- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor’s note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Today we take a look at Conference USA.
1. Will Memphis make a deep run in the NCAA tournament?
They've been the class of the conference for years. With a move to the Big East nearing, do the Tigers have one last C-USA regular-season title in them? Almost certainly. Memphis has the talent, the length and the athleticism for that goal, but the important question is: Do the Tigers have what it takes to win a few games in March? The fact is, Josh Pastner has yet to win an NCAA tournament game, despite being ranked in the preseason top 20 the past two seasons. They're in that group once again in 2012-13. Will it translate to success in the Big Dance?
2. How will the new coaches make their mark?
Larry Brown is one of the most recognizable names in basketball. He'll be in C-USA for just one season before SMU transitions to the Big East. But he has one of the worst teams in the league, so it’s unfair to expect much out of the Mustangs. Coincidentally, the player who led Brown to the 1988 national title at Kansas -- Danny Manning -- is also new to the league as head coach at Tulsa. Jarrod Haase brings another Kansas connection to the league, taking over at UAB. But the coach who probably has the best shot at a one-year makeover is Donny Tyndall at Southern Miss. The Eagles were in the NCAA tournament a year ago and they have a legit shot to be back in the postseason in some form.
3. Is Marshall ready to break through and get to the NCAA tournament?
The Thundering Herd couldn’t overcome the Memphis beast last season, losing three times to the Tigers and badly in the Conference USA title game. Marshall might have the C-USA Player of the Year in DeAndre Kane, but he has to lead this team out of being mediocre when it matters most. The Herd have no excuse to be anywhere other than in contention for a possible NCAA berth in late February. Memphis is leaving the conference, leaving open a chance for a team to emerge as the new front-runner. Marshall has the infrastructure to be that team, but needs to establish itself this season.
4. How will Central Florida handle its postseason ban?
Keith Clanton already made a selfless decision by deciding to stay in Orlando and finish his career where it started. Clanton is the favorite for player of the year in the conference, and is focused on leading the Knights to a potential top-three finish in the league, even if they can't compete in the postseason. This is a critical season for Donnie Jones, too. The UCF administration chose to stick with Jones, and he needs to reward the school by putting a hard-working product on the floor that is low-maintenance this season. How the Knights handle this season will go a long way toward determining Jones’ longtime security at the school.
5. How will the defections at Rice affect Ben Braun?
Rice lost a number of key players from last season’s 19-win team in the offseason, notably star forward Arsalan Kazemi. The progress Braun made seems to have been stunted. The Owls don’t have the depth or the talent they had a season ago. Like UCF, the administration has decided to back the head coach in a tumultuous situation. Braun has to ensure that the product he puts on the floor is worthy of watching, and gives hope that the program can survive this hit.