C-USA ShootAround: Can anyone challenge Memphis?

Updated: August 18, 2008

AP Photo/Ed Reinke

UAB's Robert Vaden leads the Blazers' guard-dominated lineup this season.

Can UAB create guard-centric "havoc"?

Mike Davis has been looking back in time, trying to learn from the past.

After an offseason filled with big man after big man leaving UAB for other locales, the Blazers coach began a marathon film session.

Davis' goal was simple: Figure out how to win with a roster of very good perimeter players, but almost no inside players. That's what has to happen when four big men -- Walter Sharpe, Reggie Huffman, Zisis Sarikopoulos and Jeremy Mayfield -- leave the program before their eligibility expired.

"If I knew, I would have recruited a little differently," Davis said.

That's much of the reason why Davis is spending his summer back in 2006. More specifically, he's been spending a lot of time watching an undersized Villanova team come within a game of the Final Four. Under coach Jay Wright, that Wildcats team -- one that featured guards Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray and Mike Nardi -- started four guys between 6-foot-1 and 6-4 and was a very difficult matchup for opponents.

"I've watched a lot of Villanova," Davis said. "I've watched Duke, I talked to [Michigan State coach Tom] Izzo, who went small when he went to the Final Four [in 2005]."

We have to come up with something for our personnel that can cause havoc for other teams.

--UAB coach Mike Davis

While UAB might not have quite the same amount of perimeter talent -- Foye and Lowry are in the NBA and Ray spent some time there -- the Blazers are well-equipped to go small, especially since Robert Vaden pulled his name out of the NBA draft.

Vaden, who followed Davis to UAB from Indiana, is a tremendous outside shooter. He averaged 21.1 points per game last season while shooting 40 percent from behind the 3-point line.

Paul Delaney III returns for a fifth season after blowing out his knee early last season. Delaney's desire and ability to get to the basket is a tremendous complement to Vaden's outside stroke. As a junior in 2006-07, Delaney averaged 15.5 points per game.

Throw in highly touted wing Terrence Roderick and water-bug point guard Aaron Johnson, and the Blazers certainly have a decent perimeter quartet. Whether that be enough to make UAB a true contender in Conference USA and an NCAA tournament team remains to be seen.

That conversation, however, wouldn't even be happening if Vaden had stayed in the draft or Delaney's knee wasn't getting better.

Davis wasn't sure if Vaden would return to school until very close to the NBA draft deadline to withdraw in mid-June.

"It's a big-time plus for us," Davis said. "It was a great experience for him. I thought he played well in Orlando. He showed he can do more than shoot the basketball."

Delaney said he and Vaden sent text messages on a near daily basis. When he heard Vaden was going to come back to school, he knew what it would do both for the Blazers and for his own game.

"It makes our team a lot better," Delaney said. "It's going to make it harder for teams to guard us both. They have to pick their poison because we both do some things well."

But there is that lingering question of just how the Blazers are going to rebound the basketball. Lawrence Kinnard, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season, will be UAB's primary big man. Howard Crawford, who played about 10 minutes per game last season, is the only other player on the roster taller than 6-7.

While Davis hasn't completely decided how the Blazers will play defensively -- he says they have to full-court press at least some of the time -- he knows that playing passive isn't going to get things done.

"The one thing that has stood out with the teams I've watched is their toughness," Davis said. "You can't have guys out there waiting for the rebound to come to them. I thought Jay Wright did a heck of a job getting his guys to really compete. They did a lot of good things. They all played bigger than they were, they pressed a little, they changed up defenses.

"We have to come up with something for our personnel that can cause havoc for other teams."

Five things to watch in '08-09

Will Memphis continue to dominate?
When Conference USA went from being the league that featured Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati and Memphis to being what it is today, C-USA has been the Tigers and everybody else. In the three seasons since the change, Memphis has gone 45-1 in league play and has won 33 consecutive regular-season C-USA games. Add in the C-USA tournament and Memphis has gone 54-1 against the rest of the league and its winning streak is at 42. The last time John Calipari's team lost to a C-USA opponent was March 2, 2006 at UAB. Will it continue? With Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey all gone, the Tigers aren't going to be quite as dominant as they were last season. Does that mean that UAB, Tulsa, Southern Miss, UTEP, Houston and the rest of the conference has a chance? The Tigers still have the most talent in the conference, but the gap isn't what it once was.

A multibid league?
In three years of the current conference alignment, Conference USA has earned exactly four NCAA tournament berths. Other than UAB's at-large berth in 2006, C-USA has been limited to only Memphis' three automatic berths. Last season, only four teams ended the regular season in the top 100 in the RPI. East Carolina, SMU and Rice all had sub-250 RPIs. Last season, only Memphis had a victory over a top 50 RPI team and the other 11 were a combined 0-18 vs. the RPI top 50 and a combined 7-32 against the top 100. If Conference USA is going to be more than simply the Tigers and everybody else, the other 11 schools are going to have to win some games of note. Tulsa, for example, has games this season against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and possibly Illinois. UTEP could potentially play two teams from the top six conferences at the Anaheim Classic. If C-USA teams can beat some quality opponents that will help the league's chances come March.

Can Tulsa build on the CBI?
There was some scoffing in the college basketball world when the College Basketball Invitational was announced. After all, if the NCAA tournament has the best 65 teams in the country and the NIT grabs the next 32, did there really need to be a tournament to determine just who was No. 98? Well, the CBI turned out to be a good thing for Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane won the best-of-three final against Bradley. Combine the CBI with a surprise run to the championship game of the C- USA tournament and a strong finish to the regular season, and Doug Wojcik's team went 15-4 after Feb. 6. How that will impact the 2008-09 season is unclear, but the Golden Hurricane players certainly learned more about what it takes to win.

A continuing trend
Coincidence or not, Conference USA seems to be a place where coaches get another chance. There's former Texas coach Tom Penders at Houston, former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy at Southern Miss., former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty at SMU and former Indiana coach Mike Davis at UAB. Now there's one more coach to add to that list. Less than two weeks after being fired at California, Ben Braun was hired at Rice. Braun, who previously led Cal and Eastern Michigan to the NCAA tournament, is one of only 17 active coaches with more than 500 victories. The Golden Bears were only 6-12 in Pac-10 play each of the past two seasons.

Thirty for the record
Entering their senior seasons, the Memphis duo of Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson has known little other than winning. In three seasons, the Tigers have won 104 games. If Memphis can win another 30 games this season -- certainly a good possibility -- the Tigers will have won more games in a four-year span than any team in NCAA history. Duke currently holds the record with 133 victories from 1998-2001. Memphis' 104 victories put the Tigers in a tie with Kentucky (1996-98) for the most wins in a three-year period. If Memphis is going to be a contender again for a deep tournament run, Dozier and Anderson are going to have to assert themselves offensively. Both have shown signs of being scorers and both were key parts in last season's success, but neither player averaged double figures in scoring.

If I were Conference USA commish …

Conference USA needs to make some more changes. It can't dump teams (even though it would help), but it really makes sense to get current Mountain West member TCU in the fold. Having TCU in for football and marrying TCU with SMU would certainly help create legitimate rivalries in Texas.

Temple is flirting with the MAC. The Owls currently play football in the MAC, but they would be a great fit for hoops in Conference USA if C-USA were to expand. Temple has basketball tradition and is a better fit with C-USA than the MAC. Having Temple in with Memphis, UAB, Houston and UTEP would be decent theater.

Also, C-USA had only one NCAA tournament team last season. This league needs to work on its identity beyond Memphis.


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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com

Conference USA
ECUEast Carolina
Even when last season ended, it was unclear whether interim coach Mack McCarthy would return. Eventually, East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland gave McCarthy, who led Chattanooga to the Sweet 16 in the late '90s, the job on a less tenuous basis. The Pirates will again be very young as only two players have been in the program longer than two years. Sam Hinnant (11.0 ppg) is the conference's top returning 3-point shooter (40.4 percent).

HoustonHouston
During the past three seasons, the high-scoring Cougars were among the top teams in the conference other than Memphis. This season, however, will be one of change for Tom Penders' team. Houston lost four starters from a year ago, and guard Kelvin Lewis (10.2 ppg) is the only returnee who scored in double figures. Junior college transfer Aubrey Coleman should make an immediate impact on the perimeter. Penders also added a pair of juco forwards in Qa'rraan Calhoun (who started at St. John's) and Sean Coleman.

MarshallMarshall
The Thundering Herd have the potential to be one of the more interesting teams in C-USA. Four of the top five scorers from a year ago -- a season in which Marshall played better basketball down the stretch -- return. More interesting is that second-year coach Donnie Jones also has a trio of transfer players who will be eligible this season. That group includes former Purdue guard Chris Lutz, former Florida guard Brandon Powell and former Georgetown wing Octavius Spann.

MemphisMemphis
John Calipari put together an impressive recruiting class this spring. In this case, however, we're not talking about landing players. When assistant coach Chuck Martin left for the head coach job at Marist and Derek Kellogg became the next coach at UMass, Calipari had significant holes to fill. He went out and landed two top recruiting assistants in Josh Pastner (from Arizona) and Orlando Antigua (from Pittsburgh). Those hires should help keep the Tigers continue to recruit at a high level.

RiceRice
The best news for Rice is that the Owls will no longer be nomads thanks to renovations to the Autry Court. After playing home games at three different Houston-area venues, Rice moves back to campus and will play at the new building. New coach Ben Braun has a roster filled with returning players, but those players went 3-27 last season and didn't win a C-USA game. Rice will enter November's season opener against Portland St. with a 20-game losing streak. The Owls have not yet won a game in 2008.

SMUSMU
Matt Doherty, now in his third season leading the Mustangs, has a team that is very short on experience. SMU has only one senior and two juniors on its roster to go along with five sophomores and five freshmen. What SMU does have is a pretty good interior duo in 7-1 Bamba Fall and 6-9 Papa Dia. The two, who are both from Senegal, combined to average 23.3 points and 11.7 rebounds in C-USA play last season. A third Senegal native on the SMU roster is Georgia Tech transfer Mouhammad Faye. Faye, who averaged 3.9 points per game as a freshmen for the Yellow Jackets, will be eligible at the end of the first semester.

Southern MissSouthern Miss
Larry Eustachy's team has as much experience returning as any team in C-USA, and Southern Miss certainly has the potential to finish among the league leaders. The Golden Eagles have their top seven scorers returning from a year ago. Jeremy Wise -- who has been an all-C-USA selection during each of his first two seasons -- is the primary offensive threat for Southern Miss. That said, R.L. Horton and Courtney Beasley each averaged in double figures for a team that seemed to get better as the season went along.

TulaneTulane
A bit of good news for Tulane: In Kevin Sims, the Green Wave has an effective point guard who can also score. But beyond Sims there are serious questions as last season's primary scoring option -- David Gomez -- is gone. Robinson Louisme made 60.2 percent of his shots a year ago to lead C-USA in field-goal percentage. He is going to have to be more assertive offensively as Tulane's other returners were role players a year ago, a season in which the Green Wave suffered an eight-game losing streak in league play.

TulsaTulsa
With guard Ben Uzoh (15.6 ppg) and center Jerome Jordan (10.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg), the Golden Hurricane have one of the better inside-out duos in Conference USA. Jordan, a 7-footer from Jamaica, set a single-season C- USA mark with 143 blocked shots. Entering his fourth season at Tulsa, Doug Wojcik is moving the Golden Hurricane program back in the direction it was in the 1990s. Tulsa returns two-thirds of both its scoring and rebounding from a team that went 16-5 after Feb. 1 and won the first College Basketball Invitational.

UABUAB While much is known about Robert Vaden and Paul Delaney, the player on the UAB roster that has the potential to surprise some people is guard Terrence Roderick. Roderick fell off the radar a little bit when the NCAA declared him ineligible last season. The Philadelphia native, who was highly thought of coming out of high school, practiced with the Blazers while waiting for the NCAA's ruling. After that came in December, Roderick was no longer able to practice. The 6-6 Roderick, however, stayed in school and gained his eligibility.

UCFCentral Florida Will Jermaine Taylor get any help? That's the biggest thing that Knights coach Kirk Speraw has to ensure between now and November. Taylor, a 6-4 shooting guard, is a good offensive player. A year ago, he finished fourth in C-USA and 23rd nationally in scoring at 20.8 points per game. Even with two other double-figure scorers on the UCF roster (both of whom are now departed), Taylor still led the Knights in scoring in 24 of 31 games. While returning forward Tony Davis and big man Kenrick Zondervan both played about 22 minutes a game last season, neither proved to be a major scoring threat.

UTEPUTEP If the Miners are going to make another step and move into the C-USA's top tier, UTEP is going to have to be more than a team that just wins at home. Dating back to the 2006-07 season, the Miners have won just four of their past 19 true road games. One thing that could help is the prospect of improved rebounding. Only Houston gave up more rebounds than UTEP a year ago, but 7-foot Memphis transfer Kareem Cooper is eligible this season. The good news for the Miners is that Stefon Jackson -- who averaged 25 points a night in conference games -- returns.

2007-08 C-USA Standings

Overall record C-USA record
Memphis* 38-2 16-0
UAB^ 23-11 12-4
Houston# 24-10 11-5
Southern Miss 19-14 9-7
UCF 16-15 9-7
Tulsa# 25-14 8-8
UTEP# 19-14 8-8
Marshall 16-14 8-8
Tulane 17-15 6-10
East Carolina 11-19 5-11
Southern Methodist 10-20 4-12
Rice 3-27 0-16
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth
#CBI berth

For all the Conference USA news and notes, check out the conference page.

Top returning scorers

Player PPG
Stefon Jackson, UTEP, Senior 23.6
Robert Vaden, UAB, Senior 21.1
Jermaine Taylor, UCF, Senior 20.8
Jeremy Wise, Southern Miss, Junior 18.7
Ben Uzoh, Tulsa, Junior 15.6

Top returning rebounders

Player RPG
Jerome Jordan, Tulsa, Junior 7.9
Gabe Blair, East Carolina, Junior 6.9
Lawrence Kinnard, UAB, Senior 6.8
Robert Dozier, Memphis, Senior 6.8
Papa Dia, Southern Methodist, Sophomore 6.5

Final Shots

• Memphis dominated Conference USA last season, but are the Tigers the best program in the conference since the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• Yes, Memphis lost a lot off the team that made the national championship game. But the Tigers are still Top-25 worthy. Andy Katz's Top 25

• Conference USA was a one-bid league last season. Can any other team in the conference go dancing in March? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootAround archive.