Which team will step up in C-USA league play?

Posted by PATRICK MAGEE on January 6, 2014 

The Conference USA basketball schedule begins this week and for the first time in a long time there's no clear favorite to take the regular season title.

For so long, Memphis was almost always the prohibitive favorite to run away with the championship.

The Tigers are gone, leaving C-USA with somewhat of an identity crisis.

If there's anything that we can take away from non-conference play, it's the idea that this league is much more balanced than it has been in the past.

There have been some impressive wins and some head-scratching losses early in the season.

Among the impressive: UAB beat North Carolina. Charlotte beat Kansas State and Michigan. UTEP beat Tennessee. Louisiana Tech won at Oklahoma State. North Texas throttled Texas A&M, 61-41.

Among the more disappointing: New Orleans beat UTEP. McMurry beat Texas-San Antonio (I could list a lot more bad losses for the Roadrunners). Southeastern Missouri thumped Tulane (by 30!). Maine beat Middle Tennessee. FAMU defeated FIU.

If you go through the cumulative schedule, there have been more highs than lows for Conference USA.

However, the league's RPI ranking is suffering as it begins conference play. It's been stuck at No. 20 in RPI rankings for much of the season, but earned a two-spot jump over the weekend to be considered the 18th best RPI league by WarrenNolan.com.

That ranking should climb a little as the conference season goes along, but it's tough to earn multiple NCAA Tournament bids if it hovers in the high teens. The Summit League, Sun Belt, Colonial Athletic and Horizon League are all currently ranked higher than C-USA … not good.

Southern Miss earns the label of the most consistent team in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles are (13-2) headed into the league opener at 7 p.m. on Thursday at North Texas.

The win at North Dakota State stands out at USM's best so far. The Bison are 8-4, ranked No. 21 in RPI and have a shot to run away with the Summit League this season.

The Golden Eagles are coming off a 66-49 drubbing of Drexel in Hattiesburg, a potential sign that they're starting to play their best basketball entering league play.

Southern Miss is by far the highest-ranked RPI squad in C-USA at No. 27. Louisiana Tech (12-3) is currently the only other conference team in the RPI top 100 at No. 92.

No. 104 UAB, No. 129 Charlotte, No. 136 MTSU and No. 137 UTEP rate among the best of the rest in the RPI.

No. 341 UTSA, No. 308 Florida Athletic and No. 283 Tulane are weighing down C-USA's overall RPI ranking.

There should be a good deal of parity in the top half of the league. Right now, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, UAB, Charlotte have earned the right to be considered the class of the conference. MTSU, East Carolina and North Texas should also have a good deal to say on who are the high seeds headed to the tournament in El Paso in March.

Middle Tennessee, the only C-USA program that was in the NCAA Tournament last year, has been underwhelming so far. A win over Akron is the best MTSU (9-5) has to offer at the moment, but it can't be counted out in league play.

Right now, C-USA is a one-bid league, and it's unlikely that will change unless a team like Louisiana Tech or Charlotte starts to roll through conference competition.

C-USA teams will have to take advantage of their chances against the league's top programs. The new C-USA scheduling format allows teams to play just one opponent twice in the league slate. For Southern Miss, that's Tulane, which is an RPI vacuum.

The Golden Eagles will have to take advantage of their opportunities against Louisiana Tech, UAB and Charlotte, or an at-large bid will be difficult to come by.

The biggest game in the first week of league play will be at 8:05 p.m. Thursday when UTEP hosts Charlotte in a game to be televised by CBS Sports.

Potentially the most important game of the C-USA slate takes place at noon on Jan. 19 when Southern Miss hosts Louisiana Tech.

There may be no sure pick to win the league, but it should make for a more entertaining C-USA schedule.

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