Dates: March 9-12
Location: El Paso, TX
Championship game: March 12, 10:30 am, CBS
Outlook: Conference USA, which was a jumbled mess all season long, really shook itself out by season’s end.
UAB (12-4), UTEP (11-5), and Tulsa (11-5) all won their games down the stretch while Memphis (10-6) and Southern Miss (9-7) faded. And while Memphis (who lost three of their last five games) and Southern Miss (who dropped three in a row heading into the tournament) fell off the pace of the leaders, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that didn’t think the league’s two preseason favorites were capable of stringing together a few wins in a row and winning the league’s auto-bid.
Right now, the Blazers are probably the best team in the conference. With forward Cameron Moore back in the lineup after breaking his hand to go along side Jamarr Sanders and Aaron Johnson, Mike Davis has the best 1-2-3 punch in the conference.
UTEP is paced by high-flying, high-scoring Randy Culpepper, and they create matchup problems with the size and versatility they have on the wing. Tulsa’s Justin Hurtt is the leading scorer in the conference, but Steven Idlet’s development as an interior scorer is the biggest surprise on this team.
Ironically, Memphis and Southern Miss might be the two most talented teams in the conference. The issue with the Tigers is, simply, maturity. Not only are they loaded with freshmen, but their upperclassmen, Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman, are not great leaders. USM has a star in the post in Gary Flowers and a number of athletes around him, but with three straight losses to close the season, the Golden Eagles earned themselves to five seed. They will need to win four games in four days to go dancing.
For how much individual talent there is in this league and how weak the bubble is, its astonishing that this will, in all likelihood, end up being a one-bid league.
Players to watch: Randy Culpepper, UTEP
There are a lot in this league — Justin Hurtt, Gary Flowers, Papa Dia, Arsalan Kazemi. Like I said, there is a ton of individual talent. Culpepper, however, is a show. He’s all of 6’0″ on his tip toes, but he is one of the best dunkers in the country. Culpepper is also a gunner, unafraid of pulling up from 25 feet with a hand in his face. He has the ability to go for 40 every time he steps on the floor.
Between the way the Blazers finished the season, winning seven of their last eight despite dealing with Cameron Moore’s broken hand, and the talent on the roster, I just don’t see this team losing. Moore is a double-double guy with three point range. Jamarr Sanders is a big-time scorer on the win. Aaron Johnson is a ball-hawk defensively that averages 7.9 apg.