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Conference USA Preview

November 10, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



Conference USA Preview

by Zach Van Hart

Last season was a first for Conference USA – the first time a conference member made it to the Final Four. Marquette’s trip through the NCAA Tournament now seems long forgotten, as the probable reshuffle of C-USA will start to take place during the next few weeks. Regardless of what happens during the upcoming seasons, there is no change to the 14 teams who will compete for the 2003-2004 conference title. As the season opens, there is no clear-cut favorite to take the crown. Seemingly half the conference has a legitimate shot at the title.

New this season is the dismantling of two divisions; the league is now just one conglomerate of 14 teams. Everyone will play each other once, plus three extra games with conference rivals.

Preseason Awards

All-Conference
Francisco Garcia, Louisville
Travis Diener, Marquette
Demon Brown, Charlotte
Andre Brown, DePaul
Morris Finley, UAB
Antonio Burks, Memphis

MVP
Morris Finley, UAB

Newcomer of the Year
Robert Whaley, Cincinnati

Freshman of the Year
Martin Iti, Charlotte

Coach on the Hot Seat
Shawn Finney, Tulane

Best Player Nobody Talks About
Cory Santee, TCU

Defensive Player of the Year
Andre Brown, DePaul

Well it’s time to break down the C-USA 2003-2004 season and survey the contenders, the pretenders, and the bottom of the pack.

1. Cincinnati Bearcats (17-12, 9-7, T-3rd)

Last year was a season to forget in Bearcat land. Cincinnati did not win the C-USA regular season title for the first time ever, then lost during the first round of the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament. This season figures to be different.

Cincinnati returns several key players from last season, in addition to one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. The results, if the team learns to play together, should result in another conference title.

The main man back for the Bearcats is junior power forward Jason Maxiell. While Maxiell failed to live up to the hype from a year ago, he constantly drew the attention of two or three defenders. The opposition cannot afford that this season as Maxiell will have reinforcements. They include transfers James White and Robert Whaley, two of the most-sought after big men in the nation.

In the backcourt, seniors Field Williams and Tony Bobbitt will share shooting guard duties, while a plethora of potential point guards will battle out for the starting position.

Cincinnati’s bench will go at least ten deep, this in fact could be Bob Huggins’ deepest team during his fifteen-year tenure.

The Bearcats have a fairly weak schedule prior to conference play, but have a difficult conference schedule. They must go on the road to Marquette, UAB and Southern Miss, along with non-conference road games against Xavier and Wake Forest. Throw in a home-and-home with Louisville, and this Cincinnati will have to earn their eighth C-USA title the hard way.

2. Louisville Cardinals (25-7, 11-5, 2nd)

The Cardinals have big shoes to fill with the departures of Reece Gaines, Marvin Stone, Erik Brown and Bryant Northern. In typical Rick Pitino style, Louisville will counter with athletes, athletes, and more athletes.

Stepping into the spotlight this season is sophomore forward Francisco Garcia. Last year, Garcia made a name for himself with deadly three-point shooting. He finished second on the team in scoring, averaging 11.2 points per game. This year, Louisville will look at him when it needs a basket.

Despite the loss of four key players, the Cardinals return several contributors from last season. In the backcourt, sophomore Taquan Dean will provide leadership and points. Dean started 22 games as a freshman and is also capable of making the big shot for the Cards. He showed this in the C-USA Tournament, nailing a three-pointer with eleven seconds remaining to knock off Memphis.

Inside, Pitino is hoping Kendall Dartez steps up and someone else fills the roll of rebounder. Dartez showed signs of brilliance last year; the senior center will be the main inside score this year. Ellis Myles is redshirting so his right knee, injured last season, can fully heal. A host of Cardinals will fill his void.

Louisville does get UAB and Southern Miss at home, but must face Cincinnati, Memphis and Marquette twice. In the new one division format, that’s as brutal as it gets.

3. UAB Blazers (21-13, 8-8, T-2nd)

The Blazers were the surprise of C-USA last season. Predicted by many to finish last in the National Division, UAB finished second, barely lost in the C-USA Tournament finals and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT. Not too bad a season for first year head coach Mike Anderson.

The (very) bright side for the Blazers is all but one starters return from a year ago. Senior Morris Finley is the one of the top two favorites to win the scoring title this season in the conference, finishing second last year with 18.3 points per game. He is deadly from outside and gets his shot off at any moment.

Another bright side for UAB is it probably does not need Finley to score as much this season. A formable frontcourt, lead by Sidney Ball and Demario Eddins, will provide scoring and rebounding for the Blazers.

The lone downer is the player who graduated last year, point guard Eric Bush. He was the pulse and leader of the team, along with being a good scorer and excellent defender. The team will miss Bush, on and off the court.

UAB must travel to Memphis, Louisville and DePaul, but they have home-and-homes with USF, East Carolina and Tulane. If they beat who they should and knock off a couple of big guns, this could be one of the best seasons in school history.

4. Marquette Golden Eagles (27-6, 14-2, 1st)

Yes, Dwyane Wade is gone. Yes, Robert Jackson is gone. Marquette is good anyway. While the Golden Eagles may not have the talent to repeat last season’s run to the Final Four, they still have enough talent to challenge for another C-USA title.

The man for Marquette this season will be junior point guard Travis Diener. Lost in Wade’s sick tournament was how big Diener performed. He will carry a larger scoring role this season, along with his point guard duties.

Look for Scott Novak to become the team’s No. 2 scorer. The 6-foot-10 sophomore forward is deadly from outside. This year, look for Novak to take his scoring both inside and out.

A big deciding factor for the Eagles will be the health of senior center Scott Merritt and how well he performs. With Jackson gone, Marquette is expecting a breakout season from him. He has the talent to do it, now it’s just a matter of Merritt stepping up to the plate.

Marquette will see what it is made of early, with non-conference games against Notre Dame, Arizona and Wisconsin. In conference play, they must travel to UAB and Southern Miss, plus have home-and-homes against Louisville and DePaul. The schedule is a monster, but this is nothing new to the Eagles.

5. Memphis Tigers (23-7, 13-3, 1st)

Wherever John Calipari has coached, his offense has usually revolved around a big man. Being it Marcus Camby, Kelly Wise or Chris Massie; a big man was a big part of the offense. For 2003-2004, this strategy will be thrown out the window.

Instead, guards and athletic forwards will lead the way for the Tigers. With Massie and John Grice gone, Memphis’ strength now resides in its backcourt. Leading the charge is senior point guard Antonio Burks.

Burks averaged 9.7 points and 5.6 assists last season, and was always making big plays down the stretch. This year he will be encouraged to pull the trigger more, but with so many offensive weapons this may not happen.

Jeremy Hunt will provide balance in the backcourt. Hurt for a big part of last year, and coming off an injury to start this season, Hunt is a solid point and may allow Burks to play some two-guard.

The top returning scorer is sophomore forward Rodney Carney. The slashing small forward should have an even easier time driving to the hoop this year without Massie clogging the lanes.

Now the question is, who will rebound the ball and defend the opposition’s best big man? Honestly, this question is up in the air right now. Center will be by committee for Memphis.

The Tigers face Illinois and Missouri during December before heading into C-USA play. They finish their season on the road against Cincinnati, a game that could decide the league champion.

6. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (13-15, 5-11, 6th)

Yes, Southern Miss went 5-11 in conference play last year and finished sixth in the National Division. Last year was a young but talented squad, still figuring out how to play as a team. This year they have the experience and the talent and are prepared to turn some heads in C-USA.

The Eagles have the top frontcourt in the league. Seniors Charles Gaines and Greg Johnson, along with sophomore Jasper Johnson, can each average fifteen points and ten rebounds if they choose to. It will be impossible for any defense to stop all three during a given night.

Southern Miss’ fortunes could fall upon junior point guard Dante Stiggers’ shoulders. If Stiggers can play smart basketball and get all three of the big men involved, good things could happen for the Eagles.

Southern Miss must travel to Memphis and Marquette, plays UAB and Cincinnati at home, and has a home-and-home with Louisville. The schedule is not easy, but will allow the Eagles to challenge for the conference title.

7. DePaul Blue Demons (16-13, 8-8, T-5th)

If not for UAB, the Blue Demons would have been last season’s surprise in C-USA. Predicted by some to finish last in the American Division, DePaul finished 8-8 and advanced to the NIT. This year should see steady improvement under second-year coach Dave Leitao.

The big loss for the Demons is Sam Hoskin., who led the team in scoring last year with a 15.6 average. He was the team’s go-to guy in the clutch. Luckily for Leitao, a few different players can fill that role this year.

Key for DePaul will be the consistency of senior center Andre Brown. Brown sat out eleven games last year because of a nagging knee injury and never performed up to his potential. He still finished fourth in rebounding in C-USA and again will be near the top. This year, look for him to take on more of a scoring load for the Demons.

A host of returnees including Delonte Holland, Drake Diener and Quemont Greer will figure to form one of the top starting lineups in the league. The wildcard for DePaul will be the play of its five freshmen. If they can produce solid minutes, the Blue Demons could also contend for the title.

8. Charlotte 49ers (13-15, 8-8, T-5th)

Demon Brown can almost single-handedly win games. This season, head coach Bobby Lutz will probably need him to. Brown is perhaps the top three-point shooter in the country. Last year Brown averaged 16.8 points and four three-pointers per game. He also attempted nearly twelve shots from deep per game. Just call him Downtown Brown.

He will be assisted by sophomore forward Curtis Withers and junior forward Eddie Basden. They will provide the scoring inside for Charlotte and serve as the yin to Brown’s yang.

This is where it gets hazy for the 49ers. With loss of Curtis Nash to graduation and Butter Johnson, who transferred, Lutz needs someone or a few others to step up. Unfortunately, Charlotte is not as deep as it used to be.

However, the difference maker could by freshman center Martin Iti. The 7-foot stud from Mt. Zion Academy is getting mad hype and could end up as Freshman of the Year in the conference. He may have to shoulder a lot for the 49ers to make a run at the postseason.

9. Saint Louis Billikens (16-14, 9-7, T-3rd)

Despite the departure of Wade at Marquette and Gaines in Louisville, the biggest loss by any team in C-USA is Saint Louis losing Marque Perry to graduation. Perry did so many things for last year’s Billiken squad and will be sorely missed.

This year will be an interesting mix for Saint Louis; while there are a few returning starters from a year ago, the team has five newcomers, who all plan on challenging for playing time. Head coach Brad Soderberg could have a rough time finding a rotation he is happy with at any point throughout the season.

This year’s top returnee is senior guard Josh Fisher, who averaged 8.2 points and 3.7 assists per game last season. He will need to be the team’s leader on and off the court, though he has big shoes to fill.

Forward Chris Sloan and guard Anthony Drejaj will also take on larger roles in the offense, while forward/center Izik Ohanon will be the team’s defensive stopper and top rebounder.

The Billikens non-conference schedule is challenging, with games against Arizona, Dayton and Butler. Their C-USA schedule is brutal, with road games at Memphis, Cincinnati and UAB and home-and-homes with DePaul and Marquette.

10. East Carolina Pirates (12-15, 3-13, 7th)

Last year, the Pirates season fell apart on Jan. 16. At the time, East Carolina was 10-3 and had again defeated Marquette at home. They had Louisville coming into Mingis Coliseum, with a national television audience to watch. They were blown out, 87-70, and would only win two more games all season.

This year East Carolina is looking to avoid such a collapse. They return four of five starters and six of their eight top players. The question is, can they move up from the league’s bottom tier.

The Pirates strength is their frontcourt. They have four solid returnees, including Erroyl Bing and Gabriel Mikulas. In the frontcourt, guard Derrick Wiley was the team’s top scorer a year ago, averaging fourteen points per game.

The question mark is at the point guard. Travis Holcomb-Faye is gone to graduation. Waiting in the wings in Belton Rivers, who saw some action last year but must step up this season for the Pirates.

The Pirates schedule is by no means easy. They travel to Cincinnati, have a home-and-home with UAB and close out the season on the road against Marquette and Southern Miss. If East Carolina plans to climb the C-USA, this is the year to do it. They just do not have enough ammunition to get it done.

11. Tulane Green Wave (16-15, 8-8, 2nd)

While Saint Louis and Marquette will feel the affects of losing one key player, Tulane must deal with the loss of five key players. Five seniors graduated from a Green Wave team that finished second in the National Division with an 8-8 conference mark. This season, the pressure to carry this suddenly green (no pun intended) team will reside on the shoulders of Wayne Tinsley.

The senior forward is the team’s leading returnee in minutes, scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. He also ranks 10th all-time in games started (84) at Tulane. The team will go only as far as he takes them.

Senior center Ivan Pjevcevic stepped up last season, jumping into the starting lineup midway through the year. While standing 7-foot, Pjevcevic is a threat from deep, going 34-of-80 from behind the line last year. On the other side of the ball, Pjevcevic will be called upon to contain the middle.

He will be joined by senior center/forward George Brown, who will see extended action for the first time during his career. Tinsley will be teamed with junior point guard Marcus Kinzer. After that, Tulane is very young, including five freshmen.

The Green Wave starts out the conference season at home against Cincinnati, but from there they will travel to face the likes of Louisville, Marquette and DePaul. Expect a rude awakening for this young squad, but for Tinsley to will the team to some wins.

12. South Florida Bulls (15-14, 7-9, 4th)

Always a solid program, USF has fallen upon hard times. Seth Greenberg bolted to take the head coaching job at Virginia Tech. Reggie Kohn and Will McDonald, last year’s lone bright spots, graduated. During the offseason, Yusuf Baker was dismissed from the team. Not a good summer for the Bulls.

The players USF will be depending on are senior guard Jimmy Baxter, junior guard Marlyn Bryant and junior forward Terrance Leather. Baxter averaged 14.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last year, Leather averaged 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds and Bryant 7.1 points and 4.9 rebounds.

The Bulls C-USA schedule is somewhat favorable, with Marquette, Louisville, DePaul and Southern Miss all traveling to Tampa, plus a home-and-home with UAB. Still, the Bulls will simply not be that good this season.

13. TCU Horned Frogs (9-19, 3-13, 7th)

TCU is the perfect example for the age-old adage, “Defense wins games.” That’s because it doesn’t have any and that’s why the Horned Frogs finished last in the National Division during 2002-2003. Plus, gone from last year’s team are Junior Blount, Bingo Merriex and Jamal Brown, three of the team’s top four scorers.

In the backcourt, the leader will be junior Cory Santee. The 6-foot-2 Santee finished second in scoring and first in assists last year for the Horned Frogs, averaging 16.3 points and 5.0 assists per game. This season, he needs to distribute just as much while kicking his scoring up a notch for TCU to contend.

Inside the leader will be 6-7 sophomore Chudi Chinweze. Last year Chinweze was a pleasant surprise, providing 8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game off the bench. This year he will lead a team with little experience playing together.

The Horned Frogs have Cincinnati, UAB, Marquette and Memphis on the road. Might as well stick a fork in them, they’re done.

14. Houston Cougars (8-20, 6-10, 5th)

All-world Louis Truscott is gone. But the second half of last year’s one-two punch, Andre Owen, is not. Owens averaged 13.9 points and 3.2 assists per game last season. This year, not only will he lead the offense, but the offense will go through him.

The strength of the Cougars resides in their backcourt. Joining Owens is Cedrick Hensley and Bryan Shelton. The sophomore Hensley averaged 5.8 points last year while starting 17 games; the junior Shelton averaged 4.8 points while starting 25 games.

Inside, Anwar Ferguson will do the best he can to fill the void left by Truscott. While Truscott provided rebounding, Ferguson specializes in blocking shots. He finished last year second in C-USA with a 1.7 blocks per game average. At 7-foot, rebounding should not be a problem now that he will be depended upon to control the boards.

The Cougars must travel to Memphis, Louisville and UAB, while they get Cincinnati and Marquette at home. Houston just does not have the talent to hang with the big boys in C-USA.

Wrap-up

The switch to no divisions will make a huge difference this year. Teams that are used to home-and-homes, (such as Marquette and Cincinnati), now must adjust to only one game all year. On the court though, C-USA is very balanced at the top half of the conference. While seven teams have a realistic shot at the title, look for Cincinnati to pull away late in the season and reclaim their throne as conference champs.

     

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