Commentary

What's ahead for Conference USA?

Originally Published: January 3, 2012
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

With Conference USA opening league play Wednesday night, here's everything you need to know about the conference and its season to date.

The favorites: The Tigers are a mess. Josh Pastner is facing unprecedented scrutiny as he attempts to justify Memphis' 8-5 record and absence from the national polls. Despite the turmoil and drama, however, they're the most adroit squad in the league. And they should win Conference USA. Then again, the Tigers should be ranked and have at least one signature nonconference victory.

[+] EnlargeWill Barton
Spruce Derden/US PresswireWill Barton did a little bit of everything for Memphis.

It's a shame that Will Barton's awesome output has been overshadowed by his squad's problems. But he's one of the top reasons that the Tigers should walk away with the conference title. They're too athletic for the rest of the league. And while they're certainly not the most composed squad in Conference USA, they've played one of the toughest schedules in the country (No. 6). The teams that defeated the Tigers -- Georgetown, Michigan, Murray State and Louisville -- are all ranked.

Other contenders: Both Southern Miss (22) and Marshall (74) are top 75 in the RPI. Central Florida has a come-from-behind win over UConn on its resume. And Tulane has a 12-2 record against a mediocre schedule. Yes, Memphis seems to have the talent to run through this league. But wasn't that the same scenario entering last year? And the Tigers finished fourth in the regular season.

Marshall might be their greatest threat with the backcourt duo of Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane. It beat Cincy on the road. It lost to Syracuse by six in New York. And the Thundering Herd held high-scoring Iona to just 63 points. Southern Miss is led by former Kentucky forward Darnell Dodson (15.0 ppg). The Golden Eagles took No. 18 Murray State to double overtime.

Central Florida didn't do well with early success last season, so its 10-3 start might be a good thing. Marcus Jordan (17.5 ppg) is the key. He was 15-for-36 in his team's three losses. Tulane boasts the league's top scoring defense (54.1 ppg) entering Conference USA play and the team is one win away from matching last season's 13 total victories.

Player of the year: The silver lining in Memphis' struggles this year is a 6-6 star who's going to make some NBA team very happy in a few months. Barton is an All-American. He's averaging 19.5 ppg and 9.2 rpg. He dropped 28 points and 16 rebounds against Louisville. He had 27 points against Murray State and 22 against Georgetown. Conference USA possesses multiple squads with legit NCAA tourney aspirations, so there's definitely some talent in this league. But no player is equal to Barton. He's a stud for Pastner. He's the key to Memphis' possible rebirth.

Other contenders: Marcus Jordan, Arsalan Kazemi, DeAndre Kane, Darnell Dodson

[+] EnlargeRicky Tarrant
Richard Mackson/US PresswireFreshman guard Ricky Tarrant has helped Tulane's rebuilding project. He's among the league leaders in several categories.

Freshman of the year (so far): Tulane's Ricky Tarrant is the squad's second-leading scorer. The 6-1 freshman is also top 15 in the league in assists (3.1 per game), free throw shooting (76.8 percent), steals (1.6 per game), made 3-pointers (1.4 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6).

Other contenders: Joseph Young, TaShawn Thomas, Julian Washburn

Wins to brag about: Marshall over Cincy, Marshall over Iona, Memphis over Miami, Rice over Texas A&M, Southern Miss over Colorado State, UAB over Middle Tennessee State, UCF over UConn

Losses that sting: Texas State over Houston, Jackson State over SMU, Arizona State over Tulsa, UT-Martin over UAB, Louisiana-Lafayette over UCF

Pleasant surprises: Ed Conroy is rebuilding Tulane at a respectable pace, given last season's 13-17 finish and this year's 12-2 start. ... Memphis hasn't played as well as many had anticipated, but at least the Tigers were willing to test themselves against five teams that are nationally ranked, four of which they faced outside of Memphis. ... Iona is averaging 85.1 points per game, fifth in the nation, but the Gaels could only produce a season-low 63 in a nonconference loss to Marshall. ... UCF showed serious heart after upsetting a UConn team that held a 50-33 edge in the second half.

Biggest disappointments: Memphis has so much talent but has lacked the chemistry to fulfill its potential. ... Marshall might be a Conference USA contender but a 16-point loss to Akron Sunday wasn't very convincing. ... The Tigers nearly lost a hometown stud in Joe Jackson. ... Why has All-Conference USA candidate Arsalan Kazemi taken only 15 shots in Rice's last three games? ... UCF followed its upset over UConn with a 1-for-11 mark from the 3-point line in a loss to Harvard the next day.

Questions

Can Memphis overcome the drama?

The Tigers can't seem to escape trouble. They've struggled on the court and their chemistry suggests that they've also had problems away from the floor. Pastner is facing serious pressure in a city that expected much more from this season's team. Joe Jackson's possible transfer didn't help. But winning is the elixir for most problems. And the Tigers have a chance to forget their nonconference woes and reel off a nice run once Conference USA competition begins. That will fix a lot of the squad's issues.

Is Memphis the only legit NCAA tourney contender?

Nope. Southern Miss has lost to Denver and Murray State. Both squads could end up in the NCAA tourney. Marshall played Syracuse tough on the road. And UCF topped a UConn team that might make a run at the national title. Conference USA could be a multiple-bid league.

What are the early must-see games?

Well, Southern Miss travels to Memphis Jan. 11 and the Tigers go to Central Florida Jan. 18. Those two games will be a great barometer for the league's top tier. Marshall, possibly the Tigers' biggest competition, goes to Memphis Jan. 28. At the end of January, we'll know if Memphis has any serious challengers in Conference USA.

Predicted order of finish

1. Memphis: Will Barton will lead the Tigers to league title.
2. Marshall: DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts form a potent combo.
3. UCF: Marcus Jordan & Co. have the league's best win, an upset over UConn.
4. Southern Miss: Larry Eustachy could get back to the NCAA tourney with Darnell Dodson.
5. Tulane: Strong start is the just beginning of program's turnaround.
6. Tulsa: Team has lost to quality opponents but it has the league's worst three-point defense.
7. UAB: The Blazers are 5-7 but have won their last three games.
8. UTEP: This decline was expected after the team lost its top five scorers.
9. Rice: Arsalan Kazemi is a special talent who's leading CUSA in steals and rebounding.
10. Houston: The Cougars have some young talent, but it won't be enough in this tough conference.
11. East Carolina: The Pirates have followed a three-game losing skid with five straight wins.
12. SMU: Suffered loss to a two-win Jackson State team. Ugh.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN