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May 19, 2009

Jordan, Tulsa set to challenge for C-USA title

Tulsa center Jerome Jordan insists the recent upheaval at Memphis had no impact on his decision to return to school, but his choice just might shatter the Tigers' Conference USA monopoly.

Memphis has won 61 consecutive Conference USA games and four league titles in a row a streak that speaks volumes about the Tigers' supremacy and the league's lack of balance. The Tigers have been the lone Conference USA representative in the NCAA tournament in each of the past three seasons, leaving John Calipari to spend much of his coaching tenure at Memphis defending the league to skeptics across the nation.

The irony of it all is that now that Calipari has left for Kentucky, Conference USA finally might have a worthy challenger to Memphis' throne. Of course, it helps that Memphis lost most of its incoming recruits as soon as its former coach departed, but Tulsa figured to open the 2009-10 season as a legitimate NCAA tournament contender regardless of whether Calipari stayed with the Tigers.

The Golden Hurricane return four starters from a team that went 25-11 and reached the second round of the 2009 NIT after losing 64-39 to Memphis in the Conference USA tournament championship game. The most important of those returning players is Jordan, a 7-footer with the potential to control a game on both ends of the floor.

Jordan said he basically had made up his mind about his future before Calipari announced he was heading to Kentucky.

"I try not to focus on anybody else," Jordan said. "I try to focus on stuff we can control. We're just going to try and focus on what we need to do, and hopefully that will lead to us winning the conference championship next year."

He also wants to focus on what he needs to do to assure he gets selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft. Jordan likely would have been taken late in the first round or early in the second round if he had turned pro this year.

Jordan earned first-team all-league honors this past season and likely will end his career as the conference's leader in career blocked shots, but he needs to bulk up and expand his repertoire on offense before entering the NBA. He shot 58.6 percent and averaged 13.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this past season.

"I probably need to get stronger overall and keep working on refining my post moves," Jordan said.

Jordan grew up in Jamaica and moved to the United States as a high school student to enroll at Redemption Christian Academy in Troy, N.Y. He went back to Jamaica before spending his senior season at Florida Air Academy, a high school basketball power in Melbourne, Fla. A hang-up in his transfer prevented Jordan from playing his senior season at Florida Air, but a stroke of good fortune allowed Tulsa's coaching staff to learn about him.

Getting better all the time
This look at Tulsa center Jerome Jordan's career averages shows how far the 7-footer has come since his freshman season.
2006-07 2.7 2.1 0.7 .592 .273
2007-08 10.5 7.9 3.7 .564 .689
2008-09 13.8 8.6 2.5 .586 .737
Jordan was playing in a basketball game designed to showcase top unsigned players in Florida. One of the people attending this particular game was Jimmy Allen, the coach at Averett, a Division III school in Danville, Va.

"I thought the kid had a really big upside," Allen recalled. "He was big and talented and could run. I pretty much knew he was better than our level."

He also knew where Jordan might be an ideal fit. Allen previously had worked with Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik on Don DeVoe's staff at Navy. During a phone call with his former colleague, Allen mentioned the 7-footer he had seen in Florida. That immediately piqued the interest of Wojcik.

Of course, the skinny kid who showed up at Tulsa a few years ago barely resembles the guy who now ranks among the nation's top returning post players. Jordan weighed about 230 pounds and had extremely raw skills when he arrived on campus. He averaged just 7.8 minutes per game his freshman year before gradually developing into an all-conference performer.

Wojcik played on the Navy teams of the mid-1980s that featured future NBA star David Robinson. While he's careful to avoid making direct comparisons, Wojcik notes that the two players made similar transformations during their college careers.

"I'm not sitting here saying he's David Robinson, but it's the same type of story," Wojcik said. "When David and I entered the Naval Academy together, he was like 6-8 and 190 pounds. By the time he graduated, he was 7-1, 230 [pounds] and the college player of the year. That was remarkable, and I believe Jerome's situation was remarkable."

Challengers to the throne
John Calipari's departure could threaten Memphis' domination of Conference USA. Here are the four most likely league challengers to Memphis, which has won four consecutive conference tournaments and 61 conference games in a row. The 2008-09 records are in parentheses.
HOUSTON (21-12 overall, 10-6 C-USA)
The loss of center Marcus Cousin hurts, but the Cougars return five of their six leading scorers from a team that reached the College Basketball Invitational. Aubrey Coleman (19.4 ppg) and Kelvin Lewis (18.0) are the league's top two returning scorers. Coleman also led the conference in steals (2.3 per game).
TULSA (25-11, 12-4)
Tulsa returns four starters from a team that advanced to the second round of the NIT. Jerome Jordan, the league's top big man, led C-USA in field-goal percentage (.586) and blocks (2.5) and ranked second in rebounding (8.6) this season. Ben Uzoh gives Tulsa a quality point guard.
UAB (22-12, 11-5)
The good news? UAB has won a total of 45 games the past two seasons and in 2006 became the last C-USA team other than Memphis to reach the NCAA tournament. The bad news? The Blazers must replace their four leading scorers from the team that lost to Notre Dame in the first round of the NIT.
UTEP (23-14, 10-6)
After losing to Oregon State in the CBI championship round, the Miners have the tough task of replacing Stefon Jackson, who averaged 24.5 points to rank fifth in the nation. But the Miners return their other four starters and also bring in Arizona State transfer Christian Polk and Louisville transfer Derek Caracter (he becomes eligible in mid-December).
Jordan isn't in Robinson's class, but he has developed into a legitimate NBA prospect. He has bulked up his physique and now weighs more than 250 pounds. He also has beefed up his game to the point that he now is a solid all-around player rather than a shot-blocking specialist.

Jordan still needs to improve his scoring production; he scored six or fewer points in three of Tulsa's last five games. Yet he already has proved he's capable of dominance.

He had 20 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in a 55-54 home loss to Memphis in January. He scored at least 25 points in three other games and finished the season with 10 double-doubles.

Jordan's shot-blocking average dipped from 3.7 in 2007-08 to 2.5 this season, mainly because he was concerned about getting into foul trouble. Tulsa dropped four games by four or fewer points this past season, and Jordan fouled out of two of those losses.

"In terms of his offense, he showed every way to score a jump hook, a turnaround jump shot, and he's maybe my best free-throw shooter down the stretch," Wojcik said. "The problem for him is it's no fun to play the game when two people are on you all the time. He's doubled all the time, but that's only going to make him better. I know it made him a better passer."

Jordan played well enough to get Tulsa on the verge of its first NCAA tournament bid since 2003, but a 1-3 record in games decided by one or two points forced the Golden Hurricane to settle for an NIT bid. Now that he's seen the thin line that can separate an NCAA bid from an NIT appearance, Jordan plans to spend the summer adding facets to his game that can turn some of those close losses into victories.

"I'm going to work on taking my game away from the basket," Jordan said. "I want to try to step out and extend it as far as the perimeter. I'm going to work on handling the ball and getting stronger and better as an overall player."

Jordan knows he still has plenty of room for improvement before launching his pro career, which explains why he was always leaning toward staying in school. Now he's ready to deal with the expectations that come with being a potential first-round pick leading an NCAA tournament contender.

"We're just going to go out, try to win as many games as possible and see where that takes us," Jordan said. "We can be as good as we want to be as long as we work in the offseason."

They might even be good enough to end Memphis' Conference USA dynasty.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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