TheSportsNotebook is taking a close look at midmajor conferences this week, with Bracket Busters games going Friday and Saturday. Conference USA isn’t officially a part of this weekend gala, but they are loaded with teams that could…well, bust a bracket, so let’s take a look at the race.
Southern Miss and Memphis are each 8-2 in the conference and each are projected as a #8 seed. Southern Miss would have to be considered the greater among equals though, with a 21-4 overall record and the Tigers suffered a key injury, which will get to momentarily. Just behind the co-leaders are Tulsa and Central Florida.
The Golden Eagles non-conference resume won’t blow you away—Ole Miss is the only win that comes even close to the level of being impressive, and that’s pushing it. What Larry Eustachy’s team has done is stay consistent and create a clear identity for themselves. They give seven players substantial minutes and gun three-pointers without conscience. LaShay Page shoots seven treys a game, Maurice Bolden, a 6’10” senior plays as a swingman and hits 39 percent from behind the arc. Neil Watson, the diminutive 5’11” sophomore not only dishes five assists a game, but hits 40 percent from three-point range.
In spite of not having a true post player Southern Miss has been able to win games through rebounding. They won key games against Central Florida and Memphis by beating the opposition to the glass. The usual pitfalls that come with relying heavily on the three-ball exist—Southern Miss took a tough loss at Memphis because they were cold from the floor, but this is a team that’s well-coached, has a clear identity and presuming they can make it out of the first round, can be a live dog against a top seed in the second round.
The schedule the rest of the way is pretty manageable. Southern Miss’ road games with Houston and UTEP, plus a home date with SMU are against teams with losing records. Then a home date with Rice and a season finale at Marshall are against NIT or CBI-level opposition. It’s reasonable to expect Eustachy’s team to run the table, which likely wraps up an outright C-USA title.
Memphis isn’t as deep as Southern Miss, and the Tigers suffered a key loss on January 24 when freshman swingman Adonis Thomas was lost for the season with a knee injury. Averaging 10 ppg and a legit threat from downtown, Thomas wasn’t a star, but was a key part of a team that now only has four steady contributors. The good news is that one of those four, Will Barton, is the best player in C-USA. The 6’6” sophomore guard is averaging 18 points/8 rebounds/3 assists a game, and the fact he shoots 51 percent from the floor tells you he isn’t doing it by being a ballhog. Joe Jackson and Tarik Block are both sophs who average 10 a night. The lack of depth and the fact this team is very young—all four main contributors, including point guard and three-point marksman Chris Crawford are sophs—mean it’s likely they come in second, but at a projected #8 seed, it looks like they’ve got some cushion for getting into the Dance.
Chasing the leaders are…
Central Florida (18-7, 7-4): Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology over at ESPN.com has the Knights missing the NCAA right now, but in the group of teams that anywhere from 5 to 8 spots from qualifying, so if we’re looking at a political poll we might say that it’s within the margin of error. And if we’re looking at a basketball team in mid-February we might say they have a chance to play their way in without a doubt. Marcus Jordan leads the way for UCF, averaging 15 ppg from his two-guard spot and firing away from three-point range an average of six times a night. He gets solid inside help from Keith Clanton, a 6’9” junior who averages a 15/9, while Isaiah Sykes doesn’t let a relatively small 6’5” frame stop him from grabbing seven boards a night, to go with 12 points. A.J. Romps is solid at the point and Tristan Spurlock can help in the post and occasionally step out and hit the three-ball.
Tulsa (15-10, 8-3): Chasing the conference championship is about pride for the Golden Hurricanes, because they aren’t on the NCAA Tournament’s radar and will have to win the league tourney to get an automatic. But even if the Selection Committee won’t give a regular season due credit, it’s still something for a basketball program to be proud of and Tulsa’s got a shot. They’ve got their own three-point gunner in Scottie Hardson who hits 42 percent while firing up seven a game. Jordan Clarkson is a solid all-around guard, averaging a 16/4/3 line while shooting above average from the floor and three-point range. The X-factors are Kodi Maduka and Steve Tallet, a pair of 6’11” forwards, who don’t dominate, but create huge matchup problems for any of the contenders. If Maduka and Tallet come up with a big conference tournament and Hardson is hot from the outside, Tulsa can win the event and the automatic.
Speaking of X-factors, one to consider is that the league tournament will be held in Memphis, meaning Central Florida might be better off seeded fourth and taking their chances in the semi-finals with a Southern Miss team that’s probably going to have a bid locked up. UCF may need to at least reach the final to have a shot at an at-large and playing a road game against Memphis would be less than ideal.
Regardless of how it shakes out, this promises to be an interesting race the rest of the way, a fun league tourney and its leaders will be the kind that make or break brackets on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.