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As favorites fall, C-USA chaos ensues

February is sort-out month in America. It's happening in the Democratic presidential primaries, television sweeps and in college basketball.

Pretenders are fading. Contenders are surging. The NCAA Tournament field is slowly shaping up, and league races are whittling down to a select couple of contenders.

Except in Conference USA. Sort-out month? So far, February is all-in month in this chaotic league.

In late January, C-USA looked like a two-horse race: Louisville and Cincinnati. Today, it's a cavalry charge. With three weeks left in the regular season, it's the ultimate Survivor-style reality series: Nearly half the 14-team league remains very much in the title chase.

Joe Lieberman, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean wish they had this kind of staying power -- or that John Kerry had this much front-running fallibility.

We began this week with six teams within a game in the loss column of first place: Memphis is 9-2, Cincinnati and UAB 8-2, DePaul 8-3 and Louisville and Charlotte 7-3. Only one other conference, the Mid-Continent, currently has as many viable title contenders as C-USA.

A few factors have conspired to make this Conference USAnyone's Guess:

  • Injuries to Louisville's two best players, Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, have brought the Cardinals back to the pack. The Cardinals' 71-46 loss at TCU on Tuesday night dropped them to 7-4 in C-USA.

  • Cincinnati hasn't defended the way Cincinnati normally defends, giving up more than 85 points three times so far this year. That hasn't happened since 1994-95.

  • The contenders are all sneaky good, coming from off-radar and out of the rankings to challenge. Memphis is the hottest team in the league, Charlotte has beaten three top 10 opponents, DePaul survived nine games without star center Andre Brown and UAB won't back down from anybody. (The surprising news is that defending league champ and 2003 Final Four participant Marquette is not one of the teams in the mix, just 4-6 in league play and needing to win the league tournament to make the NCAAs.)

  • The league schedule is about as balanced as the federal budget.

    The last factor might be the largest. A bloated league hasn't found a way to schedule a level playing field.

    In the days of two divisions, the power was centralized on one side with Cincy, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and Charlotte. That left Memphis lamenting its lack of quality opponents as a factor that kept it out of both the 2001 and '02 NCAA Tournaments. So they scrapped the concept after last season.

    This year, everyone plays in one division, with three "mirror," or home-and-home, opponents. But the devil is in the details of who plays whom, and how often.

    Cincinnati and Louisville are the big losers. The Bearcats must play Louisville, DePaul and Charlotte twice (combined league record: 22-10). The Cardinals face Cincy, Memphis and Marquette twice (21-10). Contrast that with UAB, which can tiptoe through the tulips against Tulane, South Florida and East Carolina (5-26).

    In between those paths is DePaul (Marquette, Saint Louis and Cincinnati, a combined 17-13), Memphis (TCU, Louisville and Southern Mississippi, a combined 17-15) and Charlotte (East Carolina, Saint Louis and Cincinnati, a combined 13-18).

    There are other scheduling glitches that have left coaches fuming as well.

    Rick Pitino wants to know why Louisville had three league games against teams that had a full week off to prepare for the Cards, when in each instance his team had a game two or three days prior.

    First-year South Florida coach Robert McCullum has to wonder what he did to deserve opening C-USA play with Louisville, then three straight road games at Saint Louis, UAB and Memphis, stretched over a span of 17 days. Then came four games crammed into six days this month, including two on the road.

    Bobby Lutz couldn't have appreciated hosting Louisville at 9 p.m. local time Thursday (a stirring 49ers upset) then playing at Saint Louis at noon Saturday (a demoralizing one-point loss to a team that played at home a night earlier).

    So what we have here is not necessarily a may-the-best-team-win scenario. The league championship could come down to the most fortuitously scheduled team.

    "Everyone plays kind of a different schedule with the mirror games," Cincy coach Bob Huggins said. "The best thing to do is win the games you have and not worry about anybody else."

    Huggins is right about that. Fuming is ultimately futile. Instead it's time to handicap who is going to win Survivor C-USA:

    Memphis

  • Record against the rest of the top six: 2-1, with home wins against Charlotte and Louisville and a loss at DePaul.

  • Games remaining against the top six: home against UAB Saturday, at Louisville Feb. 28 and at Cincinnati March 6.

    The Tigers have won nine straight, and the last was the best. Memphis strafed Marquette Saturday in Milwaukee, pouring in 16 three-pointers and never seriously being threatened. Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean gave props to Cincinnati and Louisville, but said if he had to pick the best team he's faced so far, it's the Tigers.

    "That's as good as anybody has played against us," Crean said. "Their speed is incredible."

    Freshman Sean Banks, who made five of six 3s in the first half alone, is the lock Newcomer of the Year in the league. Point guard Antonio Burks, who had 14 points and 11 assists, might now be the leading candidate for Player of the Year.

    "He thinks about his teammates first," Crean said of Burks. "His whole game is to get into the lane and get the ball to his teammates. He's going to be a pro. I'd be shocked if he's not."

    Cincinnati

  • Record against the rest of the top six: 1-2, with a win at home over DePaul, a loss at Louisville and a home loss to Charlottte.

  • Games remaining against the top six: at UAB (Feb. 18), home against Louisville (Feb. 21), at Charlotte (Feb. 28), at DePaul (March 4) and home against Memphis (March 6).

    The Bearcats are up against it. They've lost three of their last five, and five of their final six games are against C-USA contenders. Not only that, but Bob Huggins, who had a major heart attack last year, took two days off last week.

    "I didn't think I could push any harder at that time," he said. That's a concern, given the big push that lies ahead starting Wednesday night in Birmingham.

    UAB

  • Record against the rest of the top six: 1-2, with losses at DePaul and Louisville and a big win at Charlotte.

  • Games remaining against the top six: Wednesday at home against Cincinnati and Saturday at Memphis.

    This is "Prove It Week" for the Blazers. A sweep vaults them to the top, alone. A split gives them C-USA credibility and keeps them very much in the title picture. Being swept puts them on the thinnest part of the NCAA Tournament bubble and pretty much boots them out of the league race.

    One thing is for sure: UAB will not go into this week apologizing for its position.

    "We have just as good a right to be up there as anybody else," coach Mike Anderson said.

    DePaul

  • Record against the rest of the top six: 2-2, with losses at home to Charlotte and on the road against Cincinnati and home wins over Memphis and UAB.

  • Games remaining against the top six: at Louisville (Feb. 25) and home against Cincinnati (March 4).

    Beware the Blue Demons, who could be the ultimate dark horse in this race. Nobody has talked much about them all year, but since Brown came back from a knee injury they're 5-0 and the senior is playing sensationally. Brown is averaging 16.2 points and 9.4 rebounds and shooting a ridiculous 75 percent from the field in those five games.

    DePaul lost 37 games the two seasons under Pat Kennedy before Dave Leitao arrived. He got the Blue Demons to actually bend their knees and sweat on defense last year, reaching the NIT. This year they're pushing for an NCAA bid. If they get it, give that man a raise.

    Louisville

  • Record against the rest of the top six: 2-2, with home wins over Cincinnati and UAB and road losses at Memphis and Charlotte.

  • Games remaining against the top six: at Cincinnati on Saturday, then home against DePaul (Feb. 25) and Memphis (Feb. 28).

    For the second straight season, injuries and a February funk have hampered a sensational start for the Cardinals.

    Last year, they sprinted out to an 18-1 record and No. 2 national ranking before power forward Ellis Myles blew out a knee and the Cards lost five of their last seven regular-season games. This year, the record was 16-1 and the ranking No. 4 before Dean pulled a groin, Garcia sprained an ankle and they've lost four of their last five.

    Before Tuesday's drubbing by the Horned Frogs, the Cardinals' had to deal with a painful, come-from-ahead giveaway in the final minutes at Charlotte after controlling the game.

    "We had a complete defensive breakdown at the end of the game," assistant coach Reggie Theus said. "The last five minutes or so were a disaster. ... A team like ours should never lose a game down the stretch on defense. We pride ourselves on our defense."

    The good news for Louisville is that Garcia is just about 100 percent and Dean can at least function well enough to play extensive minutes (he won't be fully healthy until the offseason). The bad news is that the rest of the schedule offers zero breaks. But if the Cards pre-injury January form, they're good enough to overcome that.

    Charlotte

  • Record against the rest of the top six: 3-2, with wins at DePaul and Cincinnati and at home against Louisville, and losses at Memphis and home against UAB.

  • Games remaining against the top six: Cincinnati at home Feb. 28.

    The 49ers have three huge victories, beating Syracuse and Cincy on the road and Louisville at home. And a road win at Southern Illinois looks better with every passing week. But they also lost at home to UAB and George Washington, at Rhode Island and had their annual clunker at Saint Louis.

    In other words, this is a tough team to figure.

    "We've told our team that we have the potential to beat any team in the country," Bobby Lutz said. "But we're not dominant enough that we can be off a great deal."

    The schedule offers the 49ers a chance. Only one of their final six opponents has a winning league record.

    Now it's time for sort-out month to do its job, and deliver a champion from the cavalry charge that is Conference USA.

    LSU needs some love
    Louisiana State has been unappreciated at home and uncelebrated nationally, but the Tigers are getting harder to ignore with each successive victory.

    LSU won its fifth straight Saturday with a stunning comeback at Florida, scoring on its last 12 possessions to come back and beat the fading Gators in the final minutes. For a 17-4 team from a big-time conference that hasn't been ranked all season, this seemed like the final validation.

    "As soon as the buzzer sounded, I told (teammate) Paul (Woolfert) that we're going to crack the Top 25," guard Antonio Hudson told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "They've got to get us in there now."

    This week's Associated Press poll does indeed include the Tigers at No. 24. Now we'll see whether the fans turn out in Baton Rouge to see them play.

    Maybe it's a national-championship football hangover. Maybe it's anticipation of Mardi Gras. Whatever the reason, LSU is averaging a meager 7,785 fans for SEC home games, barely filling more than half of the 14,164-seat Maravich Assembly Center.

    "Hopefully this will get the fans out," guard Darrel Mitchell told the Times-Picayune.

    If the winning streak doesn't bring them out, a half-price ticket promotion for LSU's Wednesday game against Auburn might.

    But the Tigers' success is built on fragile foundation -- namely, Jaime Lloreda's two gimpy legs. LSU's double-double man has played for weeks with bursitis in his left Achilles' tendon and then twisted his right ankle twice at Florida. If Lloreda goes down, LSU goes with him.

    Around the South

  • Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Denny Crum and John Wooden himself all failed to do what Dennis Felton has now done: Beat Kentucky the first three times he's faced them as a head coach. Felton's Western Kentucky team upset the Wildcats in Rupp Arena two years ago, and now his first Georgia team has stunningly swept the Cats this season.

    "He's got a great recipe for defeat of those guys," Bulldogs senior Damien Wilkins said. "He just knows how to beat those guys."

    Amazing that a team that swept all 19 games against SEC opponents last year could now be swept by the last-place outfit in the SEC East. Georgia is just 13-10 and 5-7 in league play, making it the most mediocre SEC team to sweep Kentucky in a season series since a 13-11 Tennessee team did it in 1963. And certainly, no team has ever lost by 20 to Winthrop and beaten Kentucky twice in the same season.

  • The perplexing sweep by the Bulldogs left Kentucky coach Tubby Smith burning. He publicly ripped his team like never before afterward, disgusted that Georgia's physical play caused the Wildcats to back down in both meetings.

    "It's so disappointing," Smith said. "It just rips your heart out. That bothers me, when guys don't reach down for the challenge. ... We certainly knew what to expect coming in here, and we didn't respond."

    Smith was particularly critical of his two post players, Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes. Daniels recorded just four points and four rebounds in 37 minutes, and Hayes missed three point-blank shots in the second half when he appeared to be anticipating contact from the Bulldogs.

    "When Chuck's missing layups like that, it's just ridiculous," Smith said. "Erik was just running around. He was scared to death."

    The only thing that can put a smile back on Smith's face is the anticipated return of leading scorer Gerald Fitch to the lineup Wednesday against Arkansas. Fitch has missed the last three games with a sprained index finger on his shooting hand.

  • A lot of people talk about Alabama forward Kennedy Winston as a pro prospect, but the sophomore got an education in how far he still has to go at Kentucky last week. Winston was a statue offensively when the ball wasn't in his hands, settled for difficult shots and failed to match the Wildcats' intensity at either end of the court. The result: a 3-for-13 shooting performance and four turnovers for a guy who came in averaging 16.3 per game.

    Winston had averaged 20.8 points the previous four Alabama games -- but the Crimson Tide lost them all. 'Bama might been getting too much Kennedy and not enough balance.

  • Florida coach Billy Donovan saw his team fall out of the rankings for the first time since Feb. 1, 1999, this week. The Gators are among the nation's bigger disappointments, failing to show the defensive fortitude it takes to win close games. The LSU giveback marked the second time this month that Florida has blown a seemingly secure lead at home in the late going. "In the last seven or eight minutes, we just can't stop anybody," Donovan said after the LSU loss.

  • Cinderella Watchers need to keep an eye on East Tennessee State, which is storming through the competitive Southern Conference. The Buccaneers are 14-0 in league play under first-year coach Murry Bartow, one of just six teams left with perfect league records.

    The biggest reason for ETSU's takeoff after a 7-4 start has been the re-emergence of sophomore point guard Tim Smith, the SoCon's Freshman of the Year last year. Smith is averaging 18 points per game during the team's current 13-game winning streak, and Bartow is patiently enduring the fast-paced little man's penchant for turnovers (he's had five or more a whopping 12 times this year).

    ETSU plays at Fresno State Saturday in the ESPN Bracket Buster series, then faces SoCon rival College of Charleston on ESPN2 Feb. 28.

  • Every week, it's the same refrain on the Conference USA teleconference. Opposing coaches extoll the effort put forth by East Carolina -- after their teams have just squeaked past the Pirates yet again.

    "Maybe I need to put my administrators on the conference call," coach Bill Herrion said.

    Hopefully, the interim athletic director and interim chancellor at East Carolina aren't out of patience with Herrion. Yes, the Pirates are a brutal 1-10 in C-USA play, and yes, they're in danger of failing to even make the league tournament for the third straight season. But six of the losses have come by six points or less, including five of them against teams currently battling for the league championship. And East Carolina was crippled when its best low-post offensive player, Gabe Mikulas, broke his arm in mid-January.

    "I've got three years left on my contract after this season," Herrion said. "I'm mature enough to understand the nature of this business. You've got to win games. It's been a very, very tough road trying to build this thing, but I think we're light years ahead of where we were when we started.

    "As crazy as this sounds, I think we're playing our best basketball that we've played in my five years here. We just haven't been getting wins."

    Quote to note
    "You've got to take care of the basketball if you're a Division I player -- or at least you've got a scholarship to a Division I school. If you can't get it across halfcourt, you've got serious problems."

    -- Tubby Smith, hammering backup point guards Brandon Stockton and Josh Carrier for combining to commit five turnovers in 11 minutes against Georgia. Smith, of course, is the man who gave the two their Division I scholarships.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com