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State of C-USA

February 9, 2004 Columns No Comments

Farewell to the “Old” Conference USA

by Zach Van Hart

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

What a great line, huh? While that was talking about two cities, I’m using it to describe one conference, Conference USA. During the past week and a half, some of the biggest wins ever in conference history took place, displaying more than ever the balance that now exists in the conference. But who cares, because yet another school announced it’s leaving for the 2005-06 athletic season. Is anyone going to stay?

Last Saturday, two teams ranked in the Top 10 were in C-USA. Both teams were playing at home against unranked conference foes. Both top teams lost.

Three seasons ago, it would have been unheard of that two C-USA teams would even be ranked in the Top 25, let alone be two of the top teams in the nation. For these two teams to lose would be unexpected; for them to lose at home would be a bad joke.

Yet it happened. Charlotte marched in to Cincinnati, a place it had never won before and walked out with its second road win against a Top 10 team this season. Marquette walked in to Freedom Hall and beat Louisville, only one of the hottest teams in the country.

But the crazy wins did not stop there. Prior to this week, TCU’s biggest win during its first two-plus years in C-USA was, well, it didn’t really have a big win in C-USA. That was until the Horned Frogs went into Milwaukee and played the same Golden Eagles that just defeated Top 10 Louisville. Shocking everyone in the Bradley Center, TCU won 85-79, getting to .500 in conference play for the first time ever in February.

Just as the Horned Frogs win their first signature win during its brief C-USA tenure; it announced the end of its C-USA tenure. Only four days prior to defeating Marquette, TCU became the eighth university to announce its departure from C-USA during the past four months, deciding to move to the Mountain West Conference.

While losing the Horned Frogs is a much bigger loss on the football front compared to the basketball front, it still affects the conference on the court. TCU is a capable program that despite less than talent from the past two seasons is having its best season in three years. It would be one thing if the conference was having a down year; nothing could be farther from the truth.

Right now, five weeks before Selection Sunday, C-USA is in great position to send six teams to the NCAA Tournament. While Louisville and Cincinnati continue to sit high in the polls, both are trailing UAB for first place in the conference. This is not a fluke either. The Blazers are a great squad, filled with seven very capable players and led by senior shooting guard Morris Finley.

Charlotte is one of the most dangerous teams in not only C-USA, but all of America. With great play inside and out, they can play with anyone if their guards are hitting from deep. Memphis showed it’s for real by beating Louisville Wednesday night. The Tigers are amongst the conglomerate of teams with two losses in conference and have one of best and unheralded freshman in the country, Sean Banks.

Then there is Marquette. While they have now lost at home to TCU and to Southern Miss in Green Bay, they may not be bad losses after all. Obviously the Eagles are a talented bunch, if they went on the road to defeat Louisville and hung with Arizona and Wisconsin on the road too. While they are on the bubble right now, they deserve a bid.

So C-USA is finally a force in college basketball. What’s going to happen in two years? Of the six teams that will remain in the conference, only two are having good years this season (UAB and Memphis). Two are having decent to poor seasons (Southern Miss and Houston) and two have combined for one conference win (East Carolina and Tulane).

Now, it appears the key to C-USA’s survival is the return of UAB’s basketball program. A great team during the early to mid ’90s, the Blazers disappeared during the beginning of C-USA. Now they are 6-1 in conference play coming into Saturday and appear to be the team that will compete with Memphis staring in two years.

For now though, it’s anyone’s game. Five teams have a legitimate chance at winning the conference title. Last year’s conference champ appears out of the running, and the favorites as short as two weeks ago are now looking at tough roads to the title. In C-USA, it’s the best of times, as it tries to postpone the worst of times as long as it can.


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