Commentary

Conference USA has improved

Updated: December 28, 2009, 5:11 PM ET
By Dick Vitale | ESPN.com

Conference USA has turned into a very interesting league this season. My friends, for several years it was Memphis leading the way and everybody else far behind them.

Memphis entered this season with a 61-game win streak in Conference USA (regular-season and league tournament games). The Tigers posted 49 consecutive Conference USA regular-season victories. When John Calipari left for Kentucky, many believed Memphis would slide.

League play is right around the corner and first-year coach Josh Pastner has done an outstanding job. The Tigers almost upset top-ranked Kansas. Pastner also secured what ESPN.com's scouts are calling the top-rated recruiting class for next season.

While Memphis has clearly dominated Conference USA (the lone league loss over the last four years came at UAB, 80-74 during the 2006 season), it will not be easy to win this season. The Tigers have experience in Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, Roburt Sallie, Pierre Henderson-Niles and Wesley Witherspoon. But Conference USA is an improved league. There are several contenders to challenge Memphis, though I still feel that ultimately the road to the title runs through Fed Ex Forum.

Tulsa was picked as the preseason favorite and Doug Wojcik's club has several key performers, led by big man Jerome Jordan. The Golden Hurricane sent an early-season message with a blowout city win over Oklahoma State.

Houston, coached by Tom Penders, is dangerous. Aubrey Coleman is one of the nation's premier scoring threats. The Cougars got a big win over Oklahoma in a tournament in Alaska.

UAB showed it belongs in the discussion by easily beating Cincinnati recently. Mike Davis' club won nine of its first 10 games this season. Keep an eye on Elijah Millsap.

UTEP had a veteran nucleus bolstered by the recent addition of former Louisville player Derrick Caracter, who had 15 points and 15 rebounds against nationally-ranked Mississippi.

Then you look at teams like Marshall and Southern Mississippi, and both schools got off to good starts this season.

Conference USA will have a number of college basketball dogfights. Memphis has some serious competition, but the future is very bright for coach Pastner and his Tigers. Keep an eye on this league as there will be excitement galore instead of the usual Memphis domination, baby!

Dick Vitale

College Basketball analyst
Dick Vitale, college basketball's top analyst and ambassador, joined ESPN during the 1979-80 season. His thorough knowledge of the game is brought forth in an enthusiastic, passionate style. Vitale also contributes columns to ESPN.com.