C-USA poised to clean up come March
In the zero-sum game that is college basketball, one league's misfortune can be another's lucky break. Thus we find Conference USA dancing over the prone carcasses of the Big Ten and Pacific-10.
The latter two leagues appear to be in the process of throwing away some of the NCAA Tournament bids they're accustomed to -- and C-USA is positioned to catch them.
Ever since the tournament expanded from 48 to 64 in 1985, the Big Ten has placed at least five teams in the field. Nine times it placed six or seven. But this year, the Big Ten might have a hard time finding that many bid-worthy teams. The league is a disaster area -- and the Pac-10 might be just as bad, with no more than two teams worth bragging about at this point.
Which brings us to our favorite dysfunctional, divorce-pending league.
The power rankings love C-USA, especially the short-timers that are waiting to jump to the Big East. Louisville is No. 1 in the Sagarin Ratings and No. 3 in ESPN.com's Daily RPI through Tuesday's games. Ken Pomeroy's ratings rank Cincinnati No. 1 and the Cardinals second. Five C-USA teams are in the RPI top 45, and eight are in the top 67.
Charlotte, a traditional slow starter/strong closer, is 10-3 and off to its best 13-game record under Bobby Lutz. UAB, which nearly won the league tournament last year, has a shiny No. 32 RPI ranking. Banged-up Memphis is coming off a bad loss at Southern Mississippi, but has played very well when fully healthy. And defending champ Marquette will be heard from, despite a surprisingly low RPI of 62. (In fact, the Golden Eagles might be heard from Wednesday night, when they host Cincinnati.)
C-USA has never had more than four teams in one Big Dance, always deferring to the BCS conferences. Now, closing in on a breakup, could this be the league's best year?
"This conference has risen as one of the best in basketball right now," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "It's a shame it is breaking up, because it was becoming one of the premier conferences."
"Top to bottom, it's taken another step," said Marquette's Tom Crean, whose team became the first to earn a Final Four trip for C-USA last year. "This is as strong as it's been in my five years. There's been some unbelievable scores."
"The league is just better this year," Lutz said.
Nobody is more improved within the league than Cincinnati. A season that began a year ago with Bob Huggins recovering from a major heart attack was a struggle throughout, especially by Cincy standards.
The Bearcats went 17-12 overall, just 9-7 in conference play, and lost in the first rounds of both the league tournament and the NCAA Tournament. They fell out of the rankings in early December and never returned.
A soft early schedule has kept Cincinnati largely off national television and off national radar, but this team has the trademarks of a classic Huggins team. The Bearcats have muscle (forwards Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks, plus 260-pound center Robert Whaley, whose playing time has been curbed by sporadic work habits). They have athleticism (Florida transfer James White and senior guard Tony Bobbitt, who ranks second in the league in steals). And the big change from last year: they have shooters (Bobbitt and Field Williams, who is shooting 48.5 percent from three-point range but is no longer limited to stand-still shooting).
Bobbitt came in from junior college with a big rep last year, but was more often a big headache, as his play vacillated wildly. This year Bobbitt is averaging 14.1 points and 2.6 steals. "He's been terrific," Huggins said. "He's done what we've asked him to do day-in and day-out in practice."
"We can make shots," Huggins added. "A year ago we were the gang that didn't shoot very straight. We can really stretch the defense with Tony Bobbitt and Field Williams, and (Kansas State transfer) Nick Williams is starting to play the way we envisioned him playing when he came here.
"We've got a long way to go defensively and we don't rebound the ball nearly as well as we have in the past, but we can make shots. That's kind of the great equalizer."
If shooting is the equalizer, some teams are more equal than others. That's where Louisville comes in. The Cardinals are simply overwhelming and demoralizing opponents right now -- doing it first with relentless defense and pressure, but secondly with devastating barrages of outside shooting.
The Cardinals are sixth nationally in 3-pointers made per game at 9.5, and lead the league in accuracy at 40 percent. Taquan Dean is shooting 49 percent beyond the arc -- and taking plenty of them. Dean was a school-record 9 for 11 from 3-point range in a rout of VMI.
But the man setting up his teammates for so many open shots is swingman Francisco Garcia, who is playing so well that the Cards have not missed Reece Gaines much at all. Playing point forward, the tremendously skilled and unselfish Garcia is everywhere: leading the league in assists at 6.1, fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.35 to 1, fourth in steals at 2.1, seventh in blocked shots at 1.8, and eighth in scoring at 15.5.
"Our chemistry is off the charts right now," Pitino said, crediting best friends Garcia and Dean for leading the way in that area. " ... Two of our young stars are extremely humble and hard-working, and they're great kids and great teammates."
Mark your calendars for the first Cincinnati-Louisville collision: Jan. 21 in Freedom Hall. But don't forget about the second flight of Charlotte, Memphis, Marquette and UAB.
In fact, the second flight benefits from a major C-USA scheduling change for this season. With its divisions more lopsided than Quasimodo, the league went to a single division and has every team playing every other, while playing three teams twice.
Louisville takes it between the eyes. The teams it plays twice: Cincinnati, Marquette and Memphis. The Bearcats get off only slightly lighter with the Cardinals, Memphis and DePaul.
Advantage, Charlotte, UAB and Marquette -- which also benefits from Southern Miss moving its home game against the Golden Eagles to Green Bay. (Money talks, and the Golden Eagles walked. And if Bob Knight can put a tire store logo on his sweater, can you really be surprised that a program would sell a home game?)
But in addition to scheduling inequities, there are legitimate questions to ask about whether the lower half of the house divided might drag down the upper half. C-USA has six teams with RPIs in triple digits, ranging from 102 to 165. Once again, the expansion that brought in football-first schools Texas Christian (RPI No. 139) and East Carolina (No. 165) serves as a basketball anchor.
However, the mood is upbeat in this short-timer-intensive league right now, and the attitude is predatory. Bigger leagues could be leaving bids on the table, and C-USA appears ready to grab them with both hands.
|Games to Watch|
Cincinnati at Marquette, Wednesday
First of the marquee C-USA matchups is a showdown between two ultra-tough programs that have waged some memorable battles in recent years. Bearcats haven't won in Milwaukee since Kenyon Martin wore black.
Southern Mississippi vs. Marquette in Green Bay, Friday
Golden Eagles come back 48 hours later to play the most controversial "road" game of the year in C-USA. Cash-strapped Southern Miss moved the game it was supposed to host in Hattiesburg for a profit, producing howls from other schools in the league.
Mississippi State at LSU, Saturday
The highlight should be a big-time collision in the paint: State's Lawrence Roberts vs. the Tigers' Jaime Lloreda and Brandon Bass. The competition for rebounds should be fierce.
Florida at Vanderbilt, Saturday
Commodores are 11-0 in Nashville but haven't played anyone there on the level of the Gators. David Lee is on a tear, and the Lee-Matt Freije matchup should be worth the price of admission.
Charlotte at Memphis, Saturday
A win here for the 49ers would establish them as a league title contender. Tigers need a bounce-back week after a ghastly loss at Southern Miss.
"It's like a 50-man marching band comes out on the field, and 49 turn right, and Johnny turns left. And Johnny's people say, 'What's wrong with those other 49?' And they yell at the band director and say, 'Keep marching, Johnny! Keep marching!'"
-- Memphis coach John Calipari, on coddled modern players and their "people" doing the coddling.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com