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Goodbye Old C-USA

November 10, 2003 Columns No Comments

Farewell to the “Old” Conference USA

by Zach Van Hart

Finally, it’s official. The best Conference USA has to offer in college basketball is bolting for the “new” Big East. In two years, the likes of Marquette, Cincinnati and Louisville will be replaced by SMU, Marshall and Rice. So before C-USA goes through its major changes, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and remember what the “old” C-USA was all about.

During the early days, all of eight years ago, C-USA looked like a great idea gone bad. Remember how solid teams like DePaul, UAB and Saint Louis were during the early ’90s? With the always dominant Louisville, resurgent Cincinnati, spectacular Memphis and the steadiness of Marquette and Tulane, it seemed like C-USA was going to be the next powerhouse in college basketball. Yet as soon as the engine turned on, the wheels fell off.

DePaul went into the dumps. UAB suddenly was not as strong as it had been. Coaching strongholds Charlie Spoonhour, Larry Finch, even Denny Crum, were out or heading on their way. Basically, a basketball dream was becoming a basketball nightmare.

Cincinnati kept C-USA afloat for quite a few years, only to reinforce the conference’s mediocrity by bowing out of the NCAA Tournament during the second round every year.

A flash in the pan would come almost every season, like the 1999 DePaul squad. Led by Quentin Richardson, the Blue Demons spent most of the season in the Top 25. But then Richardson bolted for the NBA and DePaul went downhill soon after.

Then came the 1999-2000 season, the year it seemed C-USA would finally get on the map. Cincinnati held the No. 1 ranking for most of the season and appeared to be the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship. Until a fluke leg injury happened to Kenyon Martin, the National Player of the Year, during the opening few minutes of the Bearcats’ opening round conference tournament game ended his season. Cincinnati lost in the second round, again.

The following season may have been the worst in C-USA history. No team was good. Two teams made it into the NCAA Tournament; Charlotte because they won the conference tournament (someone had to) and Cincinnati because its name is Cincinnati.

But that was also the year it appeared like the conference would be saved. John Calipari became head coach at Memphis, starting a string of big-time coaches coming to C-USA breathing new life into the corpse of a conference. At the end of the season, Rick Pitino became head coach at Louisville. The resurrection was on.

Two seasons later, the 2002-2003 season, C-USA was finally the power conference it set out to be eight years ago. Cincinnati, who had won the regular season title every year since its inception, finished fifth. Louisville reached as high as No. 2 in the national rankings, and only finished third in the conference. And as we all know, Marquette advanced to the Final Four, the first C-USA team to accomplish that.

Then just like that, the conference is now staring at a two-year trial before it will likely sink back into the ranks of a mid-major conference. So let’s say goodbye to these five schools who will taking their sneakers and rafters eastward.

Goodbye Marquette. Your Golden Eagles made everyone proud of C-USA last year with your magic run to the Final Four, knocking off tournament-favorite Kentucky in the Elite Eight to get there. You also play smart, unselfish basketball, the way it should be. Your coach Tom Crean is a class act and is one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the college ranks. You will do well in the Big East.

Goodbye Cincinnati. You kept C-USA going during the late ’90s when seemingly every other school could not put successful back-to-back seasons together. You have advanced to twelve-straight NCAA Tournaments and played with a target on your back every single time you have stepped on the court for a conference game. You will also do well in the Big East.

Goodbye Louisville. Last year you announced your return as one of the elite programs in college basketball. With Pitino at the helm, we expect nothing but greatest from you. This season, your sophomore stud Francisco Garcia has been anointed the C-USA Preseason Player of the Year by the coaches. In a few years, you very well could become the best team in the Big East. You will do fine.

Goodbye DePaul. Lost in all of the hoopla of Louisville’s awesome start, Marquette’s late finish and UAB’s surprising turnaround last year was the Blue Demons’ improvement. First-year head coach Dave Leitao has turned the program around, not into a NCAA Tournament team, but a NIT team nonetheless. They will be a good, solid team in the Big East.

Goodbye USF. While the Bulls have been a decent team in the past, the main reason they are going to the Big East is so the conference maintains a football presence in the Florida market. USF is going to struggle during the next few seasons, but with new head coach Robert McCullum at the helm, the Bulls have potential to succeed in the Big East.

Next time, we will take a look at the new teams coming to C-USA for the 2005-06 season.


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