Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Has C-USA turned the corner?

League was considered 'simply a mess' last season

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You can say this about Conference USA: It's in better shape than it was a year ago, when it had no ranked teams, only one certain NCAA Tournament team (Cincinnati) and a national perception the league was “quite simply a mess,” as called it.

        That's not the case this season.

        The Bearcats, the top seed in the conference tournament which begins today at Firstar Center, are ranked No.5 in the country and headed for an 11th consecutive NCAA appearance. No.13 Marquette has revived the once-proud tradition of its program and is headed for its first NCAA bid in five years.

        Charlotte and Memphis are battling for NCAA berths. Joe Lunardi, whose “Bracketology” appears on, has the 49ers but not Memphis in the field of 65. The Sporting News and leave out Charlotte but include the Tigers.

        Louisville, South Florida and Houston are National Invitation Tournament candidates.

        Last season, C-USA sent four teams to the postseason: UC and Charlotte, which upset the Bearcats in the conference tournament final, to the NCAA; Memphis and Southern Mississippi to the NIT. This season, as many as seven teams could be competing next week.

        “I think it's been a good year for the conference in many ways in men's basketball,” C-USA commissioner Mike Slive said. “In some ways, it's sort of the beginning of the rest of the conference's life.

        “We know we've had great expectations for this conference, and we've reached some of them, but I think now we're starting to get to the point where we're building the kind of strength and depth down through the middle of the league that we want to have.”

        In its seventh season of existence, C-USA is the eighth-ranked league in the country in the Ratings Percentage Index — two spots better than a year ago. But the perception is sometimes “it's Cincinnati and everyone else.”

        The Bearcats have gone to the NCAA in each of the past six seasons. Louisville and Charlotte have gone four times each.

        “I thought this year would be the beginning of a coming-out party,” Slive said. “I didn't think it was necessarily the wedding ... and I think I'm right.”

        His optimism stems from the hirings of John Calipari at Memphis and Rick Pitino at Louisville over the past two seasons.

        Coming off two straight losing seasons, Calipari's teams have gone 21-15 and 22-8. Pitino has taken a Louisville team that was 12-19 last season and turned out a 17-11 record.

        “All it takes is good recruiting,” Pitino said. “This is the best collection of coaches I've been around. Once the recruiting catches up, which I know it will, that's when you'll have a great league. Once we get the players, this conference will take off.”

        When Pitino became coach at Kentucky in 1989, he said, he was told the weakest part of the job was the Southeastern Conference was considered more of a football league. This season, the SEC is ranked No.1 in basketball in the RPI, and it finished last season at No.1.

        Slive sees no reason why C-USA can't be one of the top leagues in the country in time.

        Here's what it must overcome:

        • The geographic makeup of the conference, which spans 12 states. An Esquire magazine article in March skewered the league, saying, “It has no geographic logic.” It is harder for C-USA to establish an identity when games are played in Wisconsin one night, Florida or Texas the next.

        • Many believe basketball was diluted with the addition of East Carolina and TCU, which were brought in as full members because of football.

        • DePaul, in one of the league's biggest markets (Chicago), has struggled the past two seasons, going a combined 21-37, 6-26 C-USA. On Tuesday, coach Pat Kennedy resigned. The program has a national reputation and is in the city in which the league is headquartered. The Blue Demons will have made one NCAA trip in C-USA's seven years.

        • Some schools have made stronger commitments to their basketball programs.

        “The fallacy is that it's a level playing field. It's not ... and it never will be,” UC coach Bob Huggins said. “There are schools in our league that are much easier to recruit to than other schools, and it goes beyond resources. There are places that have an advantage, be it having players in their own town (or) within driving distance, being in an attractive place to come to school, metropolitan areas.”

        UC, Memphis and Louisville seem to carry the banner for the league. Charlotte has been to four NCAA Tournaments in five seasons. Marquette has garnered a lot of attention this season with its emergence.

        South Florida is on the brink. After an 8-19 record in his first season, coach Seth Greenberg's teams have averaged 16.8 victories the past five seasons. Houston has shown improvement from a year ago. Saint Louis is always a tough opponent.

        “The problem with Conference USA is it's hard to build tradition over a short period of time,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “They've got some programs that have good tradition, but they've got other programs who've never really put a lot of resources into basketball.”

        Slive calls last season an “anomaly” and said, “Ultimately the goal is to put six teams in the tournament every year.”

        A men's basketball task force, which includes athletic directors and coaches, is expected to meet after the season to discuss issues related to basketball. Huggins is on that committee, Slive said. Among the issues will be scheduling.

        “We have urged our teams to play very strong non-conference schedules,” Slive said. “We've seen some progress in that area and we've seen a lack of progress in that area, and we will address that in that task force.”

        There was a report in November in the TCU student newspaper that UC, Louisville and Memphis were looking to leave C-USA and maybe form a new league. Officials from the schools and conference issued denials. “If you really looked at it, it was so off-base that it really couldn't be taken seriously,” Slive said.

        UC athletic director Bob Goin said C-USA gives his teams opportunities to compete for national championships. He added he has not had any discussions with other leagues about leaving C-USA.

        “We'd be interested in walking if we didn't have a chance to win a national championship in basketball, if that was taken away from us because of this conference,” Goin said. “That's not the case. We have that. Every one one of the sports that we participate in — if we're good enough — we can win the national championship.”



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