Memphis sets the pace in C-USA

C-USA following Memphis' leadPenders Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMIHouston coach Tom Penders and the rest of the conference are trying to "catch up with Memphis."
It was deader than an armadillo trying to cross a six-lane Texas highway.

That was the consensus on the University of Memphis when Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul packed up their toys for the Big East, and Charlotte and St. Louis bolted for the Atlantic 10. Most people presumed the Tigers, left with no one to play with, would fade into the basketball backdrop.

Instead, Memphis not only has lifted itself into a possible preseason No. 1 perch, it has pulled its entire conference along with it. Conference USA, tagged when the league broke up in 2005 as a one-bid league for eternity, is on the verge of becoming a multi-bid league again.

And it can thank the would-be basketball orphan Tigers.

"Having them out there as a Final Four-type team, that gives us credibility," Houston coach Tom Penders said. "We all want to catch up with Memphis. You need to have a target team in the league; I don't care who you are. When Syracuse and Connecticut aren't good, that hurts the Big East. We need Memphis to be good, and they've been great."

It's easy to say now that there were no worries.

But there were worries. In its heyday, C-USA earned six bids to the NCAA Tournament, with a surplus of excellence that put it right among the big boys. Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette regularly accounted for those bids.

Without those schools, there was a whole lot of Memphis, a sprinkle of Alabama-Birmingham and not much else.

"I was a little worried," admitted Memphis senior Joey Dorsey, who was a sophomore when the league fell apart.

John Calipari insists he wasn't. He dug into his coaching bag and pulled out the UMass model, figuring his Tigers, like his Minutemen, were going to have go outside the league to get their worth. He scheduled national opponents; recruited players here, there and everywhere; and argued that it's better to be the top dog than mixed in with a pack of similar pedigrees.

In the three seasons since things supposedly fell apart, Calipari's squads have been to the Elite Eight twice, and this season's team boasts talent that the Memphis Grizzlies would envy.

"Two things I considered," Calipari said. "The conference gives you the schedule for January and February. What you do with the rest of it is up to you. That's number one. Second, kids don't care. Ask them about the league, and what's the only league they care about? The league. They want to know if you can prepare them to go to the NBA."

But what's more important is that while Calipari has helped the league tread water, the other teams have started to catch up. The average RPI for C-USA members is moving in the right direction: 148 this season, up from 169 the previous season.

Realizing the sink-or-swim reality of college hoops, schools are starting to pony up the cash to make things happen. This season, Central Florida is getting a new arena, SMU is debuting a new practice facility and Rice is sprucing up its gym.

"The league sagged a little bit when everyone left," said acting East Carolina coach Mack McCarthy, whose program has owned the conference basement. "But the teams that have come in all have made a strong commitment to being nationally competitive. Teams are spending; schools are giving you the resources. There's no question that, sitting here today at East Carolina, we know that we have all the resources that we need to be competitive in this league."

No question there still is tons to be done. Central Florida, Southern Miss and Tulsa all won 20 games last season, but none won 20 of the right games, and they were left out of the Selection Sunday fun.

To truly declare itself rejuvenated and reborn, C-USA needs to give Memphis some Madness company.

"This league is headed strongly in the right direction," Penders said. "It's a good basketball league. We may never get six teams in the way we did before, but the league makes sense now. We all have a lot of commonalities; rivalries are forming. We're on our way again."

-- Dana O'Neil
Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at dgoneil@msn.com.

No excuses
After last season ended, Tom Penders started to think about what sort of motivational slogan he could use for his team this season.

The Houston coach kept it short, sweet and simple.

" 'No excuses', that's what's on the back of our practice jerseys," he said. "We're bigger, deeper, healthier, and we had a great recruiting year."

Penders knows that by saying all that out loud, he is putting pressure on his Cougars. He doesn't care. The way he figures it, a school that has five Final Four banners hanging from its rafters and counts Elvin Hayes and Phi Slamma Jamma among its alumni can handle a little pressure.

That, after all, is why he took the job. After leaving George Washington, Penders was out of coaching for three years. He toyed with becoming an NBA assistant but didn't jump. Finally, when Houston athletic director Dave Maggard called, Penders bit.

He liked the idea of coaching a team that had tradition and an expectation of winning.

Now, of course, it is up to Penders to help meet that expectation. The Cougars finished 18-15 last season, their third consecutive winning season. Once that wasn't a big deal, but it has been 14 years since Houston could say that.

"We're in the ballgame, with runners on base," Penders said. "We're a player again. This year we want to go further, get in the tournament and make some noise. And I think we have an excellent opportunity."

And no excuses.

Cleaning up the mess
Mack McCarthy got his first head coaching job more than 20 years ago.

He earned his second when his mentor, Sonny Smith, retired.

He had been to the NCAA Tournament, and for a time, he walked away from the game.

In other words, he thought he had been through everything.

He was wrong.

On Aug. 6, East Carolina fired Ricky Stokes, a good four months after the coaching carousel generally stops spinning, and tabbed McCarthy as the acting coach.

"Fortunately, I've done this for a long time, but even that being said, I've never been in this situation," McCarthy said. "I don't know anybody who has."

For months, ECU talked about its basketball coaching future in vague ways, never saying if Stokes would stay or if he would go. But when spring gave way to summer, the logical assumption was that the administration had decided to stick with Stokes for one more season.

Ah, no.

Instead, the school tabbed McCarthy, abetting the confusion by making him only its acting coach.

"Aren't we all interim?" McCarthy said. "Billy Donovan is on about as opposite end of the spectrum as you can imagine, but a kid commits to him this year, and you just don't know [how long the coach is going to be there]. The fact that I have been in this business a long time keeps me from panicking. The younger guys are panicking a little bit. I'm fine."

The twist here is that despite its sort of stumble, bumble way of making a decision, East Carolina just might have found itself a coach to handle this mess. And it is a mess. The Pirates have won exactly two conference road games since joining the league in 2001-02 and have lost 44 of their past 58 games.

McCarthy is no stranger to rebuilding. As an assistant, he helped turn Auburn, a school that never had been to the NCAA Tournament, into a winner by luring a guy by the name of Barkley to campus. He made Tennessee-Chattanooga a perennial winner in the Southern Conference with five NCAA bids and two NIT invites in his 12 seasons, and he helped turn Virginia Commonwealth around as well.

"We have to establish a little bit of a different culture," McCarthy said. "The kids have done good things the last couple of years, but they haven't seen the results. I think the fact that we're starting with a blank slate will help."

Embracing the excitement
After a long flight home from Brazil with the U.S. Pan Am team, Joey Dorsey was driving back to his Memphis off-campus apartment when he saw it.

Or saw him.

Er, saw himself.

Bigger than life, the senior's image dunks on a highway billboard emblazoned with the trashtalking slogan, "That's Mister Dorsey to You."

"I just tripped," Dorsey said. "I didn't know about it. That billboard is crazy."

Some teams like to pooh-pooh preseason No. 1 rankings, shirking from the attention by pretending they aren't nearly as good as everyone else thinks, that the preseason doesn't matter. John Calipari isn't one of those people. The way he sees it, teams like the one he is coaching don't come around too often. So rather than run from the excitement, he has decided to embrace it.

And more, to proclaim it. The Memphis coach was instrumental in the planning and design of the 15 area billboards that proudly boast the Tigers' preseason status. In one, Pierre Niles stands stern-faced with the words, "2 seasons. 66 wins. Any questions?", daring naysayers to question the Tigers' worth.

"I asked the guys, 'Why do you think I'm so excited this year?' " Calipari said. "Somebody said, 'Because you know we're going to win.' Yes, I want to win, but it's because it's taken me eight years of ups and downs and piecing things together to get this team, the kind of team that players want it more than I want it for them. I've had the kind of teams that you have to drag along with you, but these guys want it more than I do. That's what makes me excited."

The real ingenuity in the advertising is down in the corner. In between the call for purchasing season tickets and the ticket hotline sits a single rose. It's Calipari's clever way of touting stud rookie Derrick Rose without incurring the wrath -- and the sanctions -- of the NCAA, which prohibits the use of incoming players in advertising.

"It was embarrassing at first," Rose said, laughing. "People kept saying, 'Why is there a rose in there?' They didn't get it."

They will when the season starts.

-- Dana O'Neil

2006-07 Standings/Stats

* NCAA Tournament

Fast breakC-USA

ECUEast Carolina
The good news for Mack McCarthy? The Pirates can't possibly sink any lower. Long the doormat in the conference, ECU might have reached new depths of misery in Ricky Stokes' final year. The Pirates won just six games -- and half of those were against Division II opponents. They lost to Richmond. They scored only 59.3 points per game, 314th out of 325 ranked teams. McCarthy has some more good news in that Sam Hinnant, a conference all-rookie selection two seasons ago, is back, after playing only 14 games last season because of a leg injury.

Losing Lanny Smith after four games, Tom Penders once argued, was akin to the football team losing quarterback Kevin Kolb. A savvy playmaker, Smith gave his coach a scare this summer when he twisted his ankle. "He's fine, but we put him in a boot," Penders said. "He's the type of kid, if you don't put him in a cast or a boot, he'll be out there till midnight." Losing Smith would be particularly bad this season, when Houston seems to have the tools to complete Penders' reclamation project. Seton Hall transfer Marcus Cousin adds bulk inside, and a talented rookie class, highlighted by New York point guard Zamal Nixon and two-guard Brockeith Pane, gives the Cougars the sort of depth to maybe turn the corner for good.

Thundering Herd faithful are hoping some of Billy Donovan's pixie dust was sprinkled on Donnie Jones. The school reached out to the Donovan protégé, hiring the Florida assistant to replace Ron Jirsa. Now, Jones will have to pull a point guard out of his hat. Chris Ross is gone, and Marshall really doesn't have a true floor leader. Darryl Merthie did little to make anyone confident he could be the guy, struggling with turnovers when he subbed for Ross. The Herd also lost forwards Travis Aikens and Tre Whitted, putting a lot on Markel Humphrey's shoulders. Humphrey put up impressive numbers last year -- 14 points and 6.5 rebounds -- but one guy can't resurrect a team that hasn't had a winning conference record since 2001 (and the Herd was in the MAC then).

There is a reason the Tigers are virtually everyone's preseason No. 1 team. Well, actually, lots of reasons. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose, to name a few. Memphis is loaded, with enough talent to field an NBA team. Last March, the Tigers went to the Elite Eight. And now, they've added Rose, the No. 1 or No. 1A freshman (depending on whom you ask) in the country. If you really, truly need to find a weakness in John Calipari's squad, look at the free-throw line. The Tigers hit just 61 percent from the charity stripe last season.

Stumbling down the stretch with five losses in its six final regular-season games, Rice still managed to finish a respectable 16-16. Only that was with Morris Almond, the C-USA Player of the Year, who averaged 26.9 points per game. With Almond gone, along with point guard Lorenzo Williams and center Greg Killings, coach Willis Wilson is going to have to search for his offense. No returning player averaged more than 6.3 points per game. But at least the Owls will play in a nicer building. Autry Court, of which Wilson once said, "It's like going to work in a slum," is getting a much-needed facelift.

Two years into his new gig, Matt Doherty has lost four starters from a team that mustered just a 3-13 finish. Bamba Fall, sidelined with a finger injury for part of the season, and Derrick Roberts, bothered by knee pain, are back. But it is Doherty's first recruiting class that will need to grow up in a hurry. The guys who are coming in are his guys. Rookies Ryan Harp, Alex Malone and Robert Nyakundi, all of Texas, New Yorker Papa Dia and Iowa City's Mike Walker really are the linchpins for the Mustangs' immediate and future success.

Southern MissSouthern Miss
The Golden Eagles weren't pretty, but they were effective. Ugly-ing up the game with serious defense, Larry Eustachy turned a 10-21 team into a 20-11 one. Southern Miss ranked 38th nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 62.4 points per game, and 24th in field-goal percent defense, holding opponents to 40 percent from the floor. Four newcomers started every game last season for a Southern Miss team that was the second-youngest in Division I. And that can only mean one thing: experience. Jeremy Wise, the C-USA Rookie of the Year, highlights the newbies who now are automatic veterans for a team that could make the postseason.

Given everything he's had to deal with, Dave Dickerson ought to be coach of the year. The Green Wave finished 17-13, its first winning record since 2003. He has reason for more optimism this season. Though long-distance threat Chris Moore is gone, forward David Gomez (13.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) returns, and the inside tandem of Robinson Louisme and Donnie Stith makes going in the paint against the Green Wave a nightmare. The tandem helped Tulane lead the league in blocked shots, averaging 6.25 per game.

Another potential sleeper team, the Golden Hurricane, won 20 games last season despite a serious youth movement. Four talented freshmen and all but two of the part-time starters are back, including Ben Uzoh (9.9 ppg, 5 rpg) and Rod Earls (11.2 ppg). Tulsa didn't do well taking care of the ball, averaging 16.3 turnovers per game, but that very well could have been just a sign of youth. If Doug Wojcik's colts can grow up, the Golden Hurricane could surprise some people.

After three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, UAB fans weren't exactly pleased with Mike Davis' inaugural 15-16 run. Patience, Davis preached; he was changing the team's style. Plus, he knew what was on his bench: transfers Robert Vaden (Indiana), Channing Toney (Georgia) and Walter Sharpe (Mississippi State), who should make big noise this season. Davis also has an incoming class that already was ranked ninth in the country before 7-footer Zisis Sarikopoulos signed. Last season, it was all Paul Delaney all the time, despite facing double teams for most of season. And that was with Delaney playing the point. Now, with Aaron Johnson directing the show, Delaney should be a more comfortable two-guard, and with additional help, shouldn't be the sole focus of opposing defenses.

UCFCentral Florida
The sleeper of the conference only two years after jumping from the Atlantic Sun, Kirk Speraw's crew returns eight of the top 10 scorers from a 22-9 team that still is fuming over its NIT slight. Point guard Jermaine Taylor (10.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) is the best of the bunch, but equally bright news comes from Dave Noel. Once a defensive specialist, he upped his offensive production to 9.1 points and 3.8 rebounds last season. Should the Knights make the postseason this March, they will have earned it, after dealing with a brutal schedule that includes Villanova, Connecticut, Ole Miss and Nevada.

Tony Barbee should get a mulligan on his first season. Inheriting the job after Doc Sadler bolted for Nebraska in August 2006, Barbee was in a mad dash to get anything done. Not surprisingly, UTEP suffered its first losing season since 2003. His job isn't much easier this season. In May, Barbee dismissed four players from the team, including Maurice Thomas, the team's most productive big man, and Malik Alvin, a sometimes starting point guard. How well the Miners respond depends on how quickly six new freshmen figure things out, particularly big man Manuel Cass. UTEP was manhandled inside last season, and with Thomas gone, it's up to Cass and junior college transfer Tavaris Watts to get good fast.

-- Dana O'Neil

Expert's takeBilas

Here's how Jay Bilas expects C-USA to unfold this season:

1. Memphis
The Tigers have dominated this league since it broke apart and will not be challenged in 2008. With Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose, John Calipari has more talent than any two teams in C-USA, and he has the most talent in the nation. If Memphis makes free throws, forget it. The chances of Memphis finishing lower than first in C-USA are the same as Blutarsky's GPA: 0.0.

2. UAB
Mike Davis struggled with implementing his system in 2006-07, and UAB held the distinction of being a worse free-throw shooting team than Memphis. But, with quality returnees Paul Delaney and Lawrence Kinnard teaming with transfers Robert Vaden, Walter Sharpe and Channing Toney, the Blazers could finish as high as second.

3. Tulsa
Doug Wojcik has made Tulsa into a fine defensive unit and rebounding team, which led to 20 wins and a 9-7 C-USA finish last season. With 70 percent of the Golden Hurricane's scoring back, Wojcik can improve upon that if his developing players learn to protect the ball and increase efficiency.

4. Houston
One thing is certain about Houston: Tom Penders' team will score. High-scoring Rob McKiver returns, joined by Texas transfer Dion Dowell. If Houston ever gets down and really guards effectively without fouling, the Cougars could do some damage in C-USA.

5. Southern Miss
Larry Eustachy is starting to turn the culture around at Southern Miss, and the Golden Eagles have responded well to his mantra of defense and rebounding. The 2006-07 Southern Miss squad was so young it had its diapers changed at halftime, and this team will be young again but more talented. Jeremy Wise, who garnered second-team All-C-USA honors as a rookie, should lead the way.

6. UCF
Quick, who is the coach at UCF? If you said Kirk Speraw, who has been at the Knights' helm for 15 years, you would be correct -- and perhaps a member of the Speraw family. Speraw, who was the 2006-07 C-USA Coach of the Year, hardly is a household name in the college hoops world. The veteran coach has a solid team returning but not one that likely will put him in the spotlight this season. Jermaine Taylor, who has never started a game at UCF, will be the top scorer for the best shooting team in the league.

Tony Barbee coaxed 14 wins out of his troops last season and should improve upon that number in 2007-08, but not by much. UTEP will be young, with six freshmen to support leading scorer and rebounder Stefon Jackson.

8. SMU
Matt Doherty had one of the bigger challenges in the nation in rebuilding the SMU program, but he has brought in a nationally rated recruiting class. The Ponies will be young but should be better. The future is bright in Dallas under Doherty.

9. Marshall
Former Florida assistant Donnie Jones takes over the Thundering Herd, and he has Markel Humphrey, a third team All C-USA selection, and Mark Dorris, a 6-2 shooting guard, to help him implement his new system. Marshall will run and press more, and should improve upon its 13-19 slate.

10. Tulane
Has any coach in America had it tougher than Dave Dickerson? He not only had to rebuild a struggling Tulane program, but he had to do it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is hard not to root for Tulane. And it's easy to recognize that Dickerson is one of the most courageous coaches in the country for the burden he has shouldered.

11. Rice
Willis Wilson lost top scorer, NBA first-rounder and C-USA Player of the Year Morris Almond, and with him went the focal point of the offense. Rice lost its top three scorers and returns only one player who averaged more than five points per game (Cory Pfleifer's 6.3 ppg).

12. East Carolina
Mack McCarthy takes over the Pirate program, and he might want to wear two eye patches when watching his team play. East Carolina has won only 14 games in the past two seasons, but it does return Darrell Jenkins, the Pirates' top scorer and the league's top assist man.

-- Jay Bilas

Memphis was the only C-USA team to wave the conference banner in the NCAA Tournament last season. Will another team step up to join the party?

Early 2007-08 Bracketology

-- Joe Lunardi

For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.