College Basketball Nation: Tulsa Golden Hurricane

3-point shot: Tulsa time

May, 30, 2014
May 30
12:30
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Andy Katz talks about what Frank Haith and Tulsa are doing to upgrade their schedule in hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament, how the American conference could experiment with a 30-second shot clock and also offers up a few NBA draft nuggets.
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.

[+] EnlargeShaquille Harrison
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConference 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.

[+] EnlargeMichael White
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiLouisiana 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.

 

3-point shot: Could Cards land No. 1 seed?

March, 16, 2014
Mar 16
10:15
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Andy Katz discusses the possibility that Louisville could steal a No. 1 seed, the importance of Montrezl Harrell to the Cardinals and the addition of Tulsa to the AAC next season.

Freshman Rankings: Who made the cut?

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
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Every other week in these parts, we'll unveil our list of the nation's top 10 freshmen. As with first-year players, this list is bound to be fluid throughout the season. So if you don't see your favorite player on these initial rankings today, check back with us for later editions. Or you can just leave us an angry comment in this one.

Without further ado, here are the choices (followed by a notable player from the past who put up similar numbers as a freshman):

[+] EnlargeAnthony Bennett
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Bennett's size and perimeter ability break the mold of the traditional power forward.
1. Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- 19.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 54.7 FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2005-06)

As the most consistent and most prolific freshman in the nation, Bennett has distanced himself from the pack. He’s the top freshman scorer (19.4) and ranks fifth in rebounds (8.6). His 19-8 averages were achieved by only four freshmen over the previous 10 seasons: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Kris Humphries and Carmelo Anthony. Pretty good company. Forget freshman honors, Bennett’s in the conversation for national player of the year.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State -- 12.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.6 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jason Kidd, California (1992-93)

Statistically, the last freshmen to fill up the score sheet like Smart were Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway. On top of lockdown defense, he’s averaging 12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals. Arguably the top freshman in November, Smart’s production has waned a bit this month. His turnovers are high and he’s shooting only 35 percent from the field on the season. With those caveats aside, there’s really no one like him.

3. Jahii Carson, Arizona State -- 17.9 PPG, 5.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jerryd Bayless, Arizona (2007-08)

Three of the top 20 recruits in the nation enrolled at Arizona this year, but there’s little question that the most impressive freshman in the state plays in Tempe. Carson (17.9 ppg) trails only Bennett is scoring, while also ranking in the top five in assists (5.3). It has been 16 years since a freshman averaged 17 and 5 (Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway in 1996-97). On a team picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12, it’s no surprise that the Sun Devils are leaning heavily on Carson. If he turns ASU into a conference contender, he might lock up this award. But keep in mind that the last USBWA Freshman of the Year to miss the NCAA tournament was Eddie Griffin in 2000-01.

4. Ben McLemore, Kansas -- 15.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky (2004-05)

Kansas is the only team in the top 20 with a freshman leading the team in scoring. McLemore (15.9 PPG) is on track to break Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record, while joining Brandon Rush as the only freshmen to lead the Jayhawks in scoring over the past 30 years. An interesting side note: Both McLemore and Carson are redshirt freshmen, who were ineligible last season. They were ranked back-to-back (at 49th and 50th, respectively) in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2011.

5. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky -- 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.4 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyreke Evans, Memphis (2008-09)

Goodwin is putting up numbers eerily similar to another John Calipari freshman sensation, albeit from his pre-Kentucky days. Like Goodwin, Tyreke Evans was pressed into point guard duty for Memphis in 2009, finishing the season at 17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 3.9 APG. Through 10 games, Goodwin is averaging 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.4 APG. Just like John Wall and Brandon Knight did as freshmen, he leads the Wildcats in points and assists.

6. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – 10.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.9 BPG, 2.8 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyrus Thomas, LSU (2005-06)

In the span of a month, Noel went from overrated to overlooked. That’s what expectations will do for you. Maybe he won’t be the next Anthony Davis, but his numbers on the defensive end are worthy of praise. Noel leads all freshmen in steals (2.8), ranks second in blocks (3.9) and fourth in rebounds (9.0). He’s the only player, regardless of class, ranked in the top 50 in steals and blocks. Even if his offense doesn’t come around, Noel will remain among the most impactful freshmen.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsUCLA's Shabazz Muhammad has been stellar since becoming eligible this season.
7. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA -- 17.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Rashad McCants, UNC (2002-03)

While Muhammad missed the first three games of the season, Jordan Adams exploded out of the gate. But Muhammad has been the Bruins' most consistent player since becoming eligible. He’s up to 17.8 ppg, the fifth-highest scoring average among freshmen. A week ago, he wouldn’t have been on this list. But after totaling 46 points over the past two games, Muhammad is coming on strong. Apart from Kevin Love, no one has been a bigger threat to Don MacLean’s school freshman scoring record (18.6 ppg).

8. Semaj Christon, Xavier -- 14.7 PPG, 5.2 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Dominic James, Marquette (2005-06)

Cramps limited Christon to 23 minutes against Cincinnati, blocking him from a potential statement game. On a team that lost its top six scorers, he has thrown the Musketeers on his back with the fifth-highest usage percentage of any freshman. He’s on track to be Xavier’s second-leading freshman scorer of all time behind Byron Larkin (17.0 in 1984-85). All that’s missing is the deep threat. Christon is 2-for-11 from 3-point range.

9. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke -- 12.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.6 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: E’Twaun Moore, Purdue (2007-08)

While most of his brethren dominate lesser competition, Sulaimon is getting it done against the nation’s elite. With 17 points against Ohio State and 14 against Louisville, he’s a big reason that the Blue Devils are unbeaten and No. 1 in the nation. He doesn’t have the flashiest numbers, but Sulaimon is third on Duke in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

10. Nik Stauskas, Michigan -- 13.2 PPG, 54.7 3-pt FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (2009-10)

The least heralded recruit on this list, Stauskas was ranked 76th in the ESPN 100 coming out of St. Mark’s in Southborough, Mass. But the Canadian has been just the deep threat that John Beilein needed at Michigan, shooting 54.7 percent from 3-point range. That puts him on pace to break Jay Edwards’ 25-year-old record for 3-point percentage by a freshman (53.6).

Just Missed: T.J. Warren (NC State), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Jordan Adams (UCLA)
Rising: James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Jakarr Sampson (St. John’s), John Brown (High Point)
Falling: Brandon Ashley (Arizona), James Woodard (Tulsa), Dewayne Russell (Northern Arizona)

ESPN.com's Conference USA preview

October, 24, 2012
10/24/12
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Before we get to the Blue Ribbon team-by-team previews for Conference USA, here is Eamonn Brennan's quick wind sprint through the league:


Blue Ribbon breakdowns of all 12 teams in C-USA:

East Carolina
Houston
Marshall
Memphis
Rice
SMU

Southern Miss
Tulane
Tulsa
UAB
UCF
UTEP Insider Free

More Conference USA content:

-- Andy Katz with five things he can't wait to see in Conference USA
-- John Gasaway answers five burning questions for the league Insider
-- Eamonn Brennan's Three Big Things on Memphis
-- Brennan on the improved shot of Memphis' Adonis Thomas and Myron Medcalf's five questions for Thomas
-- Brennan rates and analyzes the nonconference schedules of the C-USA
-- Katz on Marshall star DeAndre Kane and the unexpected tragedy he had to face in the offseason
-- Medcalf on how new Tulsa coach Danny Manning is counting on Bill Self's lessons
-- Paul Biancardi identifies the top freshmen and potential recruits in C-USA Insider
-- Katz and Greenberg's conversation with new SMU coach Larry Brown
-- ESPN.com's Summer Shootaround preview of C-USA
-- See where Memphis and Houston ranked in our "50 in 50" series, which attempted to identify the 50 most successful programs of the past half-century
-- For more coverage of Conference USA in the Nation blog, click here.

What I can't wait to see: Conference USA

October, 24, 2012
10/24/12
10:55
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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.
For the next four days, ESPN.com will be breaking down the nonconference schedules of each and every team in a dozen of the nation's top leagues. We began with the ACC and will continue later today with the SEC. For now, Conference USA ...

EAST CAROLINA

Toughest: at North Carolina (Dec. 15), at Massachusetts (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: at Charlotte (Dec. 1), at Georgia State (Nov. 26)
The rest: Washington & Lee (Nov. 10), Methodist (Nov. 13), UNC Greensboro (Nov. 16), Appalachian State (Nov. 20), St. Andrews (Dec. 4), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 18), Norfolk State (Dec. 29), Campbell (Jan. 2), North Carolina Wesleyan (Jan. 1)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- East Carolina is hardly a hoops hotbed; rather, it's a program very much rebuilding under third-year coach Jeff Lebo. So I'll give Lebo credit for taking a very much rebuilding program on the road, where it is sure to take lumps against UNC and a good UMass team, and could struggle at Charlotte and Georgia State. The home schedule is downright awful and includes several non-Division I opponents, but you have to pile up wins somewhere.

HOUSTON

Toughest: Texas A&M (Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: at TCU (Dec. 4)
The rest: Florida A&M (Nov. 9), at San Jose State (Nov. 13), Grambling State (Nov. 17), Louisiana College (Nov. 19), at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Nov. 25), at Prairie View A&M (Nov. 28), Texas Southern (Dec. 8), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 15), Chicago State (Dec. 22), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 29), Texas Pan-American (Dec. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- Thanks to some high-end recruiting (Danuel House and Danrad "Chicken" Knowles, although the latter is a partial qualifier and won't play until next season), Houston is on the right path and could make a little noise this season. But thanks to a schedule that is almost entirely composed of Division I bottom-feeders (save for Texas A&M and a game at TCU), the nonconference win total won't tell us much.

MARSHALL

Toughest: at Villanova (Nov. 11), vs. West Virginia (Dec. 5 in Charleston, W.Va.), vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 15 in Charleston, W.Va.), at Kentucky (Dec. 22), at Ohio (Jan. 5)
Next-toughest: vs. South Dakota State (Nov. 17 in Hempstead, N.Y.), Nevada (Nov. 24)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), vs. District of Columbia (Nov. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y.), at Hofstra (Nov. 18), Morehead State (Nov. 28), UNC-Wilmington (Dec. 1), Coppin State (Dec. 8), Savannah State (Dec. 19), Delaware State (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Marshall fancies itself an NCAA tournament team this season, and for good reason. The Thundering Herd return most of a team that advanced to the C-USA tourney final and narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament bubble. This schedule reflects it. It is filled with real challenges, both at home, on the road, and in nearby Charleston against Cincinnati and rival West Virginia.

MEMPHIS

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24), Louisville (Dec. 15), at Tennessee (Jan. 4)
Next-toughest: Harvard (Nov. 19), Ohio (Dec. 5), Loyola-Md. (Dec. 30), at Xavier (Feb. 26)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 17), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 29), Austin Peay (Dec. 8), Lipscomb (Dec. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Josh Pastner is consistently clear about his desire to play one of the nation's toughest schedules and this hardly constitutes a departure. The Battle 4 Atlantis features a loaded field that could produce eight NCAA tourney teams (including opening opponent VCU), the home date with long-lost rival Louisville is a big-time matchup with a top-5 opponent, the trip to Tennessee won't exactly be a picnic, and there are potential mid-major conference winners sprinkled throughout. This schedule will test Memphis' talented group early and often.

RICE

Toughest: at Temple (Nov. 22), at Texas (Dec. 29), at Harvard (Jan. 5)
Next-toughest: Anaheim Classic (Nov. 23-25)
The rest: St. Thomas (Nov. 10), St. Edward's (Nov. 14), Houston Baptist (Dec. 1), LIU-Brooklyn (Dec. 12), Hartford (Dec. 15), Chicago State (Dec. 19), TCU (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The Owls remain a rebuilding entity (especially without Arsalan Kazemi), but their schedule doesn't reflect it -- this is a pretty brutal slate, all things considered. Those road dates are really tough, and the Anaheim Classic has Xavier, Saint Mary's, Cal and Drexel in its field.

SMU

Toughest: N/A
Next-toughest: at Utah (Dec. 18), Cable Car Classic (Dec. 21-22), Wyoming (Jan. 2)
The rest: Loyola Marymount (Nov. 11), at TCU (Nov. 15), at Texas State (Nov. 17), Alcorn State (Nov. 19), Rider (Nov. 21), Hoops For Hope Classic (Nov. 24-25), at Hofstra (Dec. 1), at Rhode Island (Dec. 15), Furman (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- Southern Methodist had a huge offseason, hiring the legendary Larry Brown and a coterie of well-respected assistants. In a year, it will join the Big East. Big things are happening. If you didn't know any better, though, this schedule could convince you otherwise. It is awful.

SOUTHERN MISS

Toughest: at Georgia (Nov. 15), at Arizona (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: at New Mexico State (Dec. 1), at Georgia State (Dec. 18), Wichita State (Dec. 22)
The rest: Western Kentucky (Nov. 10), Legends Classic (Nov. 19-21), Denver (Nov. 27), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 8), Grambling State (Dec. 15), at Morehead State (Dec. 28), William Carey (Dec. 31), Dillard (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Southern Miss' schedule isn't the toughest you'll ever see, but it does have plenty to recommend it. There are the actual challenges involved, of course. But more than that, it's a schedule tailor-made for RPI exploitation. From the no-risk road games at high majors to the collection of top mid-major teams to the Division II games (which don't count against the RPI) versus William Carey and Dillard, you can just about guarantee the Golden Eagles (as in 2011-12) will again maintain a solid RPI figure.

TULANE

Toughest: at Alabama (Dec. 30)
Next-toughest: at Georgia Tech (Nov. 9), at Nebraska (Nov. 21)
The rest: Bethune Cookman (Nov. 13), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 16), Chicago State (Nov. 18), Southern (Nov. 24), Loyola-La. (Nov. 27), Navy (Dec. 1), Nicholls State (Dec. 4), at San Diego (Dec. 8 ), Texas-Pan American (Dec. 19), Pepperdine (Dec. 20), Hofstra (Dec. 22), Wofford (Jan. 5)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Third-year coach Ed Conroy is working hard to turn Tulane around. For now, though, this is still a young team, one that will take its lumps on the road at the high-major foes you see listed above. This is a solid slate, relative to where the Green Wave are right now.

TULSA

Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 19), Florida State (Dec. 29 in Sunrise, Fla.)
Next-toughest: at Wichita State (Nov. 28), at Oral Roberts (Dec. 22)
The rest: LSU-Shreveport (Nov. 11), NUCDF Basketball Tournament (Nov. 15-17), Jackson State (Nov. 21), Stephen F. Austin (Nov. 24), Missouri State (Dec. 5), TCU (Dec. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Dec. 15), Buffalo (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Golden Hurricane are under new management in former Kansas assistant Danny Manning's first season, but the schedule doesn't betray a desire to flatter with a padded win total. Playing Creighton on the road and Florida State on a neutral site is a challenging twosome, and winning at Wichita State and Oral Roberts is never easy.

UAB

Toughest: at Creighton (Nov. 14), at North Carolina (Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: at Middle Tennessee (Dec. 5), at Rutgers (Dec. 16), at Dayton (Jan. 5)
The rest: Young Harris College (Nov. 10), Navy (Nov. 18), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 20), South Padre Island Tournament (Nov. 23-24), at Troy (Nov. 27), South Alabama (Dec. 8), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 20), Northeastern (Dec. 29), Georgia Southern (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Like the aforementioned Golden Hurricane, UAB has a new, first-time head coach in charge. Also like Tulsa, UAB's schedule is hardly easy, in part because (also like Tulsa), UAB will travel to Creighton early in the season -- not to mention to UNC and harder-than-they-look road trips to Middle Tennessee, Rutgers and Dayton.

UCF

Toughest: at South Florida (Nov. 10), at Florida (Nov. 23), Miami (Dec. 18), South Florida (Jan. 2)
Next-toughest: Middle Tennessee (Nov. 20), UCF Holiday Tournament (Dec. 28-29), at Old Dominion (Dec. 14)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 13), Savannah State (Nov. 18), Florida Tech (Dec. 1), Bethune Cookman (Dec. 12), Stetson (Dec. 21), Florida A&M (Jan. 5), Georgia Southwestern (Feb. 26)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Florida, Miami and two games against the lockdown defense of South Florida constitute a hearty slate of high-major foes here, but some toughness points are deducted because the Knights will leave the state of Florida just once (to play at Old Dominion) in the entire first two months of the season.

UTEP

Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 15), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 22-25), UNLV (Dec. 17), Oregon (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Oral Roberts (Nov. 9), New Mexico State (Nov. 28), at New Mexico State (Feb. 23)
The rest: Idaho (Dec. 8), Don Haskins Invitational (Dec. 22-23), Cameron (Dec. 28), Houston Baptist (Jan. 14)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Tim Floyd's team is still unusually young -- he incorporated 10 newcomers last season, as the Miners finished 15-17 -- so it's fair to expect this team to take its lumps in what is a truly challenging schedule. The Old Spice Classic guarantees a game against Oklahoma and two more matchups in a field that includes Clemson, Gonzaga, Davidson, Vanderbilt and West Virginia.
1. An NFL-style lockout of officials can’t and won’t happen in college basketball. The officials are independent contractors and the consensus among the group is to keep the status quo. “It’s no different than if we paint your house, we get a 1099 from the IRS and we’re responsible for our own insurance, our own tax filings, deductions and receipts, including retirement,’’ said one high-profile official. “We have the flexibility.’’ Officials work in multiple conferences. They don’t have job security or a pension but they do have the freedom to hold day jobs, and the majority does. For the officials to be under one roof, the NCAA would have to hire them. If you paid 50 officials a salary of $100,000 with benefits, that’s $10 million -- but you’d still need to hire 350 more officials to cover the 5,000-plus games, according to an officiating head. Making officials employees would be too cost-ineffective. “The system is fine, as it is now,’’ said one officiating head.

2. Conference USA is discussing how to divide the league when it changes members and has 14 teams in 2013. The key question will be 16 or 18 league games and which teams will play each other twice every season. You can group a few natural rivals. The foursome of Charlotte-Marshall-Old Dominion-East Carolina will likely be together in some rivalry combination. UTEP and UT-San Antonio make sense as a pair. Tulsa and North Texas would be ideal, too. The interesting dilemma will whether the league pits small private schools Rice and Tulane against each other or pairs up intrastate Tulane and Louisiana Tech. The best chance for natural rivalries would be pitting Tulane against Rice and pairing Southern Miss against Louisiana Tech and Florida International against UAB, since those last two don’t really have any other school to pair up with based on the geography.

3. Former New Mexico State and Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus is on the verge of getting the job as head coach of the Los Angeles D-Fenders in the NBA Development League, replacing Eric Musselman, who left for an assistant’s job with Arizona State. The deal is done, according to a source, but Theus hasn't signed it yet; there is a tryout Saturday and Theus will be there. Theus has been anxious to get back into college basketball but hasn’t been able to get a quality sniff of late. Getting a head-coaching job, regardless of the level, is crucial for him to convince an athletic director and/or school president that he’s worthy of another shot.

Conference USA's most important players

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
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Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on C-USA, click here.

The most important player for each team in the conference ...

East Carolina: Miguel Paul
Paul ran the show in effective fashion for ECU last season, posting a 108.8 offensive rating while leading his team in usage and submitting the ninth-best assist rate in the nation (40.6). He'll be just as crucial in his final season.

Houston: Danuel House
House is the most talented recruit the Houston men's basketball program has landed in a long time. He could have chosen just about any destination for college ball, but he chose to stay in Houston and play for third-year coach James Dickey. House could be a star on a previously irrelevant team from day one.

Marshall: Dennis Tinnon
Marshall didn't miss the NCAA tournament by much last season, but miss the tourney it did. If that changes, it will be in part because Tinnon -- who posted a 120.2 offensive rating and ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive and offensive rebounding rate -- takes on an even larger share of the offense.

Memphis: Joe Jackson
The lightning-quick Memphis native carries the weight of a city on his back every time he plays. Through his first two seasons, Jackson has often displayed why those childhood expectations started in the first place -- even if it feels like we haven't seen him put it all together just yet.

[+] EnlargeArsalan Kazemi
AP Photo/Erich SchlegelArsalan Kazemi, who plays for Iran's national team, averaged 12.1 points and 10.3 rebounds as a junior last season.
Rice: Arsalan Kazemi
One of the nation's unknown stars is Rice's best player and its most important, a rebounding force who needs to command double-teams to help the Owls improve last season's putrid offense.

SMU: Jalen Jones
Speaking of putrid offense, SMU was awful on that side of the floor in 2011-12. But freshman guard Jones showed plenty of potential along the way.

Southern Miss: Neil Watson
The 5-foot-11 guard was former coach Larry Eustachy's second-most-used offensive option last season, when he shot 37.5 percent from the 3-point line and posted a 30.7 percent assist rate. Both of those figures should improve in 2012.

Tulane: Ricky Tarrant
It has been a tough decade or so for Tulane hoops, but Tarrant, who averaged 14.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists (and efficiently so) as a freshman last season, will give the Green Wave at least one go-to option going forward.

Tulsa: Scottie Haralson
Losing leading scorer Jordan Clarkson to an unflattering (for Tulsa) transfer scenario was a major blow, which is chief among the reasons why Haralson must step up as a senior.

UAB: Preston Purifoy
The Blazers are in rebuilding mode after firing coach Mike Davis, so all personnel bets are off. That means Purifoy, by far the team's most efficient player last season, could get more opportunities to show his skills.

UCF: Marcus Jordan
Keith Clanton is the more obvious pick, but he and Isaiah Sykes form a nice rebounding tandem on the low block. Jordan will have the ball in his hands more often and will have to be far more consistent to live up to the flashes of excellence we've seen in his time at UCF.

UTEP: Julian Washburn
Junior John Bohannon is a known quantity, a solid post man and an active rebounder who converts his opportunities well. Washburn, a 6-7 sophomore, has tons of upside, but he will have to become much more efficient in his second season.
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on Conference USA, click here.

Five offseason storylines in C-USA ...

1. The end of the Memphis era: And what an era it was. Since 2003, Memphis has won six regular-season titles, six conference tournament titles, made eight NCAA tournaments (including the NCAA-vacated 2008 season, but, you know, whatever) and generally lorded over the rest of the league, only occasionally halting to quench some rebellion or another. Since 2003, when then-coach John Calipari resurrected a proud program from a decade of irrelevance, this has been Conference USA's marquee attraction. After this season, that neon sign will go dark. In 2013-14, the Tigers will complete their conference realignment to the survivalist Big East. The departure is a double-edged sword for the conference. It will open the floodgates for other contenders while almost single-handedly robbing the league of much of its national cachet.

2. Is that … that's Larry Brown's music! Have clipboard, will coach: This is the undying unofficial motto of Larry Brown, who returned to the college ranks to take a job at -- wait for it -- Southern Methodist. Why would one of basketball's historic figures, a Hall of Famer, the only coach to win a national championship and an NBA title, return to the college game?

Blame it on the love. Or blame it on the tidy sum SMU -- which is eager to build a competitive (read: relevant) program before its 2013-14 foray to the Big East -- shelled out for the hire. Details of the contract were not disclosed by the private school, but SMU is spending $40 million on an arena renovation, has built a practice facility and hired Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich (plus a coterie of well-regarded recruiters as assistant coaches) to a coach-in-waiting position when the 71-year-old Brown decides, as he so often does, to leave.

[+] EnlargeDanny Manning
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiDanny Manning arrives at a Tulsa program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2003.
With a legendary coach, a band of connected assistants, a new practice facility and a newfound enthusiasm, where does SMU go from here? The first season will be a holdover, a transition until the real fun begins in the Big East, but even so, admit it: It's going to be fun to see Brown on a collegiate sideline once more.

3. Danny Manning takes Bill Self's old job: Tulsa's head-coaching position -- which has produced Arkansas legend Nolan Richardson, Kansas coach Bill Self and Minnesota coach Tubby Smith and counts Billy Gillispie, Flip Saunders, Kevin O'Neill, Tom Izzo and Mike Anderson as former assistants -- comes with a certain pedigree and a certain expectation of success. In seven years, former coach Doug Wojcik led the Hurricane to several solid seasons but never quite got over the hump. Replacing him is former Kansas legend and Self assistant Danny Manning, who coincidentally took Jankovich's old job at Kansas and won a national title with Brown at Kansas. Whether Manning can get Tulsa back to the NCAA tournament after a nine-year drought remains to be seen, but for sheer name recognition, it's hard to do better than the guy whose collegiate surname was "and the Miracles."

4. Turmoil at Central Florida: Any day now, the NCAA is going to rule on the case UCF brought in front of the NCAA committee on infractions in April related to Chicago-area "mentor" Ken Caldwell's alleged habit of working with an agent to steer players to UCF and giving those players some $16,000 in benefits along the way. UCF has already self-imposed strict penalties, including three years of probation, the vacancy of men's basketball victories for 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 and reductions in scholarships and recruiting days. UCF coach Donnie Jones also received a three-game suspension. Meanwhile, UCF star Marcus Jordan (son of you-know-whom) was arrested July 1 following a disturbance outside an Omaha, Neb., hotel. It has not been a banner summer for the Knights, that's for sure.

5. Conference tournament relocation: Memphians eager to watch their Tigers go for one more C-USA tournament crown before their Big East defection must have been sorely disappointed by the league's June decision to relocate the conference tournament to Tulsa. Why? Because Memphis is leaving, and the league wanted to punish it, at least symbolically; it did not like the idea of giving the Tigers a conference tourney home-court advantage in their final season of membership. The ticket sales in Tulsa aren't likely to match what Memphis fans would have shelled out, but all's fair in love and realignment.
1. Louisville coach Rick Pitino said in a text Tuesday night that Indiana and Louisville couldn’t get a date set to schedule a game next season. Indiana coach Tom Crean wasn’t ready to close the door in his response, saying he wasn’t sure. But Pitino said he’s now trying to start the home-and-home series in 2013-14, which is a shame considering that the two teams could be ranked 1-2 to start next season. Indiana still has a few more games to schedule.

2. Missouri still might have landed Jordan Clarkson without restrictions put on his transfer from Tulsa. In a statement, the Golden Hurricane wouldn’t detail why there were restricted schools like Texas. Somehow, Tulsa escaped national criticism for the way it handled Clarkson. Mizzou coach Frank Haith has five transfers eligible next season, then Clarkson in 2013-14; the use of transfers is helping the Tigers avoid a rebuilding phase. The schools that get these transfers, though, shouldn’t ever block one of their own from seeking a new home.

3. Denver’s plan, according to a source, is to try to convince the remaining WAC members (Idaho, New Mexico State, Boise State and Seattle) that they should stay together to keep the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth. The WAC could then add available Utah Valley and Cal State Bakersfield. The problem is that NMSU and Idaho will need a home for football and Boise State now would rather be in the Big West or, if the Big East were to fail, head back to the Mountain West. And, according to a source, if Denver had its choice, the Pioneers would go to the stable and all-private WCC.

Midweek Watch: Wednesday predictions

January, 25, 2012
1/25/12
11:00
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Editor's Note: Former Maryland head coach Gary Williams is overwhelmed with emotion about tonight's court-naming ceremony and talked with Andy Katz about it in today's Daily Word. In the same piece, you'll also find former coach Lefty Driesell's reaction -- let's just say he's not quite as thrilled.

The Maryland Terrapins are probably a year or two away from being good enough to compete for the ACC title again, but there will still be plenty to play for in tonight’s home game against Duke.

“We have to play for Coach [Gary] Williams,” guard Sean Mosley told reporters. “We don’t want to let him down on this big night.”

Less than a year after he resigned, Maryland is naming the Comcast Center court after the former coach. The move will become official during a pregame ceremony that’s scheduled to begin approximately 20 minutes before the 9 p.m. ET tip.

“We all know how Gary got up for the Duke game,” said Williams’ successor, Mark Turgeon, “so it’s an appropriate night for us to unveil his name on the floor.”

Williams coached Maryland from 1989-2011. The Terps went 461-252 in his 22 seasons, winning the NCAA title in 2002. Williams resigned after a 19-14 finish last season.

“It was great to have the opportunity to play for him,” forward James Padgett told assembled media. “It’s great to play in the game that they’re honoring his name.”

Revved up as the Comcast Center crowd may be, beating Duke certainly won’t be easy. Maryland is just 12-6 overall and 2-2 in ACC play. The Terps enter the game on a two-game losing streak and have lost nine of their past 10 against the Blue Devils, who fell to No. 6 in this week’s poll following Saturday’s home loss to Florida State.

Still, Turgeon told reporters there is no opponent more appropriate than Duke for tonight’s game.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Duke, in our fans’ minds, in our players’ minds, has been the rivalry game that we need to play well and be ready to play,” Turgeon said. “It will be our first game that’s sold out. From Day 1, getting out in the community, people talk about Duke.”

No one more so than Williams.

“I’m sure we’ll get a fist pump [Wednesday],” Turgeon said.

Prediction: Duke 75, Maryland 68 -- The atmosphere should be incredible tonight in College Park, but the Terrapins aren’t quite good enough -- at least not yet -- to capitalize. Duke will be looking to bounce back from Saturday’s home loss to Florida State. Austin Rivers is averaging 19.5 points in his last two games.

Some more picks for tonight's games:


Missouri at Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys have lost five of their last seven games, so it will be interesting to see what kind of crowd shows up at the normally raucous Gallagher-Iba Arena for tonight’s showdown with second-ranked Missouri. The Tigers are coming off a huge road win at Baylor. On a neutral court, this would be a mismatch.

Prediction: Missouri 80, Oklahoma State 64

Minnesota at Michigan State -- The Gophers are on a three-game winning streak with wins against Northwestern, Penn State and Indiana, the latter two of which occurred on the road. Playing Michigan State in East Lansing, however, is a different beast. Minnesota will have trouble stopping Draymond Green, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix and the rest of the physical Spartans in the paint.

Prediction: Michigan State 70, Minnesota 56

BYU at Virginia Tech -- This is a rather strange game to be playing in the middle of the conference season, but that doesn’t make it any less intriguing. Virginia Tech was regarded as one of the worst teams in the ACC before it shocked Virginia on Sunday. The win should provide a huge momentum boost to the Hokies entering tonight’s game. BYU has won six of its last seven contests, but all against weak competition.

Prediction: BYU 70, Virginia Tech 63

LSU at Mississippi State -- The Bulldogs need to make sure this doesn’t turn into a trap game. Mississippi State plays at Florida on Saturday, so there’s a danger that Rick Stansbury’s squad could be looking ahead. There’s absolutely no way MSU and its vaunted trio of Dee Bost, Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney should lose to LSU at home. The Tigers have dropped three of their last four games.

Prediction: Mississippi State 78, LSU 67

Villanova at Louisville -- With wins in its last two games, Villanova is finally tasting some success after a rough first half of the season. But like any team, the Wildcats will be hard-pressed to beat Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cardinals have a little bit of momentum again after winning at Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Prediction: Louisville 62, Villanova 54

Florida State at Wake Forest -- The Seminoles have thrust themselves into the national spotlight with victories over North Carolina and Duke. The question is whether they can stay there. In past years, big victories have often been followed by shocking defeats. A loss to the Demon Deacons would certainly qualify as that.

Prediction: Florida State 78, Wake Forest 64

Providence at Pittsburgh -- The Panthers’ free fall has been shocking. One year after winning the Big East regular-season title, Jamie Dixon’s squad is 0-7 in the league standings, the only team without a conference win. Things will hit an all-time low if Pittsburgh can’t beat Providence (1-6) at home.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 68, Providence 60

West Virginia at St. John’s -- If West Virginia wants to be a serious player for the Big East title -- and the Mountaineers certainly have a chance -- it can’t afford to lose road games to inferior opponents. That certainly describes the youthful Red Storm, who have lost six of their last seven games, including five by double digits.

Prediction: West Virginia 82, St. John’s 65

Central Florida at Tulsa -- With a 5-1 league record, UCF has a half-game lead over Southern Miss, Marshall and Memphis (all 4-1) in the Conference USA standings. Tulsa (4-2) isn’t far behind. Winning on the road is never easy, but Donnie Jones’ squad surely realizes the importance of tonight’s game. Forward Keith Clanton (15.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg) needs to play well for the Knights.

Prediction: Central Florida 61, Tulsa 58

Notre Dame at Seton Hall -- Notre Dame is fresh off a victory against then-No. 1 Syracuse. Seton Hall, meanwhile, wasted the momentum gained from victories over West Virginia and Connecticut by losing to South Florida and Villanova. Can Herb Pope, Jordan Theodore and the rest of the Pirates rediscover their groove at home?

Prediction: Seton Hall 68, Notre Dame 65

Saint Louis at Xavier -- The Musketeers had won four straight games before Saturday’s 15-point loss at Dayton. Home wins are imperative if Chris Mack’s squad wants to stay in the hunt for the Atlantic 10 title, which is why I think Xavier will beat the Billikens tonight. Mark Lyons has passed Tu Holloway as X’s scoring leader by the way.

Prediction: Xavier 71, Saint Louis 67

ESPN.com's Conference USA preview

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
12:53
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Before we get to the Blue Ribbon team-by-team previews for Conference USA, here is Eamonn Brennan's one-minute wind sprint through the league:



Blue Ribbon's in-depth previews of all 12 C-USA teams: Insider

East Carolina
Houston
Marshall
Memphis Insider Free
Rice
SMU
Southern Miss
Tulane
Tulsa
UAB
UCF
UTEP

More C-USA content:

-- Memphis coach Josh Pastner claims Marshall should be Conference USA favorite. In his Daily Word, Andy Katz examines the Herd's rising expectations.
-- Eamonn Brennan shares his Five Things I Can't Wait To See in C-USA.
-- Jay Bilas examines five burning questions in the league.
-- Dave Telep gives a lowdown on the recruiting picture in Conference USA.
-- Let's take a team-by-team look at the league's nonconference schedules.
-- Katz checks in with a unique pair of assistants at Memphis: Damon Stoudamire and a locked-out Luke Walton.
-- For more coverage of Conference USA in the Nation blog, click here.

Nonconference schedule analysis: C-USA

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
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EAST CAROLINA

Toughest: at Old Dominion (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: vs. Appalachian State in Charlotte (Nov. 22), Charlotte (Dec. 3), UMass (Dec. 6)
The rest: Milligan (Nov. 11), at Campbell (Nov. 14), Coker (Nov. 17), Chowan (Nov. 26), at UNC Greensboro (Dec. 16), Coastal Carolina (Dec. 19), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 22), North Carolina Central (Dec. 29), UVA-Wise (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- Can it be anything else? There are three schools on here that I'm guessing most college basketball fans have never even heard of. The Pirates won 18 games and made the postseason in 2011 -- one would think the schedule could be beefed up just a bit. Playing two A-10 teams isn’t bad and it helps that both are at home. But there are really no serious challenges after Dec. 6. This has the look of a CIT-worthy schedule.

HOUSTON

Toughest: vs. Arkansas in Little Rock (Nov. 18), LSU (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: vs. Oklahoma in Oklahoma City (Dec. 17), Oakland (Nov. 22)
The rest: Grambling (Nov. 12), Utah Valley (Nov. 14), TCU (Nov. 26), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Dec. 3), at Texas State (Dec. 6), UTSA (Dec. 10), Rogers State (Dec. 21), North Carolina A&T (Dec. 28), Texas State (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The Cougars did a good job of trolling for higher-level teams that are rebuilding or in transition. Playing Arkansas is a quality game and it’s technically on a neutral court. Houston won 12 games last season and James Dickey will need to show improvement before a loaded recruiting class comes in next season. This schedule should help rack up the W's at the very least.

MARSHALL

Toughest: at Cincinnati (Nov. 25), at Syracuse (Dec. 6) vs. West Virginia in Charleston, W.Va. (Jan. 18)
Next-toughest: Ohio (Nov. 30), Iona (Dec. 11), Belmont (Dec. 19), Akron (Jan. 1)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 11), Jacksonville State (Nov. 13), Northwestern State (Nov. 19), at UNC Wilmington (Nov. 22), High Point (Dec. 17), West Virginia Tech (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Coach Tom Herrion, who said he has a team that could challenge for the C-USA title, did a tremendous job of putting together a schedule that could garner an at-large berth if the Herd do their part. Playing three Big East teams -- all away from home -- will not only give Marshall a chance at quality wins, but also boost the nonconference RPI. There are also a lot of sneaky-good mid-major opponents in here that will help the schedule strength, such as Iona, Ohio, Akron and Belmont, which MU plays twice.

MEMPHIS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23), at Louisville (Dec. 17), at Georgetown (Dec. 22), Xavier (Feb. 4)
Next-toughest: Belmont (Nov. 15), Austin Peay (Dec. 3), at Miami-Fla. (Dec. 6), Tennessee (Jan. 4)
The rest: Jackson State (Nov. 28), Murray State (Dec. 11), Lipscomb (Dec. 19), Robert Morris (Dec. 29), Charlotte (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- The Tigers can edge this to a 10 if they end up playing Duke in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational and then possibly Kansas or UCLA on Day 3. The road games at Louisville, Georgetown and Miami are all big-time tests, and playing Xavier and Belmont at home will be two of the toughest games at FedExForum all season. This is the kind of schedule Memphis has to play.

RICE

Toughest: South Padre Invitational (Nov. 25-26), Temple (Dec. 19), at Texas A&M (Dec. 22), at Texas (Dec. 31)
Next-toughest: at TCU (Jan. 4)
The rest: New Orleans (Nov. 12), Southern (Nov. 17), Maryland-Eastern Shore (Nov. 20), Florida A&M (Nov. 22), at Houston Baptist (Nov. 30), St. Thomas (Dec. 3), Louisiana College (Dec. 14), Lamar (Dec. 17), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Rice won just five games in Conference USA last season and 14 overall, so this is a heck of a challenging schedule for these guys. The Owls play road games against Big 12 contenders Texas A&M and Texas, have to face Northern Iowa and sneaky sleeper Iowa State on a neural court and get a rare home game against a possible top-25 opponent in Temple -- a battle of the Owls!

SMU

Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 14-25), vs. Oklahoma State in Dallas (Dec. 28), at Ole Miss (Jan. 3)
Next-toughest: TCU (Feb. 8)
The rest: McMurry (Nov. 11), Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 19), Georgia Southern (Nov. 27), at Arkansas-Little Rock (Dec. 4), at Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 19), Dallas Christian (Dec. 22), Louisiana Tech (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- The Mustangs could see this scale jump up a few more notches if they beat Colorado State in the NIT opener and then take out host Stanford to get to New York for the NIT semis. Do that and suddenly SMU will be a player into the winter and the games against Oklahoma State and Ole Miss become relevant. But that's asking a lot of a team that's expected to finish in the bottom half of C-USA.

SOUTHERN MISS

Toughest: at Colorado State (Nov. 19), Ole Miss (Dec. 17), at Arizona State (Dec. 19), South Florida (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: at Denver (Nov. 17), Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 24-26), New Mexico State (Dec. 4), at South Alabama (Dec. 7).
The rest: Spring Hill (Nov. 12), at South Alabama (Dec. 7), Louisiana Tech (Dec. 10), Belhaven (Dec. 27), Alcorn State (Dec. 29), at McNeese State (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Coach Larry Eustachy said this could be his best team in Hattiesburg. If that’s the case, then a schedule upgrade would've been useful. The four toughest games come against teams that probably aren’t getting close to the NCAAs. The Great Alaska Shootout is weak, and the potential second-round opponent (New Mexico State) is a team USM already has scheduled anyway. The best they can do in the final is San Francisco or Murray State. Let's be frank: the Golden Eagles will have a hard time getting an at-large bid from this schedule.

TULANE

Toughest: at Syracuse (Dec. 22), Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: at Wofford (Dec. 6)
The rest: Alabama A&M (Nov. 11), Nicholls State (Nov. 15), Maryland-Eastern Shore (Nov. 18), at Navy (Nov. 22), Alcorn State (Nov. 25), New Orleans (Nov. 26), San Diego (Nov. 27), Southern (Nov. 30), Macmurray (Dec. 10), Jacksonville State (Dec. 11), at Texas-Pan American (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The road game at Syracuse raises the level for this nonconference slate and going to Wofford won’t be an easy chore at all. Being able to host an ACC school (Georgia Tech) in tiny Fogelman Arena is a coup, but this isn’t exactly a top-level schedule. This is built for a team that won three conference games last season.

TULSA

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 17-20), at Missouri State (Nov. 26), at Oklahoma State (Nov. 30), Wichita State (Dec. 7), Creighton (Dec. 19),
Next-toughest: Arizona State (Dec. 3), at TCU (Dec. 31)
The rest: Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 11), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 13), at Jackson State (Nov. 22), UT Arlington (Dec. 17), Mercer (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik did a solid job of putting together a postseason schedule for a team that finished tied for second last season with UTEP. The Golden Hurricane host the two best teams in the Missouri Valley (Creighton and Wichita State) and travel to play the defending league champ (Missouri State). Oklahoma State is clearly a rigid road challenge and getting a Pac-12 program (ASU) to come to Tulsa is a nice addition. As for the Charleston Classic, it could pit Tulsa against Northwestern or LSU in the second round if it gets past Western Kentucky.

UAB

Toughest: Creighton (Nov. 16), at Wichita State (Nov. 25), at VCU (Dec. 20), at Florida (Jan. 3)
Next-toughest: Murray State (Nov. 20), at Kent State (Dec. 3), at George Washington (Dec. 28)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 22), UT Martin (Nov. 27), at South Alabama (Nov. 30), Middle Tennessee (Dec. 7), Jacksonville (Dec. 22), Alabama A&M (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Blazers have a top-10 game at Florida and then play the co-favorites in the Missouri Valley Conference, with one of the games on the road in Wichita. Playing four more road games, including at VCU, helps the power-rating.

UCF

Toughest: at Florida State (Nov. 14), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 24-26), Old Dominion (Dec. 17)
Next-toughest: UCF Holiday Classic (Dec. 29-30)
The rest: St. Thomas (Nov. 12), High Point (Nov. 18), Hartford (Dec. 3), Bethune Cookman (Dec. 10), North Carolina A&T (Dec. 13), at Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 21), Palm Beach Atlantic (Jan. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Central Florida could end up seeing this number rise if it beats Charleston and ends up playing Connecticut in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney in the Bahamas. Either Rhode Island or James Madison could be dangerous at the UCF Holiday Classic and ODU is always tough. The Knights couldn’t capitalize on beating Florida last season, so taking out FSU early would be looked upon skeptically -- but they'll take it nonetheless.

UTEP

Toughest: at Oregon (Nov. 29), at UNLV (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next-toughest: at New Mexico State (Nov. 19), New Mexico State (Dec. 11), Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational
The rest: UTSA (Nov. 11), UC Riverside (Nov. 13), Stephen F. Austin (Nov. 26), Southern (Dec. 17), McNeese State (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tim Floyd may benefit greatly from this schedule if some of these teams excel as predicted. Oregon could be a top-four team in the Pac-12, UNLV is a co-MWC title contender and Clemson should be a top-half ACC team. The Miners open with the Tigers out in Honolulu and play either Kansas State or Southern Illinois in the second game. A rising program in Colorado State is a good opponent to bring to the Sun Bowl Invitational. Then again, UTEP lost quite a bit, so this schedule might end up just being meaningless on Selection Sunday.

Bracket reveal: Charleston Classic

August, 3, 2011
8/03/11
1:00
PM ET
Tournament bracket for the Charleston Classic presented by Foster Grant

When and where: Nov. 17-18, 20 at the Carolina First Arena in Charleston, S.C.

Initial thoughts: The Charleston Classic lacks star quality but has the potential to produce some intriguing storylines for a November affair. Northwestern is still on the doorstep of its first NCAA tournament berth with the core group back for a third straight attempt to finally crack through to the Dance. VCU is coming off a magical run to the Final Four. Coach Shaka Smart stayed rather than taking a major payday, but key players Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen and Brandon Rozzell finished their eligibility. Georgia Tech is under a new direction with Brian Gregory and the potential for his first squad is unknown. Saint Joseph’s should finally show improvement after being mired in mediocrity since the Elite Eight run several seasons ago. LSU has had a hard time rebuilding under Trent Johnson and could desperately use something good to happen early. Seton Hall has Herb Pope back but is still stuck at the bottom of the Big East. Tulsa and Western Kentucky were supposed to be NCAA tournament teams in the last two seasons, respectively, but neither could break through.

First-round matchup I can’t wait to see: LSU versus Northwestern. The organizers ensured that the two teams with perhaps the best chance to win the tournament are playing each other in the first round. The Wildcats have the experience and should have the talent to win the game, but they won’t have an easy time taking on LSU freshman big man Johnny O’Bryant. He has the advantage inside. The winner of this game should be in position to win the tournament. It should be the most balanced and competitive first-round game.

Potential matchup that I’d like to see: VCU versus Georgia Tech. Smart could have made a play for the Georgia Tech job but decided to stay put in Richmond. Georgia Tech went after the more experienced Gregory from Dayton. I’ll be interested to see how this game turns out -- if it occurs -- as Smart could potentially prove that rebuilding the Rams is easier than taking over an ACC project like the Yellow Jackets.

Predicted final: Northwestern versus VCU. The Rams lost quite a bit off the Final Four team but there’s something special brewing with VCU. The Rams will have a hard time getting past Seton Hall, let alone a possible semifinal matchup. And I’ve already mentioned the difficulty the Wildcats may have getting out of the top part of the bracket. But a Northwestern-VCU final would carry the most cachet if both squads can make it and then use the tourney to jump-start the season.

Five players to watch

John Shurna, Northwestern: Shurna didn’t make the World University Games roster heading to China. But he’s still the Wildcats’ go-to player and best chance to lead this team toward a possible NCAA berth. He has an unorthodox shot but he’s consistently good for the most part. He needs to be special this season.

Bradford Burgess, VCU: The departure of Skeen, Rodriguez and Rozzell means Burgess will be the go-to player for Virginia Commonwealth. He proved he can be a viable scoring option for the Rams, scoring 14.4 ppg last season. Now he must show he can be the primary offensive option for the Rams.

Johnny O’Bryant, LSU: The Tigers have had plenty of marquee freshman talents come through Baton Rouge, regardless of head coach. But O’Bryant has even more pressure than his predecessors with the last two seasons being utterly forgettable. If O’Bryant can be a star, the Tigers have a chance to move up in the SEC.

Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope nearly died last offseason, yet returned after collapsing to be a key member of the Pirates. Pope’s return should be celebrated. He’s lucky to be on the court. If he can be a major player in a tournament like this over three days, then the Hall has a chance to be a tough out in the Big East.

Glen Rice Jr., Georgia Tech: Gregory didn’t inherit much, especially in numbers. But Rice is a scorer and he can help his new coach in his attempt to bridge the end of the Paul Hewitt era into his own. Rice should be a featured scorer from the outset and he’ll need to be for the Yellow Jackets to have a chance.

Predicted winner: Northwestern. By now we all know about the Wildcats' desperate search for their first NCAA tournament bid. For that to happen, Nothwestern desperately needs to get off to a good start. They can't expect the Big Ten games to get them in alone.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Northwestern
Diamond Leung: Northwestern
Dana O'Neil: Northwestern

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