2001-02 Conference USA Preview
by Brian Seymour
Dajuan Wagner. Dajuan Wagner. Dajuan Wagner. Dajuan Wagner. Dajuan Wagner. Dajuan Wagner. And possibly even Dajuan Wagner.
There. Just thought we’d get that out of the way early in the season. Might as well get used to it, though. That name is going to be drilled in the heads of hoops fans everywhere for the next five months.
The circus Formerly Known as The Lamar Odom Show has come to the South and it promises to be an interesting season in Conference USA. What else could overshadow Rick Pitino’s return to the college coaching ranks at Louisville?
Dajuan Wagner has been hyped as — depending how close to Memphis you live — the best freshman basketball player in the nation, the second coming of Elvis and Pete Maravich rolled into one, or a walking, talking time bomb that is going to eventually blow up in Memphis coach John Calipari’s face.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but you can bet the fine NCAA compliance folks in Kansas City are going to be making the short drive to Memphis several times this year to sniff around the Tigers’ program because…well, Calipari didn’t exactly win friends with the NCAA while he was at U-Mass.
Start with hiring of Wagner’s father, former Louisville star Milt Wagner, as one of Memphis’ assistant coaches. There’s no hint of impropriety there. Why not just make him chancellor of the university?
Also, reports have been widespread that Wagner is planning on playing at Memphis only one year before jumping to the NBA. Anyone have an over-under on the number of days after Memphis’ elimination from the NCAA Tournament before Dajuan is seen driving a 2002 Cadillac Escalade down Beale Street? Two? How about the numbers of classes he attends in March and April?
In any event, the move is brilliant for Calipari, looking to return Memphis (and himself) to the national spotlight. If he can keep things together for the season, lead the Tigers to a deep run toward the national title and keep the circus from spinning out of control, the program should be able to continue to load up on recruits after Wagner has moved on to the NBA.
If not…well, when was the last time you heard of the Rhode Island basketball program?
1. Cincinnati: Year in and year out, the Bearcats are the class of Conference USA, but something always seems to stand in their way of making the jump to one of the nation’s elite teams — in a class with Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, etc. Don’t laugh, because if Kenyon Martin doesn’t break his leg in the C-USA tournament two years ago, we might be talking about Cincinnati trying to recapture the national title.
As it is, the Bearcats are going to be very, very good, but aren’t on a plain where they can compete with the Duke’s, Maryland’s and Kentucky’s. What they can do and probably will do is scare the living crap out of them in the middle rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Steve Logan may be the best basketball player in the nation who isn’t a household name — yet. The senior guard scored 17.6 per game last year and will be joined by the other four of Cincinnati’s top five scorers. The Bearcats have rebuilt quickly and they’ll be dangerous, especially late in the season.
2. Charlotte: Ah, what if? If Rodney White had stayed at Charlotte, instead of opting to leave school and become a lottery pick in the NBA, the 49ers would be a Top 15 team. Instead, they’re a very, very good team.
Senior Jobey Thomas is back though and the guard will again be the focal point for an efficient offense. Thomas is already C-USA’s all-time leader in made three-pointers and he rarely misses from the free-throw line (90.9 percent last season). It’ll be hard for teams to catch up to the 49ers late in games.
A pair of sophomores who will be finalists for our Hoopville “all-name” team should all be key to Charlotte’s success — forward Butter Johnson and guard Demon Brown.
3. Marquette: Five of the top six scorers and the top four rebounders return from a team that started to come into its own late last season. If they can continue to improve, an NCAA bid is not impossible. Helping or hindering in that effort is a demanding non-conference schedule. In addition to contests against Wisconsin and Wake Forest, the Golden Eagles will compete in the Great Alaska Shooutout, drawing Tennessee in the opening round.
Senior guard Cordell Henry was like a lot of his teammates last season — much better in conference play. He averaged 12.6 points per game for the season, but almost 15 per game in C-USA. He also shot 87 percent from the free throw line in the conference, but 72 percent for the whole season.
He’s joined by a crop of five freshmen who were ranked among the top 25 recruiting classes by some experts. It could be a breakout season in Milwaukee.
4. Louisville: It would be foolhardy to suggest that Rick Pitino won’t rehabilitate the Cardinals, who for decades were among the top teams in the nation. More conference and national championship banners could be in Freedom Hall’s future. Pitino’s successes as a college coach are indisputable.
But this year will be a painful one for Louisville fans, who are no doubt anxious for the future to begin today. Despite losing only two players from last year’s team, the talent level doesn’t match the rest of C-USA’s top clubs — yet. But Pitino doesn’t have an empty cupboard to work with.
Junior guard Reece Gaines is one of the top sharpshooters in the conference, hitting 42.6 percent from the three-point line last season and averaging 13.9 points per game. Pitino will be working in freshmen Carlos Hurt and Larry O’Bannon into what is already a very young team. The Cardinals will be a scary team in the C-USA tournament, but you likely won’t be able to spell Pitino without NIT this year.
5. DePaul: The pressure is on DePaul coach Pat Kennedy. The Blue Demons slumped to a 12-18 record last season and this year’s performance will go a long way to determining his future in Chicago.
Senior guard Rashon Burno is as strong a leader as a coach could want. He’s the first player in DePaul history to serve as captain for three seasons and is an exciting playmaker on the point. Kennedy nabbed a good recruiting class last season and they’ll need to mature in a hurry to keep firing rumors at bay.
6. Saint Louis: The rebuilding continues in Saint Louis. To call the Billikens young would be a bit of an understatement. In fact, there isn’t a single senior on scholarship.
Amidst the possible struggles are some bright spots. Junior guard Marque Perry can shoot out the lights on occasion and could single-handedly deliver some big nights and upsets throughout the season. He scored 29 in the season opening loss against Southern Illinois.
7. East Carolina: It’s a big step up from the Colonial Athletic Association to Conference USA, but a step the Pirates are going to have to make. Sophomore Erroyl Bing had seven double-doubles last season as a freshman and will certainly add to that total this year. Still, the Pirates would have to consider four or five conference wins a success this year.
1. Memphis: Dajuan Wagner looms large in minds of opposing coaches and players. He’s likely to be guarded with vigor and game-planned around by those who are tired of the hype around the talented freshman. Despite that, he has still managed to average more than 25 points a game through the Tigers’ early-season contests.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the conference title doesn’t somehow go through Memphis this season. Either the Tigers are going to win it or the team that does win it is going to have to take care of them.
It’s not a one-man team either. The Tigers are deep and have experience at key positions, such as senior forward Kelly Wise, who is capable of scoring 20 points a night. Coach John Calipari has been to the Final Four before with U-Mass and knows what it takes.
But it will be interesting to see how the Tigers perform against some of the better teams in the country and if Calipari can keep expectations in control until the NCAA Tournament.
2. South Florida: The Bulls aren’t one of the first teams to pop in the heads of college hoops fans when kicking around the top teams in C-USA, but make no mistake — the Big Dance could be in South Florida’s future this season, even if they don’t pull off a deep run in the C-USA tournament. The Bulls are smarting from being snubbed from any postseason action last year, despite a 18-13 mark and several upset wins.
Returning are the formidable twosome of senior forwards Altron Jackson and BB Waldon. The pair combined to average 36 points per game last season and they’ll need to maintain that output throughout the season.
The Bulls’ non-conference schedule includes Florida, Syracuse, California and Florida State. Wins in at least two of those games and a strong conference record will be key in their postseason fate.
3. UAB: The Blazers are C-USA’s official Wild Card team, a squad that could win 20-22 games and get invited to the NCAA Tournament or a team that could go in the tank and get their coach (Murry Bartow, son of legendary UCLA and UAB coach Gene Bartow) fired. Early season results, including a win over Miami (Fla.) seem to indicate that the former is more likely.
There’s a lot of experience in the starting five and senior Eric Batchelor is as good a sixth man as you’ll find in the conference. He averaged 11.5 points per game last season and is a clutch free throw shooter to boot. Senior P.J. Arnold will provide much of the scoring and Will Campbell is an excellent rebounder, averaging almost 10 per game in conference action last season.
4. Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles put together a fantastic season last year, going 22-9 and 11-5 in the conference, but were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee. It could happen again this season. An anemic non-conference schedule includes the likes of Alcorn State, Morris Brown (what, Morris Day and the Time wasn’t available?) and Millsaps. Cupcake scheduling is alive and well in Hattiesburg, Miss.
USM doesn’t really need the help either, because this year’s team would appear to be as talented as last year. Seniors Brad Richardson and Elvin Mims are back and will provide scoring punch.
5. TCU: Billy Tubbs announced this season — TCU’s first in Conference USA — will be his last as coach of the Horned Frogs, leaving the program at a bit of a crossroads. TCU has tasted some success in the WAC, but will find the going quite bumpy in the tougher C-USA.
Tubbs is also a cupcake fan with Lenoir-Rhyne, Arkansas-Monticello, Northwestern State and Louisiana-Monroe on the plate for the non-conference schedule. More Hoopville all-name candidates — sophomore guard Nucleus Smith and junior forward Bingo Merriex.
6. Houston: Welcome to Year Two of the post-Clyde Drexler era at Houston. Ray McCallum is doing a fine job cleaning up the mess, but the Cougars are still a year or so away from respectability. Senior Patrick Okafor has been impressive early in the season though, averaging 20 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Senior guard Dominic Smith is one of the best defensive players in the league and will almost certainly be among the league leaders in assists and steals.
7. Tulane: Two Brandons will be the focal point of the Green Wave this season — juniors Brandon Spann and Brandon Brown. The pair combined for 36 in a season-opening win over Loyola. Other than them, the team is incredibly young — five freshmen and five sophomores dot the lineup. These Waves are a couple years away from cresting.
NCAA Tournament teams: Memphis, Cincinnati, Charlotte and Marquette. Memphis and Cincinnati are more or less no-brainers, only injuries to key players could sabotage what should be good to excellent seasons for both teams. Charlotte is smarting a little from the loss of NBA lottery pick Rodney White, but don’t count out the 49ers just yet. They’ll start slow, make a late season run and probably easily pick up an at-large berth. Marquette will likely be one of the last four teams in or out of the field.
Louisville will probably make the NIT — anything .500 or better will get a Rick Pitino-led team into the Little Dance. Southern Miss, UAB and South Florida are also likely looking at NIT berths unless they can string together 20 or more wins in the regular season to get strong looks from the NCAA Tournament Committee.
Conference game to watch: Louisville at Memphis, Jan. 30.
With Rick Pitino in Louisville, C-USA arguably now has the four whiniest coaches in college hoops (to join Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins, Memphis’ John Calipari and TCU’s Billy Tubbs. Why can’t we find a place for Bob Knight in this conference?).
This game ought to be quite popular when referee assignments are handed out in the league office.
“Um, Charlie, you sure you don’t want to trade me for that UAB-South Florida game in Tampa?”
“Why are you laughing?”
Non-conference game to watch: Louisville at Kentucky, Dec. 29. Duh.
Best player: I’m resisting the temptation to use Dajuan Wagner’s name for the 17th time in this preview, but you can’t argue with his skills. It was a fine sense of self-promotion to put up 100 points on some hapless high school team, but he’s going to be getting some serious attention from opposing defenses because of all the hype around him.
Cincinnati’s Steve Logan is pretty good too (though don’t get him confused with East Carolina football coach Steve Logan…East Carolina is joining C-USA this year by the way. Oops. Too late, I’m confused. My head hurts.).
By the way, my pick is Logan.
Nickname game: Just curious, but shouldn’t it be illegal for two teams in the same conference to have the same nickname? Marquette and Southern Mississippi have the distinction of sharing a moniker, the Golden Eagles. I have a suggestion for Southern Miss if they ever decide to rethink their position on Golden Eagles…the Po’Boys.
Movin’ on up: Marquette head coach Tom Crean will be on the short list of a lot of major job openings after this season. If he wants to, he’ll probably be moving on to the Big Time.
For the geographically challenged: The University of South Florida is located in Tampa, Fla., about 70 miles west of Orlando, where the University of Central Florida is located. Good thing there’s not a University of Really, Really South Florida in Miami.
Best preseason rumor to watch throughout the season: That Marshall University will be asked to join Conference USA soon. The move would be primarily for football, since it would give C-USA 12 football teams and a lucrative playoff game, but the Thundering Herd are no slouches on the court either. They’ll contend for the Mid-American Conference title and would help C-USA’s depth. If C-USA adds Marshall as a 15th team, look for it to try and add a 16th school who doesn’t have a major football program.
Speaking of that hypothetical 16th team: Dayton or Xavier from the Atlantic 10 (which uses the Big Ten’s version of fuzzy math and has 12 teams). Both are natural rivals with Cincinnati, especially Xavier, which has a very, very heated rivalry with the Bearcats. The A-10’s fortunes are on the downswing and the conference is about two more years from entering “mid-majorland”. Plus, both schools are in fairly large media markets, lest we forget what drives major college basketball in the 21st century.