- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Conference USA had to go down to the final few minutes of its league tournament last season to get two NCAA tournament bids. Had Houston not been able to beat UTEP, the conference was looking at just one bid.
That would have been a crushing blow to a league that was trying to get out from under the shadow of being dominated by Memphis for the previous seasons under John Calipari. The league was desperate to create its own identity. If that was going to occur, Conference USA needed multiple bids. It couldn't rely on one team to be its face.
Well, Memphis will always be a barometer for the conference. But to have a fresh face like Central Florida as one of the nation's seven remaining undefeated teams and in a rich market like Orlando should bode well for the future of the league (of course, if the Knights bolt to the Big East, it will be another crushing blow). UTEP is stable under Tim Floyd and its passionate fan base. UAB has been a consistent team and there is hope that this might be the season that Southern Miss finally matters.
But if C-USA eats its own and the final records of the teams are littered with four or five losses, the league will only send one representative. If that happens, it will be disastrous for the perception of a league that is desperate for something positive in an era when conferences outside the power six are holding on for dear life.
Team to beat: UCF
Why not? The Knights entered the week at 13-0, having beaten Florida in Orlando and Miami in Sunrise, Fla. Memphis also beat Miami, but that was at home. The Tigers don't have a win as good as the Florida win. And the Knights have two road wins. Memphis has none. The Tigers haven't beaten a ranked team yet, either. Look, the Knights haven't been in this position -- ever. But neither has this particular collection of Memphis Tigers. Southern Miss had the look of a possible favorite earlier in the season, but then it went out and lost to Colorado State in Cancun. Central Florida will be tested quite a bit here soon with games at Southern Miss and at Memphis. So we'll know rather quickly if this team is worthy of the favored tag.
Memphis still has the most talent of any team in the conference. But the Tigers have been hit with injuries (Wesley Witherspoon), defections (Jelan Kendrick forced out and Angel Garcia asking out) and inconsistent play from a star-studded freshman class. Memphis played a solid schedule with games against Miami (win), Kansas (loss) and Georgetown (loss), but hasn't been able to lock down defensively and has had plenty of close calls against iffy competition (Arkansas State, Austin Peay, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tennessee State). But this is a young team, and there's no reason to believe the Tigers won't get it here soon.
At Southern Miss, Larry Eustachy has his most veteran team to date. He also has Gary Flowers as a potential league MVP. The Golden Eagles challenged themselves by going on the road (including wins at South Florida and Cal) and should be taken seriously as a threat to win the regular-season title. UTEP still has the preseason player of the year in Randy Culpepper and the most experienced coach in the league in Tim Floyd. The Miners are hosting the conference tournament and have arguably the second-best home court in the conference outside of Memphis' FedExForum. To dismiss the Miners in the regular-season race would be foolish.
UAB is hardly out of the mix, either. The Blazers are once again relevant under Mike Davis. He hasn't been able to take UAB over the top since he's been there, but the Blazers are consistently contenders. Davis has two 17-point scorers in Jamarr Sanders and Cameron Moore and has been playing solid defense for the most part throughout the season.
So yes, that's right -- there are viable contenders for the regular-season title, which shows the improving depth and balance of Conference USA.
Player of the year: Marcus Jordan, UCF
Jordan has been a star for the Knights and is one of the key reasons they are undefeated. The sophomore was solid in the win over Florida with 18 points, scored 23 in the win over Miami, scored seven points in 15 minutes on a bum ankle in the win at UMass and then led the Knights to a tournament title at home over Princeton with 26 points. Jordan has proven to be the perfect leader for Donnie Jones in his first season in Orlando. He isn't a superstar, but he is a solid college basketball player who is playing in the right spot to allow his game to flourish. Jordan has proved to be an anchor for Jones, a much-needed asset in what was originally supposed to be a transition year.
Early surprise: Marshall
Jones left the Thundering Herd for what was perceived to be a hidden gem in Central Florida. There was some uncertainty about what exactly he left behind for new coach Tom Herrion. But Herrion is a pro. He was a winner at College of Charleston and has been a winner wherever he's been an assistant, most recently at Pitt. Marshall is 10-3 entering Wednesday's conference opener at UCF and is in a position to be a postseason team if it goes .500 or slightly better in the league. The Herd won a key game at St. Bonaventure over the weekend and still has the most important nonconference game to come: against West Virginia on Jan. 19.
Staying power: Rice
The Owls, who enter the opener against Tulane on Wednesday with an 8-6 record, are coming off consecutive wins over LSU and TCU at home. Neither of those opponents is going to contend in its respective conferences, but the Owls are clearly playing better basketball and could be a tough out in conference play. This is a group that lost by six to Miami and by only three at Texas. Iranian forward Arsalan Kazemi got much-needed international experience at the world championships this summer and has led the Owls with 17 points a game. Ben Braun has put his stamp on this program and turned the Owls into a relevant team in the league.
The big unknown: Tulane
Ed Conroy has the Green Wave at 10-3 heading into conference season, but Tulane didn't exactly play a tough schedule. The Wave lost the most significant games on the slate (at Georgetown, at VCU) and also lost at Nicholls State. But Conroy was a winner at The Citadel and he has clearly brought that attitude to New Orleans. Let's see if Tulane can maintain this decent play deep into the league season.
The biggest question: Tulsa
The Golden Hurricane are 7-6 entering the conference opener at UTEP. But Tulsa played a decent slate of games, getting a win over Missouri Valley co-favorite Missouri State and then beating Stanford after losing to UNLV in the 76 Classic in Anaheim. But then Tulsa hit the skids, losing four of five games to Arkansas-Little Rock, Oklahoma State, Princeton and Wichita State. This was always going to be a transition year for Doug Wojcik, but the Golden Hurricane still should be an upper-division team. Don't let the barely-above-.500 record fool you into thinking that this team should be a bottom-feeder. If Tulsa finishes in the bottom five, it would be a major disappointment.
How seriously do you take SMU, Houston and East Carolina? Not very. SMU has a 9-4 record, but that includes three wins against non-Division I teams. The Mustangs are one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. Houston was expecting a transition under James Dickey, and nothing we've seen so has proved that to be incorrect. The same is true for East Carolina and first-year coach Jeff Lebo. The Pirates have lost four of their past five games entering conference play. The best win so far was an early December victory over Charlotte.
Grading the preseason picks
Conference USA didn't do a preseason poll, so you can't judge the predictions. Culpepper was the preseason player of the year. He still could win the honor.
Rookie of the year
Will Barton probably gets the nod. He's starting to find his footing as one of the leaders for Memphis (and his brother Antonio has been a pleasant surprise). He scored 18 in the loss to Georgetown and 19 in a tight win over Tennessee State. The Tigers need someone to emerge as a leader heading into conference play, and on the perimeter Barton should be tabbed as the choice.
Best place to watch a game
FedExForum. Memphis still has the best venue in the league. UCF Arena has a shot at becoming one of the top arenas, but it's still in its early stages. Memphis fans will show up without fail. And they will be loud.
Games to watch
Jan. 15: UCF at Southern Miss
Jan. 19: Memphis at Southern Miss
Jan. 22: Memphis at UAB
Jan. 26: UCF at Memphis
Feb. 2: Southern Miss at UAB; UCF at UTEP
Feb. 5: Memphis at Gonzaga
Feb. 9: Memphis at UCF
Feb. 12: Southern Miss at Memphis
Feb. 16: UTEP at Southern Miss; UAB at Memphis
Feb. 19: UCF at UAB
Feb. 26: Memphis at UTEP; Southern Miss at UCF
March 2: UAB at Southern Miss
NCAA: UCF, Memphis
NIT: Southern Miss, UTEP
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.