Thursday, January 03, 2002

Conference USA season preview


Plenty of talent as league gets deeper

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Talk about parity if you wish. Follow the new marquee coach (Rick Pitino at Louisville) and the preseason pick to win the Conference USA regular-season championship (Memphis). Check out one of the nation's early surprises (No.25 -ranked Marquette).

        Nice, all of it. But the University of Cincinnati is braced for battle as league play gets under way this weekend. The Bearcats are 12-1, ranked No.13 in the country and set to defend the C-USA title they have won six straight times since the league started.

        “It's a different deal,” UC senior Immanuel McElroy said. “It's conference season, and we mean business.”

        Three C-USA teams have been ranked at some point this season (Cincinnati, Marquette, Memphis). Another four have received votes for the Associated Press Top 25 (Louisville, Saint Louis, South Florida, UAB).

        Yet the league is No.9 in the Ratings Percentage Index and has just two teams in the current top 25: UC and Marquette.

        The two preseason favorites — UC and Memphis — give little indication they aren't headed for a major showdown March 3 when they meet in the regular-season finale at Shoemaker Center.

        But Marquette, Louisville and Charlotte are not going to make it easy for the Bearcats in the American Division, and South Florida will give chase in the National.

        There are indications the lower-tier teams are improving. The four worst teams in the league last year (Houston, Tulane, DePaul and Louisville) combined for 42 victories in 2000-01; they already have a collective 30 this season.

        A team-by-team look, based on preseason coaches poll (all records before Wednesday night's games)

       

American Division
               Cincinnati (12-1)

        Easily the league's hottest team, the Bearcats' 12-game winning streak is tied for third-longest in C-USA history. UC is second in the country in scoring margin (plus-23.7) and is the only conference team not to be involved in a game decided by six or fewer points. Senior guard Steve Logan, the preseason player of the year, leads C-USA — and is tied for 12th in the nation — in scoring (22.5).

        Charlotte (6-5)

        Don't be fooled by the record. The 49ers have four players averaging in doubles figures and can pose a challenge every night. Four of their losses have been to Indiana, Temple, No.3 Florida and No.21 Miami. Jobey Thomas, C-USA's all-time leader in 3-point field goals and No.8 career scorer, is averaging 17.8 ppg.

        Marquette (11-2)

        The Golden Eagles started 10-0 before road losses at Wisconsin and No.23 Wake Forest. They have wins over Tennessee, Indiana, No.22 Gonzaga and Dayton. Dwyane Wade (19.2 ppg) has emerged as one of the stars of the C-USA. Marquette has the second-best defense in the league behind UC. Are the Eagles for real? We'll find out fast. They open league play at Charlotte and at Louisville.

        Louisville (9-2)

        The Cardinals' only losses were at Oregon and at No.6 Kentucky. They have beaten Ohio State and Tennessee at home. As expected, guard Reece Gaines (19.1 ppg) is the leader, but coach Rick Pitino also is getting a boost from Ellis Myles, who is tied for 12th in the nation in rebounding (10.8). Louisville won only 12 games all last season and is playing much more inspired ball.

        Saint Louis (6-7)

        The Billikens lost Wednesday night to Southwest Missouri State. They are the second-best 3-point shooting team in C-USA. They also have lost to Iowa State, No.17 Missouri, California and Dayton and pulled off a 71-70 victory over Washington. Saint Louis isn't likely to challenge for the division title, but it's capable of pulling some upsets.

        DePaul (7-4)

        Go figure. The Blue Demons lose to Murray State, then win four straight, including a 63-62 upset of Missouri Dec.29 and a win at Temple Dec.22. Imari Sawyer leads the league and is second nationally with 7.3 assists per game. DePaul was the biggest disappointment in the league last season. It needs only five victories to match last year's total.
       East Carolina (6-6)

        The Pirates, the division newcomers, haven't exactly played a killer schedule. They have four straight victories over USC-Spartanburg, Middle Tennessee State, Radford and Lees-McRae. The Pirates average almost nine 3s a game. They open league play against with the six-time regular-season champion Bearcats on Saturday.

National Division
               Memphis (10-4)

        The Tigers, ranked as high as No.12 but now out of the Top 25, have won seven of nine. Their only losses were Wednesday to Arkansas, at Mississippi and to No.9 Iowa and No.18 Alabama. Memphis' best victory was at Temple. Memphis was outrebounding teams by more than 10 a game before Wednesday's game. Freshman Dajuan Wagner is second in the league in scoring (22.2). Senior Kelly Wise has six double-doubles and is averaging 12.5 points and 11.3 rebounds.

        South Florida (9-3)

        The Bulls matched their best start under coach Seth Greenberg at 9-2 before Wednesday night's loss to Florida State. Their only other losses were to No.3 Florida and No.16 Syracuse, but they own no huge wins either. B.B. Waldon and Altron Jackson, the Nos.4 and 5 scorers in league history, are getting help. Will McDonald has averaged 17 points, 6.2 rebounds and shot 61.7 percent over the last five games and Gerrick Morris is averaging 3.0 blocks a game.

        UAB (7-6)

        The Blazers are the best 3-point shooting team in the league (39.5 percent). They have been good at home (6-1) but not on the road (1-5). UAB is like Saint Louis — not likely to win the division but capable of causing problems for those trying to win it. P.J. Arnold leads the way offensively (14.8 ppg), and Will Campbell is 11th in the league in rebounding (7.6).

        Southern Mississippi (5-5)

        The Golden Eagles are the lowest-scoring team in the league (63.7 ppg) and clearly in transition. Southern Miss has not had the toughest schedule and has lost to teams such as Pacific and Arkansas State. Keep an eye on Clement Carter, who is averaging 16.8 points the last four games.

        TCU (10-4)

        Billy Tubbs' squad is living up to its billing as a high-octane group, leading C-USA at 89.9 ppg. It hasn't beaten anyone of note and has losses to Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas. Three players have scored at least 30 points in a game. Junior Blount (34) and Jamal Brown (33) have two of the top four scoring performances in the league.

        Houston (6-5)

        The Cougars are getting better. They lost by seven to Bob Knight's Texas Tech squad, by four at LSU and by one to North Carolina State. They have shot better than 60 percent four times and are the best shooting team in the league (50 percent).

        Tulane (8-3)

        Also improving. Its only losses have been to No.6 Kentucky, No.3 Florida and Mississippi State. Entering Wednesday, Brandon Brown was averaging 16.6 ppg and 7.2 rpg and led the league, hitting 65 percent of his field goals. The Green Wave need just one victory to match their season total from last season.

       



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