Last year's version of Conference USA was as talented as any since the league lost Louisville and Cincinnati. This year's version might not mirror that with the possibility of one exception, the Memphis Tigers.
With arguably the best recruiting class in the country, the Tigers have officially reloaded and are poised to retake the C-USA title. If all the parts mesh, this team could easily be in the top ten early in the season.
The league lost a number of highly-skilled players due to graduation or the NBA draft. Hardest hit could be defending tournament champs Houston and surprise third place finisher Marshall. Here is a rundown for this season.
Elliot Williams, Willie Kemp, and Doneal Mack, all starters, are gone. Problem, right? Not when Will Barton, Antonio Barton, Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Tarik Black, and others are ready to step in. This ultra-talented group is added to holdovers Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman, and joined by transfer Charles Carmouche (New Orleans) who has two years of experience and is eligible immediately because the Privateers have moved to D-3.
The key here is replacing the leadership that Mack and Kemp brought and for Pastner to mesh all of this talent. If a more experienced coach (Calipari) had this class, you would hear talk about the Final Four. Pastner, in his second year as head man, has to show he can coach as well as recruit.
All five starters return for the Golden Eagles, who finished 8-8 in the conference last season but reached twenty wins for the season overall. Gary Flowers (second team all-conference) and Sai'Quon Stone (all-defensive team) lead the Eagles.
The starting five is solid but coach Larry Eustachy needs to develop some depth behind this group. Incoming JUCO transfers Dwayne Davis and Ahyaro Phillips, who played one season at Nevada and is a solid rebounder, hope to step in and help do this.
Last season, the Eagles lost at home three times during the conference schedule (UTEP, UAB, Memphis) by a combined ten points. Reversing this will land Southern near the top of the league.
I wouldn't suggest that Tim Floyd is not capable of winning the title this season. He is a proven college coach and retains the services of C-USA player-of-the-year Randy Culpepper and all-defensive team selection Julyan Stone. The Miners did, however, lose the bulk (literally and figuratively) of the frontcourt as Derek Caracter (drafted) and Arnett Moultrie (transfer) are gone. Also, guard Myron Strong was recently kicked off of the team.
Claude Brittain has shown some ability to mix it up down low but can't be expected to carry the load, especially since he averaged less than ten minutes per game last season. Freshman John Bohannon has size (6'10") but needs to add some bulk to his 195-pound frame.
Christian Polk and Jeremy Williams will be asked to pick up the scoring slack created by Caracter's early departure. The lack of the inside presence, at least on paper, means the Miners won't replicate their 15-1 finish from last season. However, they still have enough weapons to compete for top spot in the league.
This is sort of like throwing a dart. The Knights are coming off of a 6-10 season but return all five starters, including all-rookie selections Keith Clanton and Marcus Jordan. Clanton and P.J. Gaynor give UCF some size and bulk down low.
Top returning scorer Isaac Sosa is really the only outside threat that is established. The Knights need to shoot better from long or mid-range to create the space that Clanton can use to his advantage. New coach Donnie Jones has balanced scoring and even a decent outside attack will push the Knights into the top five of the conference. Transfers Tristan Spurlock (Virginia) and Tom Herzog (Michigan State) are not eligible until next season.
2009-2010 wasn't a bad season for Tulsa (10-6) but they couldn't beat the top three teams (Memphis, UTEP, and UAB), going a combined 0-5 against them.
This year's team will not feature Jerome Jordan or Ben Uzoh, which could create some scoring issues for coach Doug Wojcik. Justin Hurtt (14.5 ppg) and Joe Richard are the two starters that return, and are joined by C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Steven Idlet and medical redshirt returnee Glenn Andrews.
The Golden Hurricane will need contributions immediately from transfers Scottie Haralson (UConn) and D.J. Magley (Western Kentucky). Haralson's experience with the Huskies was limited but Magley played in 70 games for the Hilltoppers and is a big body for the post, especially defensively.
No selling coach Mike Davis short anymore. Heavy losses will most certainly mean a reduction in the number of conference wins, but his team will compete.
Aaron Johnson and Jamarr Sanders are the two key returnees and will be joined by transfers, redshirts, and some returning role players. Beas Hamga, whose saga has taken him throughout most of the United States (Nevada, Valparaiso, Texas, etc.) appears ready to man the post for the Blazers. Redshirt freshmen Anthony Criswell and Robert Williams are joined by true freshmen Preston Purifoy and Quincy Taylor as players who could see minutes early.
Sophomore Ovie Soko looks to increase his time and gained valuable experience playing for England this summer. Still, Davis has lots to figure out—and he usually does.
Jeff Lebo takes over as coach for the Pirates who finished 4-12 last season, but return all five starters, including Brock Young, a third-team all-conference pick.
Darrius Morrow, Chad Wynn, and Jamar Adams provide enough bulk up front to win battles on the glass. Wynn and Morrow both shot well over 50 percent from the field as well. But EC has to shoot the ball better from the perimeter. Young averaged 15.5 ppg but shot a paltry 28 percent from beyond the arc.
Lebo brings some SEC experience (I don't know, can you call Auburn that in basketball?) and with an older squad could guide the Pirates to a .500 or better record.
The losses of Tyler Wilkerson (graduated) and Hassan Whiteside (drafted) will be very difficult to overcome. Tom Herrion (80-38) steps in to coach after a successful stint at College of Charleston.
Although they had good scoring balance last season, the Herd have lost most of their inside punch. Still, they return five players who averaged five or more points per game last season. Transfer Eladio Espinosa joins former Hargrave Military teammate and top returning scorer Damier Pitts in the backcourt, while newcomers Dante Holmes and DeAndre Kane provide more depth in the back.
This team will likely score but may have trouble defending and rebounding due to their lack of a strong interior presence.
A very competitive team in 2009-2010, the Mustangs return third-team all-conference pick Papa Dia, a legitimate double-double threat each game. They did, however, lose their other top two scorers in Derek Williams and Mouhammad Faye, as well as Paul McCoy (transfer).
Robert Nyukundi and Justin Haynes need to be viable second and third scoring options for SMU if they want to maintain some of the momentum they created last season. The Mustangs won't sneak up on anyone so they need a good start in conference play.
Tom Penders is out and James Dickey is in as coach for the Cougars, who reached the NCAA's last season with a great run in the C-USA tourney.
First team all-conference guard Aubrey Coleman and tourney MVP Kelvin Lewis are gone, leaving huge holes in the backcourt. Maurice McNeill, Kendrick Washington, and Zamal Nixon are the key contributors returning. Trumaine Johnson, who averaged 12.6 ppg for the San Diego Torrerros two seasons ago before transferring, is also eligible.
Like some of the other teams, the Cougars don't have an established inside presence. One could emerge as the season progresses, but if it doesn't, Houston will slide into the bottom third.
The good news: Four starters return. The bad news: The team went 1-15 last season in conference play.
The Owls do have good scoring balance (five players averaged eight or more points per game) and will be led by all-freshman team pick Arsalan Kazemi and top returning scorer Tamir Jackson.
David Chadwick, who originally signed with Washington State but spent last season at Hargrave Military, may be able to help fill the significant void down low for Rice.
Shooting in general, and three-point shooting specifically, needs to improve. Lucas Kuipers can score down low but not if the perimeter game is absent. Ben Braun has won 570 games as a college coach and the Owls will improve. The question is whether or not they improve enough to move up substantially in the standings this season.
Three starters return for new head coach Ed Conroy, including top scorer Kris Richard and Kendall Timmons, who was the third leading scorer and second on the team in rebounding.
Gone is point guard Kevin Sims, one of only two regulars with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. The other was Jordan Callahan, who displayed some ability offensively at times last season with big games against East Carolina (10 assists) and Houston (21 points).
Talent- and depth-wise, the Green Wave doesn't stack up against the majority of teams in the conference and won't likely improve on their 3-13 conference record from last season.