by Zach Van Hart
The question rattling around every C-USA fan’s head as tip-off of the new college basketball season nears – is this the year Cincinnati is dethroned as champion? Seven years after the inception of Conference USA and still no Bearcat team has failed to claim at least a share of the conference regular season title. Could this be the year when the reign ends? Not only does UC lose Player of the Year Steve Logan, they lose C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Immanuel McElroy, along with two of its key big men from a year ago. Could the run end at seven?
Perhaps the squads with the horses to overtake Cincinnati are being led by C-USA sophomore head coaches.
Rick Pitino and John Calipari start their second seasons with Louisville and Memphis, respectively, and possibly have the tools this season to win league outright. Another possible contender is Marquette. The Golden Eagles finished one game behind UC for the title last season and return star Dwayne Wade. With several upstarts looking to make a surprising run through the conference, Cincinnati appears to have its’ work cut out for themselves if they wish to claim another C-USA title.
American Division Projections
1. Louisville Cardinals (8-8, 19-13, 5th)
Pitino came to the Louisville program before the 2001-2002 season with the goal of restoring a second storied Kentucky basketball program and battling for the C-USA title. As he starts his second season as head coach, Pitino owns a team with the talent and experience to do just that.
Leading the Cardinals this year is player of the year candidate Reece Gaines. Entering his senior season, Gaines is coming off of a stellar junior campaign. Gaines averaged 21.0 points per game last season, finishing third in the conference and the returns as the leading scorer from a year ago. Gaines will provide leadership, a go-to-guy for Pitino to count on, and the ability to carry his team on his back.
Luckily for Pitino, Gaines is not alone. Luke Whitehead and Ellis Myles both return after solid seasons playing in the paint. Also, swingman Erik Brown adds another weapon to Pitino’s arsenal. While point guard Bryant Northern possibly is the weakest link for Louisville, he still possesses the skills to command this Cardinal squad. The scary factor for opposing teams will be the addition of transfer Marvin Stone from Kentucky. Stone provides SEC experience and should be the final piece to the puzzle for the Cardinals.
In addition to a touch C-USA schedule, Louisville faces several out of conference tests. The key week for Louisville will fall during the beginning of February. The Cards first face national runner-up Indiana at Freedom Hall. Four days later, Feb. 5, round one with the Bearcats takes place at Freedom. Two and a half weeks later, Feb. 22, round two takes place at Cincinnati. Expect to see Gaines carrying the Cardinals past UC and to a C-USA regular season championship.
2. Cincinnati Bearcats (14-2, 31-4, 1st)
How can the Bearcats win it again? Steve Logan, the heart and soul of last year’s team, is gone. The team’s defensive stopper is gone. Two of its key big man is gone. And head coach Bob Huggins is still recovering from a late September heart attack. So how will UC contend for a regular season crown? The same it does every year, with athletes coming from everywhere.
While Cincinnati boasts five new recruits, two returning players hold the key to an eighth-straight conference title. Senior Leonard Stokes and sophomore Jason Maxiell will provide a lethal inside-outside combination for opposing teams to contend with. In Stokes UC possesses the team’s leading scorer after Logan from a year ago. In Maxiell, the Bearcats own one of the top big men in the league, if not the country. Competing for the starting backcourt positions will be returnees Field Williams and Taron Barker, along with newcomer Tony Bobbitt. The question mark of the starting five will be at center, where possibly junior college transfer Kareem Johnson will earn the starting nod.
UC wastes no time figuring out how deep this year’s squad is when it squares of with rival Xavier on Dec. 7. The C-USA lineup is highlighted by a home-and-home with both Louisville and Marquette. The road game at Marquette closes out the regular season for the Bearcats, not before they also travel to Memphis one week prior to the Golden Eagle game. How the Bearcats fare during these last two road games will determine if UC can proclaim “Eight Straight” at the end of the year.
3. Marquette Golden Eagles (13-3, 26-7, 2nd)
The man the Eagles retained from last year’s NCAA Tourney team – junior Dwayne Wade. Wade is being touted by many as the preseason player of the year in C-USA. During his first season in conference, Wade lead Marquette in virtually every major category last season, including scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots. Needless to say, how far the Golden Eagles go this season depends squarely on Wade’s shoulders.
The man the Eagles lost from last year’s team – point guard Cordell Henry. While Wade starred last year, Henry served as the team’s heart last season. When a big basket, a big pass or a big defensive stand had to be made, usually Henry provided the team with the play. His departure to graduation leaves to the team with a huge void, even though it may not appear that way when looking at the scorebook.
Marquette however still owns several key performers from last season. Sophomore Travis Diener showed last season his three-point shot is one of most accurate in all of C-USA. The departure of Henry should free up Diener for more shots in the offense. Down low, junior Scott Merritt provides needed size and leadership from a depleted frontcourt. Also helping out in that department will be transfer Robert Jackson. The 6-foot-10 big man from Mississippi State gives the Eagles a tall 1-2 punch underneath, and provides head coach Tom Crean a solid supporting cast to surround Wade with.
Marquette should coast until February, before its schedule turns brutal. The final month of the season pits the Eagles against both Cincinnati and Louisville twice, along with home contests versus Saint Louis, Charlotte and an out of conference game with Wake Forest. Hopefully for Marquette, an easy schedule early on will provide the Golden Eagles with momentum to tackle the bear of their schedule.
4. Charlotte 49ers (11-5, 18-12, 3rd)
Head coach Bobby Lutz knows how much he lost from the departures of seniors Jobey Thomas and Cam Stephens. Lutz also knows though the talent that remains on this year’s squad. Unfortunately, the talent is not enough to reach the upper threshold of the tough American Division.
The key players back for Lutz – senior swingman Curtis Nash and point guard Demon Brown. Both players turned in solid seasons last season, while being shadowed by Thomas and Stephens. This season, the two must stand up to the forefront for 49er success. Underneath, Charlotte is looking to sophomore Butter Johnson and junior Tory Reed to make the jump from subs to starts. A Top 20 recruiting class, highlighted by big men Tyler Best and Curtis Withers, will aid the 49ers. The frontcourt also will receive a lift from Calvin Clemmons, who transferred from South Carolina.
Charlotte faces a difficult out of conference schedule, filled with the likes of Temple, Miami, and Indiana. C-USA play does not make it any easier for the 49ers either. They play Cincinnati and Marquette back-to-back twice, before finishing the season on the road at Saint Louis and Louisville. While Charlotte once again will finish the conference season with a winning record, it does not own the tools to compete for the regular-season crown.
5. Saint Louis Billikens (9-7, 15-16, 4th)
The Lorenzo Romar era is over at Saint Louis; the Brad Soderberg era is set to commence. For Soderberg, the squad he expected to field several months ago is a far cry from the squad that will take the floor in November. Gone is last year’s second leading scorer, Jason Edwin, who transferred after last season. Also gone from the program is backup point guard Randy Pully, backup forward John Seyfert, along with Ryan Hollins, who back out of his national letter of intent.
With all the players exiting the Billiken program, the one player staying is easily the team’s best player. Senior guard Marque Perry will not only carry Saint Louis, he will compete for C-USA first team honors. Perry averaged 14.1 points per game and consistently hit pressure-packed shots for the Billikens. Soderberg will need Perry to step up to superstardom for Saint Louis to succeed. Rounding out the backcourt is junior Josh Fisher, the team’s second leading assist man a year ago. Senior Drew Diener provides a much-needed outside threat, shooting 42.3 percent from downtown last season.
Underneath is the question mark for the Billikens, as no proven big man resides in the paint. Seniors Kenny Brown and Chris Braun combined for just over 10 rebounds last year and must step up their defensive and rebounding games this year. The team’s key new additions are big man Izik Ohanon and Justin Johnson. Unfortunately, Ohanon is a transfer player from Israel and must sit out the teams first eight games due to a NCAA ruling.
The Billikens commence the conference schedule with a brutal stretch before finishing off with a favorable March lineup. January games include home games with Memphis, Cincinnati and Marquette, along with road games at Louisville and Charlotte. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Billikens end the season with road games at cellar-contenders DePaul and East Carolina, not too mention two home games. While Saint Louis will stumble out of the gates early, a late season surge will help provide late season confidence for the team, just not a conference title shot.
6. East Carolina Pirates (5-11, 12-18, 6th)
Last Feb. 28, the Pirates showed the rest of C-USA, along with the country, they belong in a major conference with a 51-46 win against Marquette, arguably the biggest upset of the regular season in the country. This season, East Carolina should be much improved from last year’s squad. Unfortunately, the win column probably will not reflect this at the end of the season.
The Pirates return four starters from 2001-2002. Point guard Travis Holcomb-Faye, forwards Erroyl Bing and Gabriel Mikulas, plus center Moussa Badiane all return to the East Carolina lineup for head coach Bill Herrion. Holcumb-Faye led the team last year with 4.0 assists per game, while Bing led the team in scoring and rebounding with 12.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game clips. Bing is a very athletic forward with the potential for a breakout season. Two junior college transfers, guards Luke Mackay and Derek Wiley, will provide with more scoring options in the backcourt.
Misfortune for than anything will contribute to sub par season for the Pirates, as they have the task of playing in the very tough American Division. Facing East Carolina is two games apiece with each of Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and Charlotte. Factor in a trip to Memphis Feb. 4, and it all equals a losing season for the Pirates. However, they have the talent to pull off a few shockers like Marquette last season. One factor on their side is home court advantage. The Pirates owned a 5-3 home C-USA record last season, which is something to build on for the upcoming year.
7. DePaul Blue Demons (2-14, 9-19, 7th)
Pat Kennedy left a DePaul program in disarray. The Blue Demons are fresh off a last place finish in C-USA, ending the year with a 9-19 overall record and a dismal 2-14 conference record. This season does not look to be much better than last year either for first year head coach Dave Leitao.
Any Blue Demon hopes for victories lie on the big shoulders of junior forward/center Andre Brown. Last season Brown was a man-child in the paint, leading the team in points (14.5), rebounds (9.4) and field goal percentage (50.3%). His rebound total is the highest returning average from last season. Needless to say, expect the offense to run through Brown, as well as the site of Brown dominating the boards. The backcourt for the Blue Demons will be lead by the Marlon brothers, seniors Marlon Brooks and Marlon London. Brooks showed scoring explosiveness last season, going for 20 points versus TCU and 18 against Charlotte. Ironically, the team’s lone incoming freshman is another Marlon, 6-foot-9 Marlon Brumfield. Brumfield will compete for the starting void left by graduating Lance Williams, who left an 11.4 point and 7.4 rebound per game average hole for DePaul. Other big men competing for a starting job are senior Sam Hoskins and sophomore Quemont Greer.
We could list DePaul’s tough matchups this season, but listing the team’s entire conference schedule seemed pointless. The Blue Demon’s four games versus the National Division comes against four of its weaker teams and holds the best opportunity for a few C-USA wins for this once proud program.
1. Memphis Tigers (12-4, 27-9, 1st)
Okay, so Calipari lost all-world Dejuan Wagner to the NBA. He lost first team all-conference Kelly Wise to graduation. He lost sharpshooter Scooter McFadgon, who transferred. Is Calipari worried? Not in the least and there are two big reasons why.
The first big reason is very big, like 7-foot big. Returning for Memphis is senior center Earl Barron. While shadowed behind Wise the past few seasons, Barron is primed to be one of the top big men in C-USA. Despite a quiet 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last year, Barron is capable of being a 20-point, 10 rebound guy. Not only is Barron tall, he is very athletic too. He also owns a good outside touch, as shown be his 78.3 free-throw percentage last year. Barron will need a sturdy point guard to get him the ball, and in Antonio Burks, he has one. Burks returns as the team’s field general after a season where he averaged 8.4 points and 5.1 assists per game. Joining Burks in the backcourt is another returning Tiger, junior Anthony Rice. Rice bounced in and out of the starting rotation a year ago, average 7.4 points per game while shooting 42.5% from beyond the arc. Expect Rice to see more shot opportunities this season and expect Memphis’ success to hinge on his performance.
Where Calipari’s team starts to thin out is inside. After Barron, Calipari has no proven guys underneath. Competing for starting forward positions will be juniors Arthur Barclay and Modibo Diarra, along with sophomore Duane Erwin. Defensive and rebounding contributions are crucial from these forwards by committee.
The second big reason why Calipari is not worried – his in conference schedule. However, the Tigers face a loaded out of conference schedule, facing the likes of Syracuse, Mississippi, Illinois, Arkansas and Missouri. The Tigers will find their C-USA more to their liking. The two conference games sticking out on their schedule – a Feb. 19 date at Louisville and Mar. 1 home contest with Cincinnati. A third game which could possibly be pivotal is a Feb. 13 road game at Tulane. Benefiting from playing in the easier National Division and his big man Barron, expect Calipari’s bunch to again finish first in the National.
2. Tulane Green Wave (5-11, 14-15, 6th)
After Memphis, the National Division starts to become hazy, with no apparent front-runner to compete with the Tigers. Maybe because of experience or maybe because of the water in the bayou, Tulane will return to playing winning basketball season after several sub par seasons.
While so many programs develop with quick fixes, Green Wave head coach Shawn Finney has slowly been building a team compiled of workmanlike players, a team lacking a superstar but not lacking in capable players. Tulane returns all five starters from last year’s squad that finished 5-11 in C-USA. Backcourt play is the strong suit of the starting five as seniors Brandon Spann and Waitari Marsh bring the experience of starting the previous two seasons. Last year Spann averaged 13.4 points per game, while Marsh averaged 11.8 per contest. Both can play point guard, both can play shooting guard. Spann lives by the outside shot, while Marsh lives by the drive. As a tandem, the two are hard to handle. Underneath, two more seniors, Brandon Brown and Nick Sinville, anchor the middle. Brown is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago, with averages of 14.8 and 7.4 respectively. Rounding out the starting five is junior Wayne Tinsley, who contributed 6.1 points per game a year ago. The inside will also be bolstered by the team’s two incoming freshman, 6-foot-9 Quincy Davis and 6-foot-7 Vytautas Tatarunas.
Tulane’s veteran resolve will be tested early during the C-USA season. The team’s first four games follow as such – at Memphis, Marquette, at Cincinnati, at TCU. While an inexperienced might fall apart from such a brutal start, Tulane will stay composed as the conference schedule eases up. The Feb. 13 matchup with Memphis is a chance for the Wave to establish itself in the division. While Tulane does not possess the talent to be in upper epsilon of the conference, they will restore the tradition of Green Wave basketball.
3. TCU Horned Frogs (6-10, 16-15, T-4th)
Out is runnin’-and-gunnin’ head coach Billy Tubbs, in is Neil Dougherty. While the head coach, the style of play will remain the same. And like Tulane, TCU is a veteran team, returning its top five scorers from 2001-2002. What this all equals – a high energy team with high expectations.
One player who is accustom to the up-tempo style is Junior Blount. Entering his senior season, Blount is one of the top guards in C-USA. Last season Blount averaged 19.5 points per game and set a new conference record for point average in just C-USA games, with a 22.8 average. Simply put, Blount will be “Da Man” for TCU this year. Teaming up with Blount in the backcourt is sophomore Corey Santee. Making an immediate impact as a freshman, Santee averaged 14.7 points and 5.8 assists per game last season. The two make for perhaps the best backcourt in C-USA. The player who may hold the key to TCU title run is senior Bingo Merriex. Merriex is the veteran of the team and is an explosive athlete. Merriex averaged 12.7 points and 6.8 boards a game last year. The Horned Frogs glass man is Jamal Brown. While only 6-foot-7, Brown averaged 9.0 rebounds a game last year. Throw in a few more experience players and TCU owns a formula with National Division champs potential. The new face for the Horned Frogs is junior Ron Hobbs. A transfer from Texas Tech, Hobbs provides Big 12 experience and serious hops. He fits in perfectly to the high-scoring TCU scheme.
The Horned Frogs will get their chance to see how they measure up against the conference’s best to start the New Year. The C-USA home schedule kicks off with Cincinnati, Jan. 11. The team’s two meetings with Memphis occur Feb. 8 (at home) and Feb. 26 (at Memphis). A split with the Tigers could land TCU near the top of the division when March rolls around.
4. South Florida Bulls (8-8, 19-13, 3rd)
It is hard to picture a South Florida team without the services of Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon. C-USA opponents probably started to wonder if the two played ball with James Naismath. Regardless, head coach Seth Greenberg is facing the challenge of replacing his two superstars.
Inside, senior Will McDonald must pick up both the scoring and rebound load left by Waldon. While McDonald showcased his scoring ability last season, averaging 11.9 last season. Rebounding is where McDonald must improve for the Bulls. He will team up with senior point guard Reggie Kohn. Setting up the likes of Waldon, Jackson and McDonald last year, Kohn led C-USA in assists with a 6.9 average. Bulls’ opponents this year should expect a more scoring-oriented Kohn to appear on the court. Kohn displayed his outstanding long-range shot during 2001-2002, nailing 43.1 percent of his 3-point shots. The defensive presence for the Bulls is junior forward Gerrick Morris. Morris swatted away 2.4 blocks a game last year. His height and ability to alter shots will make life difficult for opposing frontcourt players. Where the Bulls are weakest at is the No. 2 guard position. The only returning player at the off-guard spot is sophomore Brian Swift, and really is point guard. One incoming freshman that could provide a huge lift is 6-foot-1 Danny Oglesby. Oglesby set the all-time scoring mark in Connecticut high school basketball and possesses anywhere in the gym range. His adjustment to C-USA could go along way in the Bulls replacing its scoring void.
South Florida scheduled a tough non-conference schedule, including roads games at the likes of Florida and Michigan State. The Bulls also play its two toughest C-USA road games, at Memphis and Marquette, during the first half of January. Despite the losses of C-USA’s first and third all-time leading scorers, the Bulls will not fall to far down the conference standings. Once again, expect a middle of the road year from South Florida.
5. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (4-12, 10-17, 7th)
The Southern Miss. program has fallen on hard times of late and head coach James Green decided during the off-season to do anything in his power to right the ship. The result – nine players not seen in action for the Eagles last season. Gone is standout Elvin Mims, along with his 18.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Gone is senior guard Brad Richardson and his 8.6 points per contest. Replacing these players and others is a mixed breed of transfers and freshman ready to make an immediate impact.
The key returnee for the Eagles is junior forward Clement Carter. Carter shot 45.2 percent from the field while scoring 10 a game last season. Joining Carter in the frontcourt is senior center Ben Lambert, who totaled 48 blocks last year coming off of the bench. The backcourt will be anchored by sophomore point guard Dante Stiggers and senior Mario Myles. The most dangerous newcomer could be 6-foot-11 JuCo Geoffrey Brown, who is an intimidating big man for the Eagles.
Southern Miss kicks off the C-USA season by playing its first five games versus National Division opponents. Two of its final four games pit the Eagles against Tulane, which could be pivotal to the team’s conference tourney hopes. Expect an improved team from a year ago, but not a team ready to compete for a league title.
6. Houston Cougars (9-7, 18-15, 2nd)
Perhaps more than any other team in C-USA, the Cougars lost a boatload of talent from a year ago. Gone are four of the top five scorers from a year ago. The two veteran returning players are seniors Louis Truscott and Marcus Oliver. Truscott, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 13.4 points along with 9.3 rebounds per game last season, which was fifth best in the conference. While Truscott played in a multi-facet offense last season, Truscott must step up as the scoring leader this year. Complementing Truscott will be senior point guard Oliver. Oliver had a breakout C-USA Tournament, scoring 18.7 points and shooting 71.4% from downtown during three games. He provides leadership for a suddenly young Cougar team. The man in the middle will be 6-foot-11 senior Jeremee McGuire. McGuire provides Houston with a big, defensive presence and a proven rebounder and shot blocker. The Cougars are looking to have contributions from their four incoming freshman, along with sophomore Andre Owens, a transfer swingman from Indiana.
While Houston avoids playing both Cincinnati and Marquette, they will struggle after finishing second in the National Division last season. Their Jan. 18 game with Memphis could be ugly as the Tigers will be looking to avenge the loss (in the C-USA Tourney quarters) that knocked them out of NCAA contention last season.
7. UAB Blazers (6-10, 13-17, T-4th)
UAB enters the 2002-2003 season a new head coach, Mike Anderson, along with new optimism. Sadly, the optimism will be long gone before the season is. The Blazers are coming off a 13-17 season, and lost six seniors from that squad. Not usually an equation that breeds success and will not here either.
For Anderson, his hopes will fall to his backcourt. Senior point guard Eric Bush and junior shooting guard Morris Finley hold the key to any Blazer success this season. Both have ability; Bush averaged 5.4 assists last year while Finley tallied 11.3 points per contest last season. The two must step up their games this season. In the paint, everyone form last year is gone. Basically the entire frontcourt is open for takers. Junior Sidney Ball, senior Cedric Davis and Lee Cobb are probably starters when the season tips off. Gabe Kennedy, a junior college transfer, is probably the top newcomer for Anderson and could provide help inside.
It is going to be a long first season for Anderson and his Blazers. The scheduling committee appears it wanted to remind the team of this by making UAB face Marquette, Cincinnati and Memphis to end the season. Not only will the season be long, after three bad defeats to end the year, the off-season will be long for UAB as well.
Reece Gaines, Louisville
Dwayne Wade, Marquette
Earl Barron, Memphis
Andre Brown, DePaul
Junior Blount, TCU
Jason Maxiell, Cincinnati
MVP: Reece Gaines
Newcomer of the Year: Marvin Stone, Louisville
Coach on the Hot Seat: James Green, Southern Miss.
Defensive Player of the Year: Andre Brown, DePaul
The upcoming season should be a great one for C-USA. The American Division is loaded; the National Division is definitely not. Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette all must face each other twice. For college basketball fans, there may not be a better three-team race in any major conference this season that these three teams will put on display this winter. When it’s all said and down, expect the Louisville Cardinals and Rick Pitino to emerge on top.