Conference USA preview: Can anyone dethrone Memphis?

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

It will be an interesting season in Conference USA as four members are headed to the Big East at the end of the academic year. But even with those changes there’s one thing that remains the same: the Memphis Tigers are the preseason favorite to win the title.

Josh Pastner enters his third season at Memphis and while the Tigers have reached the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons they’ve failed to pick up a win (Arizona in 2011 and Saint Louis last season). That has to change, and with the Tigers being a more experienced group there’s no reason why fans shouldn’t expect multiple NCAA tournament victories this March.

The question within Conference USA  entering this season is a simple one: which team (or teams) is best capable of challenging Memphis for conference supremacy? Could that be Marshall, or is it someone else? Here’s an early look at Conference USA.

Five Things to Know

1. Memphis loses wing Will Barton but returns five players who started at least 19 games last season. Three of those players are preseason All-Conference USA selections, with forward Tarik Black making the first team and guards Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson making the second team. Also on the second team is sophomore wing Adonis Thomas, who played in just 19 games last season due to a broken foot.

2. UCF is ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions but Donnie Jones’ program received a much-needed boost when senior forward Keith Clanton decided to stick with the program. Clanton, who averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, was voted Preseason Conference USA Player of the Year by the coaches.

3. Tom Herrion may have to replace two starters from last year’s squad at Marshall, but he’ll have the services of two of Conference USA’s best players in junior guard DeAndre Kane (16.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and senior forward Dennis Tinnon (10.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg). The Thundering Herd haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1987, and that’s a dry spell they’re capable of ending this season.

4. Larry Brown makes his debut at SMU this season, and this is likely to be a tough campaign in the season before the Mustangs join the Big East. SMU has three transfers sitting out this season, and their leading returnee is senior guard London Giles (10.0 ppg). That means freshmen such as Blaise Mbargoba and Jordan Dickerson will have to show themselves capable of contributing if SMU is to accomplish anything in 2012-13.

5. The Conference USA tournament was originally slated to be played in Memphis, but once the Tigers accepted an invitation to join the Big East the powers that be in C-USA voted to move the tournament to Tulsa. However, Danny Manning’s young squad likely doesn’t have the talent needed to take advantage of the event being held in their city.

Impact Newcomers

F Shaq Goodwin (Memphis)
Goodwin was one of the nation’s best power forward prospects in the 2012 class (and one of the best tight ends in the country as well), and he’ll factor into the rotation at Memphis. Adding a player of Goodwin’s size and athleticism (6-9, 250 and runs the floor very well) will bolster the Tigers’ front court production this season.

F Danuel House (Houston)
Unfortunately Danrad “Chicken” Knowles wasn’t cleared academically, but James Dickey still has the talented House to call on this season. The 6-7 House is extremely athletic and can score from anywhere on the floor. He averaged 26.0 points per game as a senior at Hightower HS in Sugar Land, Texas.

F/G Twymond Howard (UTEP)
Howard was a Parade All-America selection last season as he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds per game at Pearl (MS) High School. Howard’s a good athlete who can get to the rim and finish, and combined with sophomore McKenzie Moore gives Tim Floyd a couple solid newcomers to add to the rotation (if Anthony January enrolls in January as planned the Miners will have another talented piece to call on).

G Daiquan Walker (UCF)
The Knights need help at the point with Isaiah Sykes (94 assists in 2011-12) being their leading assist man from last season and the freshman Walker is one option for Donnie Jones. The Philadelphia native played alongside UNLV freshman Savon Goodman last season, averaging 18.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game in helping to lead Constitution High to a Pennsylvania Class A state title.

G/F Michael Craig (Southern Miss)
The South Mountain CC transfer will have plenty of opportunities to make an impact in Donnie Tyndall’s first season at Southern Miss. Craig averaged 22.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game last season, earning NJCAA First Team All-America honors.

Other newcomers of note: G Kareem Canty (Marshall), G Geron Johnson (Memphis/Garden City CC transfer), C Blaise Mbargorba (SMU), G Pat Swilling Jr. (Tulsa/College of Southern Idaho transfer), F Chris Washburn (UTEP) 

Breakout Players

F Adonis Thomas (Memphis)
Thomas was expected to be one of the best freshmen in America last season but his broken foot robbed the Memphis native of valuable playing time and explosive athletic ability. Thomas is 100% now, and with Barton and Wesley Witherspoon gone there’s more room for him to go to work.

F Tristan Spurlock (UCF)
Spurlock, a transfer from Virginia, averaged 7.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 22 contests (six starts) in 2011-12. Spurlock’s a very good athlete who should see an increase in scoring opportunities with guard Marcus Jordan (354 field goal attempts) moving on. Keith Clanton and Isaiah Sykes are going to need help, and Spurlock is capable of being that third offensive option.

F Shawn Williams (SMU)
This one’s just as much about necessity as it is talent. Williams, who began his college career at Texas, averaged 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 2011-12. And given the Mustangs’ lack of experience he’ll have to improve on that production if SMU is to “tread water” this season.

G Rashard McGill (Southern Miss)
McGill started 27 of the 31 games in which he played last season, but the Tallahassee CC transfer wasn’t all that productive with averages of 2.5 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. McGill averaged 14.6 minutes per contest in 2011-12, a number that’s likely to increase with the Golden Eagles having to replace five of their top six scorers.

G Tim Peete (Tulsa)
Peete started ten of the 31 games in which he played last season, averaging 5.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per contest. His 67 assists were tied for second on the team, but with Jordan Clarkson and Eric McClellan both gone Peete is Tulsa’s leading returnee in that department. Danny Manning has a lot of new pieces (and some returnees who were seldom used in 2011-12) in his first run as a head coach, likely meaning that Peete will have a larger role on the floor.

Player of the Year: G DeAndre Kane (Marshall)
According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers Kane (16.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) finished last season with a possession percentage of 29.5% (tops on the team) and his responsibilities are unlikely to diminish this season. If Kane can raise his shooting percentages (38.8% FG and 58.6% FT last season) he’ll be even tougher for opponents to deal with.

Coach under pressure: Ben Braun (Rice) 
Not sure there’s another team in America that saw more players transfer out this offseason without the benefit of a coaching change. Big men Arsalan Kazemi (Oregon) and Omar Oraby (USC) both call the Pac-12 home now, while Jarelle Reischel (Rhode Island) and Dylan Ennis (Villanova) made moves to the northeast.

In total six players transferred this offseason (the departure of assistant Marco Morcos could have had an impact), leaving senior guard Tamir Jackson and a very inexperienced roster. Is there enough talent for the Owls to renew optimism in a program that posted its first winning season since 2005?

All-Conference Team

G DeAndre Kane (Marshall)*
G Joe Jackson (Memphis)
G Ricky Tarrant (Tulane)
F Keith Clanton (UCF)
F Tarik Black (Memphis) 

Predicted Finish

1. Memphis (To be expected; Tigers need to show they can be successful in the NCAA tournament)
2. Marshall (Kane and Tinnon are one of the better tandems around, and are capable of getting the Herd into the Big Dance)
3. Houston (no Knowles but adding Danuel House to the combo of Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas should make them formidable)
4. UTEP (John Bohannon was one of C-USA’s most improved players last season, and they welcome some talented newcomers as well)
5. UCF (Keith Clanton and Isaiah Sykes are back, but what they do at the point will determine UCF’s level of success)
6. Southern Miss (a new era in Hattiesburg, and Donnie Tyndall should keep the Golden Eagles in the top half of the standings)
7. Tulane (Joseph Bruha and Kendall Timmons are healthy, and Ricky Tarrant is a star in the making)
8. East Carolina (senior point guard Miguel Paul is one of Conference USA’s best)
9. UAB (wings Jordan Swing and Preston Purifoy will have to lead the way for Jerod Haase’s squad)
10. Tulsa (heavy personnel losses leave Danny Manning looking for his newcomers to help out senior Scottie Haralson on offense)
11. SMU (Larry Brown’s debut will be made with an eye toward the Big East in 2013)
12. Rice (Tamir Jackson returns, and that’s good because most everyone else left)

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

VIDEO: Kansas State legend celebrates revenge on Kentucky 67 years in the making

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In 1951, Kansas State lost to Kentucky in the National Championship game.

Ernie Barrett, who eventually became the school’s athletic director and is known as “Mr. K-State“, played on that team.

He’s wanted to get revenge on Big Blue ever since.

On Thursday night, Kansas State did.

Ernie was there, and here was his reaction in the locker room:

Keenan Evans perseveres through toe injury as Texas Tech looks to get through the East Region

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BOSTON — It was a gut punch when they got the call.

After a dreadful 3-15 freshman season, Tubby Smith had turned Texas Tech around his sophomore year, when Keenan Evans had averaged 8.7 points and 2.9 assists, respectable enough given the role that Tubby asks his point guards to play. The core of that team — a sophomore class that also included Zach Smith, Justin Gray and Norense Odiase — were returning. Tubby was making some in-roads in Texas. Everything was pointing up.

And then the former Kentucky head coach left for Memphis, a job that would chew him up and spit him out within two years.

“As parents, we definitely thought about what his next step would be,” Kenny Evans said. Who would Texas Tech hire? What if they didn’t like him? What if he didn’t like Keenan? It didn’t help matters that the Evans family had a weird and unique bond with Tubby.

The Evans’ family is as athletic as athletic gets. Keenan’s basketball IQ and guile come from his mom, Shantell, who was an all-SWAC guard at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. His athleticism comes from his dad, Kenny, who was an Olympic high-jumper. He finished 13th in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, which also happened to be the Games where Tubby was an assistant coach for USA Basketball. Kenny, an Arkansas-native and high school basketball star, knew who Tubby Smith was; he was less than two years removed from winning a national title out of the same conference as his Razorbacks, and Kenny says he idolized Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas teams.

“You don’t see a lot of celebrities in Arkansas,” Kenny said, so when the Track & Field team was put next to the USA Basketball team, he did what any red-blooded American would do: He asked them for pictures.

One of those pictures was with Tubby — Kenny’s mother was a fan — and that picture ended up being displayed in the Evans house for years to come.

Suffice to say, Tubby’s name carried some weight with the family. It was part of what made Keenan decide to play at Texas Tech. And it’s one of the reasons why Keenan’s parents wanted to do their homework on the good ole’ boy Tech hired that was on his third job in three weeks, his sixth job in six seasons and a little more than four years removed from coaching in the ABA.

(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Chris Beard’s roots run deep in Texas.

He went to high school just outside Houston. He was a manager at Texas during his time as a student. After graduating, he spent 14 of the next 16 seasons coaching in Texas, with one-year layovers at Junior Colleges in Kansas and Oklahoma along the way.

Throw in a one-year stay with the South Carolina Warriors and one season with Arkansas-Little Rock, and Beard lived outside Texas for just four years since childhood. And, as his assistant coach Chris Ogden puts it, “Beard’s a relationship guy.” He knows people all over the state, and when he got the job at Texas Tech — where he had previously been an Associate Head Coach under Bobby Knight — Kenny started getting calls from people vouching for him.

Give him a chance.

He may not have the national title-pedigree that Tubby does, but he’s got a shot at getting there one day.

Hear him out.

And Beard made sure they would have the chance to do so. Almost immediately after setting foot in Lubbock, the new Tech staff got to work trying to develop relationships with his new players and their families. Beard had a one-on-one meeting with every single member of the Texas Tech roster, which is not uncommon. He then took a flight to meet with the family of every member of his team. To sit down in front of them, look them in the eye and get to know them personally, as more than just the people that his players hear from when they go over their data plan or when those on-campus parking tickets start to add up.

“When I called them to let them know that Coach Beard said he was going to fly out to see [them], they were kind of shook,” Keenan said. “‘Wow, he’s really going to fly to everybody’s family around the country?’ They were really in shock and that stood out to them as well.”

“Not a lot of coaches do that. Fly to each person’s family, sit down and meet them, introduce himself. That played a big part in [my decision to stay] as well.”

The other part of it was that Keenan believed in the plan, in the vision that Beard had, for both the program and himself.

You see, the way Tubby uses his point guard is different than the way Beard does.

“Tubby is more old school,” Kenny explains. “He envisioned his point guards not shooting much and running the offense. Chris is new school. He recognizes you need to me more dynamic at the point guard spot. You gotta be a threat to score to get assists.”

And Beard knew he had the guy he needed in Keenan.

The staff was not unfamiliar with him when they took over. Ogden had recruited Keenan’s high school teammates, so he had seen him plenty. They knew what Keenan would be able to do when unleashed, and they knew what kind of a player and a worker they were inheriting.

“I just believed in his process, believed that he wanted to win at this level,” Evans said. “He believed in me, so I believed in him, and he gave me an opportunity. And he’s still doing that.”

“What I’m most appreciative of Keenan is he basically trusted me before he had to. He basically took me at my word,” Beard said. “He trusted me from day one, and I asked him to do a lot of things that he had never done before in his career.”

It paid off.

Tech struggled last season, but as a senior, Keenan morphed into one of college basketball’s best players. He’s averaging 17.8 points, 3.2 assists and 3.2 boards entering Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Purdue, numbers that would have been more impressive in a year that could have truly been legendary if it wasn’t for an awkward landing after a jump shot that resulted in unfortunate toe injury that Keenan suffered at Baylor on February 17th.

Keenan did not play in the second half of that game. He did play at at Oklahoma State and against Kansas in the two subsequent games, but anyone watching knew that he wasn’t himself. He sat out a road trip to West Virginia.

Four straight losses.

Sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a home game left against Kansas and a grasp on Big 12 Player of the Year turned into just another victim of the Jayhawks’ 14-year reign over the conference.

And if you don’t think that was hard for Keenan to handle, you don’t know Keenan.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Keenan Evans has always picked up on things quickly.

Everyone has that one friend that is annoyingly good at everything, whether it’s pool, or bowling, or Fortnite. That’s Keenan, and that’s why Keenan’s mom — an all-conference basketball player herself — had to stop training him by the time he was in the fourth grade.

He was just getting too good, too quickly.

That can be a slippery slope. If you’re a natural, if things come too easily to you, work ethic might not be your forte. With Keenan, it worked the other way. When he got good at one thing, he wanted to perfect the next thing. The best are the best because they are addicted to improvement, and Keenan falls into that category.

“The Keenan Evans story is not me or Tubby,” Beard said. “It is Keenan Evans. This guy self-made himself into one of the best players in college basketball, and I can tell you how he’s done it. He’s done it with a lot of work. He’s in the gym every day. He’s in the film room a lot. He’s a guy that’s changed his body in the weight room.”

That’s what made this toe issue so devastating.

We’re talking about a guy that is known within the Texas Tech locker room as being their hardest work. Three-a-days in the gym. He’s made himself into a star. He earned his shot at getting a Big 12 title and a Player of the Year award, and it got taken away from him.

Because of a toe.

“Simply stated, a lot of guys wouldn’t even be playing on it right now,” Beard said. “Keenan is playing on it and playing at a high level. He’s just an absolute warrior.”

“I’ve never coached a tougher guy than Keenan Evans.”

“It was tough to overcome just because I felt like I was letting my team down in a way,” Keenan said. “It wasn’t my fault, but also [my toe’s] just not 100 percent, and I still battle with it every night.”

According to Kenny, the struggle was as much mental as physical.

“It was devastating for him,” he said. “He tried to be strong for his teammates. He could have shut it down and gotten ready for everything after college. But that’s not us, that’s not our family, that’s not Keenan.”

He does his best to stay off the foot when he’s not playing games. His time on the practice floor is limited. When media is granted access to the Texas Tech locker room, Keenan’s foot is in a big, yellow bucket full of ice water. He doesn’t have the same explosiveness. He can’t push off of it the way he did before the injury. And that’s before you get to the mental side of it, having the confidence in himself and his body to be able to try and do the things he’s been doing all season long.

And in this tournament, it’s worked.

Keenan has scored 45 points through two games, and 33 of those 45 points have come in the second half. He made every shot he took in the second half of a come-from-behind win over Stephen F. Austin in the opener. He hit the go-ahead three and threw a lob to Zhaire Smith for the clinching basket in the final two minutes of the win over Florida. All told, in his last five games, Evans is averaging 17 of his 21.2 points and shooting 26-for-37 from the floor after halftime.

He is Texas Tech’s closer, and with a date against No. 2-seed Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, Evans will likely be called upon to close once again.

Just the way Beard likes it.

“I just love coaching him,” he said. “I just don’t want it to end. I want to coach that guy another day. It is like when you go to a good movie and you know it’s getting towards the end, but you are loving the movie so much, you want it to go a little bit farther. Or you’ve got a good plate of enchiladas and you’re looking at it, and you only have two bites left, but it’s so good, you turn it into three bites.”

“I want it to keep lasting.”

The end was disappointing, but Kentucky’s season outpaced all expectation

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In yet another example of what makes March Madness the greatest and most unpredictable sporting spectacle on the planet, Kentucky’s run to the Sweet 16 this season is going to be looked at as a disappointment.

Who saw that coming back in January?

Who thought that this team had second weekend potential when they were in the midst of the first four-game losing streak of John Calipari’s tenure in Lexington?

And please, show me who, at that point in time, predicted that Kentucky media would be calling a loss in the Sweet 16 “the worst loss” in the Calipari era back when there were actual discussions being had over whether or not the Wildcats were going to get into the NCAA tournament?

It’s amazing how quickly the tide turns in college basketball

Kentucky lost on Thursday night. The fifth-seeded Wildcats fell to the ninth-seeded Wildcats of Kansas State in a game that turned into drama-filled slugfest down the stretch. The final score was 61-58. Kentucky had two shots at the end of regulation to force a tie or take the lead. They also gave up an offensive rebound to a 6-foot-3 no-name with 40 seconds left that led to the game-winning bucket.

The narrative is going to be that Kentucky choked this game away, that their inability to run offense — and P.J. Washington’s free throw yips — cost them the Final Four that seemed a given Thursday morning and a pipe dream on Selection Sunday.

The truth is that Kentucky was a flawed basketball team that got hot at the right time before running into a team that executed a game-plan to perfection while getting the benefit of a couple of bounces and whistles going their way.

And let me be perfectly clear: In no way, shape or form am I saying that Kentucky or Big Blue Nation should be happy with this loss. It should be disappointing. It should hurt — more so for the players than the fans, but whatever. The bracket broke perfectly for them. Everyone in their region was a cinderella. We weren’t wrong in thinking that Coach Cal’s kids were the heavy favorites to get to San Antonio out of Catlanta.

But we need to say that while also acknowledging this: There is a reason that Kentucky was a No. 5-seed this season.

This was a flawed basketball team.

They were young. They didn’t have enough shooting. Their offense was entirely too predictable, even when they were winning. If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox weren’t carrying the load for them on that end, they didn’t really have anywhere to turn. And on Thursday night, they ran into a team that had the personnel and a game-plan to take away Kentucky’s two go-to guys.

Kansas State is not overly talented, but what they have in abundance are tough, athletic and older guards that are going to put in a shift on the defensive end of the floor. Kentucky fans may not know who Barry Brown is, but I guarantee you that fans of every Big 12 team can tell you just how good he can be. I guarantee that coaches in the Big 12 can tell you just how annoying their guards are, and those little guards played that role to perfection.

To put it another way, it wasn’t a fluke that Gilgeous-Alexander struggled to make plays off the dribble the way he has for the last two months of the season. It wasn’t an accident that Kevin Knox struggled to find a way to get the looks he had become accustomed to getting coming off of Kentucky’s circle sets.

And in a 40 minute basketball game, when one team matches up well with another, something as simple as Xavier Sneed catching fire and Washington going 8-for-20 from the foul line will get you beat.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Because the real point that I am trying to make here is that this particular Kentucky team just wasn’t all that good. They were young. They were injured. They had their flaws masked by the improvement of a couple of kids who played out of their minds for long stretches of the season, and I just don’t think that’s something that should be overlooked.

Maybe this is just my mindset as a fan. I enjoy the ride more than I need to celebrate the ending. Give me a reason to tune in every game. Make me excited to have the monotony of a week broken up when the ball tips. I’m good.

And I think this Kentucky team accomplished just that.

But two weeks ago, no one thought this team had a shot of getting to the Elite 8. Two months ago, every Kentucky fan would have taken a trip to the second weekend in a heartbeat.

The ending sucked.

No doubt about it.

But this team kept fighting and kept improving and, in the end, lost because someone took makeup remover to the cosmetics that Calipari applied.

Be disappointed, but don’t lost sight of the big picture.

VIDEO: Townes’ late 3 seals Loyola’s win over Nevada

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Nevada was faced with a dilemma. The Wolf Pack were down just one possession – just one point – and were on defense with with a five-second differential between the game and shot clocks.

Foul and extend the game or play it out and hope for a stop?

Nevada opted to play it straight-up, and Loyola hit them with the worst-case scenario – a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock.

The 3-pointer from Marques Townes made it a two-possession game and the clock all but ruled out the possibility for two possession.

And that’s why Loyola is now in the Elite Eight.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Saturday’s tip times, TV channels, announcer pairings

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Half the spots in the Final Four are up for grabs Saturday. Be sure you know where your TV needs to be before the nets are cut down.

Atlanta: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber and Lisa Byington

  • 6:09 p.m. – No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola, TBS

Los Angeles: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner and Dana Jacobson

  • 8:49 – No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 9 Florida State, TBS