Here are five things I can't wait to see in Conference USA this season:
1. Memphis' young talent
Two weeks ago, Memphis freshman Will Barton -- the gem of Josh Pastner's top-five recruiting class -- went out on a limb. Doing his best Joe Namath (or at least his best impression of every other player who's attempted to have their own Namath moments over the years), Barton told Memphis fans that the Tigers were going to the Final Four this season. "I'm guaranteeing it," he said. You can quarrel with Barton's prediction, but it's hard to hate that swag, and if Memphis' freshmen don't share it, they should.
In his first full year recruiting, Pastner landed the type of recruiting class the school got used to under former coach John Calipari -- deep, talented, precocious, and based around a likely one-and-done star. That star is Barton, the top-ranked shooting guard in the 2010 class, and the class also includes elite top-100 recruits like Joe Jackson (the No. 6-ranked point guard), Jelan Kendrick (the No. 11-ranked shooting guard) and Tarik Black (the No. 15-ranked power forward). All four players will be immediate contributors on a team that looks talented enough to retake the Conference USA mantle after the program's one-year post-Calipari dip.
2. Josh Pastner's team-building
Recruiting is half the battle and Pastner's young team, like so many of his predecessor's, could probably have a successful year with a fifth-grade coach on the sidelines. But if Memphis wants to do more than dominate C-USA, Pastner is going to have to do what Calipari did (and does) so masterfully: He's going to have to turn his collection of young stars into an actual team. Can he do it? We don't have much coaching reference for Pastner, who, at 33, is a lot like his team: young, insanely talented, and ultimately unproven.
Memphis has a couple of veterans -- forward Wesley Witherspoon especially -- it will need to complement the freshmen. Can Pastner build his individual stars into a cohesive unit? If he does, Barton's prediction might not look quite as ambitious after all.
3. The return of Larry Eustachy
Remember Larry? Sure you do. Eustachy has had a long road back since the rather hilarious photos of him drinking cheap college-level beer with the outstanding young women of Ames cost him his job at Iowa State. Since 2004-05, Eustachy has been patiently attempting to build a winner at Southern Miss. Results have been sporadic, but there are signs that this season could be Eustachy's best since the Natural Lights heard 'round the world. Southern Miss returns its top six scorers from last season's 20-14 team, and its recruiting class includes valuable junior college transfer Carrington Tankson, who should provide an immediate perimeter scoring boost. If there's a void in the C-USA's sub-Memphis second tier, Eustachy and the Golden Eagles might just be the team to fill it.
4. Tim Floyd's prodigal return to UTEP
UTEP made a bold choice in hiring Floyd. The former USC coach resigned when reports of an illicit payment to an O.J. Mayo handler made an already besieged USC athletics program look even worse. Floyd, a former assistant at UTEP, found refuge in El Paso. It's hard to say who needed whom more. Floyd wanted a place to continue coaching after the Mayo mess; the Miners, seeking to maintain the recent momentum of now-Auburn-coach Tony Barbee's successful tenure, wanted a coach who could build a competitive team as quickly as possible. Floyd can do that. Whether his tenure in West Texas will be as dramatic as his stint in South L.A. remains to be seen. In the meantime, guard Randy Culpepper will still be extremely fun to watch, and UTEP, though not nearly as talented after the departures of forwards Arnett Moultrie and Derrick Caracter, will still rank among the conference's better teams.
5. A Tulsa turning point?
This time last year, it appeared Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik was -- or at least appeared to be -- almost there. The Golden Hurricane had just completed its third-straight 20-win season, the inside-out combo of guard Ben Uzoh and center Jerome Jordan looked ready to reign over a down C-USA. And with a totally plausible NCAA tournament appearance in the offing, Wojcik would assume the hot-new-coach mantle previously held at the school by Bill Self, Tubby Smith, Nolan Richardson, Buzz Peterson and others. Things didn't quite go as planned. Instead, Tulsa limped to a 10-6 conference record and a 23-12 overall mark -- decent, to be sure, but hardly the stuff ascendant programs are made of. Now Uzoh and Jordan are gone, and Wojcik will be counting on fifth-year senior Justin Hurtt and a handful of solid newcomers to prevent the program from losing any more of its momentum.