C-USA appears headed to nice basketball season

Posted by PATRICK MAGEE on November 26, 2013 

The departure of Memphis to the AAC left many wondering what the future would hold for Conference USA men's basketball.

Less than a month into the 2013-14 season, it's been so far, so good for C-USA.

* CHARLOTTE (5-1) has been the most impressive team in the early going with wins over No. 14 Michigan and Kansas State to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament over the weekend.

The 49ers are coming off 21-12 season and an NIT bid. In his fourth season on the job, Charlotte coach Alan Major has the program resembling the team that competed at the top of Conference USA when it was a member from 1995-2005.

* UAB has also been somewhat of a surprise, beating Nebraska and Rutgers on its way to a 4-2 start. Jerod Haase is in his second year as UAB head coach, and the Blazers should be in the mix once league competition starts.

* SOUTHERN MISS (6-0) is the lone remaining undefeated team in Conference USA with a 6-0 mark that includes respectable road wins over DePaul, North Dakota State and South Alabama.

The biggest test awaits USM at 6 p.m. on Friday when it travels to take on defending national champion Louisville.

The Golden Eagles finished in second place in C-USA in 2012-13 and made a run to the NIT quarterfinals with a record of 27-10. Although last year's leading scorer, Dwayne Davis, is now playing professional ball in Europe, USM is a much more balanced team with several players who can hit double digits in scoring.

* EAST CAROLINA (6-1) is tradition-poor in men's basketball, but it entered the offseason with momentum after winning the 2013 CIT in front of a raucous home crowd.

The Pirates have built on that success so far with a decent start to the season, and an impressive performance in an 83-74 loss at Duke.

ECU has yet to earn an attention-grabbing victory, but it should compete with some of the better C-USA teams this year.

* LOUISIANA TECH (4-1) was a popular pick to compete for a Conference USA championship this year, and it hasn't disappointed yet. The Bulldogs pulled off three decisive victories after losing at a tough St. Mary's to open the season.

La. Tech went 27-7 last year, losing to USM in the second round of the NIT. Michael White is in his third season as the Bulldogs' head coach.

* MIDDLE TENNESSEE (4-1) is the only team in C-USA that was in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Blue Raiders took it on the chin at Florida last week, but they should be in the mix late for a league title. MTSU is still seeking a good non-conference win, but it has a chance when it hosts Belmont on Dec. 3.

* OLD DOMINION (4-2) appears to be on its way back from a miserable 2012-13 season that included a coaching coach and ended with a 5-25 record. The Monarchs don't have a big victory yet, but they did beat Murray State and pushed a good Missouri State team into overtime in a 79-67 defeat.

* OFF TO SLOW STARTS: Depending on your perspective, both UTEP (3-2) and Marshall (3-2) are off to so-so or disappointing starts. Both of UTEP's losses have come to New Mexico State while Marshall has suffered head-scratching losses to Stephen F. Austin and Morehead State (which may compete in the OVC).

While the Thundering Herd may be on its way to a bumpy season, you can bet that coach Tim Floyd will have UTEP playing well once the conference slate begins.

* ALSO-RANS that should be in the bottom half of C-USA this season include a handful of teams:

While Florida International is 6-3, it has played a fairly soft non-conference slate. First-year coach Anthony Evans is doing a good job considering the program is banned from the postseason this year because of academic issues from Isiah Thomas' time there as head coach.

North Texas (3-3) shouldn't be a pushover this year, but the Mean Green will have a hard time keeping up with the top half of C-USA.

Tulane (4-1) is playing its traditionally-soft non-conference schedule and could be in for a long season after losing at home, 91-86, in overtime to Northern Kentucky on Saturday.

The most disappointing C-USA team so far has been Tulsa (0-4), which has played the role of victim to a difficult non-conference schedule – Oral Roberts, Missouri State, Wichita State and Creighton. Danny Manning's second year as head coach is not off to a good start.

Teams headed for rough seasons include Rice (2-3), Texas-San Antonio (1-6) and Florida Atlantic (1-6).

TOURNAMENT FUTURE

C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky recently said that Charlotte is a likely future destination for the league tournament.

Nashville was once considered a likely tournament site until the SEC set a deal that will allow the city to host its tournament nine times from 2015-2025.

Charlotte makes a lot of sense as a tournament site with a large media market and a nice on-campus basketball arena that holds a little over 9,000.

El Paso, which hosts this season, will likely stay in the rotation for years to come.

The question now becomes - Where will C-USA be able to host tournaments in the Southeast region?

Memphis was the ideal location with a great arena, big crowds and a powerhouse program that served as the host.

While Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., has the potential to serve as a tournament host, there is no obvious choice in the Southeast region.

Birmingham could be a potential site as long as UAB continues to compete in the top half of the conference. It would also offer reasonable travel distances for Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss fans. UAB has a quality basketball facility and it shouldn't be too hard to find another gym in the area to host the women's tournament.

Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston would be tournament sites that offer large media markets, but they would be poor options when it comes to fan support.

At the moment, El Paso, Charlotte, Norfolk and Birmingham stand out as the best options for future C-USA Tournament sites.

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