You Gotta See This: Conference USA
October, 11, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsMemphis beat Southern Miss for the C-USA title last March, then bid farewell to the conference.It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Realignment hates Conference USA.
Eighteen years. It's hard to believe it has been that long, but it really has: In 1995, before the American Athletic Conference was even a glint in Mike Aresco's eye, the Metro Conference and Great Midwest Conference got together. They had one thing in common: No Division I football sponsorship. They named their baby Conference USA.
The generic, all-inclusive nomenclature might make C-USA seem like a spiritual forefather to the American, but it was really closer to the Big East in intent. There was good basketball happening in the Great Midwest and the Metro, but there would be better basketball, plus football, in numbers.
For a decade, things went swimmingly: Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis worked on their regional rivalries, DePaul and Marquette had a home that made sense for their unique situations (non-East Coast, Division I, non-football schools), and C-USA settled into a rather comfortable space just outside the power six and just above true "mid-major" leagues.
It looks nothing like that today.
The 2005-06 realignment was the first serious shift. In one fell swoop, Conference USA lost Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida to the Big East. Saint Louis and Charlotte dove at the Atlantic-10. With just five original members remaining (we'll count Houston, which joined in 1996 when C-USA began sponsoring football), the league had to add inventory, and quickly. So it snapped up UCF, SMU, Tulsa, Marshall, Rice and UTEP. While regionally consistent, these were hardly one-for-one trades; C-USA was never the same basketball league again.
Now, after two years of wide-ranging realignment at nearly every level of the sport, the C-USA looks nothing like its charter configuration. It has been decimated. Just two original members, Southern Miss and UAB, remain, while six teams -- Memphis, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, Central Florida, SMU and Tulsa -- are joining the newly formed American either this year or next. In response to the exodus, the league again has had to replenish its ranks, only with slimmer pickings. Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA, Western Kentucky.
These are good schools, to be sure; there are some interesting additions in there. But let's keep it 100 here: Conference USA is unrecognizable. It's a shell. Even in recent years, when many devotees argued the league was overlooked during Bubble Watch season, it still had Memphis as a draw. But John Calipari's success grew the Tigers out of Conference USA years ago; there simply wasn't enough yearly competition. Now, the thought of Memphis playing a 16- or 18-game schedule in the C-USA looks laughable.
You can scan high and low throughout the sport: Over the past 15 years, no conference has been more adversely affected by conference realignment than C-USA. Maybe, like Tony Soprano, it was just born too late. Maybe the middle ground between mid-major and power-six (or whatever) is unsustainable. There are probably lot of different reasons, and we could debate them for a while, but it doesn't change what Conference USA is today, in 2013. Where does it go from here? That's the question.