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October 17, 2008
At the College Basketball Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the coverage staff for their opinion about a topic in the sport.
THIS WEEK'S QUESTION: Which league will rise up like the West Coast Conference did last year and surprise by sending multiple teams to the NCAA tournament?
Conference USA is poised for a breakthrough. It could a be a perfect storm for the league, with Memphis taking just a minor step back and three or four teams ready to step up.
The Tigers haven't lost a conference game the past two seasons. Someone has to break through this season. As I've said before, Memphis is the league's double-edged sword. If you can beat the Tigers you're an NCAA tournament team ? but no one has recently.
The C-USA coaches' preseason poll picks Memphis first, UAB second, Tulsa third, UTEP fourth and Southern Miss fifth. The same five teams made the Rivals' top 65 countdown, with Memphis 15th, UAB 36th, Tulsa 43rd, Southern Miss 46th and UTEP 54th.
I believe UAB and Tulsa, as well as Memphis (which is a given), are NCAA-caliber teams.
The Blazers have preseason player of the year pick Robert Vaden as well as Paul Delaney III, who is returning from a torn ACL. They don't have a lot of size, but three- and four-guard lineups seem to be a trend anyway.
The Golden Hurricane have the kind of non-conference schedule that could garner them national attention with a big win. Tulsa has games against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. If coach Doug Wojcik's team can win any two of the three, it's off and running. Tulsa also has a headliner in center Jerome Jordan. Keep the name in mind.
I'm torn between Conference USA and the Mountain West, but I'll give the latter the slight edge. C-USA is going to be significantly improved, but I don't think it will be quite as deep as the MWC.
UNLV is a lock to make the NCAA tournament and has a good chance of advancing to the Sweet 16, possibly even further. Lon Kruger has his most talented team in his five seasons there, thanks to the addition of seven newcomers, including five-star center Beas Hamga, who redshirted last season. UNLV also returns three starters from a 27-win team, including leading scorer Wink Adams.
You can count on BYU being in the mix for a spot in the field of 65. The Cougars have put together three consecutive 20-win seasons and have a good chance to extend that streak. They did lose one of the league's top post players (Trent Plaisted), but versatile swingman Lee Cummard, probably the best player in the league, chose to pull out of the NBA draft. The Cougars also will lean on a tremendous home-court advantage: They own the nation's longest home-winning streak at 47 in a row.
San Diego State and Utah, picked third and fourth in the league preseason poll, give the MWC a realistic shot to land a third NCAA bid. Both return all five starters. I had one MWC coach tell me he thought the Aztecs were the most-talented team in the league.
The bottom half of the league will be much better, which may be what ends up separating the MWC from C-USA. Colorado State has added a slew of transfers, including a couple from "Big Six" conferences (Andy Ogide from Ole Miss and Harvey Perry from Washington) and TCU made a coaching upgrade by luring Jim Christian from Kent State. Those moves will boost the league's RPI, a major factor when it comes to earning at-large bids.
I'm not sure Conference USA sending multiple teams this season will be a surprise, but I still think that the league will go from sending one team to sending three and maybe four.
Memphis has owned the league of late, but it finally appears as if the Tigers will have some challengers. The Tigers still will win the title, but at least there will be some competition.
Tulsa is getting back to where it used to be, and the concern there should be making sure coach Doug Wojcik sticks around for a few more seasons. Jerome Jordan has a chance to truly emerge nationally, much like Patrick O'Bryant of Bradley did a few seasons ago.
The return of guard Paul Delaney III at UAB will help the Blazers immensely. He and Robert Vaden should be a formidable duo, one that is good enough to get Mike Davis' team into the NCAA tourney.
Southern Miss, UTEP and maybe even Marshall are others to watch.
Top to bottom, the league should be much better this season. As a result, the league RPI ? which was just 11th last season ? should climb to around eighth or ninth. And that makes multiple bids far more likely.
I'm also going with Conference USA.
Memphis will obviously have to reload after the losses of Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts. But reload they will with another solid recruiting class led by Tyreke Evans, I also believe Robert Dozier should have a breakout year, and the Tigers will get solid perimeter play from Antonio Anderson.
But for the first time since Calipari has been at Memphis he may not have the best backcourt in the conference. That title will belong to the talented UAB duo of Robert Vaden and a healthy Paul Delaney III. This guard-oriented group has a few other impact players to rely on in Terrence Roderick and Aaron Johnson.
Granted this team could be a total dunkin' donut (nothing in the middle). But with the new 3-point line, and the floor spacing that it will provide, the opportunities will be endless offensively for Coach Davis' Blazers. They will have to figure it out defensively and will probably utilize a lot of matchup zone extended beyond half court.
Another to keep an eye on is Southern Miss. Larry Eustachy returns his top seven scorers and Jeremy Wise is a flat-out stud. Granted this isn't a conference ready to contend with the Big Easts of the world, but the overall depth will be much improved from a year ago.