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Conference-USA Notebook

January 20, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Conference USA Notebook

by Zach Van Hart

National showcase

Louisville and East Carolina each had a chance to show the nation a thing or two Thursday when the two played each other at ECU’s dreaded Minges Coliseum live on ESPN2. The Cardinals were trying to show the country they deserve every bit of their ranking. Rick Pitino’s crew had climbed to No. 18 in the latest poll. The Pirates on the other hand were trying to prove again they are a perennial contender in C-USA. ECU defeated Marquette just weeks ago and this time had a national audience to try and knock off a big-time program. Something had to give. So what gave?

The Cardinals annihilated ECU 87-70 in a game that wasn’t that close. After the Pirates grabbed an early 15-14 lead, the Cards went on a 17-1 run and the rout was on. Louisville pushed the lead to as many as 31 before East Carolina saved some face on national TV. The win increased the Cardinals win streak to ten games. After another convincing win against TCU Saturday, Louisville’s win streak resided at eleven and their record was 12-1.

Thursday though, the nation saw the reasons Pitino’s bunch is now clearly the favorite to win C-USA. Typical to Pitino’s great UK teams, the Cardinals are more loaded than a saloon regular who just polished a bottle of Jim Beam. The Cards regularly go ten men deep on the bench. Against ECU, eight players played more than ten minutes and ten players played at least seven.

The unmistakable leader of this bunch is senior Reece Gaines. While Gaines needed to play the role of the scorer the past two seasons, his supporting cast does not require 25 points a game from him every night. So Reece has done a little bit of everything so far this year. Thursday night, Reece poured in 22 points, second on the team. Saturday against the Horned Frogs, he dished out a season-high eight assists. He easily leads the team in both points and assists, even though his scoring average is down from last season.

Marvin Stone has fit right in since becoming eligible during the sixth game of the season. Stone led the team in scoring during both games last week, going for 23 at ECU and dumping in 22 against TCU. He shot a ridiculous seventeen-of-22 from the field during the two games last week. With these two are the corner stones of this stacked squad, it’s going to be hard for anyone to keep these Cards from the C-USA title, including last year’s champs.

Forget about us?

Right now, the only other undefeated team left in C-USA besides Louisville is none other than the Cincinnati Bearcats. While everyone is still talking about how this is a rebuilding year and Steve Logan is gone, the Bearcats have quietly started the season 11-3, 4-0 in C-USA and have won six straight. While this is not the prettiest team Bob Huggins has coached, the squad is getting the job done once again. The story this past week out of Cincinnati was the emergence of senior Leonard Stokes.

Stokes is the team’s captain and quiet leader. But this week he finally took control and declared this is his team. While Stokes is the team’s leading scorer, he is a passive scoring. He started to come alive the week before with key baskets down the stretch against DePaul and TCU. Against Saint Louis Wednesday, there was nothing passive about his game. With the team struggling early on, Stokes scored early and often. He had eleven at intermission and ended with a season-high 25 points as the ‘Cats won 66-56. Then Saturday, Stokes hit Tulane like a tidal wave. With his inside sidekick Jason Maxiell struggling, Stokes became a lone assassin. Stokes topped his evening Wednesday with a 30-point outburst as Cincinnati won 77-54. Now that Stokes has officially put his stamp on this team, the Bearcats appear primed for a run at yet another regular season title. However, they must get through two games with Louisville, and two games with Marquette also.

Speaking of which

While we are on the subject, Marquette rounds out the triple-threat American Division. With the Golden Eagles’ come-from-behind 67-64 win at Charlotte Saturday; they improved to 12-3 overall and 4-1 in C-USA. After consecutive losses to East Carolina and Dayton, the Eagles plummeted to No. 22 in last week’s poll. Marquette is still one of scariest team’s in the country and everyone knows why.

Dwayne Wade continues to amaze and make a case for national player of the year. His 23.2 scoring average easily leads the conference, but its his overall game which makes him so dangerous. And it’s his improved supporting cast that makes Marquette worthy of their ranking.

The addition of Robert Jackson to the frontcourt, teaming with Scott Merritt, is making opponents see double. In the process, the Eagles are making the country see triple at the top of C-USA. Now the fun begins, as six matches between these top three teams await during the second half of the season. The battles at the top begin February 1 when the Eagles travel to Cincinnati. The Bearcats then must head down I-71 four days later to face the Cardinals. Then on February 15, Louisville hit the road to land of cheese to face Wade and company. These will be the games which determine who will be crowned C-USA champ for the 2002-2003 season.

Wild, Wild, National Division

While the front-runner to win the American is a three-headed candidate, the National Division is crazier then ever. The top three favorites during the preseason are currently bringing up the rear. And the team picked to finish last, UAB, is currently sitting alone at the top with an 11-4 overall record and a 3-1 C-USA mark. Last week added a little more madness to the equation.

Memphis dropped to 1-2 in conference with a last-second home loss to South Florida, 75-74. A ten-foot jumper by Billy Richmond and a tip-in attempt by Chris Massie were both off the mark, sending the Tigers to their second-straight conference loss.

Southern Mississippi, after winning their first two C-USA games, promptly loss their next two games last week. Houston finally won a game, knocking off struggling Saint Louis. The win, despite an awful 3-10 overall record, propelled the Cougars to fourth in the division. And the disappointment of the C-USA season, the Tulane Green Wave, dropped to 0-3 in conference play.

The question started to grow in every team’s mind now is – are the Blazers for real? Whether they are or not, they have a great change to increase their conference lead over the course of the next few weeks. They play Tulane twice, TCU and then Southern Mississippi again. With a couple more games like their win over Southern Miss last week and soon the Blazers will, dare I say it, the team to beat in the National Division.

Player of the Week

Leonard Stokes – Cincinnati

The senior forward averaged 27.5 points during the Bearcats two wins last week. He shot 22-of-36 from the field and seemed to find the hoop whenever Cincinnati was in need of a bucket.

Games to Watch

Charlotte at Cincinnati, Saturday at noon

These two have produced heated contests through the years. Demon Brown is 12-of-16 from beyond the arc the past three games. He will have to continue his hot streak if the Niners are going to pull the upset.

TCU at Creighton, Saturday at 2 p.m.

Why is this a game to watch? Because it’s a reason to watch the Bluejay’s Kyle Korver play. Perhaps the best shooter in the country, Korver has guided the Jays into the Top 25 all season.

UAB at Tulane, Saturday at 2 p.m.

In the National Division, it’s never too late to turn your season around. It’s getting near that point though for the Green Wave. If UAB is going to contend for the title, they must learn how to win conference road games.


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