Prior to the season starting, the was plenty of speculation about the strength of Conference USA.
More specifically, there was talk that, if things broke the right way, this could end up being a four bid league. Central Florida was returning a lot of talent and bringing in a number of transfers. Marshall was going to have a quality back court and a couple good big men. Southern Miss and Tulsa had the pieces to be competitive. Memphis was Memphis.
But the season didn’t quite go to plan. Tulsa struggled during non-conference play, as did Memphis. UCF got beaten early in league play. Southern Miss and Marshall struggled late in the year. If it wasn’t for Memphis turning into, well, Memphis, Conference USA would have ended up going into their league tournament without a single team having locked up an at-large bid.
As it stands, it is still very possible for CUSA to get just a single bid to the tournament. Memphis is in regardless of what happens. UCF, Marshall and Tulsa need to earn the auto-bid. Southern Miss can probably feel pretty comfortable right now, but if they lose their first game all bets are off.
Where: Memphis, TN
When: March 7th-March 10th
Final: March 10th, 11:35 a.m. CBS
The Tigers ended up running away with this conference. They went 13-3 and finished two games ahead of Southern Miss. The three games they lost came by a total of six points. They are one of the most underrated teams in the country right now. Sitting 11th in Kenpom’s rankings, the Tigers have shaken off their early-season woes and grown into a serious Final Four sleeper. They have athletes, they have size, they have an all-american (Will Barton), they have a talented point guard playing his best ball (Joe Jackson), they return a future pro from injury (Adonis Thomas) and they are rebounding and defending better than they have all year.
And if they lose?: Southern Miss
USM has been a tough team to figure out all season long. Computers love them (they are 17th in the RPI) but they don’t exactly pass the eye test. They are efficient offensively, but it is because they don’t turn the ball over and they get a lot of second chance opportunities, not because they shoot the ball all that well. Neil Watson leads a balanced attack and Darnell Dodson was a nice midseason addition.
Other contenders?: I like Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane have knocked off UCF and Marshall this season and would have beaten Southern Miss if the Golden Eagles hadn’t hit a 25-footer to force overtime. They have a talented perimeter attack led by Jordan Clarkson and a couple of good big men. And to get to the title game, they need to beat … Marshall and Southern Miss (if chalk holds).
Sleeper: Central Florida
This is a group to keep a very close watch on. They beat UConn before is was easy to beat UConn. They have one of the three wins over Memphis in conference play this season. They have size, they have athleticism and they have good guard play.
Deeper sleepers: Deandre Kane and Damier Pitts make up a pair of very good guards for the Thundering Herd. Throw in guys like Dennis Tinnon and Robert Goff, and it is fairly mystifying how this team has struggled so much this year.
– Will Barton, Memphis: He’s averaged 18.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg for this team. He’s been their leader all season long. He deserves all-american standing.
– Cameron Moore, UAB: Averaging 16.2 ppg and 10.4 rpg to go along with 2.5 bpg, Moore was the biggest reason that the Blazers were able to remain relelvant.
– Deandre Kane, Marshall: Kane averaged 15.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 3.4 apg, but he couldn’t turn around the Thundering Herd’s disappoint season.
– Keith Clanton, UCF: Clanton was the best player for UCF this season, anchoring the Golden Knights on the interior.
– Jordan Clarkson, Tulsa: The second-leading scorer in the conference at 16.6 ppg.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.