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Conference USA Notebook

March 2, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Conference USA Notebook

by Zach Van Hart

Happenings up top

With five teams still in contention for the regular season title, there was a plethora of big games last week. Two of the biggest wins came via road teams, plus a few big wins from home teams.

The first big win of the week came Wednesday as DePaul, fighting for not only a share of the regular season title but a ticket to the Big Dance, went to Louisville and handed the Cardinals its then fourth-straight loss, 60-58 in overtime. Quemont Greer was the big playmaker for the Blue Demons, scoring nineteen points and hitting the go-ahead shot in overtime.

Big road win No. 2 came Saturday in Charlotte, as Cincinnati avenged an earlier home loss to the Niners with a 75-67 win. The Bearcats starting frontcourt of Jason Maxiell, Kareem Johnson and James White had a monster game, totaling 38 points, fifteen rebounds and ten assists. Charlotte could never get going from outside, shooting six of 23 from beyond the three-point line.

Memphis came back to Earth and Louisville finally halted its losing streak Saturday in Freedom Hall, as the Cards won 66-60. Rick Pitino’s bunch resembled its early season self, forcing 21 Tiger turnovers and turning them into 20 points. Sean Banks and Antonio Burks combined for 48 points, but received little help from their teammates. Francisco Garcia led Louisville with eighteen points.

Elsewhere, UAB torched Marquette at home, 87-69, after losing a shocker at Tulane, 74-69. Earlier in the week, Memphis won against Southern Miss, Cincinnati defeated Saint Louis, Charlotte beat TCU in overtime and DePaul beat Southern Miss at home Saturday. As it now stands, Cincinnati and Memphis are tied for first with 11-3 conference marks, while UAB, Charlotte and UAB all stand at 10-4. Details on the scenarios for the final week will come later.

How they’re looking

With five teams competing for the regular season crown and none of them named Louisville, its no surprise this is the most successful season in the C-USA. Now the talk is, “How many teams will get a bid to the tournament?”

Talk amongst NCAA basketball experts says that five teams are currently “locks” for March Madness – Cincinnati, Charlotte, Louisville, UAB and Memphis. Prior to Saturday, a few publications listed Louisville as a bubble team, which seemed a bit extreme. A RPI ranking in the Top 25, wins against two No. 1 teams and at the time ranked No. 20, the Cards were lock before Saturday. Their win against Memphis solidified that.

Memphis, Cincinnati, UAB and Charlotte are also ranked in the top 30 in the RPI and each own at least one win against a Top 25 team. It appears now there is one question mark (DePaul) and one team whose at-large bubble has burst (Marquette).

The Blue Demons are currently No. 50 in the RPI polls, still a bit low to merit an at-large bid. However, they are 8-2 during their last ten games and are coming off their biggest win of the season, at Louisville. If DePaul can knock off Cincinnati and USF this week, they will have accomplished two things: defeating a second highly ranked team and earned a share of regular season title. It would be hard for the committee to turn away a conference champion from one of the top six conferences in the country.

Marquette has reached the point where the only way it will be dancing is if it captures the conference tournament title. With at best a .500 record in conference, a 4-8 record during their past twelve games and a RPI ranking at 86, they have no shot at an at-large bid. However, they will likely end up in the NIT.

Along with Marquette and DePaul as possible NIT teams, Saint Louis is a likely NIT team. The Billikens will finish sixth or seventh in the conference and with sixteen or seventeen wins going into the conference tournament. With wins against Dayton, Kansas State, Charlotte, Marquette, DePaul and a close loss to Arizona, Saint Louis has enough quality wins to get an invite.

Possible award winners

The Oscars just ended and the season ending awards will be announced next week, but let’s take a look at are possible candidates at several awards.

Player of the Year

Antonio Burks, Travis Diener, Francisco Garcia, Curtis Withers

This is likely a two-man race between Burks and Diener. The Marquette guard is probably the best player of the year, as he is leading the conference in scoring (18.2) and assists (5.9). However, if his team is only the tenth best team in the conference, is he the most valuable?

If Memphis captures the regular season crown, look for the award to go to Burks. The senior point guard is fourth in the conference is scoring (16.7), second in assists (5.1), first in steals (2.5) and fifth in assist-to-turnover ration (2.5). More so, he has been the floor and emotional leader for a somewhat surprising Tiger squad.

Don’t count Withers though. The junior forward from Charlotte has had a breakout season, as he is sixth in scoring (16.5) and second in rebounding (9.4). In addition, he has made big shots all season for the also surprising 49ers. While Garcia is one of the best players in the conference, his midseason injury hindered not only is POY status but the success of Louisville.

Coach of the Year

Mike Anderson, John Calipari, Dave Leitao, Neil Dougherty

The two cosmetic favorites would be Calipari and Anderson. Not many predicted Memphis to finish in the top three in the conference, yet Calipari has led the Tigers while only playing seven to eight players all year. After a few backfires on recruits, he also landed a goldmine in freshman Sean Banks (more on him later).

UAB is another team that many did not expect to finish in the top five or six, and the job Anderson has done is more remarkable that Calipari’s. In just two seasons, Anderson has taken a doormat program and turned into one of the best in C-USA. He plays ten to eleven players and uses a fast-pace game to utilize his athleticism.

Leitao and Dougherty are not talked about as much but have done great jobs this season. Leitao was able to deal with an injury to his star forward Andre Brown and has his team peaking at just the right time. Dougherty’s Horned Frogs are only 7-7, but were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference and have picked up upsets at Marquette and against Louisville.

Defensive Player of the Year

Burks, Charles Gaines, Anwar Ferguson, Garcia

Burks as we mentioned earlier is the conference leader is steals and is a very good on the ball defender. Garcia is fourth in the conference in steals (1.9) and eighth in blocks (1.5). Gaines is the conference’s leader in rebounds (10.4) and defensive rebounds (7.3). Ferguson is second in the country and first in the conference in blocks (4.1) and sixth in rebounds (7.2). Look for Ferguson or Burks to win the award.

Freshman of the Year

Sean Banks

This case is closed. Banks is second in the conference in scoring (17.4) and sixth in rebounds (7.2) He is shooting 73 percent from the free-throw line and 37.4 percent from beyond the three-point line. He has scored 20-plus points ten times and during the past the four games. End of story.

The Big finish

So how is it going to end? Check this out: If Cincinnati loses at DePaul and wins at home against Memphis, and the Blue Demons, Tigers, 49ers and Blazers win their other games, which is likely, than there will be a five-way tie for the regular season title. If that is the case, than the rankings for the C-USA Tournament would be as such – No. 1 DePaul, No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 3 UAB, No. 4 Memphis and No. 5 Charlotte.

Obviously, the Cincinnati-DePaul and the Cincinnati-Memphis both hold major tournament implications. There are other big games this week though. Louisville visits Saint Louis to likely determine which team will be the No. 6 or No. 7 seed. Marquette hosts Louisville, a team they defeated on the road at Freedom Hall earlier this season. If the Golden Eagles win, they could sneak up to the No. 8 spot. If they lose though, they will likely fall to No. 10, behind Southern Miss and TCU. East Carolina and Tulane will likely round out the field of twelve.

Players of the week

James White, Cincinnati and Andre Brown, DePaul

White and Brown were instrumental in their team’s two wins last week, playing good overall games. White averaged 14.5 points, eight assists and seven rebounds during the UC’s wins against Saint Louis and Charlotte, while Brown averaged 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds during DePaul’s wins against Louisville and Southern Miss.

Around the rest of C-USA

East Carolina (12-12, 4-10) Last week: 1-0

The Pirates are hot, thanks to a three-game home stand. ECU completed the stand with a 69-60 win against USF, setting a new mark for consecutive C-USA wins with three. In addition, the Pirates put themselves in position to qualify for the conference tournament. If the tourney started today, they would earn the No. 11 seed and play either Louisville or Saint Louis. Against the Bulls, Derrick Wiley concluded his hot February with seventeen points, while Mike Cook contributed fourteen. This week – at Marquette, at Southern Miss.

Houston (9-16, 3-11) Last week: 0-1

The Cougars put up a good fight Saturday on the road against their intra-state rival TCU, but eventually fell 71-65. The loss was their sixth in the last seven games. Coupled with Tulane and East Carolina’s wins and suddenly Houston is on the outside looking in for an invite to the conference tournament. They will have to either upset Charlotte at home or Saint Louis on the road to crack the top twelve. Against the Horned Frogs, Andre Owens, Marcus Oliver and Lanny Smith had their typical steady games, but Marcus Shropshire stole the show. He led all scorers with 27 points. The Cougars led by eight at the half but allowed 45 second half points.

Marquette (15-10, 6-8) Last week: 1-1

As mentioned earlier, it appears the only way the Golden Eagles are getting into the NCAA Tournament now is by running the table at the conference tournament. They assured themselves at best a .500 finish in conference play with an 87-69 loss at UAB Saturday. The Blazer bench out-scored Marquette’s 37-14, Morris Finley netted 20 points and Steve Novack again struggled, shooting two of nine from the field for eight points. Add it up and it was another bad road loss.

Earlier in the week the Eagles struggled but held on for a 70-63 road win at USF. Scott Merritt got his wakeup call after playing sparingly last week, going for seventeen points and grabbing fifteen rebounds. Travis Diener had his usual damage of 20 points, as Marquette surged to an eighteen-point second half lead then held on despite hitting one field goal during the final thirteen minutes. This week – against East Carolina, against Louisville.

USF (7-18, 1-13) Last week: 0-2

So much for playing on national television. So much for the conference tournament. So much for the season as far as Bulls fans are concerned. USF lost both games last week, including its lone nationally televised game of the season, Thursday against Marquette, which eliminated the team from the tourney. Thursday, the Bulls rallied from an eighteen-point deficit but never could get the lead below five. Terrance Leather scored 21 and Bradley Mosley finished with eighteen in the losing cause.

Saturday the Bulls again were down and came back, this time to within one point, but never grabbed the lead and eventually lost at East Carolina, 69-60. Mosley led the team with 20 points, but Leather only played 23 minutes and finished with thirteen points and three rebounds. This week – against UAB, against DePaul.

Southern Miss (12-13, 5-9) Last week: 0-2

The Golden Eagles not only lost twice last week; they were never in either game. On the road, Southern Miss lost at Memphis, 74-56, before getting destroyed at DePaul, 80-51. Against the Tigers, the Eagles only managed seventeen field goals and their turnover total (sixteen) almost doubled their assist total (nine). Jasper Johnson and Charles Gaines both scored fourteen points to lead the team, but they only shot a combined five of seventeen from the field.

Saturday was worse. Gaines was the lone highlight, as he scored 24 points and grabbed twelve rebounds, while shooting ten of sixteen from the field. Unfortunately, his teammates went 12-of-35. This time the team managed to more than double their turnovers (sixteen) to assists (seven). DePaul’s starters out-scored the Eagles by eighteen. This week – against Tulane, against East Carolina.

Saint Louis (15-10, 8-6) Last week: 1-1

The Billikens suffered their worst loss of the season Wednesday, 77-52 at Cincinnati, before recovering to win at Tulane, 76-65. Against the Bearcats, Saint Louis simply struggled to contain James White and company. The co-Player of the Week scored 23 points and dished out seven assists. In addition, the Billikens could not find their own basket, shooting 37.5 percent from the field and only four of eighteen from beyond the arc.

Saturday SLU dominated the first half in typical fashion – suffocating defense. They only allowed fourteen first half points and took a 20 point lead into the half, 34-14. That defense broke down during the second half, but 42 points of their own were enough for the win. Josh Fisher scored 23 points and Reggie Bryant added 20. The Billikens hit their free throws down the stretch, going 27 of 38 for the game. This week – against Louisville, against Houston.

TCU (11-14, 7-7) Last week: 1-1

The Horned Frogs had another great chance at an upset and moving up in the conference standings put lost at home in overtime to Charlotte, 94-86. They were able to recover and defeated Houston Saturday, 71-65. With the score tied at 81 against the Niners, neither team scored during the final 2:32 of regulation, forcing overtime. Charlotte quickly scored the first nine points in OT and even the Frogs cut the lead to four, they would get no closer. Corey Santee led TCU with 20 points, as four players hit double figures.

Saturday the leader was Marcus Shropshire. The junior guard finished with 27 points and went seven of thirteen from behind the arc. Santee chipped in twelve points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while the Horned Frogs starting frontcourt added 26 points. This week – at Memphis, at UAB.

Tulane (11-14, 4-10) Last week: 1-1

Wednesday the Green Wave picked up its biggest win of the season, upsetting UAB in New Orleans, 74-69. Even though Tulane came back to Earth with a 76-65 loss against Saint Louis, the win earlier in the week gave the team an inside track at advancing to the conference tournament. If the tourney started today, the Wave would receive the twelfth and final spot.

Against the Blazers, Tulane lead nearly the entire game and withstood a late run to hold on. UAB took its first lead during the second half with 2:29 remaining on two free throws, making the score 65-64. Marcus Kinzer, scoring two of his team-high nineteen points with a scoop shot to regain the lead. Tulane would not relinquish it the rest of the game, knocking down eight free throws to seal the win. This week – at Southern Miss, at Charlotte.

Games to watch

Louisville at Saint Louis, Wednesday at 8 p.m.
This game will determine the No. 6 and 7 seeds for the conference tournament. The Cardinals have not won a road conference game since mid-January. Whichever team can dictate tempo will win.

Cincinnati at DePaul, Thursday at 9 p.m.
The Bearcats won by 25 earlier this season, but that was without Andre Brown. The Blue Demons are playing for their NCAA Tournament lives. The Brown-Jason Maxiell match-up will be one to watch.

Louisville at Marquette, Saturday at 1 p.m.
The Golden Eagles probably thought their win at Freedom Hall Jan. 31 was going to propel them to a late-season run through the conference. Instead, they went 2-5 in February. These teams could likely meet against the following week in the conference tourney.

Memphis at Cincinnati, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
This game could not only determine which one of these teams wins the regular season title, but which other teams win it, too. Two seasons ago these teams met in Cincinnati in similar circumstances and the Bearcats won in overtime. Expect another great game.


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