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October 24, 2011

League preview: Conference USA

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

9. Conference USA

Memphis used to own Conference USA, but the rest of the league has struck back in the past two seasons.

The Tigers won four league titles in a row and built a 64-game conference winning streak, but both streaks ended in 2009-10. The Tigers went to the NIT that season. They finished fourth in the league last season, two games behind regular-season champ UAB, but Memphis won the conference tourney in a mild surprise and fell by two in the first round of the NCAA tourney to an Arizona team that lost in a regional final.

The rest of the league had better be happy with that two-season blip because Memphis is a prohibitive league favorite again this season.

The Tigers return nine of their top 10 players, including their top six scorers. In addition, they add the league's top freshman in hometown high school star Adonis Thomas.

The Tigers are especially deep in the backcourt, a group headed by sophomore Will Barton, who will be a top contender for league player of the year honors. He was the leading scorer last season (12.3 ppg), but he does need to work on his shot selection. Thomas and sophomore big man Tarik Black, also a Memphis native, should be a productive duo up front.

While Memphis seemingly is a lock to win the regular-season title, there is some intrigue throughout the rest of the league.

Marshall, Tulsa and UCF should be the teams vying for second place, while a legit goal for the other eight teams would be an upper-division finish.

Marshall surprised many by going 22-12 last season, and the Thundering Herd's guard duo of Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane lend hope for a second-place finish. While the backcourt has proven talent, the Herd needs some new guys to come through up front.

Tulsa lost leading scorer Justin Hurtt, but the Golden Hurricane should have a solid frontcourt headed by senior Steven Idlet. The health of PG Donte Medder, who missed all but one game last season with a torn ACL, bears watching. If he's healthy, he, Scottie Haralson (who began his career at Connecticut) and Jordan Clarkson should be an effective backcourt.

UCF started 14-0 last season, which got the Knights into the top 20. But they collapsed from there, finishing 21-12 overall and 6-10 in league play. F Keith Clanton and G Marcus Jordan, Michael's son, form a nice 1-2 punch, but the Knights need a third option to emerge,

UAB has one of the league's top players in senior F Cameron Moore, but the Blazers' backcourt is a huge question.

Rice is led by junior F Arsalan Kazemi, who averaged a double-double last season (15.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg). Tamir Jackson and Connor Frizelle head what should be an OK backcourt.

Southern Miss won 22 games last season, but didn't play in the postseason. The Golden Eagles lost almost every key player off last season's squad, and coach Larry Eustachy has a tough task ahead of him.

East Carolina exceeded expectations in coach Jeff Lebo's first season, and Lebo can count on F Darius Morrow every game. The rest of the roster, though, lacks talent.

Tulane has one of the league's best players in swingman Kendal Timmons, but the Green Wave - as with ECU - lack talent.

SMU and Houston look as if they will reside near the bottom of the league. There's not a lot of proven offensive talent on either campus.

F Arsalan Kazemi, Rice (6-7/220, Jr.)
F Cameron Moore, UAB (6-10/230, Sr.)
G/F Kendall Timmons, Tulane (6-5/200, Jr.)
G Will Barton, Memphis (6-6/175, Soph.)
G DeAndre Kane, Marshall (6-4/200, Soph.)
F Tarik Black, Memphis (6-8/243, Soph.)
F Keith Clanton, UCF (6-9/245, Jr.)
G Joe Jackson, Memphis (6-1/165, Soph.)
G Marcus Jordan, UCF (6-3/205, Jr.)
G Damier Pitts, Marshall (5-10/165, Sr.)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Memphis G Will Barton
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Memphis F/G Adonis Thomas (6-6/222, Fr.)

1. Memphis
2. Marshall
3. Tulsa
4. UCF
5. UAB
6. Rice
8. Southern Miss
9. East Carolina
10. Tulane
11. SMU
12. Houston

New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: UAB
Tourney winner last season: Memphis
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 8th in 2010-11, 11th in 2009-10, 10th in 2008-09
NCAA bids the past five seasons: 7
2012 conference tournament: March 7-10, Memphis

Best frontcourt: Memphis. Sophomore Tarik Black is the headliner. He's an effective scorer, rebounder and defender in the low post. Big things are expected from freshman Adonis Thomas, and Wesley Witherspoon, Stan Simpson and Ferrakohn Hall add depth.
Best backcourt: Memphis. Marshall has a big-time guard duo in Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane, but the Tigers have a star of their own in Will Barton along with four others who are going to play important roles. Joe Jackson came on strong at the end of the season, while Antonio Barton (Will's older brother), Charles Carmouche and Chris Crawford are productive complementary talents.
Program on the rise: Marshall. Second-year coach Tom Herrion led the Herd to a 22-win season last year and looks to have a team good enough to legitimately challenge for the program's first NCAA bid since 1987. He has a nice mix of returning veterans and talented newcomers.
Program on the decline: UTEP. The Miners have had three consecutive 20-win seasons, but they lost their top five scorers, four starters and eight lettermen. In short, coach Tim Floyd needs three or four newcomers to make immediate impacts or risk a sub-.500 season.
Coach on the rise: Memphis' Josh Pastner. Pastner, 32, is the third-youngest coach in Division I, but he seemingly has been "groomed" for this type of job since he was in junior high. Pastner is known as an excellent recruiter, but he is becoming more comfortable with the Xs-and-Os aspect of coaching, too.
Coach on the hot seat: SMU's Matt Doherty. He's heading into his sixth season with the Mustangs, and while they won 20 and advanced to the CIT semifinals last season, that was his first winning record at SMU. And given SMU's personnel losses, it's doubtful the Mustangs will have a winning record, much less win 20 again.
Most overrated player: Memphis F/G Wesley Witherspoon. Witherspoon is a senior who never has lived up to the prep hype - or his potential. He has all the needed physical tools, but never seems to be consistent enough to put it all together for more than a game at a time.
Most underrated player: East Carolina F Darius Morrow. Morrow, a senior, has improved his scoring average in each season and he's also a solid rebounder. As with the team as a while, Morrow isn't flashy. But he is tough and gets things done in a variety of ways. He is the only one of the Pirates' top four scorers who returns this season, so he'll need to do even more this season.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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