C-USA Tournament Preview
Strange things seem to happen in the Conference USA postseason tournament. Three times in the history of the league (Saint Louis in 2000, Charlotte in 1999 and Marquette in 1997) a team has won four games in four days to take the title, something which has only been done seven times in the history of college basketball.
This year’s tourney could be more of the same, though it’ll take some doing to upset C-USA’s top four – Cincinnati, Marquette, Memphis and Charlotte – all of which receive byes directly into the tournament’s quarterfinals.
Cincinnati (27-3 overall, 14-2 C-USA)
The Bearcats have turned C-USA into their own little fiefdom, winning or sharing all seven regular-season conference titles. Tournament success has been much harder to find with only one title in the last five years. The worst moment was Kenyon Martin’s leg injury in the 2000 tournament, which pretty much cost Cincinnati a shot at the national title. This year’s team has a chance to avenge that talented, snakebit team’s fate. Steve Logan has been one of the top three players in the nation, if not THE best. Winning the C-USA tournament would give the Bearcats a legitimate claim at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The tournament is being played in Cincinnati (though at the Firstar Center, not on Cincinnati’s home floor). There is much reason to fear Cincinnati.
Marquette (24-5, 13-3)
It would create a lot of excitement if the Golden Eagles were to meet up again with with the Bearcats in the tournament final – their first two matchups were among the most exciting games of the conference season. Marquette lost two of its last three conference games though and needs a strong tournament to make the case for a high seeding in the Big Dance. Falling to the No. 5 seed – the tournament’s traditional upset seed – would make things a lot harder.
The Bubble Boys
Memphis (22-8, 12-4)
There is perhaps no team from a major conference with as many overall and conference wins as the Tigers with as many question marks attached to them. Despite losing to Cincinnati in the season finale, Memphis looked very good and may have actually improved its profile, if not its RPI (57). There’s a lot of reasons to think the Tigers’ number will be called for the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the C-USA tournament including the star power of Dajuan Wagner, but it probably comes down to this – if Memphis wins its quarterfinal contest against the Houston-East Carolina winner (as it should), it’ll be in the dance. If not? You’ll have to catch Wagner’s final few college games in the NIT.
Charlotte (17-10, 11-5)
The 49ers are in much the same boat as Memphis, except for a worse record and higher RPI (37). Still, it seems they would not be comfortably in the tournament without at least one win in the conference tournament. Slumping a bit after a hot start to the conference season, but Charlotte has a history of success in the conference tournament and will be difficult to beat. Frankly, the draw favors the 49ers a bit, since they will matchup well against the winner of the Saint Louis-Tulane game.
Louisville (17-11, 8-8)
The Cardinals impressed me with their performances at the end of the season, including a shocking upset of Cincinnati, so it’s not a stretch to say they have a chance to surprise some of the favorites in this tournament. Even with the wattage of Rick Pitino behind the bench, it’ll almost definitely take a four-day, four-win run to put Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. If the selection committee is looking for sub-60 RPI teams to fill out the bracket (and generally they’re not), there’s some better candidates this year.
South Florida (18-11, 8-8)
So much potential this year for the Bulls. An early-season upset of Pittsburgh, which is even more impressive in retrospect, got the ball rolling, but they seemed to forget at times the need to play well against all their opponents in the conference. That said, I’m sure this South Florida team is way down on the list of teams Cincinnati would like to face in the quarterfinals. If the Bulls knock off UAB (and they should), the USF-Cinci quarterfinal ought to be a good one.
Houston (16-13, 9-7)
Credit Houston coach Ray McCallum for the job he’s done in keeping this team together despite jailings and suspensions and turmoil. Houston is a comer on the C-USA stage, but this isn’t their year. Winning a game and being invited to the NIT would be a nice way to end a tough year.
Saint Louis (15-15, 9-7)
The Billikens are another one of those teams that can throw a scare into the league’s big shots. They are a somewhat surprising No. 5 seed in this tournament and should advance to meet Charlotte, a team they could beat, spoiling their NCAA Tournament hopes in the process. Isn’t that what March Madness is all about?
UAB (13-16, 6-10)
I’m not really sure what to say here. The Blazers don’t excite me, but it doesn’t matter because they won’t be sticking around Cincinnati too long.
TCU (16-14, 6-10)
This is Billy Tubbs’ final hurrah as the coach of the Horned Frogs, so here’s hoping the tournament ends on a fairly good note for him without much whimpering.
Tulane (13-14, 5-11)
The Green Wave started the season well against generally inferior competition, but couldn’t sustain that into most of the conference season. I don’t imagine they’ll get beyond the quarterfinals.
East Carolina (12-17, 5-11)
The Pirates have as much reason as any team in the field to be proud. Not many pundits expected they would even qualify for the league tournament, but they did and in style as well by upsetting then-No. 9 Marquette at home. They’re building something in Greenville, NC. It’ll take time, but there’s the makings of an impressive program in the works.