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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conference-USA Tournament Preview

Click here for a complete index of all the conference tournament previews.

Not surprisingly, Conference-USA was dominated by unbeaten Memphis once again this season. However, this was supposed to be the year when another team actually tested the Tigers and even made a run at them at the standings. Well, unless 12 double-digit wins and a four-game cushion was testing Memphis, Conference-USA is still a playground that breeds Memphis success. Tulsa finished at 12-4, with UAB, UTEP and Houston all finishing with double-digit wins.

Favorite: You would be crazy not to go with Memphis here. The Tigers are undefeated since moving freshman Tyreke Evans to the point guard spot and are playing their best basketball of the season. They might be in the mix for a No. 1 seed with a tournament title, too. Memphis is the most efficient defense in the country, and also has plenty of weapons offensively. Evans is very difficult to contain, while Antonio Anderson can do it all. Robert Dozier is a match-up problem up front and Shawn Taggart can score and rebound. Doneal Mack is a shooter.

Contenders: Tulsa has made a strong push towards the end of the season, winning five in a row and 10 of its last 12. The Golden Hurricane also nearly beat Memphis, losing on a lay-up by Antonio Anderson at the buzzer. They have one of the best inside-outside duos in the conference in guard Ben Uzoh and center Jerome Jordan, a future draft pick. Ray Reese and Justin Hurtt are also solid offensive options. UAB was a slight disappointment this season, as the Blazers faltered down the stretch and are likely not in the mix for an at-large bid. However, they do have the personnel to hang with Memphis if their shots are falling. Robert Vaden is a streaky but big-time shooter and scorer who can carry the Blazers. Paul Delaney III does it all, while Lawrence Kinnard leads the way up front. Houston has four double-figure scorers and is very explosive. The Cougars push the ball and take excellent care of the ball. Wings Aubrey Coleman (yes, the guy that stomped on Chase Budinger’s face) and Kelvin Lewis can really fill it up, and scoring 50 between them is not out of the realm of possibility. Marcus Cousin and Qua’rraan Calhoun are tough match-ups in the frontcourt.

Sleepers: The two teams that can potentially make it to the semifinals and maybe make some noise against Memphis should they play them are UTEP and UCF – and mainly because of the abilities of one player on each team. UTEP is carried by Stefon Jackson, a big-time scorer who can get to the basket on anyone and really finish strong around the basket. He is complimented by another guy that can really fill it up in Randy Culpepper, a very good scorer. UCF has Jermaine Taylor, who averaged nearly 30 points per game in league play and is capable of dropping 40-plus on anyone. Without Tony Davis providing balance on the inside, the Knights have lost seven of their last nine.

Prediction: Despite the potential of the three nearest competitors, it is tough to go against Memphis – even if the conference tournament wasn’t being held at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. A better question might be: who will give Memphis the toughest game and/or who will the Tigers play in the title game? Tulsa has the inside-outside combo in Uzoh and Jordan, UAB has the best trio, and Houston has an explosive duo in Coleman and Lewis. In the end, it does not really matter (although I think you will see Tulsa opposing the Tigers), as Memphis will coast to a C-USA title, while the league will get just one bid to the Big Dance.

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