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2009-2010 conference USA Basketball Preview

Conference USA includes a total of one dozen teams, including Tulsa, Memphis, UTEP and Houston. Usually, you’re going to see two clubs from the league in the NCAA Tournament and two in the NIT. This year you can expect to see Memphis and Tulsa battle UTEP and Houston for the conference crown and a sure trip to the Big Dance.

After finishing second in Conference USA, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (25- 11 overall, 12- 4 C-USA) played in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) and lost in round two to Auburn 74- 55. This year, the Golden Hurricane see two prominent players return for their senior seasons and that fact certainly has head coach Doug Wajcik smiling.

Seven-foot center Jerome Jordan (13.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG) and six-foot-three guard Ben Uzoh (14.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.6 APG) may be a study in contrasts when they stand side-by-side but they have one thing in common. Both can score points. Together they were responsible for 42% of the clubs total point production. They were good for over 1,000 points last season.

They are supported by various other solid vets, including junior guard Justin Hurt (9.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG): a pure athlete who proved last season that he can hit from the perimeter. Sophomore forward Steven Idlet (3.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG) played well in limited action last season. He’ll start this year. Tulsa will continue to play tough defense as they did last season. The big difference is that they have a core of experienced players and a fine bench that can help put them over the top. They’ll take the conference crown and earn an invite to March Madness.

Last years C-USA champs, the Memphis Tigers (33- 4 overall, 16- 0 C-USA), were perfect in league play and made it to the regional semifinals where they lost to Missouri 102- 91. This year coach Josh Pastner, who took over when Calipari went to Kentucky, has to deal with four major losses, including guard Tyreke Evans who averaged 17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 2.1 SPG.

Four guards return, one swing and one forward. There are three senior, one junior and two sophomores in that bunch. The one starter from last season is guard Doneal Mack (8.7 PPG). Mack is a good defender but a streaky shooter. That being said, overall the guys coming back are skilled and talented and the incoming class looks especially promising.

The team will benefit from the arrival of former McDonald’s All-American Elliot Williams. Williams, a sophomore point guard and starter late in the season at Duke, transferred to be closer to his ailing mother. Sophomore swing Wesley Witherspoon (4.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG) will get the chance to do more this season. This is still a good team. A second-place finish and a trip to the NIT looks to be in this team’s future.

The Miners of UTEP (23- 14 overall, 10- 6 C-USA) ended the season fifth in the league and got an invite to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). They made it to the championship series, which they lost to Oregon State in a best-of-three series.

This is head coach Tony Barbee’s fourth season with the Miners. With the departure of the league’s leading scorer, Stefon Jackson (24.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 SPG), he’ll have to realign the team. He’ll do so by utilizing three transfers, including rugged front man Derrick Caracter from Louisville, guard Christian Polk from Arizona State, who has a fine outside shot, and Jeremy Williams, a solid scoring swingman from Southwest Tennessee Community College.

With the mix of returning players, it looks like this will be a club capable of scoring points, but unable to stop opponents from doing the same. The NIT looks to be in this team’s near future.

Of the top tier, the Houston Cougars (21- 12 overall, 10- 6) have the largest incoming class of freshmen and transfers. Coach Tom Penders, who believes that this is the year that the Cougars can break through, is hoping to get this club to the Big Dance for the first time since 1992.

Two returning senior guards, Aubrey Coleman (19.4 PPG, 8.2 APG) and Kelvin Lewis (18.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG) are both able point scorers. Coleman is a tough rebound man and has a fine mid-range jump shot and Lewis can hit from outside and is a tenacious defender. Junior college transfer Maurice McNeil is six-foot-nine and 215 pounds. He’ll be utilized as the wide body in the paint. With the return of two point men and solid bench guys, this may be the best all-around group in C-USA.

The next third, those teams in the middle, are SMU, Marshall, Tulane and Southern Miss. The SMU Mustangs (9- 21 overall, 3- 13 C-USA) will see six of its seven top players come back and that means instead of finishing last as they did in 2009, they look to end up in fourth-place. The Marshall Thundering Herd (15- 17 overall, 7- 9 C-USA) had a tough time winning on the road last season due to the fact that they lost the ball to turnovers so many times. A year of maturity should help this team break that bad habit. The Tulane Green Wave (14- 17 overall, 7- 9 C-USA) have improved their perimeter play and offer a solid core of players, while the Southern Miss Golden Eagles will have a tough time putting points on the board especially from downtown.

The final tier is comprised of the UAB Blazers (22- 12 overall, 11- 5 C-USA), a team which finished third last season and then lost a host of players and thus plummets this season, and the East Carolina Pirates (13- 17 overall, 5- 11 C-USA), a team which has shown improvement these past two seasons but still lacks that necessary inside presence. The final two are the UFC Knights (17- 14 overall, 7- 9 C-USA), which this season puts a lot of young, inexperienced guys on the court, and the Rice Owls (10- 22 overall, 4- 12 C-USA), who are in the middle of a rebuilding process.

Conference USA teams offer fans highly competitive basketball that includes tough inside play and fine perimeter shooting along with solid defense. That is the best teams possess all of those attributes. The major contenders this season are Tulsa, Memphis, UTEP and Houston.

2009-2010 Conference USA Basketball Predictions

1. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2. Memphis Tigers
3. UTEP Miners
4. Houston Cougars
5. SMU Mustangs
6. Marshall Thundering Herd
7. Tulane Green Wave
8. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
9. UAB Blazers
10. East Carolina Pirates
11. UCF Knights
12. Rice Owls

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