College Basketball Nation: Marshall Thundering Herd

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.

 
If Marshall basketball fans are smarting, it's easy to understand why. After a very solid 2011-12 season, and the return of most of the Herd's key contributors, coach Tom Herrion's team looked set to compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament in 2012-13 and possibly even challenge Memphis for Conference USA supremacy. Instead, Marshall fell off the face of the Earth. The Thundering Herd went 13-19, ending with a first-round C-USA loss to Tulane; they finished the season ranked 217th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, all the way down from 79th a season before.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
Spruce Derden/US PresswireDeAndre Kane displayed class to Marshall supporters after transferring from the program.
If that wasn't bad enough, this spring DeAndre Kane, the team's star guard, left the program after meeting with Herrion. Herrion's statement at the time -- "After meeting with DeAndre, I have decided it is in our program's and his best interest that he seek opportunities elsewhere," it began -- clearly hinted at a turmoil that couldn't be solved. You don't decide to send your best player away after a 13-19 season unless something is really wrong.

Whether the departure was the fault of Herrion or Kane (or both) has been a subject of much discussion among Marshall fans, which is part of the reason why Kane's farewell letter to Huntington, W.Va., published this weekend in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, is so interesting. Opinion on Kane has always been split, and some blamed him for the poor performance last season; Herrion has always drawn his fair share of critics for failing to bring a talented but frustrating player under his wing.

The other reason why this is interesting is because Kane -- who is transferring to Iowa State for his final year of eligibility this summer -- wrote a genuinely impressive, even moving statement about his time in Huntington and his gratitude for everything he learned there. It is worth a read based entirely on its own merits:
Coming from where I come from sometimes the end of the road is high school if you're lucky enough to make it that far and your path could be chosen for you after that. It took a while for me to see that and with the support the city has given me through the ups and downs I appreciate my education experience and struggles that I've learned from here that much more.

I know that things didn't end here the way I wanted them too and I apologize for not leading the team to the NCAA Tournament because this city deserves it. What I do promise though is to bring something back to this community better than a basketball championship -- hope and fun for the kids. Whether I play pro basketball or just become a business man, I'll continue to contribute to the youth in this area once I get my career.

It's really good -- the kind of stuff you hope to hear from someone who has grown from four years at an institution of higher learning. At least from the outside, there have been few indications Kane saw that bigger picture, but he's clearly learned something, and that may make his departure even more difficult for Marshall fans to swallow.

In the meantime, it should be noted that this is now the second time in the past month that the citizens of Huntington have been the addressees of glowing, classy open letters from departing players. The first came in late May, when No. 1-ranked recruit Andrew Wiggins penned a farewell thank you note for the support he was shown during his years at Huntington Prep. There may be some measure of public relations at work here, sure, but I'd prefer to think Huntington is basically the Pawnee, Ind., of West Virginia. Chris Traeger would love this stuff.
1. Memphis coach Josh Pastner had former Missouri guard Michael Dixon on campus Tuesday for a face-to-face visit. Dixon's case is complicated, as ESPN.com's Jason King reported, and there is plenty he must do to become eligible. There are a few issues at play here for Pastner. One of the downsides of social media is that Dixon's arrival was well-chronicled, and his supposed commitment put out for the world to see before it was actually done. Pastner had no time to make a decision before it was presumed to have been made for him. Now, suddenly, his timeline is pushed up because of the assumption that a commitment has been accepted, whether or not an offer was extended. Pastner doesn't need to take second-chance players. He did once with Geron Johnson and it worked out. And while there is no guarantee that newcomers Kuran Iverson and Rashawn Powell will be eligible, according to a source, it's also unknown whether Dixon will be, either. Pastner has done a fantastic job under the shadow of John Calipari and has the Tigers ready to move to the American Athletic Conference next season on an upward trajectory. He was investigating Dixon on his own, but the visit got exposed before any firm decision was made. Now Pastner has to make a public choice of whether to waste his time on taking a player who is searching for an opportunity that not every program may be willing to give him for one year.

2. The U.S. World University Games team will have its hands full with Canada during the competition, set for July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia. The Canadian roster, released Tuesday, isn't as loaded but boasts plenty of major-college talent. Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, the ACC freshman of the year, is joined by headline players Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Laurent Rivard (Harvard) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State). Each of these Canadians will have a significant role on his respective team, with all of them starting the season in position to make a run at an NCAA bid. Ejim may be the most intriguing of the lot, with a real shot to be even more of a breakout player in the Big 12. Pangos will have more scoring next season. Powell led the Cardinal last season. Rivard will be a fixture on a stacked Crimson. Wiltjer has to adjust his role with the newcomers at Kentucky but can still be a matchup problem. Heslip must be more consistent. Bachynski has to absorb some of Carrick Felix's numbers after his departure. And Hanlan will be responsible for leading the Eagles higher in the ACC.

3. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has taken plenty of transfers his first few years in Ames. He has had success stories mixed in with quality newcomers. I'll be very interested to see if he can maximize the talent of DeAndre Kane, who was a disappointment for Marshall after starting last season with such promise. Kane was essentially asked to leave Marshall by coach Tom Herrion; they weren't going to mesh for one more season. Now Kane has to be in step with Hoiberg if his final year in college is going to be productive. Kane originally was looking to go to Pitt, but that didn't work out, either. He pursued Iowa State and the Cyclones were receptive. It's in everyone's best interest that this works for next season so the Cyclones can be relevant come March for a third consecutive season.
1. Kansas may have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and the top nonconference schedule for 2013-14 season. The Jayhawks haven't finished the slate as of yet it but it's getting better with each game that they finalize. The Jayhawks are hosting Georgetown, San Diego State, playing at Colorado, Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago, and are the marquee team in the Battle 4 Atlantis with Villanova, Tennessee, UTEP, Xavier, USC, Wake Forest and a team to be determined (was going to be Michigan State but the Spartans couldn't get out of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn). The SEC-Big 12 Challenge isn't set yet, but according to multiple sources the Jayhawks could be headed to Florida. The inaugural SEC-Big 12 Challenge will have a number of marquee games but some are already determined like Kentucky playing Baylor in Dallas, which will be folded into the event. Kansas also plans on playing two to three "guaranteed" buy games against top 100 teams.

2. The lure of Frank Martin to South Carolina wasn't just his winning culture and his commitment to his craft. Martin made sense for the Gamecocks so he could tap into his native South Florida. Well, Martin proved how significant a connection he has to the area by securing a commitment from 6-8 Demetrius Henry out of Faith Baptist Christian School in Miami, getting Henry away from the hometown Hurricanes. South Carolina has six newcomers so far for next season, including Reggie Theus Jr., the son of the new Cal State-Northridge coach. Martin will consistently tap into his South Florida contacts and ensure the Gamecocks are a player when SEC-level talent is available in the region. This has put a new competitor in play for Miami.

3. Marshall coach Tom Herrion cut loose DeAndre Kane because he was tired of his act. Herrion was clear in a statement that this was his call when he was quoted in the MetroNews of West Virginia: “After meeting with DeAndre, I have decided it is in our program’s and his best interest that he seek opportunities elsewhere. We appreciate his contributions to our team and wish him the best in his future.” There was no need to be anything but transparent here if Herrion didn't want him in the program anymore. Herrion said "it was time to move on" for Kane. Marshall was a major disappointment last season. The Herd, who were supposed to challenge Memphis for the Conference USA title, finished a disastrous 13-19, 6-10 in the league. Kane, who saw all his key production stats drop, can play immediately elsewhere if he were to graduate and then seek a master's not available at Marshall.
A few observations from another exciting Saturday evening in college basketball ...

Let’s talk about Alex Len: The 7-foot-1 sophomore from Ukraine got paid Saturday. Settle down, NCAA. No runners were involved. But the young man clearly elevated his NBA draft stock with his grown-man performance in Maryland’s 83-81 victory over No. 2 Duke, a crucial victory for the Terrapins' at-large résumé. Seth Allen's late free throws sealed the win after a furious late push by the Blue Devils turned Maryland’s 80-72 lead into an 81-all tie in the final seconds. But Len’s performance was the difference. He was a star (19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks), while Duke counterpart Mason Plumlee (4 points, 2-for-7) struggled.

The Terrapins don’t have any postseason guarantees right now. It’s a soft bubble but they’re still on it. Right now, the Terps are on Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” list, but every game on their remaining ACC slate is winnable. Maryland, however, needs this Len every night. He had failed to crack double figures in three previous losses. But on Saturday, he showcased the talent that has fueled the NBA lottery buzz that currently surrounds him. If he gives the Terps that juice over the next six games, they might not lose again in the regular season.

[+] EnlargeEvan Gordon
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsEvan Gordon knifes in to give Arizona State the OT win at Colorado with this buzzer-beater.
Arizona State stays in the Pac-12 race with crazy win: The Pac-12 has given college basketball fans multiple exciting finishes this season. And the conference did not disappoint Saturday, when both Oregon-Washington State and Arizona State-Colorado were decided in overtime. The latter matchup ended on Evan Gordon's buzzer-beating layup. The Sun Devils’ 63-62 road win was significant in their pursuit of the Pac-12 crown.

Freshman Jahii Carson (18 points, 4 assists) can take Herb Sendek’s program there. It won’t be easy, especially since the Sun Devils have road games against UCLA and Arizona in the coming weeks. But at least they’ll face two of the Pac-12 teams slotted ahead of them in the standings. Arizona State just made the Pac-12 race more interesting.

UNLV needed this one: The Runnin’ Rebels were desperate Saturday. They’re now 6-5 in the Mountain West, three games behind first-place New Mexico. But a lot can happen over the next five games, especially in a volatile league such as the MWC. A loss Saturday, however, would have certainly removed the Runnin’ Rebels from the conversation. And their so-so at-large résumé would have taken another hit, too.

They played like a team that understood the stakes in the 72-70 victory over San Diego State. Khem Birch blocked Jamaal Franklin's shot in the final seconds as UNLV preserved the win, completed a sweep of the Aztecs and maintained a place in the Mountain West race. Anthony Bennett (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Birch (16 points) could lead the Rebels to a strong finish and help the team solidify a bid. The latter seems far more reasonable and feasible. I don’t think I would have felt that way about either if UNLV had lost.

Kansas State recovers: On Monday, the Wildcats went to the Phog and suffered a 21-point loss to archrival Kansas. On Saturday, they beat Baylor by 20 points. No better way for a team to clear its head after a tough loss. I think the 81-61 win says a lot about Kansas State’s mental makeup.

Sure, Baylor has been inconsistent all season. But the Bears also are one of the Big 12’s top defensive teams. The 81 points they surrendered to Kansas State were the most they’d given up in Big 12 play this season. Angel Rodriguez led the Wildcats with 22 points and 10 assists. Four Wildcats recorded double figures in a game that helped K-State remain in the Big 12’s three-way tie for first place (Kansas and Oklahoma State both won Saturday, too). And it helped the program move past Monday’s lopsided loss to the Jayhawks.

Memphis? I think the Tigers have the athleticism and talent to compete with other top-25 teams at neutral sites. Their problem is they don’t have many opportunities to show it right now due to the limited competition in Conference USA. Much like Gonzaga or Florida, the only way for the Tigers to prove their value nationally is to stomp opponents in league play.

To their credit, they’ve won three games by 13 or more in February. They returned to the national rankings last week based on that dominance. They beat Marshall (71-59) on Saturday. There were highlights for the Tigers. But there also were a few confusing moments.

Like the fact that Memphis scored 43 points in the first half but just three points in the first 10 minutes of the second half in a matchup against a Marshall squad that is at the bottom of C-USA and had lost five of its previous seven entering the game.

The Tigers might have the skill to make noise in March. That ugly second half, however, didn’t convert anyone.

On the Horizon: Detroit and Valparaiso might have played the best game of the night. Detroit was down by 15 points with 10 minutes remaining in its road game against the Crusaders. But the Titans launched a 17-2 run over the next five minutes. They eventually won by 10 points, 84-74, and now they’re a half-game behind Valpo in the Horizon League standings. Nick Minnerath and Jason Calliste scored 21 points apiece, while Ray McCallum Jr. added 15 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. In the first meeting between the two teams, Detroit led by 18 at halftime and 11 with three minutes to play -- but lost by one. Sweet revenge tonight.
Earlier today, I wrote about the eventful day in the Big East, as Villanova upset No. 3 Syracuse and Louisville dropped its third in a row in a loss at Georgetown. Here are a few other afternoon thoughts from around the college hoops landscape:

1. Kentucky does not look like a tournament team. Unless the tournament in question is the NIT.

I know, I know: A win is a win, and Kentucky held on for a 75-70 home victory over LSU on Saturday. And I know: There's still some time left for this young Kentucky team to figure it all out. But it's clear, at least right now, that the Wildcats have some pretty significant flaws, flaws that could put their already tenuous tournament position in even greater jeopardy the rest of the way.

Chief among them? Defense. The Wildcats had allowed .97 points per possession in SEC play prior to Saturday, seventh-best in a league that most certainly does not house seven good teams. (Maybe three.) It ranked last in the league in forced-turnover rate, and it had allowed SEC opponents to grab 32.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, 10th-best in the conference. These same flaws were apparent Saturday, too. Kentucky scored efficiently throughout the game; it shot 52 percent from the field and a tidy 61 percent from inside the arc (it shot 11 3-pointers and made just two). And still the Wildcats allowed the Tigers -- a 10-7 team with a 1-5 SEC record and the 209th-ranked offense in the country, per KenPom.com -- to put up 70 points at Rupp Arena, to push for a game-tying play until the final possession, to make Ashley Judd a nervous wreck on live television.

Kentucky began the week with a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket, and that sounds about right, but that was before Tuesday's loss at Alabama. If I had to bet on UK making it to the tournament or not this season, I'd take the former option. But if it can't get at least some separation from the worst teams in its own down league at home, John Calipari's team will find itself at serious risk of missing the tournament just 11 months after winning it all. Heck, that risk is already here.

2. Minnesota's losses are starting to pile up. Lose at Indiana? No big deal -- you're supposed to lose at Indiana. Lose at home to Michigan? Not preferable, but hey, Michigan's really good. Lose a low-scoring game at Wisconsin? Welcome to the last decade of Big Ten play, right?

Taken separately, none of those three losses -- the latest of which came today, 45-44 in Madison -- is cause for overwhelming concern. But taken alongside Minnesota's 55-48 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, it's no wonder why Gophers fans are starting to freak out. Saturday's result makes for four consecutive losses in Big Ten play. That would be bad enough, but the methods by which these losses have come have been a product of both bad defense (Indiana and Michigan scored a combined 1.24 points per possession) and bad offense (the Gophers were held to just .84 points per trip against Northwestern and Wisconsin) -- a veritable sampler pack of ways to lose Big Ten games.

Even worse? Forward Trevor Mbakwe reinjured his wrist on the final play Saturday, which forced forward Rodney Williams to take the game-deciding free throws, the last of which he clanged. If that injury causes Mbakwe to miss games, the Gophers, who rely so much on offensive rebounds, could lose their best rebounder and interior scorer. You never want to encourage panic in January, not for a team this good anyway. But if Minnesota fans start freaking out ... well, you can understand where they're coming from, at least.

3. Duke had a "program win" over Maryland. That's what guard Quinn Cook called Duke's 84-64 win over the Terps on Saturday afternoon, and whether you're willing to go that far or not, the fact of the matter is that Duke rebounded from its unsightly 90-63 thrashing at Miami -- during which the Hurricanes slapped the floor defensively, openly (and comedically) taunting Duke in the second half of a blowout -- with gusto. The freshmen led the way, particularly shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, and that is excellent news for a team that needs other contributors to step up as Ryan Kelly recovers from the foot injury that has kept him out of Duke's lineup for much of January. More than anything, though, Saturday's bounce-back victory showed that the Blue Devils' horrific Wednesday night wasn't necessarily the sign of a larger decline. If anything, it was a sign of just how good Miami really is.

4. Iowa State got a huge win over Kansas State. Late January is not too early for a fan base to be concerned with its bubble team's prospective position, and right now it seems like it's the only thing many basketball fans in Iowa -- both fans of Iowa and Iowa State -- can talk about. The Cyclones will have other opportunities to get big résumé wins in Big 12 play, but they took advantage of a major one when they toppled No. 11-ranked Kansas State 73-67. Led by Will Clyburn's 24 points and 10 boards, the Cyclones shot 64 percent in the second half, hoisting up 47 points on a good K-State defense. In Bubble Land, these are the kind of games -- against good but beatable teams at home -- you have to take advantage of. For Iowa State, which suffered a horrible loss at Texas Tech on Wednesday night, it was just what the doctor ordered.

[+] EnlargeJahii Carson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsASU's Jahii Carson drives to the basket on his way to a 12-point, 8-assist effort against UCLA.
5. It's time to pay attention to Arizona State. This is not the first time we've said as much about Jahii Carson and the Sun Devils* this season, but it is the first time Herb Sendek's team has backed it up with a quality win.

Just last week, as Arizona State prepared to play rival Arizona in its own building, we all perked up, forced to pay attention to a team with a 14-3 record -- coming off a three-point loss at Oregon -- hosting its hated in-state rival at home. Naturally, Arizona proceeded to stomp Carson & Co., and it was just as easy to discard Arizona State once more. After all, who had the Sun Devils actually beaten? Arkansas? Colorado at home? Meh. Meh.

Not anymore. Arizona State's 78-60 win over UCLA on Saturday eliminates wipes away that dismissive disclaimer. It's a good win in its own right, but it's made doubly impressive by the fact that UCLA is coming off its own uber-impressive victory Thursday night at Arizona. Maybe the Bruins were tired. They certainly looked it. But it would be folly to take any credit away from ASU, which was led by a 40-minute performance from Carson (who has more 20-point games than any other ASU freshman in school history, save James Harden and Ike Diogu), a 22-point, 15-rebound performance (on 10-of-12 shooting, no less) from center Jordan Bachynski and a defensive performance that held hot-shooting UCLA to just 25-of-72 from the field (and just 5-of-24 from 3).

The win moves Arizona State to 16-4 and 5-2 in the Pac-12, a stunning turnaround from the depths the program sank into in 2011-12. Sendek has turned things around quickly, and it would be a mistake to dismiss Carson and friends anymore.

*Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good name for a band.

Bonus features:

  • San Diego State was at risk of falling off the MWC title radar after two straight losses -- the first to UNLV at home, the second a 58-45 defeat at Wyoming. "Falling off" isn't this program's M.O. these days, so it was fair to expect the Aztecs to come out strong at home against New Mexico. What I didn't expect was New Mexico to struggle so mightily on the offensive end, scoring just 34 points in the loss. Both sides played some ugly offense, but 34 points? Really?
  • Oh, speaking of which, want to hear about the worst half of offensive basketball in the history of Division I? I thought you might! This afternoon, Northern Illinois trailed Eastern Michigan 18-4 at the half. It shot 1-for-31 from the field and finished the half with 29 straight misses. In the process, according to ESPN Stats & Information, NIU broke Division I records for fewest points (4) and lowest field goal percentage (3.2 percent) in a half and tied the all-time record for fewest field goals in a half (1). Yeah. It was that bad. Searching for a positive angle, the NIU press release on the game lead with: "Northern Illinois posted its best defensive effort in seven seasons, allowing just 42 points on Saturday afternoon, but it came in a losing effort as the Huskies fell to Eastern Michigan, 42-25, at the EMU Convocation Center." Sure, we scored only 25 points -- but at least we played great defense! Silver linings!
  • A couple of months ago, we might have expected Memphis to struggle with Marshall; before the season, the Thundering Herd, who barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season, were the only obvious challenger in Conference USA. But with all of Marshall's struggles -- the Herd are 9-11 with losses to South Dakota State, Hofstra, West Virginia, Delaware State and UTEP -- Memphis' squeaky one-point home victory is little more than an artful bad-loss dodge.
  • George Washington pounded Charlotte 82-54 at home, moving to 4-2 in Atlantic 10 play, including a one-possession loss to Temple on Jan. 16. Not a team anyone in the A-10 should want to play right now, those Colonials.
  • Marquette's win over Providence was delayed by the invasion of a single bat. Make of this new knowledge what you will.

So, Wednesday night was wild

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
8:15
AM ET
Here at the ESPN.com college hoops headquarters, we -- and by "we," I mostly mean our tireless editor, Brett Edgerton -- spend a lot of time trying to plan for a sport that is inherently unpredictable. It's just part of the gig, same as anything else: You want to allocate your resources in the best and most efficient manner possible. You highlight some games and pay only passing attention to others. You dive deep on big nights, those weeknights and Saturdays with loads of top-25 matchups, and you recognize that others probably aren't going to be as exciting.

Throughout my three-plus years here, if there's one thing I've learned about covering this sport on a daily basis -- if there's one motto Edge and the rest of us have had repeatedly drilled into our heads -- it's that the best hoops nights are the ones you never expect.

Wednesday was one of those nights.

Don't get me wrong: There were good games on the docket. We were prepared for a solid night of basketball. But the sheer randomness that ensued last night went far beyond anything we could have imagined as recently as, say, Wednesday afternoon. To wit:
[+] EnlargeJared Swopshire, Austin Hollins
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNorthwestern's Jared Swopshire drives past Minnesota's Austin Hollins on his way to 16 points.

  • No. 1 Duke not only lost at Miami -- a foreseeable outcome -- but was absolutely thrashed, totally embarrassed, completely run off the court. Miami won 90-63. Its fans stormed the floor. Coach K rubbed his temples. Jim Larranaga winked.
  • Butler, fresh off its miracle buzzer-beating Saturday win over Gonzaga, turned around and lost a one-point game at La Salle, 54-53. Of course, this is not a totally crazy upset; La Salle has been playing some good basketball this season, and in fact the Las Vegas books had the Explorers as a one-point favorite before the game. Plus, Butler was going on the road after Saturday's euphoric finish; this was the very definition of a trap game. And even with all of that said … Butler? Lose a one-possession game? Does. Not. Compute.
  • Iowa State, the same team that pushed Kansas to overtime at Allen Fieldhouse, who entered Wednesday ranked 14th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, scored a lowly 51 points in a loss at Texas Tech, which entered Wednesday ranked No. 277 nationally in adjusted efficiency defense.
  • The 11-8 Northwestern Wildcats, one of the worst rebounding teams in the country, held No. 12 Minnesota, the nation's best offensive rebounders, to just 48 points in their 55-48 win in Evanston, Ill. It was Minnesota's third loss in a row.
  • The 8-10 Drake Bulldogs upset No. 17 Creighton 74-69 in Des Moines, Iowa. This despite the facts that a) Creighton's offense is among the five best in the country and b) Drake's defense is one of the worst in the Missouri Valley. This loss was even more mysterious before we learned forward Doug McDermott was playing through the flu, and had vomited at halftime (he scored just four points in the second half). But still.
  • Oregon needed nearly all 40 minutes of its home game against a downright bad Washington State team; it held on for a victory, but things were in doubt throughout.
  • Without star C.J. McCollum, Lehigh went to Patriot League favorite Bucknell's house and left the Bisons and Mike Muscala with a 65-62 loss.
  • Southern Miss beat Marshall 102-46. That would be all you needed to know about that, except for this: Early in the game, Marshall led 3-0. Then, Southern Miss went on 47-4 run. 47. To four. There are no words.
  • Oh, and this happened.

So, yeah. We assumed Wednesday night would give us a couple of obviously good games (Duke-Miami, Colorado State-New Mexico) and a bunch of your standard regular-season college hoops games. So much for that.

ESPN.com's Conference USA preview

October, 24, 2012
10/24/12
12:25
PM ET
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
AM ET
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.

The 10 best nonconference schedules

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
11:45
AM ET
Editor's Note: This week, ESPN.com broke down the nonconference schedules of each and every team in a dozen of the nation's top leagues. On Monday, we began in the South with the ACC, SEC and C-USA. On Tuesday, we focused on the East with the A-10, Big East and CAA. Wednesday was all about the West with the Mountain West, Pac-12 and WCC. Today we focused on the Midwest with the Big Ten, Missouri Valley and Big 12.

A quick note: I limited this list to teams from the top 12 conferences, i.e. the ones we covered in detail during this week's scheduling analyses. For a list of teams from outside these leagues with notably difficult schedules (hello, Long Beach State), see Myron Medcalf's "Others" piece here.

10. 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)

Not only is this schedule brutally tough, it's also smart. Why? Because even if Marshall comes away from that Dec. 22 visit to Rupp Arena with a loss -- and it almost certainly will -- it is the perfect embodiment of a no-risk/all-reward, RPI-driven scheduling trick. Loss? Who cares? Marshall's RPI won't take a hit. If anything, it will improve. Anyway, that's beside the point. On balance, this is a deep, strong schedule, with a variety of challenges on the road, on neutral courts, and at home. Perfect for a possible bubble team.

9. NORTH CAROLINA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Indiana (Nov. 27), at Texas (Dec. 19), UNLV (Dec. 29)
Next-toughest: at Long Beach State (Nov. 16)
The rest: Gardner-Webb (Nov. 9), Florida Atlantic (Nov. 11), UAB (Dec. 1), ETSU (Dec. 8), East Carolina (Dec. 15), McNeese State (Dec. 22)

Before digging into this stuff, I wouldn't have thought a UNC schedule that didn't include Kentucky could still be this difficult. But the Tar Heels drew the short ACC/Big Ten Challenge straw, landing a trip to raucous Bloomington, Ind., and the Maui Invitational includes either Butler or Marquette in the semis and then likely Texas if the Heels get to the finals. UNLV is going to be fearsome come late December and a date in Long Beach on the way to Maui is plenty tricky, too. Oh, and a potential Round 2 with the Longhorns awaits. Carolina will travel far and wide this season; we'll see if ol' Roy's talented young squad is up to the task.

8. BUTLER

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Northwestern (Dec. 8), vs. Indiana (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis), Gonzaga (Jan. 19)
Next-toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 13), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 22)
The rest: Elon (Nov. 10), Hanover (Nov. 27), Ball State (Dec. 1), IUPUI (Dec. 5), Evansville (Dec. 22), Penn (Jan. 2), New Orleans (Jan. 5)

Even when Xavier and Vanderbilt are in rebuilding mode -- as they decidedly are this season -- you'd prefer not to play in either building. Butler will play in both this season, and those aren't even the toughest games on the schedule. Maui features an opening game against Marquette, and with a win, likely North Carolina a day later. Meanwhile, Butler got Purdue last season in the Crossroads Classic, so it's the Bulldogs' turn to take on the Hoosiers -- just in time for Cody Zeller and Co. to turn into a juggernaut. And for what it's worth, I love that Gonzaga-Butler fixture in Indianapolis on Jan. 19 with College GameDay in town. Perfect.

7. TEMPLE

Toughest: vs. Duke (Dec. 8 in East Rutherford, N.J.), vs. Syracuse (Dec. 22 in New York), at Kansas (Jan. 6)
Next toughest: at Kent State (Nov. 13), at Villanova (Dec. 5), Detroit (Dec. 28)
The rest: Rice (Nov. 17), Delaware (Nov. 25), at Buffalo (Nov. 28), Wagner (Dec. 1), Towson (Dec. 12), Alcorn State (Dec. 17), Canisius (Dec. 19), Bowling Green (Dec. 31), Penn (Jan. 23)

As Andy wrote in his original breakdown of Temple's schedule, you won't find too many teams slated to play three opponents as good as Duke, Syracuse and Kansas. One is a true road game (KU), the other is ostensibly so (Syracuse at MSG), the third is in Jersey (Duke), but the Blue Devils' fans swarm East Rutherford as though it were adjacent to Durham. There isn't as much heft in the middle portions of this schedule as, say, Marshall, but the strength at the top is a distinguishing factor.

6. KANSAS

Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 13 in Atlanta), at Ohio State (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: CBE Classic (Nov. 19-20 in Kansas City), Colorado (Dec. 8), Belmont (Dec. 15), Temple (Jan. 6)
The rest: SE Missouri State (Nov. 9), Chattanooga (Nov. 15), San Jose State (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon State (Nov. 30 in Kansas City), Richmond (Dec. 18), American (Dec. 29)

This may not be a vintage Kansas schedule -- you could certainly argue that last season's was tougher overall -- but it is nonetheless robust. There are the two marquee events against Michigan State and at Ohio State, and the CBE Classic could include a game against a tough defensive squad in Saint Louis. That's solid enough. But then you pepper in games like Colorado (where Andre Roberson could morph into a stud), Belmont (one of the nation's best mid-majors) and Temple (hardly an easy out), and you end up with an even tougher schedule than might initially be apparent.

5. FLORIDA

Toughest: Wisconsin (Nov. 14), at Florida State (Dec. 5), at Arizona (Dec. 15), Kansas State (Dec. 22 in Kansas City)
Next-toughest: vs. Georgetown (Nov. 9 in Jacksonville), UCF (Nov. 23), Marquette (Nov. 29)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 11), vs. Middle Tennessee (Nov. 18 in Tampa), Savannah State (Nov. 20), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 19), vs. Air Force (Dec. 29 in Sunrise, Fla.), at Yale (Jan. 6)

When your "next-toughest" category lists Marquette and Georgetown, your schedule is downright brutal. The Gators host Wisconsin and Marquette, play the Hoyas on an aircraft carrier in Jacksonville and travel to FSU, Arizona and Kansas State (in Kansas City). There may not be a top-five team in that mix (though let's keep an eye on Arizona), but there are a lot of Top 25 teams to deal with. Oh, and let's not forget Middle Tennessee, which returns much of a team that finished 27-7 overall and ranked No. 60 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency in 2011-12.

4. MEMPHIS

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24), Louisville (Dec. 15), at Tennessee (Jan. 4)
Next-toughest: Harvard (Nov. 19), Ohio (Dec. 5), Loyola-Maryland (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)

The Battle 4 Atlantis is this season's best nonconference tournament, hands down, and by "best" I mean "most obviously loaded." Memphis will open with VCU, play either Duke or Minnesota in the second round, and then face possible matchups with Louisville, Missouri, Northern Iowa and/or Stanford. There is no escape from tough games in that field. And that's just the start of the Tigers' season. They'll also travel to Tennessee -- a game Vols fans will be amped for, given coach Josh Pastner's desire to end the rivalry series -- host Final Four favorite Louisville on Dec. 15, travel to Xavier in the middle of the conference season and host two other potential at-large tournament teams in Harvard and Ohio. This schedule is excellent. The question is whether Memphis -- which stumbled out of the gate last season and never really regained the reputation squandered during early-season losses -- can take advantage from the start.

3. UCLA

Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 19-20), vs. San Diego State (Dec. 1 in Anaheim, Calif.), vs. Texas (Dec. 8 in Houston), Missouri (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: Long Beach State (Dec. 18)
The rest: Indiana State (Nov. 9), UC Irvine (Nov. 13), James Madison (Nov. 15), Cal Poly (Nov. 25), Cal State Northridge (Nov. 28), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 15), Fresno State (Dec. 22)

If UCLA beats Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, it will likely play the Indiana Hoosiers. When you picture that next to the rest of that schedule, which reads "Georgetown, Indiana, San Diego State, Texas (in Houston), and Missouri," well, it's hard to do much better than that, noncon-scheduling-wise. The only problem with this schedule is what happens if stud freshman forward Shabazz Muhammed isn't cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center in time to take the floor in November and early December. We're still waiting for definitive answers.

2. DUKE

Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 13 in Atlanta), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24), Ohio State (Nov. 28)
Next-toughest: Delaware (Dec. 1), Temple (Dec. 8 in East Rutherford, N.J.), vs. Davidson (Jan. 2 in Charlotte)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 9), Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 18), Cornell (Dec. 19), Elon (Dec. 20), Santa Clara (Dec. 29)

A few years back, the Blue Devils were often criticized for not playing true nonconference road games. I joined this chorus a time or two. Lamentable though it may be, as we see Kentucky's John Calipari and other coaches more frequently eschew campus sites for nonconference venues, it's safe to say Coach K and his staff were merely ahead of their time. In any case, there's no reason to criticize Duke for this slate. The Blue Devils have a load of difficult tests ahead -- a game against Kentucky in the heart of SEC country, the aforementioned loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field, a trip to Columbus at the end of November, and a second-tier group of teams that includes experienced Davidson and Delaware and a tough Temple on a neutral floor in East Rutherford.

1. TEXAS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), vs. Georgetown (Dec. 4 at the Jimmy V Classic in New York), vs. UCLA (Dec. 8 in Houston), North Carolina (Dec. 19), at Michigan State (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Fresno State (Nov. 9)
The rest: Coppin State (Nov. 12), Sam Houston State (Nov. 27), UT-Arlington (Dec. 1), Texas State (Dec. 15), Rice (Dec. 29)

Here it is, folks -- your toughest schedule of 2012-13. Maui has quality opponents, as mentioned above, but the Longhorns' schedule is so much more than Maui. Georgetown is a quality neutral-court opponent, UCLA with a full roster is arguably a top-5 team, North Carolina won't be easy to host, and Michigan State is nearly impossible to take down in the confines of the Breslin Center. What's especially interesting about this schedule is where Texas sits in relation to most of the other teams on this list. Duke, UCLA, Memphis, Florida, Kansas -- these are teams expected to contend for (or win) conferences titles, teams with designs on deep tournament runs, teams with tons of talent. The Horns are talented too, of course, but probably not as much as we've grown accustomed to. They're also very young, and few expect them to contend on the national stage this season. But Rick Barnes didn't noticeably lighten the load for his young team. Indeed, this baptism will come by fire.
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.
1. Dez Wells is expected to keep a low profile at Maryland while the school applies for a waiver to see if he can play immediately after being expelled from Xavier. According to a source, Maryland hasn’t approached Xavier about helping with the waiver; the only thing Maryland could ask of Xavier is whether it would object to Wells playing immediately. A source said that, if asked, the Musketeers would not object, with the source adding that Xavier doesn’t want to obstruct Wells.

2. Oregon coach Dana Altman said Thursday at the Basketball Hall of Fame that he is highly optimistic about this season’s team, notably because he expects senior E.J. Singler to have a breakout season. The forward averaged 13.6 points and 5.6 rebounds a game last season. Altman also said that Tony Woods must emerge as a major factor; he averaged just 6.8 points and 3.5 rebounds after sitting out a year following his transfer from Wake Forest. Oregon finished in a second-place tie with Cal last season in the Pac-12 but failed to make the NCAAs and lost in an NIT quarterfinal at Washington.

3. The Hall of Fame announced Thursday that Louisville and North Carolina will headline the 2013 event at the Mohegan Sun. But the only way these two teams meet is if they either both win or lose their semifinal games. The other two teams in the event are scheduled to be Richmond and Fairfield. ... Keep an eye on a sleeper matchup in the 2K Sports Classic benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project when Nate Wolters and South Dakota State (love the Jackrabbits) goes against DeAndre Kane and Marshall on Nov. 17. ... Dave Odom, who helps organize the Maui Invitational, said the four teams that will play members of the Maui field on the mainland are: Elon (which play at Butler); Colgate (at Marquette and Illinois); Coppin State (at USC and Texas); Florida Atlantic (at North Carolina and Mississippi State).

Conference USA's most important players

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
7:25
PM ET
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.
As part of our Summer Shootaround series, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for Conference USA:

East Carolina

Best-case: The Pirates appear to be locked in a holding pattern. Coach Jeff Lebo welcomes back much of last season's 15-16 team, most of whom were upperclassmen already. This will be an experienced team composed primarily of seniors, led by point guard Miguel Paul, who ranks among the best players in the country at facilitating his teammates. Experience and cohesion have never hurt a basketball team, and they could be the secret ingredients to a positive 2012-13 campaign.

Worst-case: Another forgettable .500 season. That seems like the most likely projection. It's never bad to return so many of the previous season's minutes, but without a little fresh blood, why are we to think the Pirates won't be essentially what they were a year ago?

[+] EnlargeHouse
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesDanuel House, the No. 19 recruit in 2012, headlines a stellar recruiting class for Houston.
Houston

Best-case: Houston's recruiting class may be aberration, or it may be the start of something lasting. Whatever the case, having recruits like Danuel House and Chicken Knowles always portends good things. Houston had plenty of flaws last season. Those won't go away overnight, but inserting at least one hyperathletic future NBA draft pick into the lineup can mask all manner of deficiency. This is the sexy C-USA sleeper pick, perhaps the only team that comes close to matching Memphis in sheer talent.

Worst-case: House and Knowles are talented freshmen. But they are still freshmen, and some freshmen come more prepared for Division I basketball than others. I'd wager that House is borderline dominant from the get-go, but will he and Knowles be lockdown defenders? If not, can Houston improve 2011-12's No. 260-ranked efficiency defense enough to compete for the league crown?

Marshall

Best-case: The Thundering Herd's lack of quality wins cost them an at-large tourney bid last season, but 2012-13 qualifies as a legitimate second chance. DeAndre Kane, Dennis Tinnon and Robert Goff are the core returners. If sophomore Jamir Hanner and a decent batch of incoming talent make major strides, there's no reason Marshall can't earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, even if it has to sweat things out on the bubble beforehand.

Worst-case: How much will Marshall miss its seniors? Guards Damier Pitts and Shaquille Johnson were major participants on Tom Herrion's solid 2012 squad, and it's not clear their absences can be filled in one offseason. Even so, the worst-case for this team is probably a season like last year's -- which, all things considered, is not so worst-case after all.

Memphis

Best-case: On paper, the Tigers have as much talent as any program in the country. That's the product of Josh Pastner's back-to-back loaded recruiting classes. With No. 6-ranked power forward Shaq Goodwin joining Joe Jackson, Adonis Thomas, Chris Crawford, Tarik Black & Co. in 2012, this is, as usual, Memphis' conference to win. The Tigers will make the tournament; that much seems guaranteed. The real question is how far they can go.

Worst-case: One of the great challenges of recruiting so well -- which John Calipari has long since mastered -- is in getting waves of disparate talents to play together, as a team, on both ends of the floor. Memphis hasn't always done that in the past few seasons. Meanwhile, don't sleep on the loss of forward Will Barton to the NBA draft. Barton quietly submitted one of the five or six best individual performances in college basketball last season. If Thomas doesn't step into that role and excel right away and Jackson doesn't (finally) put a star season together, this Memphis team could again prove mercurial.

Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series is catching up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For the rest of the best- and worst-case scenarios for C-USA, click here.

SPONSORED HEADLINES