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Conference Countdown: No. 9 C-USA

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Randy Culpepper, UTEP, Sr.

Culpepper could very well be the most exciting player in the country to watch. He’s arguably the best dunker in the country, routinely soaring for highlight worthy dunks despite barely pushing six feet. Culpepper is not a point guard, however. He is a scorer, through and through, with no conscience whatsoever. Its not unusual to see him pull-up from 25 feet, and when he gets hot, watch out. Ask Central Florida, who saw Culpepper go for 39 last season, or East Carolina, who was the recipient of one of the most impressive offensive performances last year as Culpepper went for 45 points (31 in the first half) on 14-18 shooting, 9-12 from deep. With Caracter and Moultrie gone, Culpepper is going to be expected to carry an even bigger share of the offensive workload as a senior.

And a close second goes too: Gary Flowers, Southern Miss, Sr.

The Golden Eagles have a chance to be a very good team this season, and it is in no small part due to the play of Flowers, a 6'8" power forward. Flowers was fantastic in his first season with USM, finishing among the league leaders in points (15.0), rebounds (8.3), and blocks (1.8) and providing Larry Eustachy with his only real consistent threat throughout an up-and-down season. Southern Miss has a deep and talented back court, and Eustachy has been vocal about his willingness to play four guards around Flowers. Flowers should once again be a steadying force for the Golden Eagles, and if he can improve upon the season he just had, there is no reason that Southern Miss cannot build on what was a positive finish to the 2009-2010 season.

Breakout Star: Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis, Jr.

Witherspoon has not had the smoothest two years in Memphis. As a freshman, the 6'8" small forward was tried out at point guard, but that test didn’t last long as John Calipari eventually discovered that it was Tyreke Evans’ natural position. Last year, Witherspoon was expected to carry much of the workload under new head coach Josh Pastner, but it was an up-and-down year. Witherspoon had some fantastic performances -- including a two games stretch where he scored 55 points against Gonzaga and UAB -- but also disappeared offensively during some games. This kid has tons of talent. He’s a lanky and athletic 6'8" wing that, when he is at his best, is slashing to the basket and getting to the foul line. He’s also added a consistent three point stroke, knocking down 43% of his shots from beyond the arc, although he only took 79 on the season. Memphis is going to be loaded with talent this year, but the majority of that talent will be freshmen. Witherspoon, who seems destined to be a first round pick when he finally heads to the NBA, will be the experienced leader on this team. Eventually, his talent is going to take over. Could this be the year? If it is, then I may end up regretting not picking him as the preseason player of the year.

All-Conference First Team:

  • POY - Randy Culpepper, UTEP, Sr.
  • G - Brock Young, East Carolina, So.
  • G - Justin Hurtt, Tulsa, Sr.
  • F - Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis, Jr.
  • F - Arsalan Kazemi, Rice, So.
  • F - Gary Flowers, Southern Miss, Sr.

All-Conference Second Team:

  • G - Aaron Johnson, UAB, Sr.
  • G - Joe Jackson, Memphis, Fr.
  • G - Will Barton, Memphis, Fr.
  • F - Keith Clanton, UCF, So.
  • F - Papa Dia, SMU, Sr.

Freshman of the Year: Will Barton, Memphis

Of the lauded freshman class that Pastner is bringing in, Barton is probably the best. A wiry athlete, the 6'6" Barton has everything you look for in a wing player. Most importantly, however, is that Barton can really score. He can take a defensive rebound coast to coast, he can get to the rim in a one-on-one setting in the half court, he can finish above the rim, and he is a capable shooter in both the mid-range and from three. His length also allows him to be a good defender, and Pastner has said that Barton is the best rebounding guard in this class. Keep in mind, Barton prepped a year, meaning he is coming in as a 19 year old freshman. There is still plenty of room for this kid to grow, but he has the talent, and he will have the opportunity to showcase it this season.

All-Freshman team:

  • G - Joe Jackson, Memphis
  • G - Preston Purifoy, UAB
  • G - Isaiah Sykes, UCF
  • F - Michael Haynes, UTEP
  • F - Tarik Black, Memphis

What Happened?:

  • Tim Floyd finds a place to land: UTEP did what some believed was unthinkable -- they hired Tim Floyd, the guy who built the USC program into a contender, then left as OJ Mayo’s fallout hit. And it didn’t take Floyd long to create a stir. Only months after he was hired, Floyd was off making package deals, bringing in three players -- one of whom was Rashanti Harris, who has since been declared ineligible -- closely associated with two of his new assistant coaches.

    That wasn’t the end of UTEP’s drama filled off-season. Not only did starting center Arnett Moultrie bolt for greener SEC pastures, but one player Floyd booted off the team, Myron Strong, made quite a fuss on his way out the door.

  • Floyd wasn’t the only one with a drama filled summer: Let’s begin with DJ Newbill, a 6'3" guard that is currently at Southern Miss. Newbill, a Philly native, signed a Letter of Intent with Marquette only to see his scholarship taken away by Buzz Williams when Jamil Wilson decided he wanted to transfer into Marquette.

    If that wasn’t bad enough, take Joseph Young’s case. Young signed his Letter of Intent with Providence, but do to his father’s hiring at Houston and the illness of one of his aunts, Young decided he would rather play for Houston. Keno Davis wouldn’t let him out of his LOI, so Young is sitting out this season while waiting to play for Houston.

    Memphis may have had the wildest ride. First, it was Will Barton, the talented Tiger recruit that believed that he was initially ruled ineligible academically, but once the NCAA received all of the information they needed, they reversed their stance and cleared him to participate. Another talented freshman, Jelan Kendrick, has been suspended from the Tigers for allegedly threatening a teammate. We don’t have details, but most believe he will back in Tigers uniform at some point.

  • Floyd also isn’t the only new coach in C-USA: Conference USA has seemingly become the preferred landing spot for coaches that lost their chance at a Big Six school. Larry Eustachy is at Southern Miss, Mike Davis is at UAB, Matt Doherty is at SMU, and Ben Braun is at Rice. Now, you can add former Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo, the new head man at East Carolina.

    Or how about James Dickey? He was the coach at Texas Tech in the 90’s, but lost his job to Bobby Knight. Dickey replaced Tom Penders at Houston.

    Believe it or not, I’m still not done talking about new coaching hires. Former Citadel head coach Ed Conroy is taking over the Tulane program, while Donnie Jones (more on him in a second) went to a different school within the same conference, leaving Marshall for Central Florida. Tom Herrion was hired to replace Jones at Marshall.

  • UCF is loading up: The future looks bright for Donnie Jones at Central Florida as he is stockpiling talent. Not only does he return the entire rotation from last season, he adds a talented group of freshmen this year, headlined by Isaiah Sykes. He also added three high-major transfers -- Jeffery Jordan from Illinois, Tristan Spurlock from Virginia, and Josh Crittle from Oregon -- that will be eligible to play next season. In addition to those transfers, UCF also adds two very talented recruits next year in Kamil Wilson and Rod Days.

    In case you didn’t notice, Jones now has both of Michael Jordan’s sons -- when they aren’t partying in Vegas -- playing for his program. I wonder is they can get His Airness to come play at practice? That would be a hell of a recruiting tool...

    There are a few other notable transfers from the league. Desmond Wade, Houston’s starting point guard, has transferred to Fairfield, while Paul McCoy, who averaged 13.4 ppg as a freshman before struggling last season, has left the SMU program. And Beas Hamga, a seven-footer that was a top 30 recruit coming out of high school and originally enrolled at UNLV, will be eligible this season as a junior for UAB. Yea, he’s tall.

  • Arsalan Kazemi is a player: He averaged damn near a double-double as a freshman for a bad Rice team, and the future only looks brighter for college basketball’s first Iranian. Why does the future look bright? Well, maybe its the 14 points he had against Team USA in the World Basketball Championships.

What’s Next?:

  • How long will Conference USA be this Conference USA?: Its not a secret that Memphis wants to join the Big East, and during the conference realignment madness that happened back in June, it was rumored that the Tigers, and possibly Central Florida, would be headed to the Big East. That didn’t happen, but when BYU made the decision to leave the Mountain West, theories started floating around about how the country’s second-tier conferences -- the WAC, the MWC, C-USA -- would realign themselves. That process if far from over, and we could end up seeing a major change at some point.
  • Can Memphis return to the top?: Its not a secret that Josh Pastner brings in arguably the best recruiting class in the country. After finishing last season second place in the league and missing out on the NCAA Tournament, this crop of freshmen should be good enough to get the Tigers back to the top of the conference standings. Will it lead to postseason success?
  • More than a one-bid league?: Generally speaking, there is pretty good basketball being played in Conference USA, but with teams like UAB and Tulsa fading down the stretch last season, C-USA was only able to nab a second tournament bid when Houston made a run to the league’s tournament title and UTEP was given a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. will this conference be able to support more than one at-large bid this season? Memphis seems like a pretty safe bet to earn themselves a bid, but with a number of solid teams behind them -- Southern Miss, UTEP, UAB, Tulsa -- will anyone perform above expectations?

Power Rankings:

  1. Memphis: Last season, UTEP took the C-USA title from the Tigers, and while Memphis loses four of their top five scorers, don’t expect the Tigers to be down for long. Josh Pastner proved himself to be a force on the recruiting trail, landing one of the nation’s best classes. It is headlined by a few potential stars on the perimeter. Joe Jackson is an ultra-quick point guard with athleticism for days that is a nightmare to keep out of the paint. Jelan Kendrick is a point forward that could stand to improve his handle and jumper, as well as adjusting his attitude. It remains to be seen if Kendrick will play this season after threatening a teammate. Will Barton, a 6'6" slasher and scorer on the wing, may be the best of the bunch. Junior Wesley Witherspoon, a first round pick in the making, had a couple of huge games last season, and could develop into a star if he can become more consistent. Freshmen Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford, as well as Charles Carmouche, a transfer from New Orleans, should also get some time in the back court. The Tigers front court should also be quite good next season. Will Coleman is a freak athlete, a 6'9", 245 pound dunker and shotblocker reminiscent of Joey Dorsey. 6'11" Angel Garcia looks like he’ll finally be ready to contribute this year, while freshmen Hippolyte Tsafack and Tarik Black, who drew high praise for his play on the Tiger’s trip to the Bahamas, will also get quite a few minutes. Memphis is a big-time favorite to win the league, but how good they are on a national scale will depend on just how good some of these freshmen end up being.
  2. Southern Miss: USM had a bit of a quirky season in 2009-2010. They started off slow, losing to Canisius and North Florida during non-conference play before starting 0-4 in the league. But they finished strong -- getting to 8-8 in the conference -- and with Larry Eustachy bringing back all five starters and a quality class of newcomers, the Golden Eagles look like they can make a push towards the top of the league. It starts with Gary Flowers, a 6'8" post player that was USM’s most consistent performer, notching averages of 15 ppg, 8.3 rpg, and 1.8 bpg, good enough to earn him a spot on the all-conference team. But Flowers is not all that Eustachy has on his roster. Juniors Angelo Johnson and Maurice Bolden, as well as seniors RL Horton and Sai’Quan Stone, all started for much of last season. Johnson and Horton need to mature as decision makers and improve their consistency, but they proved to be capable of handling the back court duties. At 6'10", Bolden is a perimeter threat, which should help create some space for Flowers, while Stone is a tough, physical defender. There will be some depth on this club, as well. Torye Pelham was a part-time starter up front last season, while Josimar Ayarza also saw minutes in the front court. JuCo transfer Aharyo Phillips -- who played his freshman season at Nevada before being kicked off the team -- should also compete for time. In the back court, Eustachy will have an inexperienced bench, but one that could push the starters for playing time. JuCo transfer LaShay Page and freshman DJ Newbill, who originally committed to Marquette, were both rated as three-star recruits according to Rivals. Four other newcomers -- freshmen Kody Williams, Trency Jackson, and Cedric Jenkins as well as sophomore Kayland Partee -- all will have a shot at earning some playing time as well. The Golden Eagles aren’t going to win pretty, but with their experience, their talent level, and a player like Flowers, Southern Miss should be near the top of the C-USA standings come season’s end.
  3. UTEP: The Miners will take a big hit to their front court this season, as Derrick Caracter headed to the NBA and Arnett Moultrie has transferred to Mississippi State. While that loss will no doubt effect this team, the good news is that they get, essentially, the rest of their roster back, including senior guard Randy Culpepper. Culpepper may be the most entertaining player in the country to watch. Barely reaching 6'0", Culpepper is an athletic freak, soaring for highlight reel dunks while also being unafraid to jack up any shot he deems fit, even if it is 28 feet from the rim. Also returning for the Miners will be senior swingmen Christian Polk, Julyan Stone, and Jeremy Williams, who combine to form quite a versatile group to complement Culpepper. Another senior, 6'11" Claude Britten found himself buried on the bench behind Moultrie and Caracter, but he was still able to score a point in every two minutes of playing time when he did see the floor. The rest of Tim Floyd’s rotation will likely be made up of freshmen. Michael Haynes and John Bohannon will see minutes inside, while Michael Perez and DeShun Watkins should provide depth in the back court. UTEP will once again be in the mix near the top of the league standings.
  4. Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane were expected to be a top 25 team last season, but struggled down the stretch before being eliminated in the first round of the NIT to end a disappointing season. That disappointment was compounded by the fact that their two best players -- Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan -- both graduated. While Tulsa will have no where near the same preseason expectations, there are still enough quality pieces on Doug Wojcik’s team that they will once again be at the top of C-USA. To start, Justin Hurtt returns for his senior season. Hurtt has been the shooter that spread the floor for Tulsa the last few years -- and successfully, he averaged 14.5 ppg last year -- but the Golden Hurricane will be counting on him to have a big year this year. Joining him in the back court will be UConn transfer Scottie Haralson, two players coming off of serious injuries in Donte Medder and Glenn Andrews, and two talented freshmen in Tim Peete and Jordan Clarkson. Sophomore swingman Bryson Pope should see time on the perimeter as well. Up front, Steven Idlet and Joe Richard both return. They split time starting last season, and while both have proven to be solid rebounders and post defenders, Tulsa is going to need one, or both, to become more of a scoring threat. The same can be said for Western Kentucky transfer DJ Magley, who started half the time during his two seasons with the Hilltoppers. Freshmen Blondy Baruti and Kodi Maduka should see minutes as well.
  5. UAB: The Blazers lose quite a bit from last season’s 25 win team. Three of their top six scorers graduate, while Elijah Millsap, UAB’s leading scorer and rebounder, left school to turn pro. This year’s club will be based around the perimeter. Aaron Johnson, a 5'8" point guard, returns for his senior season. Johnson, who made the C-USA all-defensive team, is a good distributor who will be counted on for more offensive production. Starting alongside Johnson will be Jamarr Sanders, a senior that averaged 10.4 ppg in his first season under Mike Davis who will be the Blazers best perimeter shooter. One player to watch will be sophomore Dexter Fields. Fields was a three-star recruit last season, and while he saw limited minutes last year, he had a couple of big games and was productive when he did get on the court. Freshman Preston Purifoy, a 6'5" small forward, should help fill the void left by Millsap at the three, while Robert Williams and Quincy Taylor, redshirt and true freshmen, respectively, should also compete for time. The front court will be a bigger question mark. Junior Cameron Moore and sophomore Ovie Soko both were in the rotation last season, but averaged a combined 5 points and 5 boards in just 22 minutes. Freshmen Anthony Criswell should also see time, but the x-factor could end up being Beas Hamga. An athletic seven-footer, Hamga -- who has a 9'6" wingspan -- was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. He’s raw, but he has a ton of potential. UAB has some question marks, but there is enough talent on this team that they could finish in the top four of the league.
  6. UCF: Things are really looking up for the basketball program at Central Florida. As we touched on earlier, Donnie Jones has a serious influx of talent coming into the program, and while the addition of that talent is still a full season away, there is reason to believe that the Golden Knights will be a factor in the C-USA race this season. In 2009-2010, UCF played with, essentially, an eight man rotation, and all eight of those players return. Six of them were underclassmen last season. Sharpshooting junior Isaac Sosa and 6'9" senior AJ Tyler led a balanced scoring attack at 10.3 ppg each. Two sophomores, guard Marcus Jordan -- who really came on as the season progressed, working his way into the starting line up -- and big man Keith Clanton, showed that they can be impact players at the C-USA level. Senior Taylor Young and junior AJ Rompza will handle the point guard duties, while Dave Diakite and PJ Gaynor are role playing forwards. What UCF really lacks -- and what likely won’t be provided by newcomers Jarvis Davis, Dwight McCombs, and Isaiah Sykes (although Sykes, a 6'5" swingman, was a fairly highly regarded recruit that attracted a lot of high-major attention) -- is a go-to scorer. UCF struggled against more athletic and aggressive teams, but part of that was an overall lack of experience on the roster. With this group now playing together for a second year, the Knights should improve.
  7. Marshall: The Thundering Herd are going to look a lot different this season as both of their talented big men -- Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Wilker son -- and head coach Donnie Jones are all gone. Instead, this is going to be a team whose strength in on the perimeter. The leaders will be Damier Pitts and Shaquille Johnson, two junior guards that have the potential to be very good at this level. Much is also expected of Dago Pena, a 6'6" scorer that had some big games off the bench last season. There isn’t a ton of talent behind them -- Justin Howe is a freshman, DeAndre Kane was a partial qualifier last season, and Johnny Higgins is a JuCo transfer -- but the Herd shouldn’t need a ton of depth as Pitts, Johnson, and Pena will likely play a lot of minutes. The question is going to be where Marshall gets their front court scoring from. Replacing the 27 points, 16 boards, and 6 blocks the Herd lost with Whiteside and Wilkerson won’t be easy. Tirrel Baines may be the best scoring option. Baines, a 6'6" forward, averaged 11.5 ppg as a freshman, but saw his minutes cut as the Herd improved their front line. Antonio Haymon returns for his senior year, while 6'10" Nigel Spikes could also see more time. Joining them will be some new faces. Orlando Allen is a 6'10" transfer from Oklahoma. Eladio Espinosa started a dozen games at South Florida before transferring. Aundra Williams is a big-bodied, 6'10" JuCo addition. Depending on how the Herd’s trio of junior guards develops, this team has a shot at getting to 20 wins.
  8. East Carolina: The good news for the Pirates is that they basically bring back their entire roster. The key to that roster is going to be Brock Young, a senior point guard that was one of the more productive players in C-USA last season (15.5 ppg and 5.5 apg, which led the league). Young is an excellent penetrator, but he needs to improve on his perimeter shooting and cut down his turnovers, something that will be helped as he gets more production around him. And therein lies the problem -- while ECU returns the same team from last season, its a team that was only able to muster 10 wins, four in league play. There are a couple of kids that showed potential last season. Junior Darrius Morrow proved to be a capable post player at this level, while senior Jamar Abrams, who can really shoot the ball, came on strong down the stretch after a sluggish start to the season. Jontae Sherrod joins Young to give the Pirates a solid back court, and 6'11" Chad Wynn will likely get the nod at center. ECU does have some depth, which will get helped by incoming front court players Robert Sampson and Darius Morales, but there aren’t many impact players on the bench. Young is a player, but unless he gets more help this season, Jeff Lebo will likely lead ECU to another losing season.
  9. Rice: Ben Braun has not had much success in his first two seasons at the helm of a struggling Rice program, but there is reason to be optimistic. Braun returns essentially the same group of kids from last season. While it is difficult to get excited about a team coming back that won just eight games, consider this -- the four most important players on the roster are back, and three of them were underclassmen last year. And while the Owls went 8-23 last year, they weren’t getting run out of the gym. This is a group that played hard and played with pride, and as their talent level increases -- and the young talent on the roster develops -- Braun’s club only has one direction to go. They will be led once again by Tamir Jackson, a 6'2" sophomore guard, and 6'7" sophomore forward Arsalan Kazemi. Jackson had some big games last season and led the Owls in scoring, but he was inconsistent, especially with his jumpshot (although, to be fair, it was about what you would expect from an overwhelmed freshman on a bad team). Kazemi has the potential to be a star. The Iranian nearly averaged a double-double last year, was even better in league play, and put 14 points on Team USA in the World Basketball Championships. Connor Frizzelle, a junior who is probably the team’s best shooter, also returns, as does big-bodied center Trey Stanton. Beyond that, there are question marks. Will Lucas Kuipers and Suleiman Braimoh ever be more than a role player? Can any other returner develop into a consistent contributor? Will any of Braun’s freshmen -- some of whom look promising, including David Chadwick, a 6'9' power forward that was a three-star recruit on Rivals, and Omar Oraby, a 7'1" Egyptian that had 15 points and 8 boards against the USA in the 2009 U-19 Worlds -- be impact players? Rice is still a long way from being considered a contender, but I expect more wins from the Owls this year.
  10. Houston: The Cougars are going to have some big shoes to fill next season as their starting back court of Aubrey Coleman, Kelvin Lewis, and Desmond Wade are all gone along with head coach Tom Penders. The cupboard isn’t going to be completely bare for new head coach James Dickey, however, as the Cougar team looks like it is going to be more oriented around front court players. 6'9" senior Maurice McNeil had a solid season after transferring in from a JuCo, while 6'7" sophomore Kendrick Washington looked pretty impressive down the stretch last season. Kirk Van Slyke should also see time inside. Like I said, the back court is going to have quite a bit of turnover. Seniors Adam Brown and Zamal Nixon, who both played about 20 mpg off the bench last season, figure to feature prominently next season. Beyond that, there are going to be a lot of new faces for the Cougars. San Diego transfer Trumaine Johnson, a 6'2" transfer from San Diego that averaged 11.6 ppg in the WCC in 2008-2009, should see quite a few minutes alongside Brown and Nixon. Alandise Harris and Mikhail McLean are freshmen forwards, while JuCo transfers Darian Thibodeaux and Jonathon Simmons should be able to provide some experience. Overall, it seems as if it will be a rebuilding year for Houston.
  11. SMU: The bad news for SMU is that they lose two of their top three scorers from a team that, at times, struggled offensively. The Mustangs also lost Paul McCoy to a transfer, a talented guard that struggled to repeat his impressive freshman season. Simply put, there are a lack of quality pieces returning for Matt Doherty. Doherty’s most dangerous weapon is probably third team all-conference forward Papa Dia, a 6'9" post player that averaged 12.3 ppg and 8.6 rpg. Robert Nyakundi, a sharpshooting 6'8" forward, should start full time this season as well. Beyond that, the Mustangs are going to have some interchangeable pieces, which works well given the grind-it-out style that they like to play (they ranked in the 300’s in tempo last season, and were at their best when the pace was slower than that). Justin Haynes is a tough 6'5" wing that was a starter last season, while Ryan Harp, Rodney Clinkscales, and Mike Walker all saw minutes in the back court last year. North Texas transfer Collin Mangrum should also provide some depth in the back court. The front court won’t be as deep for the Mustangs, and Dia and Nyakundi are really the only returners. Freshmen Leslee Smith and Ricmonds Vilde will compete with seniors Tomasz Kwiatkowski and Myles Luttman for minutes off the bench. Unless some of the Mustang’s returners develop this season, or their incoming freshmen end up being instant impact kids (none of them even received a three-star ranking from Rivals, it could be a long season for Doherty.
  12. Tulane: The Green Wave didn’t have much success, or consistency, last season, as they won just seven games while using 13 different starting line-ups. The strength of Tulane this season is going to be in the back court. To start, they return leading scorer Kris Richard, a 6'5" swing man that is back for his senior season. Joining him in the back court will be two sophomores that had promising freshmen seasons. 6'5" Kendall Timmons led the team in scoring during conference play, proving to be quite a versatile player, while Jordan Callahan may be the program’s point guard of the future. He played sparingly to begin the season, but when starting point guard Kevin Sims went down with an injury midway through the year, Callahan filled in quite nicely, proving to be a capable shooter and distributor while posting a couple of big scoring games. David Booker is really the only returning interior player for the Green Wave, and as a senior, it would be nice to see him become more assertive and improve on his averages of 7.3 ppg and 4.1 rpg. After that, the front court is a bit of a question mark for new head coach Ed Conroy, who will need Geoff Hogan, Keith Cameron, or freshman Kevin Thomas to develop into a player he can rely on. When the Green Wave is hot from the perimeter, they should be able to be competitive, but expect to see them back at the bottom of the league standings again this season.