2007-2008 Conference USA Preview
Conference USA has never been considered a powerhouse when it comes to college basketball. There have always been one or two teams that have showed promise but that is usually the limitation. This year conference USA shows more than just promise they show plenty of teams that not only will make the NCAA tournament but can win the national title It all starts with Memphis that is as high as #2 in the preseason polls, but will other teams finally make some noise and surprise the league? Now we will break it down team by team with expectations on the upcoming season.
The Conference USA belongs to Memphis. They finished the year ranked number five and went to the Elite eight for the second year straight. They were the first team in Conference USA to go undefeated in the league (16-0) and return all five starters from that sensational team. The only thing that will slow down the Tigers is the tigers as they should easily win the Conference and get a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Central Florida was the surprise Cinderella from last years league play. They return three starters from a 22 win team and an 11 win year in the conference. They finished on a 7-2 run to end the season and look to build on the stellar season. This team will open a new 10,000 seat stadium and be prepared to fill it every night when they show they can win against good talent. Mike O’Donnell and Dave Noel return as seniors to take over the back court and be the center of the Knight’s universe. The Knights will challenge the top tier teams in the conference and they will make the post season.
Houston returns three starters from a team that went deep in the conference USA tournament before getting ousted by the champs in Memphis. Tom Penders has been the difference at the helm and has become the most winningest coach in Houston in the first three years. He will go for win 600th this year. Lanny Smith gets his medical waiver and will return to the lineup and this will provide a spark for this team. The Cougars play in the Puerto Rico shoot out and this will give the team to shine against good competition.
The Green Wave could be ready to show they are a top tier team in the conference. Now let’s face it they are no ready to play against the Memphis types but they return four starters from a team that won 17 games surrounded by adversity. Dave Dickerson has been at the helm for the last two years in Tulane and is prepared to be the winningest head coach in the first three years. The foundation has been laid for this team and while many predicted them to finish last year, they stunned the experts and will do it again this year.
Tulsa and Tulane will battle back and forth to be the most improved this year. Tulsa returns four starters from a twenty win team that won 9 games in the conference. Senior Rod Earls returns as the teams leading scorer and Tulsa as a whole returns 70% of its scoring from last year. Tulsa has protected the home court with a dominating 23-8 record and has not allowed a team to shoot over 50%from the floor in the last two seasons. These two facts combined with the returning scorers will make Tulsa a force to be reckoned with.
Southern Miss is ready to impress. They return four starters from a twenty win team and finished very well down the stretch winning five of the last seven games. The Southern Miss team is young and they return two of the top sophomores from last year. The Eagles were not used to winning and with the great recruitment and youth turned into experience I look for a break out year by Southern Miss and a post season berth.
The Rice Owls return two starters on a team that finished .500 on the season and in conference. They were left to think “what if” since they dropped six out of the last seven games and a few more wins in that stretch may have made a difference. Rice will get some solid players back to include the top scorer and the top two rebounders in the league. When it comes to the Owls you can be assured you will see some sharp shooters as they were near the top in 3 point shooting %, FG %, and free throw percentage. With those kinds of numbers you can expect the Owls to make a good run at a post season berth.
It is not good news for a team that just had 13 wins last year when they lose three solid starters. The good news is the players they do have returning are very solid and ready to contribute. Markel Humphrey returns to the herd and he finished 12th in the league in scoring and 5th in rebounding proving that he can be a double threat for the herd. Mark Dorris returns as a scoring threat for the herd as he scored double digits in the last nine games. These two won’t be enough to get the herd to the top but they will be a factor.
The Blazers return three starters fro last years team that just managed about a .500 record but changes are coming quickly. Due to rules in the NCAA the Blazers were forced to sit out three payers. Walter Sharpe, Robert Vaden and Channing Toney all will be eligible to play this season. They were standouts at bigger schools but transferred and will be the difference between a good team and a bad team for the Blazers this year. If this team can meld early in the season with the newer players they can make a difference.
The miners return three starters from a team that won just six games last year in the conference. The miners fell apart down the stretch winning just twice in eleven games. The miners do have a bright spot as they open a brand new $13 million dollar complex and will be ready to impress the fans. UTEP has six freshmen on the roster for this year so you can expect some growing pains. The miners may surprise a few teams this year with the youth and energy but it won’t be enough to compete in conference USA.
The Mustangs only return two starters so don’t expect too much help for a team that just managed three wins in the conference USA. The mustangs may have some motivation as they unveil a new stadium and a new court. They also have recruited very well as the have a class of newcomers that was ranked as high as 24th by some of the experts. Look for SMU to be a live underdog especially at home where they will be motivated to impress in the new digs. Overall not a spectacular season but stay tuned.
East Carolina returns four starters from last years club but that may not be saying much. The Pirates had just one win in the last 15 games and just 6 wins overall and 2 in conference. The good news is they can only go up and have a better season. The Pirates to have flashes of brilliance with John Fields leading the conference in FG% and the two top rookie rebounders in the conference in Fields and Gabe Blair. This is a nice compliment but the Pirates will still be the doormat of this conference.
Conference USA Champ: Memphis
Dark Horse: Southern Miss
Cellar Dweller: East Carolina