Category archive: Tulane Green Wave

NEW YORK -- If you put Memphis in a corner and asked the Tigers where they want their program to be, the answer would be the Big East.

If you directed that question toward UTEP and Houston, it would probably be the Mountain West.

Football decisions drive the direction of conferences, though, and Conference USA isn't exactly a football powerhouse.

"Basketball coaches aren't in control of any of that," said new UTEP coach Tim Floyd. "They were humbled this summer to find out how important college basketball was in the overall scheme."

So the collection of C-USA schools are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future and what that means is that this league has to make its basketball marquee this season, as in a multiple-bid league that advances in the NCAA tournament.

Conference USA needs to become at least as valuable a basketball property as non-Big Six leagues like the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West.

UTEP went 26-6 and 15-1 in the conference last season, but was one of the final at-large teams selected to the NCAA tourney after losing to Houston in the conference finals. The fact that the Miners had to sweat out Selection Sunday is unacceptable.

"We need multiple teams in the tournament, and last year with UTEP going 15-1 and barely getting in is a little bit scary," said Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik, in New York City on Wednesday for a media day event intended to get the league more national attention.

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Tim Floyd
AP Photo/El Paso Times/Victor CalzadaFloyd, seen here with the widow of Don Haskins, landed at UTEP after his controversial tenure at USC.

What's the identity of this league? It certainly has a host of second-chance coaches who have had plenty of on-court success elsewhere, like Floyd, UAB's Mike Davis, Southern Miss' Larry Eustachy, SMU's Matt Doherty, Rice's Ben Braun, East Carolina's Jeff Lebo and Houston's James Dickey. All of those coaches were considered on the rise at one point in their careers, but losing or off-court issues led to their search for a new home.

Donnie Jones went from Marshall to Central Florida, and former Division I head coach Tom Herrion took over the Thundering Herd. Those are two of the league's six new head coaches -- exactly half the league.

Conference USA's coaches preach the league party line -- as they did Wednesday -- about having more draft picks since 2005 than the Big Ten or Pac-10 (including this past draft). Memphis coach Josh Pastner said the league is played above the rim with plenty of athletes, "which makes watching this league fun for everyone."

Still, there is a perception problem. It's undeniable.

From March 2006 to January 2010, the Tigers played and beat 64 straight opponents from C-USA. It is tied for the longest Division I conference win streak of all time. So whether it was fair or not, the national attitude about Conference USA was that Memphis steamrolled through an inferior conference.

"I grew up around the Pac-10, coached in the SEC and coached in the Big 12 and it's strange to me how underrated this league is," Eustachy said. "My only thinking is that Memphis made such a mockery of it for [64] straight games, but then they made a mockery of Texas [and Michigan State and UCLA] in the NCAA tournament and should have won the national championship [in 2008]. People look at our league and think no one could beat them for [64] straight games.

"Memphis was great, but the league has never been more competitive and has great coaches."

UAB's Davis, who has been on the cusp of getting an at-large bid the past few seasons, said Memphis' dominance under Calipari completely overshadowed the league. Having the conference tournament in Memphis also hindered getting a second bid for the league. But a year ago, the tournament was in Tulsa and the league was nearly left with just one again after Houston upset UTEP in the championship game.

"Does this league have the opportunity to be better than the WCC, when it had three teams in with Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and San Diego? My guess is certainly yes, when you see the history of this league with the coaches and the players," Floyd said. "This league has to do what the Mountain West did last year and get four teams in and win."

The coaches know who has to be good for this league to ultimately survive in a changing, challenging college landscape. Memphis, UTEP, Tulsa, UAB and Houston have the most national name recognition with a national title in the group (Texas Western) and a few national championship game appearances (Memphis and Houston).

Eustachy says Southern Miss, with Angelo Johnson and Gary Flowers, are ready to challenge for the conference title. Their continued improvement would certainly help the league, but the Golden Eagles still don't resonate much nationally.

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Josh Pastner
Scott Rovak/US PresswireExpectations weren't high for Josh Pastner's first season at Memphis. They certainly are for his second.

The pressure to be at the top still resides in Memphis.

"We need to be good; there's no doubt about that. We need to be good," Pastner said. "We've recruited well. We now have to perform well on the floor. That's the bottom line."

Eustachy disputes that Memphis has come back to the pack, despite missing the NCAAs this past season after four straight trips that included a title-game appearance, three Elite Eights and a Sweet 16.

"Memphis may have as good a players as Cal's better teams," Eustachy said.

Tulsa has had a rich history of NCAA tournament success under a plethora of name coaches like Tubby Smith, Nolan Richardson and Bill Self. Buzz Peterson won an NIT. Wojcik won a College Basketball Invitational. The Golden Hurricane had a great shot to be an NCAA tourney team last season, but weren't able to stand up and win the key games down the stretch when they had an elite center in Jerome Jordan, a second-round NBA draft pick.

"I think from a fan enthusiasm standpoint, they need us to be successful," Wojcik said. "What we need is multiple teams in the tournament."

To do that, though, the league's teams will need to start playing tough nonconference schedules in November and December -- and win some of those games, too.

That's not an issue for Memphis, which did that under John Calipari and still does so with Pastner. The Tigers play Miami and Georgetown at home, Tennessee and Gonzaga on the road and face Kansas at Madison Square Garden.

UAB has generally the same philosophy, and beat Butler and Cincinnati last season. The Blazers play Duke, Arizona State, Arkansas and Georgia this season. Floyd said he wants UTEP to have the scheduling attitude he had at USC, where he scheduled just about anyone to upgrade the team's power rating.

Tulsa has had solid shots to upgrade and does play in the Big 12 footprint, allowing it to get games with the Oklahoma schools. Southern Miss could use some success in Cancun this season, along with road wins at Ole Miss, South Florida and Cal that would greatly improve its national perception. Road wins always help.

"This is a process, but you've got to win those nonconference games and you've got to have 23 or 24 wins going into the conference tournament," Davis said. "It's difficult not to take a team that has closer to 30 wins than one that has 23 or 24. So if you can get to 25 or 26 or 27, you've got a better chance to get in."

A new identity for a host of schools that would probably like to be somewhere else would come if it could get multiple bids in the NCAA tournament and advance. Sounds easy enough, right?

"There are a lot of coaches in this league that have won a lot of games, a lot more than I have," Pastner said. "The league has gotten better. Memphis' dominance made everyone raise the level of recruiting and now the league has better players and is as athletic as ever before."

Five more observations from Conference USA media day:

1. So much talk was about the Memphis freshmen -- and it is a top-five class that deserves plenty of attention. But the consensus is that if the Tigers are going to be one of the nation's elite, then Wesley Witherspoon has to be a major presence. Memphis coach Josh Pastner is convinced that Witherspoon will be, or rather has to be, the star of this team.

2. C-USA put out its all-conference team, and one player was missing that could end up being a stud. UAB coach Mike Davis said Jamarr Sanders, a onetime guard at Alabama State, could be one of the best players he has ever coached. Sanders averaged 10.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game for the Blazers last season, but Davis said he was just figuring out how to play the game after sitting out a year.

3. UTEP's Randy Culpepper was tabbed as the preseason player of the year, but the question Davis had was whether Culpepper was going to be set free to go up and down or if he would be in more of a half-court set. If it's the latter, that could change Culpepper's effectiveness. UTEP coach Tim Floyd has been known to change to his personnel, and that's why without a real serious post threat (no Derrick Caracter or Arnett Moultrie), it's hard to see this team slowing down too much.

4. The best news for the teams that might be struggling in the bottom half of the league is that at least three have a star. Rice coach Ben Braun said Iranian Arsalan Kazemi, who played for the national team at the world championships in Turkey, had a sensational summer and should be ready for a major season. East Carolina's Brock Young and SMU's Papa Dia, who made the preseason first- and second-teams respectively, will at least provide a reason to watch the Pirates and Mustangs this season.

5. When you sit at lunch and see the collection of coaches in this league, it really is amazing. When you look around the table and see Larry Eustachy, Tim Floyd, Matt Doherty, Jeff Lebo, Ben Braun, James Dickey and Mike Davis and know that they were all in high-major conferences and are now in this league, it says a lot about the coaching business. It is a fickle one at best. Fame is fleeting in this profession, but there is almost always a second chance. Conference USA is the epitome of that.

Chuck Driesell went from hearing Gary Williams yell at Maryland to, well, a lot of yelling in general on The Citadel campus.

"Everybody is yelling here now," Driesell said in jest. "Getting a head job is not easy, tough to get. When you find one and get an opportunity to get one and everything matches up, it's a good feeling because of what I've worked for."

His predecessor, Ed Conroy, decided the unique challenges of The Citadel weren't enough for him so he took on what most consider a difficult job at Tulane, a program still trying to find its identity and regain firm footing five years after the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina and reshaped New Orleans for decades to come.

"It's a challenge -- like The Citadel," Conroy said. "But I wouldn't have gone there if I didn't think this job could be at a high level and within reach."

These two coaches haven't been given a silver spoon. Driesell did play at Maryland in the early 1980s under his father Lefty. He then went to work as a prep school coach at the Naval Academy, where he roomed with former Midshipman and current Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik. Driesell had to join the Navy on a three-year administrative commitment (1985 to 1988) to coach the prep school team, so coaching at a military school like The Citadel isn't completely foreign to him.

Driesell then ran the gamut of experience, from working under his father at James Madison (1989 to 1996), to head coach at Division III Marymount (1997 to 2003), to Georgetown assistant (2003-04), to Maryland high school coach (2004 to 2006) and then to assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Maryland (2006 to 2010), where his dad was a legendary coach for 18 seasons.

"I've never felt like I was in my father's shadow," Driesell said. "He's had a tremendous career. I think he's the best in the business. He's my dad and I never felt like I was in his shadow. It was there, but I've always felt I could accomplish what I put my mind to."

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Ed Conroy
AP Photo/Dave EinselIn leaving The Citadel for Tulane, Ed Conroy went from one tough job to another.

Conroy's cousin, Pat, wrote the 2002 book "My Losing Season," about his experience at The Citadel as a guard during the 1966-67 season. He's also the author of the 1976 book "The Great Santini," which was made into a successful movie starring Robert Duvall.

Conroy spent grunt time as an assistant at NC State, VMI and Furman, and on Buzz Peterson's staffs at Tulsa, Tennessee and Coastal Carolina before getting The Citadel job in 2006, where he took over a program that won just one Southern Conference game in 2005-06. The Bulldogs won four league games under Conroy in his first season, one in his second and then shot up to 15 in the Southern and 20 overall in his third season before a little slide back last season to 16-16 overall, 9-9 in the league.

Conroy was in the running for the UNC Wilmington job, but his old boss Peterson ended up getting the job. Everything worked out best for both parties, though, as Peterson wanted to remain in his home state of North Carolina more than Conroy, who saw the challenge and the ability to live in New Orleans as more enticing.

"He did a heckuva job at The Citadel," Peterson said. "He's in a tough league now too. But he'll build that program up too. He was the right man for a long time at The Citadel."

Conroy said the leadership from Tulane president Scott Cowen to athletic director Rick Dickson cinched the deal. He faced challenges in recruiting to The Citadel and he realizes he'll face them again with the Green Wave.

Conroy has to change the perception of Tulane hoops and the city of New Orleans in the post-Katrina era. The success of the Super Bowl champion Saints certainly helped, but recruits probably still need to see the day-to-day life on Tulane's campus to understand the school's commitment going forward. Hearing that the University of New Orleans had to drop down to Division III because of cost concerns doesn't help with publicity. Tulane has to distance itself from UNO's troubles and let recruits know that one school is privately funded and the other publicly.

"We've got a new practice facility, there are things being done budget-wise," Conroy said. "The team at Tulane handled the adversity, and the tragedy [of Katrina] gave them a chance to see how top-notch they are. They attacked the problem. I saw what they could do if they put their minds to it. They are committed to basketball now."

Former head coach Dave Dickerson had to deal with the Katrina effect and a Green Wave program that was temporarily displaced. His five-year tenure at Tulane ended last season with an 8-22 overall record, 3-13 in Conference USA. The former Maryland assistant -- now on Thad Matta's staff at Ohio State -- did handle a difficult situation reasonably well, winning 60 games in his four years before the wheels fell off last season.

The landscape in Conference USA has also changed with Memphis back on top with a heralded recruiting class, but still not as intimidating as it was under John Calipari. UTEP should be a major factor with Tim Floyd, and programs like Southern Miss and UCF should be improved. But there's no reason to believe that there can't be upward mobility in this conference.

Conroy is banking on that premise. Nothing seems to faze him. Over at Conroy's former stomping grounds, Driesell has just as tough a slate in the Southern Conference, where he's stuck in the same division as league powers Davidson, Charleston and Wofford.

Both coaches have famous last names, but they are out to enhance their own identity. If they can do it at challenging spots such as The Citadel and Tulane, it would go a long way toward proving they can be successful just about anywhere.