The Conference USA postseason basketball tournament is on the verge of being renamed the Memphis Tigers Exhibition of Conference Superiority—not really, but it would be appropriate.
The Tigers have won six of the last seven tournaments, but five of those six championships have come with the Tigers as the host.
This year's tournament takes place at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., which is also the last site to host a Conference USA tournament that didn't end with the Tigers as the victors.
That said, it will still be extremely tough to knock Memphis off, as they are undefeated in the conference with just one game remaining.
The top four teams in Conference USA will get a bye in the first round, taking on the winners of the first-round games that pit the lower-seeded teams against each other. The brackets will look a little different this season, as Central Florida is ineligible for postseason play (New York Times).
This will result in one less first-round game.
Here's how you can catch the action, some deeper analysis and my predictions.
When: March 13-16
Where: BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
TV: CBS Sports Network (March 14-15, coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET on March 14, and at 4 p.m. ET on March 15) CBS (March 16 coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. ET) - click here to see complete schedule
With the regular season finales still on tap for Saturday, all of the final pairings aren't finalized, but there are a few things we do know.
At 15-0, Memphis will be the tournament's top seed. Southern Mississippi is locked into the No. 2 spot at 11-4 and obviously Rice is the 12th seed with a 1-14 mark in conference play.
Here's a look at how the brackets will be structured.
(All times eastern)
|First round – Wednesday, March 13|
|4:30 pm||No. 7 vs. No. 10|
|7:00 pm||No. 6 vs. No. 11|
|9:30 pm||No. 8 vs. No. 9|
|Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 14|
|1 p.m.||8/9 winner vs. No. 1 Memphis|
|3:30 pm||No. 4 vs. No. 5|
|7:00 pm||7/10 winner vs. No. 2 Southern Mississippi|
|9:30 pm||6/11 winner vs. UTEP|
|Semifinals – Friday, March 15|
|4:00 pm||8/9-Memphis winner vs. 4/5 winner|
|6:30 pm||7/10-Southern Mississippi winner vs. 6-11-UTEP winner|
|Championship – Saturday, March 16|
|11:30 am||Semifinal winners|
Stars to Watch
Jackson doesn't lead the conference in any category, but he is the leader of the league's best team. He's also won the tournament MVP the last two seasons.
If that doesn't make him a star to watch, then I don't know what would.
The 6'1" junior has improved his shooting this season, and it's apparent in his sizzling 48 percent connection rate from three-point range. For the season, he is averaging 13.7 points and 4.8 assists per game.
Couple that with his highlight reel hops, and Jackson is one of the most exciting players in college basketball.
Maurice Kemp—East Carolina
The Pirates 6'8"-senior forward is leading the conference in scoring, averaging 18.4 per game. He has scored 30 points, or more, twice this season, and he's been playing well of late.
In his last two games, Kemp is averaging 26 per contest.
The Pirates need to at least reach the tournament final to have any shot at making the NCAA tournament, but that's not Kemp's only motivation.
As a senior who isn't on many draft big boards, Kemp needs to start showing scouts that he is worthy of selection in the NBA draft.
Having a great conference tournament would be a step in that direction.
Young is second in the conference in scoring, and he's been as hot as a Houston summer over the last five games.
He has scored at least 20 points and connected on 45 percent of his three-point attempts in that stretch. The 20-year-old looks like a future NBA player, and he'll be looking to show off that skill in the conference tournament.
The Green Wave star is the only player in the conference averaging a double-double. He's third in scoring at 17.4 points per game and tops in rebounding with an average of 10.4 per contest.
The 6'8" junior has drastically improved his free-throw shooting from 54 percent as a sophomore to 71.6 percent this season.
He's coming off his best game of the year; a 23-point, 16-rebound performance in a losing effort against East Carolina on Wednesday night.
Watch for him to try to lead the Green Wave to a win in the first round.
The Cougars are the only team in the conference with two players in the top five in scoring. Thomas is fourth in the league with an average of 17 points per game, and he nearly averages a double-double per game, as he also pulls down 9.8 rebounds.
Thomas' slashing ability is a solid complement to Young's outside attack, and together they are one of the most effective duos in the conference.
The best point guard in the conference is Marshall's Kane. He has pulled back on his scoring to involve his teammates more this season.
The result is his conference-leading 6.9 assists per game. Kane is still putting in 14.7 points with his solid dribble penetration and aggressiveness, but he's starting to learn how to play point guard.
He is the catalyst for the Thundering Herd and sure to be at the forefront of any success they have in the tournament.
Memphis—15-0 conference record and 26-4 overall
This is a no-brainer.
The Tigers have been dominant all season long in Conference USA. They have had scares from Marshall and UTEP, but no team has gotten the job done.
But if this team has a clear Achilles heel, it is their free throw shooting. As a team, they only shoot 67 percent from the line. This issue allows teams to stay close to them, and it could be a huge issue in a close game—especially away from home.
If the Tigers are upset, you can bet missed free throws will play a part.
Southern Mississippi—11-4 conference record and 22-8 overall
The gap between the Tigers and the Golden Eagles is pretty wide if you look at the entire body of work for the season.
That said, it only takes one loss in a tournament to throw a season's worth of work out of the window. The Golden Eagles haven't exactly hung in there with the Tigers in their two regular-season matchups, though.
They dropped the two games by an average of 14.5 points. Still, at 11-4 in the conference, you would have to consider them the second best team in the league.
The Golden Eagles can be flat unconscious from three-point range. They have three players connecting on over 40 percent of their threes, led by Neil Watson's 46.8 percent from deep.
As a team, they shoot 39.1 percent from the arc, which is 18th in the nation and tops in the conference. If they get hot, they could upset any team.
Marshall—6-9 conference record and 13-17 overall
The Thundering Herd have no shot of making the NCAA tournament unless they run the table in the conference tournament. But they have some reason to believe they could pull off such a feat.
They only lost to Memphis by one point in January, and they just upset Southern Mississippi on Tuesday night.
Elijah Pittman and D.D. Scarver combined for 41 points in that game, as Marshall knocked off the Golden Eagles 88-84.
They will need Pittman and Scarver to continue to play at a high level, as well as leadership from Kane at the point to build on this performance.
Their play against both of the conference's top two teams shows they can be a problem if they are overlooked.
The Tigers will be out to prove they can win the conference tournament even when they aren't the host. Southern Mississippi's shooting is intriguing, but it just isn't good enough on defense to handle the Tigers.
The Cougars are another interesting possibility because of their dynamic duo of Young and Thomas, but they also struggle to defend. Only East Carolina allows more points per game in the conference.
Defense and athleticism are the major factors that separate the Tigers from the rest of the field, and those same traits will lead them to another Conference USA tournament championship.
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