Conference USA Recap
by Zach Van Hart
What a season in Conference USA during 2001-2002. With two teams in the Top 10 throughout the second half, and the most electrifying freshman in the land, all eyes were on the conference as March came rolling around. The C-USA Tournament had its work cut out to equal the thrilling finish to the regular season. The top three seeds were left undecided until the final Sunday of the year, with eventually Cincinnati, Marquette and Memphis finishing one, two, three, respectively.
All but two of the conference’s 14 teams headed to Cincinnati’ Firstar Center for the C-USA Tourney’s four-day battle. Memphis played itself out of the Big Dance, losing to No. 6 Houston in the quarters, 80-74. Minus No. 12 Tulane upsetting No. 5 Saint Louis, the rest of tournament went to plan. Eventually regular-season champ Cincinnati easily defeated Marquette, 77-63, taking the season series from the Golden Eagles, along with its third C-USA Tournament title.
With the momentum of the tournament title, and a 30-3 record to boot, the Bearcats landed its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament during the Bob Huggins’ era. Joining UC for some March madness was Marquette, the No. 5 seed in the East region; and Charlotte, the No. 9 seed in the South.
Unfortunately, Cinderella decided to torture the conference’s delegates. While Charlotte unsurprisingly could not hang with Notre Dame, losing 82-63, upsets sent UC and Marquette home early. No. 12 Tulsa, always one of the dangerous mid-major teams in March, struck gold again, beating Golden Eagles 71-69. After disposing of Boston University easily, the Bearcats faced the most dangerous No. 8 seed in the draw, UCLA. Playing one of the best games of the tournament, UC finally fell in double OT, 105-101.
The conference also sent four squads to the Owens Corning NIT. South Florida and Houston could not make it out of the first round, and Louisville needed a last second shot by Reece Gaines to defeat Princeton. After disposing of the Tigers, 66-65, the Cardinals lost a close home contest to Temple, 65-62, ending its season.
With all of the struggles the first six teams experienced in late March, the Memphis Tigers stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. Riding the play of freshman phenom Dejuan Wagner, the Tigers clawed its way to become the 2002 NIT Champions. Breezing into the semifinals at Madison Square Gardens, Memphis revenged Louisville’s loss to Temple, winning 78-77, before taking the title with convincing win against South Carolina, 72-62.
Throughout the 2001-2002 season, guard play dominated the league. Fittingly, the selection of the All-Conference Team followed suit. Five of the six players selected came from their respective team’s backcourt. One must start the team off with the league’s Player of the Year, Steve Logan. Logan set a C-USA record for scoring average during a season, (22.0 pg), ranked fourth in assists, (5.3), and served as the heart and soul of the Bearcats. Joining Logan on the squad was sharp shooter Jobey Thomas from Charlotte, sophomore sensation Dwyane Wade from Marquette, Gaines, Wagner, and the lone big man in the group, Kelly Wise from Memphis.
The player making the biggest splash into the professional level also happened to be the youngest one of the bunch. Needing only his freshman year to showcase his explosive talent, Wagner declared for the NBA draft. His 21.2 points per game impressed enough scouts, and the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him with the sixth pick. Logan became the conferences’ second player to hear David Stern call his name when the Golden State Warriors made him the 29th pick in the draft.
Wise and Thomas finished their eligibility during last season, but Gaines and Wade did not. Gaines returns for his senior year, and has a shot at moving close to the top of the C-USA all-time scoring list. Currently 10th, Gaines could crack the top three with an outstanding senior year. Wade is only a junior, and just showed a glimpse of what his future holds during last season.
Plenty of coaches were coming and going during the offseason throughout the league. Neil Dougherty replaces departed Billy Tubbs as head coach of TCU. Dougherty spent the past seven seasons as an assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas. UAB replaced Murry Bartow, who resigned after six seasons as head coach, with Mike Anderson. Anderson ends a long, 17-year stretch as an assistant at Arkansas to lead the Blazers. Lorenzo Romar ended his three-year tenure as Saint Louis head coach to take the helm of the Washington Huskies. Replacing Romar is Brad Soderberg. Soderberg spent last season as an assistant on the Billiken staff. Prior, he spent six years as an assistant at Wisconsin. He served as interim head coach when Dick Bennett abruptly quit during the 2000-2001 season. Pat Kennedy ended his tumultuous five-year run as DePaul head coach, resigning quickly after season’s end. Replacing him is Dave Leitao. Leitao leaves behind his job as assistant coach at Connecticut, where he served as assistant coach and recruiter for 14 years.
Several key transfers occurred during the offseason, even though it seemed more were arriving into C-USA as opposed to departing from it.
While Scooter McFadgon from Memphis and Brandon Bender from Louisville transferred out, several new transfers should have an immediate impact with their clubs. Replacing Bender will be Marvin Stone, from Kentucky. Stone is a low-post threat who comes with SEC experience. Perhaps the dangerous transfer of the year is Marquette’s Robert Jackson. Coming from Mississippi, Jackson averaged 11.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game during the 2000-2001 campaign.
Also, returning form the dead for Cincinnati is Eugene Land. Land played during the 1998-1999 season, before redshirting and then leaving the team for two years. Land will have one more year of eligibility.
With each new year comes the holes that need to be filled due to players leaving. Here are a couple of key players who departed after the 2001-2002 season in the American Division. In addition to the departure of Logan, UC lost Immanuel McElroy, the 2002 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, to graduation. Graduating from Marquette is Cordell Henry, last year’s point guard and team leader. Henry is bouncing around pro leagues trying to keep his basketball dreams alive. During July Henry participated in the Indiana Pacer’s Rookie/Free Agent Team in a summer league.
Charlotte must replace Thomas, who scored 18.5 a game, along with big-man Cam Stephens. Graduating along with Thomas, Stephens averaged 13.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game last season. For Saint Louis, guard Jason Edwin left the team for academic reasons. Edwin averaged 9.2 points per game during 2001-2002, second on the team.
Another non-graduation exit took place at Louisville, where head coach Rick Pitino dismissed freshman guard Carlos Hurt from the team shortly after the end of the season. Hurt averaged 8.1 points and 3.4 assists during his first year. East Carolina’s Kenyatta Brown graduated, after ranking third on the team with 11.4 points last season. Also graduating from DePaul was big-man Lance Williams. Williams ripped down 7.4 boards a game to compliment his 11.4 points a game during his final year as a Blue Demon.
Several top performances from the National division also said their goodbyes to C-USA at the conclusion of last year.
The services of Wise and McFadgon, not to mention Wagner, will be sorely missed at Memphis. Wise averaged 11.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game last season, and McFadgon contributed 9.9 points a game as well. Also heavily depleted from last season is Houston. The Cougars lose four of its top five scorers from a year ago, most notably leading scorer Dominic Smith, who averaged 15.1 a game last season. After what seemed like a decade, Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon finally graduated from South Florida. The two leave as the number one and three, respectively, on the all-time C-USA scoring list. Jackson also continues to pursue a career in basketball, being invited to the San Antonio Spurs summer league a few months ago.
Another graduate with professional aspirations is Elvin Mims. A standout at Southern Mississippi, Mims tallied 18.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game his senior year. After talks with the Atlanta Hawks, the Yakima Sun Kings of the CBA selected Mims as the number one overall pick in the CBA Draft. Tulane retained most of its talent, while losing just one main scoring threat, graduate Linton Johnson. Johnson averaged nine a game for the Green Wave last year. Rounding out the conference, UAB lost its two top scorers from last year, while TCU basically lost nothing, as it returns nine players from last year’s squad.
At the end of this season, the top 12 teams will travel to Louisville for the 2003 C-USA Tournament. Louisville and Cincinnati will split the duties of hosting the conference tournament from now on.
To end the Conference USA recap, I touch on the September 28th heart attack of UC head coach Bob Huggins. While his attack was near fatal, Huggins continues to improve. He attended the team’s first practice, dubbed ‘Breakfast with Bob’, and vows to be coaching when the season kicks off. I am sure I speak for everyone associated with Conference USA when I saw its good to see Huggins alive and well and back in action.