Commentary

C-USA: UAB and UTEP could challenge Memphis in March

Updated: December 24, 2008, 1:01 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Favorite: Memphis. The Tigers have the most talent, the top freshman and the toughest place to play in the conference. They've also got an intimidation factor until something changes. That doesn't mean the Tigers will run the table this season. The schedule isn't as favorable as it has been and going to Tulsa, UTEP and UAB will test this team. Don't be surprised if the Tigers win the league with two losses, maybe even three.

[+] EnlargeJerome Jordan
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesJerome Jordan and Tulsa took their lumps with a tough nonconference schedule. How will the Golden Hurricane respond when C-USA play begins?
Most surprising team: Houston. East Carolina could get this honor as well for starting out 8-1 before losing two in a row to ACC teams. But the Cougars ripped off eight straight wins after a disappointing season-opening loss to Georgia Southern. Houston was supposed to be in a rebuilding mode, and maybe it still will be by the end of the regular season.

Most disappointing team: UTEP. Maybe this is being too harsh on the Miners. The losses are all against quality teams in UNLV, Wake Forest, Arizona State and New Mexico State. All but one of those games was away from El Paso (UNLV was at home). But UTEP coach Tony Barbee was adamant in the preseason that he had a league-title contender and an NCAA-type team. That may still happen with the Miners in C-USA play. The win over Saint Mary's is the best win so far. If UTEP can roll through the conference and knock off Memphis at least once, then the Miners can make it back into the conversation for a possible at-large berth. But a 6-4 start out of a league like C-USA isn't going to stand out.

Mystery team: Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane have one of the top players in the conference in Jerome Jordan. But he started out with a few subpar performances, notably scoring just eight points and grabbing three boards in a loss at Oklahoma State. He also scored in single digits in losses to Ohio and Oklahoma, the latter a reach for Tulsa to win. Tulsa played quality competition in its nonconference games, giving Texas A&M its only loss. But losing to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Illinois prevented the Golden Hurricane from distinguishing themselves. Maybe Tulsa will be just fine in C-USA. It's hard to tell since the schedule was daunting.

Best player: Stefon Jackson, UTEP. He has been the most consistent player so far in averaging 23.6 points a game. Jackson gives the Miners a chance in any game they'll play this season. Jackson scored 30 points or more against Wake Forest, Sam Houston and New Mexico State (at home). He gets to the line a ton, going there at least 10 times in seven of his first 10 games.

Top performance: Robert Vaden, UAB. Vaden nailed eight 3s and hit a high percentage (8 of 13 and 10 of 17 shots overall) in a 28-point performance in a 77-62 win at Old Dominion. That win came on the heels of the Blazers winning at Arizona and before UAB had to go to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off. While Jackson gets to the bucket, Vaden is the one you want to make a 3-pointer for you.

Strangest score: Arkansas Pine-Bluff 64, SMU 62. It was close and fewer than 2,000 fans witnessed it. But a C-USA school should win its "guarantee" games against teams like Pine-Bluff.

[+] EnlargeStefon Jackson
AP Photo/Mark AveryWith Stefon Jackson's scoring ability, UTEP is sure to be in the hunt in C-USA.
What you might not have realized: Conference USA is essentially hurting its chances to get multiple bids by continuing to put the conference tournament in Memphis. The best way to ensure the league gets multiple bids is to take the tournament out of Memphis. A year ago it wouldn't have mattered where the Tigers played the tourney. They would have won regardless of the venue, but in a season like this one when the Tigers aren't as daunting there is hope for the other teams to win in an elimination-type game away from the FedEx Forum.

Reason to brag: UTEP has the one win over Saint Mary's. That may be one of the best wins the league gets this season unless Memphis can go to Gonzaga and knock off the Zags or take out Tennessee in Knoxville. The Miners need to make sure the win over the Gaels matters by getting on a roll in the league. UAB can claim the bizarre win over Arizona in Tucson as a win to shout about, but the Blazers need to ensure that win will mean something in March, too.

Reason to worry: Memphis. The Tigers don't have to fret that they won't be good enough to win the conference. But Memphis has done little to stand out for a high seed at this juncture. Road games at Tennessee and Gonzaga are upcoming. Those might be necessary for the Tigers to deserve a top-four seed. Otherwise, the Tigers could be looking at a lower seed that will make advancing in March much more difficult.

Who's going dancing?: Memphis. UAB and UTEP have the best talent and star players in Vaden and Jackson to put themselves in position for a bid among the rest of the teams. But they're heading for the bubble at this juncture.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com