Yep, it's that time of year again. Here are five things I can't wait to see in the 2011-12 version of Conference USA.
1. How long will there even be a Conference USA?
Unfortunately, this doesn't have much to do with basketball, but it is the biggest question facing the conference at large in the coming year. You probably know the drill by now: The Big East needs to expand. To do so, it might try to snatch up a handful of C-USA stalwarts -- schools such as Memphis, Central Florida or East Carolina. If those moves go down, C-USA would be undeniably weakened, both in football and basketball. Where does it go from there? Can it go anywhere at all? What does that mean for those schools deemed undesirable by the currently expanding high-major conferences? This might be the least appealing storyline in college sports, but in C-USA's case, it is unfortunately one worth watching.
2. Can Memphis make the leap?
With freshmen, you never know. Last season, Josh Pastner's first recruiting class at the school came with big expectations and bigger talk -- Will Barton, the No. 8-ranked player in the class of 2010, felt so confident in his highly touted classmates he even predicted a national title before he had played a single college basketball game. It was fair to expect the Tigers to be good, if not dominant, despite being so very young.
Things didn't quite go according to Barton's plan. Pastner's young team struggled for much of the season. At times, the rail-thin Barton looked physically overmatched at the collegiate level. Few defenders were capable of corralling freshman point guard Joe Jackson, but few guards were as capable of creating their own mistakes. The team had but one true post presence in freshman Tarik Black. Growing pains became the order of the season.
In 2011-12, the Tigers are even more talented. Pastner added one of the few truly elite players in the class of 2011, No. 2-ranked small forward Adonis Thomas, to a team that is just still every bit as talented -- but with more experience and less youth. That dynamic has many ranking Memphis in the top 15 to begin the season. It even caused Barton to make another prediction. Will it come true in 2012? Maybe not. But the second time around, it doesn't feel quite so ridiculous. That's something.
3. Can UCF be an NCAA tournament team?
For the first two months of the 2011 season, Central Florida, led by Michael Jordan's offspring, Marcus Jordan, was one of the nation's most surprising stories. The Knights began with 14 straight wins, including one against Florida and one against Miami. Then came the fade: UCF lost its next eight games and 11 of its final 16, including a 15-point loss to East Carolina in the first round of the Conference USA tournament. At one point, UCF looked like a tourney team. That impression was corrected quickly. So are we silly for thinking they might be able to get close this season? Or was last season's start just a particularly hot streak? How good is Marcus Jordan, anyway? I'll be honest: I'm not sure. Whatever happens, it should be fun to watch.
4. Forget Central Florida -- what about the rest of the contenders?
The Knights might be the team that induces the most curiosity, but it hasn't been one of the most relevant teams in the league in recent seasons. That honor goes to UAB and UTEP, coached by Mike Davis and Tim Floyd, respectively. Can either coach make it to the tournament in 2012? It seems unwise to bet against either, given the recent success each has had, but neither coach enters the season with an experienced team. Floyd loses four seniors from his starting lineup. Davis loses two. Both coaches will have to replace those players with young talent quickly to keep Memphis from running away with the league to stay tight with an improving Tulsa team and to fend off intriguing challengers like Marshall.
5. The land of misfit toys.
Without waxing too poetic, there's something weirdly romantic about the current Conference USA. Consider the formerly disgraced or summarily dismissed coaches who have found solace in the comforting embrace of C-USA hoops: UTEP coach Floyd landed at the school after an ugly departure at USC; Davis came to UAB after the expectations at Indiana became too much; Larry Eustachy has battled his way to a redemptive position at Southern Miss; Matt Doherty has put the here-today, gone-tomorrow trauma of his brief UNC tenure behind him at SMU. East Carolina's Jeff Lebo (from Auburn) and Rice's Ben Braun (from Cal) resurfaced in this league after getting the proverbial heave-ho.
Whatever your feelings on each of these coaches, you can't say they can't coach. There's talent in the basketball offices of this league. There's talent on the floor, too. For now, most of it is at Memphis, and that's nothing new. But don't be surprised if we see a few breakthroughs this season. In a league such as this, a good coach is only a few big wins away.