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Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Look back, look ahead: Conference USA

By Dana O'Neil

The reality that was for Conference USA this past season remains the reality the league must change for the upcoming season.

The conference, done in by realignment, has the reputation of being a way station or purgatory instead of a landing place.

All of those chronically shifting sands certainly don’t help create stability. But even more, it creates the image of a league in constant flux and, consequently, a talent pool that also is hard to judge.

Shaquille Harrison
Conference champion Tulsa rode a hot streak into the NCAA tournament but lost its coach following the season.
Fifty bucks to the casual fan that can accurately name all 14 members for 2014-15*.

Memphis is no longer around to carry the league’s water. The teams in its stead, while good, just don’t have that name cache. The NCAA tournament selection committee says it judges each team on its annual merit, not past performance, but the committee is made up of human beings, too, and human nature does what it does.

While the Atlantic 10 pushed six teams into the NCAA tournament, C-USA managed just one -- the second year in a row it has been shut out of an at-large bid. Southern Miss, with an RPI of 33 and 27 wins, probably deserved a bid. Louisiana Tech, another 27-game winner with a bubblier RPI of 59, deserved consideration.

It didn’t happen.

Coaches are already on record about boosting their nonconference schedules next season to guard against such disappointment, and with an 11-33 record against teams in the top 50 RPI, that’s a good idea. But until Conference USA can settle on its members and then work to build up its stock, the perception will dog its teams as much as the records.

*Answer: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP, UTSA and Western Kentucky.

What we saw this season: What it might have lacked in predictability, C-USA made up for in competition. Four teams finished in a tie for first place, with UTEP a mere game behind.

Trouble was, with such a gargantuan league (16 members) it was impossible to play anything near a round-robin schedule.

Worse still, the league settled on a schedule that included just one repeat opponent per team, creating a wildly unbalanced schedule that was nearly impossible to judge. Was Southern Miss’ 13-3, with Tulane as a repeat, better or worse than 13-3 Louisiana Tech, which played Rice twice? Or better or worse than 13-3 Middle Tennessee, which played Rice two times? Or better or worse than 13-3 Tulsa, two-time opponent of North Texas?

Ultimately the Golden Hurricane won the conference tourney and, with it, the golden ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech were relegated to the NIT.

On numbers alone, the Golden Eagles probably deserved a bid, but a deeper scrub of their schedule unveils a team that lacked real quality wins to bolster an at-large bid. Southern Miss beat DePaul, Georgia State and North Dakota State and got its doors blown off by Louisville. An 18-point loss to Louisiana Tech in the C-USA tourney, wasn’t the lasting impression to help its cause, either.

Tulsa, meanwhile, got hot and stayed that way, winning 11 in a row before its second-round loss to UCLA in the tourney.

Two weeks later, it lost its coach, Danny Manning, to Wake Forest.

What we expect to see next season: TBD … Tulsa, the reigning champ, now departs for the American Athletic Conference along with East Carolina and Tulane, creating yet more turnover for Conference USA.

Michael White
Louisiana Tech, one of C-USA's steadiest programs, will stay that way after Mike White turned down Tennessee.
Western Kentucky, a program with a rich history in the Sun Belt, comes in as a replacement and is a good addition. The Hilltoppers have a strong basketball following and a decent tradition to add some credibility to the league.

More needed new blood comes in the way of former VCU associate head coach Mike Rhoades, hired at woebegone Rice, and ex-Pistons coach Michael Curry, who takes over for Mike Jarvis at Florida Atlantic. The league’s bottom-feeders need an energy injection and these two could provide it.

Presumably, Marshall eventually will get around to replacing Tom Herrion, too. Rumor has it now Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is on the wish list. Point guard Kareem Canty, however, is already out. He plans to transfer.

Of course, coaching changes have been part of the league’s problem too.  One day after breathing a sigh of relief when Louisiana Tech coach Mike White opted to stay with the Bulldogs instead of bolt for Tennessee, the league still lost a coach to the Volunteers.

Donnie Tyndall takes over for Cuonzo Martin, putting Southern Miss back on the coaching market. Tyndall, who won 56 games in two seasons, spent just two years in Hattiesburg after taking over for Larry Eustachy.

Southern Miss has been one of the more reliable Conference USA programs and the hire now will be critical to maintain that consistency.

But Tyndall’s replacement also will be the ninth new coach in the past two years in the conference. That’s significant turnover in a league in desperate need of more stable waters.