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New conference won't be the same

A week ago, it was Louisville making a visit to Memphis. This
Saturday, it's Cincinnati's turn. Next week, the Conference USA
tournament will be held at Memphis' FedEx Forum.

Call it an extended going-away party.

Because when next week's C-USA tournament is over and everybody has licked that sauce from Rendezvous off their fingers, schools will split in different directions like high school kids after the cops show
up at a booze party.

Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida are
off to the Big East; Charlotte and Saint Louis are going to the Atlantic
10; and Texas Christian is moving to the Mountain West.

"Conference USA's been very good to us," Cincinnati coach Bob
Huggins said. "But I think we've been good for Conference USA."

This extended party marks the end of a nearly 40-year
relationship for the Bearcats, Cardinals and Tigers. Every season
since 1967-68, at least two of the trio of Cincinnati, Louisville and
Memphis have played in the same conference. All three have been together
for most of that time.

They were all together briefly in the Missouri Valley. They were
all in the now-defunct Metro Conference. The Bearcats and Tigers were
together in Conference USA's precursor, the Great Midwest, while the
Cardinals continued to abuse the rest of the Metro teams. Ten years ago,
the three were reunited when Conference USA was formed.

While Charlotte has been consistently strong throughout Conference USA's existence and Marquette reached the 2003 Final Four, Cincinnati, Memphis and Louisville have been the focal point of the league.

Cincinnati has won eight C-USA titles; the three cities have
hosted the C-USA tournament repeatedly; and there usually has been a bit of
drama between the three schools.

In 1992, Huggins called the Memphis
fans who sit behind the opposing bench, "the most obnoxious people in
America." The students responded by piling sandbags in front of the
section and "declared war" on Huggins and the Bearcats.

When Rick Pitino was hired by Louisville in 2001, one of his
first moves was to hire now-Murray State coach Mick Cronin away from
Huggins and Cincinnati. It was an unpopular move with Huggins and --
combined with Louisville's rapid improvement -- further amped up a
rivalry.

Even now, in the waning days of Conference USA, there is drama.
Instead of paying C-USA a $500,000 exit fee, Louisville agreed to play
two C-USA schools on TV for each of the next four years. Memphis expects
those games will be against the Tigers. But according to The (Louisville)
Courier-Journal, the Cardinals will fulfill their obligation by playing
C-USA newcomers Marshall and Central Florida.

"My understanding is that we just have to play two [C-USA]
teams," Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich told The (Memphis)
Commercial Appeal. "Nobody ever told me it was going to be dictated by
anything."

Huggins noted that Cincinnati's rivalry with the Tigers has diminished in recent years because of Conference USA's expansion. The two teams haven't played twice in the regular season since 1995.

While Conference USA hasn't been perfect -- who can forget the
Red, White and Blue Divisions -- and football-related expansion has watered down the hoops product, it has been a good basketball conference.

C-USA received six NCAA tournament bids a year ago (when the Big Ten got three) and has averaged 3.8 berths per season. This season, the
league likely will land four teams in the NCAA Tournament.

But what about in the future? That's difficult to gauge truly.

When the ACC raided the Big East and left with Miami, Virginia
Tech and, eventually, Boston College, there was little question the
landscape would change. The Big East responded by making moves, as did
other leagues. There would, undoubtedly, be a loser in all of this
reorganization, and no conference lost more quality members than C-USA.

Conference USA isn't going away -- you can read all about the new
league at www.conferenceusa2005.com -- but it won't be what it was.

Unless Houston makes a charge in the C-USA tournament or Memphis wins the tournament and the berth that goes with it, all of the league's berths will go to teams on their way out the door. Six of the
eight schools departing are in the top 100 in the RPI, while
UAB, Memphis and Houston are the only returning teams with winning
league records.

The replacements -- Marshall, Rice, SMU, Tulsa, Texas-El Paso and
Central Florida -- don't exactly represent the elite of college
basketball. UTEP is the only one of the group that has a chance to earn
an at-large bid into this season's NCAA Tournament. The six schools have
an average RPI of 147.

It's difficult to know exactly where the new C-USA will fit in
the college basketball landscape. In most years, it probably will be a
multiple-bid league, but it might not be much better than the WAC or
Missouri Valley.

Still, the schools remaining are trying to put on a happy face.
After all, the words "New look, same commitment to excellence" are
prominently displayed on the new Web site.

"There was a lot of good in this league," Memphis coach John
Calipari said. "But I don't blame the others.

"I worry about getting multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament."

The remaining league members do say there are some advantages of
the new C-USA. Every member is both a football and basketball school,
something that hasn't been the case thus far, creating times when the football-playing schools wanted one thing and the non-football schools wanted something else.

In addition, the new league will be much more compact
geographically. Instead of stretching from Milwaukee to Houston, the new
league will be Southern in nature. Four of the schools are in Texas, and
nine of the schools are within 650 miles of the league headquarters in
Dallas.

It won't, however, be what it was.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.