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Hello to the new Conference USA

November 25, 2003 Columns No Comments

Welcome to the “New” Conference USA

by Zach Van Hart

(see also: Farewell to the Old Conference USA)

As we already know, powerhouses Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette are leaving Conference USA in a few years. But do not fret C-USA college basketball fans, because they will be replaced by the likes of, um, SMU and Central Florida?

Five new schools have committed to replace the Big East departurees in time for the 2005-06 season. We will take a look at these five programs, but first two more goodbyes we did not get a chance to say during the last “Goodbye to the ‘Old’ Conference USA,” column.

Goodbye to Saint Louis. Of course the conference will miss this always tough and gritty squad, but honestly we will miss the mascot the most. If I said it before, I’ve said 937 times; “What the heck is a Billiken?” I went to the C-USA Tournament last year and watched a colleague of mine laugh for an hour straight, (no joke), at the mascot. At least SLU is moving to the A-10, so if I really miss seeing it I can just shoot over to a Xavier-Saint Louis game.

Goodbye to Charlotte. Living in Cincinnati, the Niners and Bearcats have a true love-hate relationship, so my feelings are mixed on their departure. Charlotte has had one of the best runs of any team in C-USA, perhaps second only to Cincinnati. Bobby Lutz has done a terrific job at building continuing success in North Carolina. Charlotte could do some series damage in the A-10.

So as of now, C-USA will be a twelve-team conference. The remaining seven are East Carolina, UAB, Southern Miss, Houston, Tulane, Memphis and TCU. However, there continues to be talk that the Horned Frogs may bolt also. As of now though, those five will be joined by SMU, Tulsa, Rice, Marshall and Central Florida. Out of these five, only Tulsa is really known for its basketball prowess. So let’s start from the top and go on down the list of who’s who among the soon-to-be members of C-USA.

The Golden Hurricanes are easily the cream of this class. In fact, it’s too bad Tulsa will not get to play against Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette because they could stack up with them. The Hurricanes are known for pulling off upsets in the NCAA Tournament. Before there was Gonzaga, there was Tulsa, except they are still pulling off upsets.

During the past 10 seasons, the Hurricanes have made the NCAA’s eight times, gone 10-8 and failed to win their First Round game only once. Two of their biggest tourney wins in recent years have come at the expense of C-USA’s elite. During the 2000 season, Tulsa knocked out No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the Second Round, 69-61, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. (The Hurricanes would advance to the Elite Eight, their best season in program history). Then in 2002, they knocked off No. 5 seed Marquette 71-69 in the First Round.

Tulsa will compete with Memphis to be the top team in the league. Fairly close geographically, these two teams could form a nice little rivalry in C-USA, something the Tigers will be looking for after Louisville and Cincinnati leave.

The Rice Owls are more known for track and field and baseball, they won the College World Series this past June, but appear to be up and coming in basketball. Last year the Owls finished 19-10, their most wins since the 1991-92 season. Willis Wilson is in his twelfth season as head coach at Rice and finally has some horses to compete with big time schools. While the Owls likely will not be a dominant force in C-USA, they will do better than most expect from them.

SMU has been very consistent during its seven-year tenure in the WAC; never winning more than 21 games, but have won at least 15 games each season. They have also played in the upper half of the league but have rarely been at the very top. Their only postseason appearance during the seven years was a birth in the NIT after the 1999-2000 season. The Mustangs last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 1993. Assuming TCU stays, these two will be able to have at it in all sports, including basketball, every season.

Marshall represents half of the MAC contingency to join C-USA. The Thundering Herd is more known for its football program; they are an average basketball program. Playing in the tough MAC, the Herd went 15-15 and 14-15 during the past two seasons. They would likely be in the lower half of the league talent wise. Geographically wise, there are no teams close to Marshall at all. While almost the entire Big East is within a few hours, the Herds’ closest opponent is East Carolina.

Rounding out the quintet is Central Florida, who has fared a little better than Marshall in MAC action. Last year the Golden Knights finished 21-11 and have consistently put together near 20-win seasons. They could make a run near the top of C-USA and possibly start some rivalries with UAB and Southern Miss.

The conference will definitely not be the same without the “old” big five, but on the bright side, none of these five programs coming in can be considered weak programs. Throw Tulsa, an unheralded basketball powerhouse, into the mix and C-USA looks to be at worst, the most dominant mid-major in the country come 2005-06.


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