Changing of the guard
1. UAB: As the only ranked team in C-USA, the No. 25 Blazers are the natural choice to man the top spot in the league’s hierarchy. UAB currently holds an 18-2 record and is the only team yet to suffer a conference loss. The Blazers have already posted wins over ranked squads Butler and Cincinnati and recently defended their own inclusion in the top 25 with a 65-55 home win over Tulsa on Tuesday. They still have a pair of challenges it their next two contests, hosting UTEP on Saturday and then traveling to Memphis on Feb. 3. UAB leads the league in scoring defense, allowing opponents 59.2 points per game and the Blazers are 4-0 in 1-point games this season.
2. Tulsa: Despite falling at UAB on Tuesday, the Golden Hurricane still own the second best record in C-USA at 16-4 and their only conference loss was to the Blazers. Led by 7-footer Jerome Jordan, the Golden Hurricane will have their hands full when they travel to Orlando on Saturday to take on a UCF squad they beat by 20 points on Jan. 16. After that, Tulsa hosts an up-and-coming Marshall team before traveling to UTEP, so their ranking could receive a major boost or blow depending on how it fares over this crucial stretch.
3. Memphis: While the Tigers may not have the stranglehold on C-USA they once did, they are far from slouches. Even with the departure of head coach John Calapri and his flock of talented recruits, Memphis has held its own and rebounded from having its record C-USA 64-game winning streak snapped by trouncing UH by 15 points. The Tigers still boast a talented scoring threat in Elliot Williams and have surrounded him with players able to score at will while crating their own shot. They travel to Marshall today, so another tough test awaits them in their quest to reclaim C-USA’s top spot.
4. Marshall: The Thundering Herd have proved to be one of the biggest surprises this season, compiling a 15-4 overall record with their only C-USA loss being a two-point home defeat against UAB on Saturday. Marshall has been competitive in every loss, except for a 37-point loss to defending champion North Carolina on Dec. 22 boast a talented frontcourt of Tyler Wilkerson and Hassan Whiteside, both of whom are averaging 12.7 points per game. Like the rest of C-USA’s better teams, Marshall faces a difficult stretch over the next week, beginning with a home date with Memphis tonight. They follow that with a pair of road games against UH and Tulsa and should have a better idea of whether they are contenders or pretenders.
5. UTEP: One of the preseason favorites to dethrone Memphis, UTEP has shown some inconsistency this season and thus finds itself closer to the middle of the pack than the upper echelon. Still, the Miners sport a respectable 15-3 record and come into tonight’s home game against Tulane riding a three-game winning streak. Their two most recent wins may be their most impressive, staring with a 72-67 win at Memphis on Jan. 20 and a 96-59 trouncing of Central Florida in Orlando. With the reigning C-USA Player of the Week guard Randy Culpepper averaging 17.4 points per game and sophomore forward Arnett Moultrie building off his experience as a member of this summer’s gold medal-winning USA squad in the FIBA U-19 World Championships, the Miners pack a potent inside-outside combo that is sure to give plenty of teams fits.
6. Central Florida: Predicted to finish seventh in the Orlando Sentinel’s inaugural preseason poll, the Knights have been a pleasant surprise but still plagued by inconsistency. After getting a big boost from freshman Marcus Jordan’s career-high 23 points in a 78-71 win at UH, UCF followed that with a 37-point home loss to UTEP. The Knights should get a bit of a reprieve when they travel to Dallas to take on SMU before hosting Tulsa on Saturday. Part of UCF’s problems stem from its lack of a dominant scorer, as its four leading scorers average between 9.3 and 10.5 points. The Knights may be able to keep their heads above water with balanced scoring during the regular season, but come tournament time will need a consistent late-game option to provide points.
7. UH: The Cougars have to rank as one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season, especially give they have two-fifths of the preseason C-USA First Team in guards Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis. Granted, UH’s talented backcourt has provided the scoring they were expected to with Coleman and Lewis averaging a combined 42.0 points per game, but it’s been the team’s inability to defend the interior that has hurt it the most. The Cougars are consistently outmuscled inside, leading to demoralizing second-chance points and a league-worst -8.8 rebounding differential. Interestingly enough, the Cougars seem to be intent on duplicating the football team’s approach – leading the conference in scoring at 82.4 points per game while allowing 77.4, and we all know how that formula worked for UH on the gridiron.
8. Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles recently picked up their first conference win with a 68-53 home win over East Carolina this past Saturday. Hardly something to brag about, the win over the Pirates may be a building block toward respectability. With dates at Tulane and SMU at home should provide Southern Miss an opportunity to climb a rung or two up the C-USA ladder before the road gets tougher. One of the few bright spots for the Golden Eagles has been Gary Flowers, who is averaging 14.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. In fact, Flowers, a junior who is playing for the first time in his career, almost led Southern Miss past conference-leading UAB with a season-high 25 points and 10 rebounds in a 57-56 road defeat.
9. SMU: Mustang fans may not have noticed how pitiful their basketball squad due to the extended euphoria of the football team’s recent bowl breakthrough, but reality is soon to set in. SMU is 8-10 overall and 1-3 in C-USA play while ranking in the lower half of nearly every statistical category. Their only conference win came against cellar-dweller Rice and with home dates against UCF and Memphis along with a road matchup against Southern Miss over the next week, things look bleak. The Mustangs do have a viable scoring threat in senior guard Derek Williams, who has put together three consecutive games with 20 points or more, raising his season average to 16.8 points per game. On the other hand, junior forward Papa Dia followed his best game of the season, a 21-point showing at Rice, with a paltry two points against Houston Baptist.
10. East Carolina: The Pirates earned a one-spot bump after their 15-point win at Tulane on Sunday and what may be most impressive is they did it on the second night of a back-to-back. Still, the five-game losing streak that preceded it has more to do with ECU’s current ranking as the Pirates lost by an average of 16 points in each contest. This weekend brings the best chance for ECU to record consecutive victories for the first time since late November as it hosts Rice. Leading scorer Brock Young (15.0 ppg) has had a pair of subpar games, totaling 11 points in the Pirates last two contests and will need to rediscover his scoring touch if ECU has any hope of climbing out of the C-USA basement. After the Owls pay a visit, the Pirates jump back into the fray with a home date against UCF on Tuesday and a road game against Marshall on Feb. 6.
11. Tulane: Picked to finish seventh by preseason prognosticators, the Green Wave have been worse than anticipated, stumbling to a 6-12 record and only one win in conference. Tulane is last in C-USA in scoring at 63.7 points per game and field goal percentage at 40 percent. Compounding matters is its futile attempt at defense, ranking second-to-last by allowing opponents to convert at a 45 percent clip and last in several other defensive categories. The Green Wave’s next real opportunity at a second confernce win should come on Feb. 3 as they get a road rematch with Rice, and in between face UTEP on the road and Southern Miss at home.
12. Rice: Owls fans may have been hoping that the basketball season would help erase the pain from a pitiful football campaign, but have had no such luck to date. Much like their gridiron counterparts, the Owls find themselves dead last in the C-USA standings and have yet to win a league game. Rice’s best chance at getting a win of any kind may not come until it hosts Texas A&M International on Feb. 8, but even that may be a stretch for the offensively challenged Owls. Rice ranks second-to-last in the conference in scoring (64.3 ppg), scoring differntial (-4.2) and field goal percentage (.399). One of the few bright spots for Rice has been the play of true freshman Arsalan Kazemi, who like UTEP’s Moultrie, seems to be benefiting from this past summer’s experience in the FIBA U-19 World Championships. After sering as the captain of Iran’s squad, Kazemi has put together a solid freshman campaign, averaging 10.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.