Coming Down The Stretch: The Games That Will Decide C-USA's Final Standings
After winning Conference USA's regular season and conference tournament titles four years in a row from 2006-2009, the Memphis Tigers finally gave way to their conference mates last season. The UTEP Miners ran away with the 2010 regular season title after a 15-1 mark in conference play; and the Houston Cougars shocked virtually everyone when they went on a run in the conference tournament to sneak into the NCAAs after downing the Miners 81-73 in the championship game.
A year later, the league is about as wide open as anyone could have imagined it at this point with as many as seven or eight teams having a realistic chance to bring home the regular season hardware.
UTEP and Southern Miss are currently at the top of the standings, but as many as five teams are no more than a game-and-a-half behind them.
Let's take a look at the top ten games coming down the stretch that will help decide how the final standings shape up.
Southern Miss @ Memphis (02-12-11)
These two teams met earlier in the season in Hattiesburg with Southern Miss dominating much of the game until a Memphis 3-pointer just before the buzzer gave the Tigers a miraculous 76-75 victory.
The Golden Eagles have been on a roll since that game and the loss at SMU right after, winning their last four contests against some very good competition. That winning streak has propelled USM to the top of the conference along with Memphis, with both teams sitting with 3 losses at this point in conference play.
Winning in Memphis has been extremely tough for away teams over the past few years, but this year's Southern Miss team definitely has the talent to do it.
SMU @ UTEP (02-12-11)
This game will be the first of two meetings between these two western Conference USA foes, with the final game in both team's season finale in Dallas. This one in El Paso will be huge however, with UTEP currently in first place in the conference and SMU only trailing the Miners by one game in the standings.
The Mustangs have been a huge surprise this season under head coach Matt Doherty. After going through a cupcake non-conference schedule with a mediocre record, not much was thought of SMU come conference play. They are currently riding a four-game winning streak in and will try to extend that to five games in a row before traveling to UTEP with a home game against Tulane on Wednesday.
Even after losing head coach Tony Barbee in the off season, new coach Tim Floyd has kept the Miners success going. Currently sitting in first place by a slim margin with a multitude of teams right behind them, UTEP is going to have to play near perfect down the stretch to come away with the regular season Conference USA title.
This game will be the first of many important games for the Miners down the stretch.
UAB @ Memphis (02-16-11)
In a war between two of the top-tier teams in Conference USA over the past few years, the Tigers managed to escape Birmingham earlier this year with a 76-73 overtime victory over the Blazers. UAB will be looking for revenge come the 16th of February in Memphis as the two squads square off for the final time in the 2011 regular season.
These two teams are on the bubble at this point in the season, and a win could really give the victor the edge. The Blazers have had trouble beating Memphis recently, losing a lot of close games to the Tigers since former Indiana coach Mike Davis took over the head job at UAB.
UTEP @ Southern Miss (02-16-11)
The two teams currently sitting at the top of the standings square off in a big match up in Hattiesburg come mid-February. A year ago, the Miners swept the season series against the Golden Eagles, winning both games by a combined 10 points on their way to a conference title.
This season however, this game will be the only meeting in the regular season between the two teams, so it is a pivotal game with the winner taking a big jump towards a regular season Conference USA championship.
The game pits two of the best players in the conference against each other in UTEP's Randy Culpepper and USM's Gary Flowers.
Tulsa @ SMU (02-19-11)
While the Tulsa Golden Hurricane had a rather poor start to the season with just a 7-7 record in their non-conference games, they have really hit their stride in conference play. The Hurricane have knocked off some big-time opponents in UAB and UTEP at home, and the Memphis Tigers on the road.
If they can just find a way to play like they have in all of their victories this season, Tulsa should be near the top of the conference standings at the end of the year. Just a few weeks ago, they lost a heart-breaker to the same SMU team at home on a last-second three that they will square off against in Dallas on the 19th of February.
Both teams will be looking for a crucial victory that can propel them to the top of the standings in this one.
UTEP @ East Carolina (02-23-11)
In another tough game for UTEP, they must travel across the country to Greenville, North Carolina to take on the upstart Pirates. First-year head coach Jeff Lebo has brought a winning attitude to East Carolina that the Pirate fans there have not seen on the hardwood in quite some time.
ECU currently sits just a half-game back of third place, and only one-and-a-half games out of the top spot as well. If they can find a way to knock off the Miners at home, the Pirates could begin a rise to the top of the conference at the end of the year.
With other head-to-head match ups against Tulsa, Southern Miss, Memphis, and UAB still on the schedule, it is possible for the Pirates to beat some of the top teams and get themselves a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Tulsa @ Marshall (02-23-11)
Marshall has had a tough first half of the year in conference play, but they certainly have the talent and ability to make a run at the top half of the conference before this thing is over. With five of their final eight games to be played at home, this thing is far from over for the Thundering Herd.
If Marshall could have just found a way to hold on in what should have been two victories against East Carolina and UAB, the Herd would be sitting in great shape right now. However, they failed to get the job done and they now must make up a ton of ground if they want to get back into the conference race.
Tulsa will be a tough draw come the 23rd of February, as they too will be battling for their respective conference title hopes.
Memphis @ UTEP (02-26-11)
This is probably the most anticipated game of the year in Conference USA.
UTEP and Memphis have been two of the better teams in the conference the past few years and this game should not disappoint in the least bit. Having the homecourt advantage should the help the Miners quite a bit against a young Memphis team, but after getting a big road win at Gonzaga, the Tigers showed just how good they can be when all of their talent comes together.
One of the key matchups to watch in this one will be how UTEP's star point guard Randy Culpepper handles the length and athletic ability of Memphis' defenders.
The game is scheduled to be televised by ESPN2 at 3 p.m. EST.
UAB @ Southern Miss (03-02-11)
Southern Miss took it to UAB in Birmingham earlier this season, so the Blazers will be looking for some road revenge in this big game. With so many games still to go, it is hard to tell where these teams will be this late in the season, but one has to figure these two are going to be somewhere near the top.
Two veteran and passionate coaches in UAB's Mike Davis and USM's Larry Eustachy will have their teams giving their all in this one. Although the Golden Eagles have not made the NCAA tournament recently, this is starting to look like a year they can do it if they can manage a nice run to end the season.
UAB is trying to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since making it three straight years from 2003-2006.
Southern Miss @ Tulsa (03-05-11)
These two teams will square off in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the final day of the regular season for Conference USA. Whether it is just for conference tournament seedings or a chance to further improve their resume for the NCAA tournament, look for this game to have postseason implications in some way.
During the 2009-2010 season, Southern Miss and Tulsa only met one time with that game being in Tulsa as well. The Golden Hurricane managed to come away with a 60-52 victory.
In order for that to happen again, Tulsa leader and senior guard Justin Hurtt must have another great performance in this one - something he has had no trouble doing in big games so far this year.