It has been five years since Conference USA entered a season looking so unfamiliar. Five years ago the league suffered through a radical overhaul that sent five teams to the Big East, several more to mid-major conferences, and welcomed in a few new schools to the mix.
But heading into this season, the league will look radically different again. This time, all the same teams will return, but most without the star players that were the faces of the league last season.
Without former league powers Louisville and Marquette, Memphis rose to the top of the league, dominating Conference USA at a historic level under Coach John Calipari. But Calipari traded in Memphis Blue for Kentucky's Big Blue and with that likely goes the Tigers' 61 game winning streak and stranglehold on the league.
The door is now wide open for Tulsa who hasn't seen much postseason success since joining Conference USA prior to the 2005-2006 season. The Golden Hurricane men's basketball team is poised to regain the success it saw when the school reached at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament five times from 1997 to 2003.
Tulsa's resurgence falls on the shoulders of two returning stars and an incoming freshman that ESPN rates as the 14th best freshman point guard in the country.
Trailing Tulsa will be two teams that will make C-USA basketball relevant in Houston, Texas. Rice and Houston have historically always been strong rivals across all sports, but their basketball rivalry has typically been one-sided.
In 2010, both will field teams that will make them among the best in the league and give this underrated rivalry some juice.
After the top three, a mish-mash of mediocre teams will fill out the middle of the leagues.
At the bottom of the league, a bevy of teams missing their superstars will call the basement home. Central Florida without Jermaine Taylor, UAB without Robert Vaden and Paul Delaney, Memphis without Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Shawn Taggart, and Tyreke Evans, and Southern Mississippi without Jeremy Wise will be seriously hurting in 2010.
Team by team capsules, projections, and all-league teams after the jump.
The Golden Hurricane has the best inside-outside, one-two punch in the league with the tandem of guard Ben Uzoh and center Jerome Jordan. Uzoh led the team in scoring a 14 points per game last year as a junior, down almost a point and a half from his sophomore season.
Uzoh's offensive efficiency also dropped last season, but if the dynamic point guard can regain his sophomore season form, he could be the league's best player as a senior.
Tulsa's center Jerome Jordan isn't the league's best player yet, but he certainly has the most professional potential. Jordan stands seven feet tall and can at times steal the show. Inconsistency plagues Tulsa's tree as the center has been slow to develop during his first three seasons in Oklahoma.
Jordan is a highly efficient offensive player with a true-shot rating that ranks 56th in the country. He also knocks down his free throws at a solid rate for a center (74%). Jordan can also dominate the defensive end of the floor.
The senior center ranked 20th in the country in both defensive rebounding and shot blocking. His presence in the middle of the floor is the biggest reason Tulsa was so good defensively last season.
Two men don't make team though. Uzoh and Jordan will have great support with starters Justin Hurtt and Bishop Wheatley returning. Wheatley isn't much a scorer which can put pressure on Uzoh to do more than he has to as a scoring point guard.
That pressure will be alleviated a bit with incoming guard Donte Medder. ESPN rates Medder as the 14th best point guard prospect in the country. His presence will allow Uzoh to play off the ball to find his own shot rather than create it every time.
If Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan make up the league's best one-two punch, then Houston's Aubrey Coleman and Kevlin Lewis are a very close second.
Unlike Uzoh and Jordan who are an inside-outside combine, Coleman and Lewis destroy teams with slashing and shooting. Colemand gets to the basket with ease while Lewis is a constant threat to knock down the long ball.
What separates Houston's duo from Tulsa's tandem is the supporting cast. The Cougars bring back starting point guard Desmond Wade and last year's second and third options off the bench Zamal Nixon and Nick Mosley.
Houston's incoming recruits are nothing extra special, but coach Tom Penders will rely on them to provide more minutes than they might be prepared for.
Houston will win with star power while crosstown rival Rice will win with depth. The Owls return five players that can lead the team in scoring each night. Starting point guard Rodney Foster is gone, but Rice has potential stars in Connor Frizzelle and Lucas Kuipers.
If Frizzelle, Kuipers or Trey Stanton, Cory Pflieger, Lawrence Ghoram - the other three Owls capable of leading this team- take their game to the next level, Rice could have its best season since 2004 when the Owls were still in the WAC.
The Thundering Herd feature a roster very similar to Rice from the standpoint Marshall returns five players that can lead the team in scoring each night. Only leading scorer Markel Humphrey is gone, but his output will likely be replaced by one of the best recruits in the league, center Hassan Whiteside.
Whiteside gives Marshall a much needed inside presence. Having a big body to anchor the center of Marshall's defense should allow the Thundering Herd to improve on its terrible 1.041 points per possession allowed.
The Miners lose star slasher Stefon Jackson and center Kareem Cooper, but have three reliable options returning including future all-league guard Randy Culpepper. UTEP also brings back one of the league's best rebounders, Arnett Moultrie.
The Miners will have the option of teaming Moultrie up with the extremely talented Derrick Caracter who's behavioral problems forced him out of Rick Pitino's lineup.
Caracter is a 6'9'' load under the basket that showed stints of domination when at Louisville, but can also disappear and make just as many terrible, bone-headed or selfish plays as good plays.
Defense hasn't been a problem for awhile for the Green Wave, but instead the squad has struggled putting points on the board in league play. That may change a bit as one of the league's most efficient players, Kevin Sims should be the uncontested top option as several inefficient key options have graduated.
Even if the offense doesn't come around behind Sims, the defense has been the team's calling card and should continue to win the Green Wave games in 2010. Tulane's undersized lineup has had no trouble forcing teams into bad decisions and turnovers.
7. Southern Methodist
The Mustangs have been awful in league play since joining Conference USA before the 2005-2006 season. SMU has never won more than four games in the conference, but that should change with a veteran lineup.
SMU brings back nine of its top players from its rotation including Paul McCoy who led the team in scoring as a freshman.
The Mustangs struggled defensively last season, but the team's rotation essentially intact, SMU can likely only go up.
8. East Carolina
SMU had its troubles on the defensive side of the floor last year, but East Carolina took bad defense to a new level. Only five teams in the nation allowed more points per possession than Pirates.
With three starters back and four more members of East Carolina's rotation, the Pirates can only get better.
East Carolina's offensive can keep the Pirates afloat in 2010 if the defensive comes around at all. Darrius Morrow and Jamar Abrams are C-USA stars in the making. Having a point guard that distributes as well as Brock Young, makes scoring much easier. Young assisted on 45% of a field goals scored when he was on the floor, a rate that ranked second in the country.
9. Central Florida
Jermaine Taylor was Central Florida basketball last year. No player was leaned on more heavily than Golden Knight two-guard. But he's gone, as is second leading scorer Tony Davis and starting center Kenrick Zondervan.
The Golden Knights do have the league's deepest and most talented recruiting class in the league which won't help much this year, but could be setting UCF for a future title run.
Oh how far have the mighty fallen. The top four members of the 2009 Tigers are gone. Left are options five through nine for coach Josh Pastner. Those five players have never been a top option at the college level. There's no point guard in the bunch and little size.
So help has to be on the way, right? Well, not really. Power forward Will Coleman will provide some size and a lot of talent, but that's only six players. Small forward Martin Ngaloro will be asked to be contributed now, but he's likely not going to be ready for Conference USA ball.
Preston Laird and Angel Garcia are also on the roster under scholarship, but neither will contribute much to this Memphis team.
The Tigers' only hope is to have Duke transfer Elliot Williams cleared to play immediately. Williams talent could instantly turn Memphis into a top five team in the league. As for now, this roster is headed towards disaster
11. Southern Mississippi
USM is in a very similar position as Memphis. Three of the top four contributors for the Golden Eagles are gone and only six players return from last year's team. Only three of those six players had a real impact for Southern Miss.
R.L. Horton will likely score a ton for the Golden Eagles, but he won't have much help. The recruiting class is one of the worst in the league meaning relief isn't on the way in 2010.
The Blazers' situation is so bad that it is essentially the sum of the awfulness of Memphis's problems and the awfulness of Southern Mississippi's problems. The names left on Mike Davis's roster are unrecognizable. The recruits aren't that great. There's only 10 scholarship players on the roster - six of which are freshmen or JUCO transfers.
This season should be historically bad year for the program.
All Conference USA Preseason Team
Tulsa guard Ben Uzoh
Tulsa center Jerome Jordan
Houston guard Aubrey Coleman
Houston guard Kevlin Lewis
UTEP guard Randy Culpepper
Preseason Player of the Year
Tulsa center Jerome Jordan
Preseason Freshman of the Year
Tulsa guard Donte Medder
Preseason Coach of the Year
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