conference USA as well.

4. Central Florida

Here's where things get tricky.

Three months ago, more than a few people considered Central Florida to be the biggest threat to knock Memphis from the C-USA summit. With the Knights now knowing that they can go undefeated and still won't play past the first week of March, the question isn't whether or not things have changed, it's how much.

Four UCF seniors -- including star forward Keith Clanton -- have the option to transfer and play at another school immediately. Clanton has said recently that he plans to remain at Central Florida, while Bethune-Cookman transfer C.J. Reid will apparently look for a new school before ever suiting up for the Knights. Additionally, there is widespread talk that Marcus Jordan, who was arrested in June due to a disturbance at an Omaha hotel, may not play basketball anywhere this season. If he does, don't expect it to be at UCF.

Even if Donnie Jones were to get all his players back, you'd have to think that there will be a point in the year where lack of motivation becomes a factor. The impact might not be enough to decimate the season, but it''s enough to make it difficult to envision the Knights as legitimate league title contenders.

5. UTEP

The Miners lost two more games than they won last season, but that was with a group of contributors made up almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. Even with Michael Perez choosing to transfer to Nevada, Tim Floyd returns double figure scorers in John Bohannon (11.5 ppg), Julian Washburn (11.2 ppg) and Gabriel McCulley (11.1 ppg).

If nothing else, UTEP will definitely be battle tested by the time conference play rolls around. The Miners will participate in the Old Spice Classic, play at Arizona and Colorado State and at home against UNLV and Oregon all before the new year.

6. Southern Mississippi

USM's reward for reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years was losing its head coach (LarryEustachy can now be found at Colorado State) and four of its top five scorers.

The good news for Donnie Tyndall (formerly of Morehead State) is that he inherits one of the conference's best players in junior guard Neil Watson. Leading rebounder Johnathan Mills is also back, and the addition of New Mexico State transfer Christian Kabongo, who becomes eligible after the fall semester, should be an enormous boon.

7. Rice

Rice has become Conference USA's perpetual preseason sleeper pick, but to date the Owls have yet to make good on any of the overly optimistic prognostications. The annual chatter is about to get fired up again as Ben Braun returns just about everyone from last year's 17-15 squad outside of seniors Connor Frizzelle and Lucas Kuipers. Arsalan Kazemi, who averaged a double-double in each of the past two seasons and was less than a rebound per game away from doing so as a freshman, is one of the nation's most under-appreciated forwards. Senior guard Tamir Jackson is also looking to round out a fantastic college career after averaging double figures in scoring in each of his first three seasons as an Owl.

8. UAB

Former Kansas star and North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase takes over for Mike Davis, who was fired shortly after a 2011-12 season where the Blazers produced a 15-16 record. Leading scorer Cameron Moore (16.1 ppg) is gone from that team, but Haase still has some experienced talent to work with. The transfer of rising senior Ovie Soko means that juniors Preston Purifoy, Jordan Swing and Quincy Taylor -- who tore his ACL in UAB's final regular season game last year -- will be relied upon to carry the Blazers.

9. East Carolina

The Pirates return just about everyone from last season's squad, which went 15-16 and nearly upset Southern Miss in the league tournament quarterfinals. If ECU wants to crack the top half of the league, then senior Miguel Paul (15.2ppg/5.9 apg) is probably going to have to be first team All-C-USA good.

10. Tulsa

Leading scorer Jordan Clarkson's decision to transfer to Missouri all but assured a rebuilding season for Danny Manning in year one. Scottie Haralson is the team's top returnee and most likely leader after averaging 11.1 points per game as a junior in 2011-12. Rashad Smith, a seldom-used freshman forward last season, was a bright spot on Tulsa's recent exhibition tour in Canada. The Gilden Hurricane wrapped up that tour with a record of 3-1.

11. Tulane

The personnel is largely the same from last year's team that went 3-13 to finish at the bottom of the league. It's on you to decide whether that's good news or bad news. Kendall Timmons (13.6 ppg/5.2 rpg) is back for his senior season after seeing his 2011-12 cut short by a knee injury, while speedy guard Ricky Tarrant (14.9 ppg) is looking to build off of a terrific freshman campaign.

12. SMU

Putting the ball in the basket was a tough task for the Mustangs last season, and the addition of a hall of fame coach isn't going to make that issue miraculously disappear. The return of senior London Giles (10.0 ppg) provides some stability, and the progression of 7'0 freshman center Blaise Mbargorba should be fun to watch.

EARLY PREDICTED ALL-CONFERENCE USA TEAM

G Joe Jackson, Memphis
G DeAndre Kane, Marshall
F Danuel House, Houston
F Adonis Thomas, Memphis
F Keith Clanton, Central Florida

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Danuel House, Houston

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Adonis Thomas, Memphis

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