Posted on: March 8, 2012 11:55 am

C-USA quarterfinals preview

Apparently, the first day of the Conference USA tournament was a bust. Media members in attendance were mocking just how thinly attended the event was in Memphis. That will change Thursday, as the Tigers, the No. 1 seed, get things.

Let's look at today's matchups -- and why not -- do a little predicting.

Southern Miss (2) vs. East Carolina (10). Jeff Lebo's team advanced over Rice with a 68-66 victory. Good for Jeff Lebo, who's trying to make inroads at a tough place to win in college basketball. Coming from Auburn, Lebo knows that path well. Let me make this clear: Southern Miss has to win this. HAS TO. The Golden Eagles have skirted a lot of bubble talk, but I'm not sure why other than the RPI being way, way too high (17). The team's best wins are home over South Florida and home over Memphis. Gotta avoid a bad loss here. I think they do: 74-66, USM.

Tulsa (3) vs. Marshall (6). Can a three seed be a dark horse? If so, Tulsa qualifies in this tournament. Marshall's better than a six, though, so this amounts to the most interesting, toughest call of the day. It'll be interesting to see if the Thundering Herd opts to stay away from the 3 ball, or they trust their size to clean up the glass. Marshall's one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and I'd imagine Tulsa will have its hands full down low. Marshall lost in the first meeting, 79-70, but I think it gets revenge today. 69-66.

Memphis (1) vs. UTEP (8). I'd love to say the Tigers will roll over the eight seed, but UTEP is responsible for Memphis' most recent loss, a 60-58 result AT Memphis on Feb. 18. Ah, heck, I'm saying it -- the Tigers will exact revenge and roll over the Miners. It'll end somewhere in the neighborhood of 79-62.

Central Florida (4) vs. UAB (5). The Blazers and Black Knights played twice this season, and UCF won it two very different ways. It was 48-41, and then it was 71-63 in the season finale. How tough is it to be a like-minded team three times in one season? Very. UAB steals it, 66-60.

-- Matt Norlander
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 5, 2012 1:52 pm

What-to-know tourney previews: C-USA

Conference USA employs a one-bye system for the leagues top four teams, meaning No. 1 Memphis, No. 2 Southern Miss, No. 3 Tulsa and No. 4 Central Florida will not play until Thursday.

Memphis is clearly the league favorite -- again. The 23-8, 13-3 Tigers have dominated this conference ever since Marquette, DePaul, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida abandoned their brethren for the Big East seven years ago. The Tigers are also the league's only team that's safely in the field even with one loss. Will Barton is not only the league's Player of the Year, he should be a Second Team All-America selection. So, yeah, Memphis is in good shape again and Josh Pastner's been getting a lot of love for the job he's done. The Tigers are feeling good and looking better.

Southern Miss? Different story. When you look at the Golden Eagles' profile, it doesn't stack up as well as it did two weeks ago. Winning at least one game is mandatory, and two would likely get USM into the NCAAs, should it lose in the C-USA final. Tulsa and Central Florida can both be spoilers here. Last season, Memphis played with urgency, knowing if it didn't win the league title, a bid was shaky. This year, that's not the case, and so will we see C-USA be a two- or even a three-bid league? If we had a scenario where Central Florida beat Southern Miss in Saturday's championship game, that would likely be the case. You've heard a lot about bid thieves coming from other brackets, but C-USA, to me, seems like the one with the greatest chance of having that happen.

The Tigers are again a No. 1 seed. If they won the league tournament, a five seed would be likely. (Getty Images)


Rice (7) vs. East Carolina (10): Arsalan Kazemi is maybe the best player in the league who doesn't wear a Memphis uniform. Rice needs him to have a huge tournament if it can reach the semis. Kazemi's only a junior, but he's also got NBA potential. Will this be his last game? East Carolina is in its second year under former Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo. The team is almost identical to the one it was last season.

Marshall (6) vs. SMU (11): Once considered a fringe bubble team (we're talking like, on Jan. 15 that this was the case) Marshall's season has been one big swing to the next. Every time the team lose one game, another follows -- it never followed up an isolated loss with a win all year long. That trend will end now, unless Marshall wins the C-USA tournament. Possible, by the way, but just a large task since the Thundering Herd doesn't force a lot of turnovers and is weak in the paint. SMU shouldn't prove to be too tough, though.

UTEP (8) vs. Houston (9): It's two 7-9 teams on Memphis' side of the bracket. One of these lambs will be done by Thursday. Tim Floyd's UTEP team enters the tournament stumbling, losers of three straight. For Houston, it's just the opposite: three straight Ws leading up to this one. The teams split the season series. Houston's defense has issues. UTEP has the advantage, but barely.

UAB (5) vs. Tulane (12):  The only reason UAB's been relevant this season is because it had a player who couldn't play thanks to a hazy grudge held by Phil Martelli. Who knows what Todd O'Brien would've brought to the Blazers, but they've managed to tread water in the league without him. Tulane's a team that's small around the rim. The Blazers aren't. UAB should cruise to this one.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 12, 2011 2:41 pm
Edited on: March 12, 2011 7:26 pm

Memphis overcomes adversity for C-USA title

Coming off a year filled with moments that many would love to forget, the Memphis Tigers are nevertheless dancing once again. After trailing UTEP on its home floor throughout the entire Conference USA championship game, freshman Joe Jackson was fouled with 7.5 seconds remaining and calmly drained two free throws to give Memphis an improbable 67-66 victory. The Tigers were down by as much as 12 in the second half and even had a deficit of 9 with under 5 minutes to go. But led by some clutch shooting by Jackson and Chris Crawford, Memphis clawed back to punch a ticket for another NCAA tournament after last year’s uncharacteristic absence.

When the final horn sounded, Tiger coach Josh Pastner ran onto the El Paso court, fists pumping with such energy that he gave off the vibe of a well-dressed Memphis frat guy who had broken C-USA security. While he quickly composed himself for the post-game handshakes the feeling of sheer excitement certainly stemmed from what has been a bizarre and stressful year inside the Memphis program. If there is a stress that could befall a major college basketball team, Memphis has had it, from the Wesley Witherspoon suspension to the release of highly touted freshman Jelan Kendrick to the underachievement of the Tigers' highly touted freshman class, problems have constantly manifested. No team in America has received more criticism, most of it deserved, than the Tigers and none have been more embattled on a daily basis than Josh Pastner’s group.

The stress reached a breaking point in El Paso, where freshman Jackson broke down with his friend, walk-on Trey Draper prior to the tournament. After having underachieved throughout the season and feeling he had let his family and city down, Jackson vowed to come strong with a complete Conference USA tournament. What followed was one of his best three-game stretches of the season, in which he was a crucial component of each victory. Against Southern Miss, he hit two late free throws to give Memphis its final lead and then followed that performance up with a career-high 24 points in a semifinal victory over East Carolina.

But both of those games will pale in Tigers’ fans memories behind the free throws Jackson drained on a Saturday morning in El Paso. Forced to play on their opponents’ home court and with a 9:30 a.m. local start, Memphis’s struggles throughout the game seemed entirely predictable. But the Tigers found a way to overcome their early poor play and a loud Miner crowd in order to stay within striking distance early. Then with five minutes to go, the young Tigers looked more poised and executed better than a Miners’ team loaded with seniors playing at home. While UTEP played with a hesitancy of a team realizing what was at stake, Memphis attacked with aggression, producing an impressive performance that speaks well of the Memphis players and Josh Pastner.

Memphis now moves onto the NCAA tournament, where it will try to overcome a season of disappointment by continuing its strong postseason run. This is still a very talented Memphis team, albeit one that has traversed an unbelievably bumpy road. Two weeks ago there were rumors that Jackson and fellow freshman Will Barton might look to transfer, and the entire Memphis program looked to be in serious flux. Now the team is heading to the NCAA tournament as a talented, and dangerous, double-digit seed. If you are the type that likes gritty underdog stories and supporting those that have overcome adversity, you may want to try this Tiger team out. It is true that there aren't many Disney movies made about heartwarming teams that win you over with players who were previously suspended for mocking assistant coaches. But if there was one that could overcome its past problems due to sheer effort and resiliency, it would be this suddenly likable group of Tigers, who are dancing once again.

Posted by MATT JONES

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Posted on: March 12, 2011 12:18 am

Conference USA Final Preview

A wide open Conference USA tournament will end with a couple of very familiar faces playing for the league’s automatic NCAA bid. Memphis (24-9, 10-6) defeated an outmanned East Carolina team 76-56 on Friday behind a career-high 24 points from Joe Jackson. The Tigers jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the opening minutes and never looked back, keeping a comfortable margin over the Pirates throughout the game. The Tigers maintained their hot shooting ways throughout the game, shooting over 50% from the field, including 58.9% in the first half.

In the other semifinal game, UTEP (25-8, 11-5) utilized its distinct home court advantage  to go on an 18-5 run in the second half and pull away from Tulsa 66-54. Randy Culpepper showcased once again that he is the most talented individual player in C-USA, scoring 26 points on 9-16 shooting. The Miners shot 66 percent in the second half to pull away from Tulsa and with the victory, set up an opportunity to play once again for the NCAA tournament on their home court.

The finals matchup will be on Saturday morning at 9:30 am local time in El Paso. Due to the national television scheduling, the early morning tipoff means that both teams will have a quick turnaround and an early wakeup call before the game. However for Memphis, the hope is that the result will not follow the pattern of the two teams’ previous encounter. Just two weeks ago, the two teams battled in El Paso and UTEP won 74-47 in a game that was never really close.

In that game, UTEP did what it hopes to accomplish again on Saturday, mainly close out on Memphis’s perimeter shooters and force them to find offense on the interior. In the first meeting, UTEP held Memphis to 1-18 shooting from three-point range and even found holes in the Tigers’ interior defense, allowing backup center John Bohannon to score 15 points off the bench. In this rematch, Memphis will have clean up that defense and find a way to score easy baskets from their explosive scorers. If the Tigers are unable to once again find a rhythm from outside, it will be a second consecutive NCAA trip for the Miners.

Posted by Matt Jones

Posted on: March 7, 2011 11:08 pm

Conference USA Tournament Preview

If there is any league in America that can be described as wide open entering into the conference tournament, it is Conference USA. In part because of the rise of programs such as UTEP, Southern Miss and Marshall and in part because of the fall of Memphis, there has never been a league campaign more wide open or a tournament more difficult to predict. At least six teams go into the tournament on Wednesday in El Paso with a legitimate chance to cut down the nets, and predicting the winner is virtually impossible.

To the extent there is a favorite, it is regular season champion UAB (22-7, 12-4). Mike Davis put together one of the best seasons in his tenure, led by seniors Jamarr Sanders and Aaron Johnson. Both players were named First Team All-Conference USA and played at a high level since the start of the season. But Johnson has been the straw that stirs the Blazers’ drink, averaging an astounding 7.9 assists a game. That total places him first in the country in assists and has solidified his standing as one of the premier passers in the game. When the Blazers play at a high level, they are the best team in the conference and they would provide the league with its most potent team for the NCAA tournament.

Memphis (22-9, 10-6) missed its first NCAA tournament since 2005 last season and without a win in the conference tournament, it will likely once again be NIT bound. It has been a painful year for coach Josh Pastner, who has had to deal with problems on and off the court with his program obviously in transition. Most of the problems this season stem from the inability of Wesley Witherspoon to give the production level expected of him prior to the season. The combination of an early suspension for mocking an assistant coach and a late injury have left Memphis without the dominant presence that was supposed to be the focus of the team. Freshman Will Barton has played well, and Memphis probably has more raw talent than any team in the league. However harnessing that talent for continued stretches has been difficult for the Tigers, who come into the C-USA tournament having lost 3 of their last 5.

In wide open tournaments, I tend to go with the teams with the best individual players and if that holds true in C-USA, then Southern Miss and UTEP should be watched. Gary Flowers finished his great career for Southern Miss (21-9, 9-7) averaging 19 points a game and once again being named first team All-Conference USA. When Flowers plays under control, he is the most dominant scorer in the league. But he struggled down the stretch, leading to three straight losses for the Golden Eagles.

As for UTEP (23-8, 11-5), the Miners host the conference tournament for the first time in recent memory and thus are my favorite to win the title. Randy Culpepper has been the best overall player in the conference now for two seasons running and this season he has helped keep his team playing well after its NCAA berth last season. With El Paso as far away from civilization as any locale in Conference USA, the crowd should be decidedly pro-Miner and help lead UTEP to its first ever conference tournament title.


Top Three Players

  1. Randy Culpepper UTEP
  2. Gary Flowers Southern Miss
  3. Aaron Johnson UAB

Kenpom.com Ranking:  8

Conference RPI:  8

Sagarin Conference Rating:  8

NCAA Tournament Locks:  None

NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams: UAB, Memphis

Last NCAA Appearance

UAB: 2006 (lost to Kentucky in first round)

UTEP: 2010 (lost to Butler in first round)

Tulsa: 2003 (lost to Wisconsin in second round)

Memphis: 2009 (lost to Missouri in Sweet 16)

Southern Miss: 1991 (lost to NC State in first round)

Marshall: 1987 (lost to TCU in first round)

SMU: 1993 (lost to BYU in first round)

East Carolina: 1993 (lost to North Carolina in first round)

Central Florida: 2005 (lost to UCONN in first round)

Rice: 1970 (lost to New Mexico State in second round)

Houston: 2010 (lost to Maryland in first round)

Tulane: 1995 (lost to Kentucky in second round)

Posted by MATT JONES


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Category: NCAAB
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