The Tigers are heavy favorites to go out on top and repeat as regular season champions despite losing last season's conference player of the year, Will Barton. Josh Pastner still has the best collection of talent in the C-USA and Memphis earned a No. 17 ranking in the preseason polls. The Tigers' top competitor will be the team that they defeated in last season's C-USA Championship Game, Marshall. Tom Herrion and the Thundering Herd made it to the NIT last season and are in great position to take the next step.
Houston is just a tier below due to a strong recruiting class which could gel nicely with James Dickey's team that finished .500 in 2011-2012. UCF would have an outside chance had it not been inflicted with a postseason ban for violation of NCAA rules. Tulsa took a gamble and hired Kansas great Danny Manning to take over the helm of the program. Manning has some nice pieces already in place on the Golden Hurricane's roster. Tulane was bit by the injury bug early and often during its last-place finish last season, but Ed Conroy and the Green Wave will be much more competitive with a healthy rotation.
Southern Miss made a coaching change and hired Donnie Tyndall from Morehead State, but the Golden Eagles have to rebuild after losing countless contributors from their 2012 NCAA Tournament team. Texas-El Paso will experience the effects of a transitional season as well as its players fill new roles.
East Carolina, Rice, SMU, and UAB are all capable of being middle of the road teams in the conference as well. The Pirates return the core of last year's team that finished one game below .500. The Owls bring back the point guard- forward duo of Tamir Jackson and Arsalan Kazemi that led them to 19 wins in 2011-2012. The Mustangs have a young lineup that needs experience, but having Larry Brown could quicken the learning process. The Blazers are also under new management and Jerod Haase's up-tempo style could really click with UAB's current team.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Memphis
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Memphis, 2. Marshall, 3. Houston, 4. UCF, 5. Tulane, 6. Southern Miss, 7. Rice, 8. Texas-El Paso, 9. East Carolina, 10. Tulsa, 11. SMU, 12. UAB.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
MEMPHIS - The Tigers have continued the tradition of being one of the most successful programs in the nation since Josh Pastner replaced John Calipari as head coach following the team's loss to Kansas in the 2008 National Championship game. Pastner has compiled a 75-29 record and with 25 wins this season will become the first head coach in school history to reach 100 wins in his first four years. Memphis led the C-USA in scoring margin by outscoring its opponents by an average of 11.6 ppg. Replacing Will Barton's scoring prowess will be difficult, but guard Joe Jackson (11.0 ppg, 3.9 apg) and forward Tarik Black (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) both had double-digit scoring averages alongside Barton. Memphis had high hopes for high school All-American Adonis Thomas coming into last season, but the 6-6 swingman averaged just 8.8 ppg as a freshman. Thomas has the athleticism and ability to become the team's new go-to-guy. The Tigers have depth at guard with Chris Crawford (9.1 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Antonio Barton (6.6 ppg) returning. Newcomer Shaq Goodwin is expected to use his 6-8, 235-pound frame and raw ability to battle inside. Once again the Tigers are very deep, but it may take an initial step backwards without a definite leader on the floor. Once Thomas gets comfortable as the team's leader, Memphis will be a difficult opponent for anyone.
MARSHALL - The Thundering Herd made it to the NIT for the first time since 1988 last season. Marshall, which has not been to the Big Dance since 1987, will be looking to end its NCAA Tournament drought this year. Tom Herrion led Marshall to its third straight 20-win season last year. The Thundering Herd made an unexpected run to the C-USA Championship game, but ran out of steam by the time they reached the finals. Marshall has only won 20 games in four- consecutive seasons once before in school history. Herrion is 43-26 in two seasons in Huntington and his winning percentage could improve due to his team's imposing front line. Dennis Tinnon (6-8, 225), Robert Goff (6-9, 240), and Nigel Spikes (6-10, 237) helped MU finish eighth in the nation with 39.8 rebounds per game last season. Tinnon was one of just 21 players in the country to average a double-double. While Marshall's big guys battle inside, DeAndre Kane will make a solid case for C-USA Player of the Year. Kane produced 16.5 ppg last season and was the heart and soul of the team's run in the conference tournament. Marshall had an experienced floor general in Damier Pitts running the show during that same run, but his graduation leaves a glaring void in the team's backcourt. Freshman Kareem Canty will have to learn the college game on the fly while starting at point guard for Marshall. Canty's ability to come in and run the team right away could determine Marshall's fate.
HOUSTON - The Cougars lost two talented players in Jonathon Simmons (14.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Alandise Harris (13.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), but there is still a great deal of optimism surrounding the program. James Dickey's team had the second highest scoring average and finished 15-15 overall last season. Now in its final Conference USA campaign, Houston is in position to make a final run at the league's championship. Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas are back after being named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team last season. Young is the team's leading returner in scoring (11.3 ppg), while Thomas averaged a team-high 8.2 rpg as a freshman. Joining Young in the backcourt will be junior college transfers Tione Womack (6-1, 170) and Brandon Morris (6-0, 185). Sophomore J.J. Thompson (5.8 ppg) will see some time at point guard. Dickey had a busy off season as Houston's recruiting class was its best in recent history. Five- star recruit Danual House highlights the talented crew of newcomers. His open court excellence will make a big difference, but the Cougars need to make a joint effort to improve on the defensive end. Pittsburgh transfer J.J. Richardson (6-8, 245) should provide an instant boost to the team's interior defense.
UCF: The Knights saw their postseason hopes diminish in August when the NCAA ruled they were ineligible for postseason play due to recruiting violations. Coach Donnie Jones had to be disappointed with the ruling just one year after his squad finished 22-11 and pulled off an upset of Connecticut. The Knights' seniors were allowed to transfer to any school of their choosing without sitting out for a season due to the postseason ban. Marcus Jordan's (13.7 ppg, 25.9 mpg) decision to give up his final season will be hard to overcome. UCF also saw 6-9, 260-pound Josh Crittle transfer, which leaves it with a thin front line. UCF managed to keep its most highly sought after player, Keith Clanton (14.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg), who has been named to an All-C-USA team in two of his first three seasons. The talented power forward is a legitimate contender for the league's player-of-the-year honors. Joining Clanton in the frontcourt is Tristan Spurlock (6-8, 230), who causes mismatch problems with his ability to score inside and out. Kasey Wilson and freshman Staphon Blair could both see significant action. The backcourt returns one familiar face with Isaiah Sykes (12.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) back. Sykes relied on his slashing ability for points his first two seasons, but he has developed his jump shot to become a complete player. Sykes will have to carry the load until Oklahoma transfer Calvin Newell is eligible in the second semester.
TULANE: The Green Wave return all five starters from last year's team that jumped out to a 15-8 start before closing out the season on an eight-game losing streak. Ed Conroy's team was not very deep and fell apart after injuries sidelined star forward Kendall Simmons for the final 15 games. Seven- footer Tomas Bruha was also lost to injury last season. When healthy, the big man from the Czech Republic is a factor on defense due to his size (7-0, 230). Tulane has a much deeper rotation and will be much more equipped for the long journey this year. Timmons (13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Bruha (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will combine with Josh Davis (11.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) to give the Green Wave a formidable front court. Tulane's backcourt will be led by C-USA Freshman of the year, Ricky Tarrant, and Jordan Callahan. Tarrant produced 14.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game during his impressive freshman campaign. Callahan (11.8 ppg, 35.8 three-point-percentage) has made 71 starts in 85 career games. Tulane has a few nice pieces intact, if Conroy can mold them all together the Green Wave could be dangerous.
SOUTHERN MISS: The Golden Eagles are not expected to make a return to the NCAA Tournament in Donnie Tyndall's first year with the program, but the new head coach clearly knows how to win. Tyndall led Morehead State to two Ohio Valley Conference Championships, a pair of trips to the NCAA Tournament, and an upset victory of Louisville in the Big Dance. USM finished 25-9 last season and was second with an 11-5 mark in C-USA action, but it has lost three starters from that successful unit. Junior Neil Watson (12.3 ppg, 4.4 apg) was a key component of last season's success. Despite being just 5-11, the point guard managed to be a fearless leader on the court as an underclassman. Newcomers Davon Hayes (6-7, 190) and Jerrold Brooks (6-0, 205) will play meaningful minutes in the backcourt until New Mexico State transfer Christian Kabongo (14.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) becomes eligible and provides a mid-season boost. Senior forward Jonathan Mills (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is the top interior threat despite being undersized (6-5, 235) for the position. The whole front line is undersized as Daveon Boardingham (6-7, 225) is the tallest player expected to see considerable action. With an undersized group of forwards and a young team overall, Tyndale will have his share of challenges in his first season in Hattiesburg.
RICE: The Owls finished 19-16 and made it to the third round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament a year ago, but they will have trouble repeating that success. Coach Ben Braun lost Dylan Ennis (8.5 ppg), Jarelle Reischel (5.7 ppg), and David Chadwick (6-9, 220) after all three chose to transfer. Ahmad Ibahim (6.2 ppg) also left the team to pursue a professional career in Lebanon. When it was all said and done, Rice was left with just 10 players. Only three of which were significant contributors last season. Forward Arsalan Kazemi (12.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg) is an all-conference caliber player and double- double machine. Senior guard Tamir Jackson (10.5 ppg, 2.9 apg) is the second most reliable player in the lineup. He is a decent defender and floor general, but needs to improve his outside shooting. Julian DeBose (3.7 ppg) started eight games as a freshman last year. Freshmen Max Guercy (5-9) and Keith Washington (6-1) will battle for minutes at point guard. Seth Gearhart (6-7, 208) and Ross Wilson (6-7, 205) are the only other forwards on the team besides Kazemi. Rice's lack of depth will be hard to overcome throughout the course of the season.
TEXAS-EL PASO: Tim Floyd went 25-10 in his debut season with the program before the Miners' 15-17 finish in 2011-2012. Floyd is well-known for his stern defensive-minded approach and his team's allowance of only 63.1 ppg backed up his reputation. However, UTEP was weak offensively and on the boards. The team's most dangerous offensive threat was Julian Washburn (11.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who has the versatility to play inside or out due to his 6-7, 205-pound frame. Jacques Streeter (7.2 ppg, 4.4 apg) and C.J. Cooper (3.2 ppg) will see action in the backcourt. McKenzie Moore (6-6, 190) could take over the starting point guard duties when he is eligible to make his collegiate debut in December. Junior center John Bohannon averaged 11.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season despite inconsistent play. Cedrick Lang (6.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Malcolm Moore (4.4 ppg), Hooper Vint (4.6 ppg), and freshman Matt Willms form UTEP's incredibly deep frontcourt. With a lot of depth, the Miners should be a solid defensive team once again. UTEP needs Washburn to develop into an elite scorer for it to be a contender.
EAST CAROLINA: Jeff Lebo's team finished 15-16 overall last year despite going 5-11 in league action. The Pirates return all but one of their key components from that team and have strong senior leadership. ECU struggled on the glass and averaged 0.2 less rebounds per game than its opponents. Auburn transfer Ty Armstrong (6-8, 235) should be able to immediately help the Pirates on the boards. Center Yasin Kolo (6-10, 240) was raw last season as a freshman, but his athleticism and size allow him to be productive. Maurice Kemp (10.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is the team's best interior scorer. Point guard Miguel Paul is the clear leader of the team. The senior averaged 15.2 ppg and 5.1 apg last year. Erin Straughn (6-6) has great ball-handling ability for his size and knows how to attack with the dribble. Shamarr Bowden (8.3 ppg) is a three-point specialist that can not be left alone, while Paris Roberts-Campbell (5.2 ppg) showed promise during his rookie season in 2011-2012. The Pirates have a good mold of players and a talented floor general. Paul will emerge as a star if he leads ECU back to the postseason.
TULSA: Danny Manning's first year as a head coach is not expected to be a walk in the park. The Golden Hurricane were a decent team last season and finished 17-14 overall, but several important contributors to graduation, retirements, and transfer decisions. Among the players who opted out were leading scorer Jordan Clarkson (16.5 ppg, Missouri) and talented guard Eric McLellan (8.5 ppg, Vanderbilt). Manning was left with just four scholarship players for his inaugural year as a head coach. The team does have a legitimate scorer in Scottie Haralson (11.1 ppg) to lean on. Junior Tim Peete is going to take over the starting point guard duties after averaging 5.3 ppg and 2.1 apg as a backup. Kodi Maduka (8.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is the best inside scorer and rebounder on Tulsa. Freshmen forwards Zeldric King (6-7, 240) and D'Andre Wright (6-8, 220) both could see immediate action. The same goes for Rashad Ray (5-11, 175), Shaquille Harrison (6-3, 175), and Pat Swilling (6-2, 210) in the backcourt. The timing of the departures of such a great portion of the team was unfortunate for Manning, who will struggle immediately with such an inexperienced roster. Tulsa could be successful down the road under Manning's watch, but it is unlikely to happen in his first year.
SMU: Perhaps the biggest and most surprising hire of the college basketball off season was Larry Brown at SMU. The legendary coach had not coached at the collegiate level since cutting down the nets after leading Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title. Brown then had a long NBA coaching career which included an NBA Championship with the Detroit Pistons. It was very surprising that such an accomplished coach would take over a program that went 13-19 overall and just 4-12 in league action last season. SMU lost two key contributors in Robert Nyakundi (14.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Jeremiah Samarrippas (6.9 ppg, 4.3 apg), but it may have a new centerpiece in Kansas State transfer Nick Russell (6-4, 200), who is able to play both guard positions. Guard Ryan Manuel played in all 32 games as a true freshman last season. London Giles (10.0 ppg) could be an impact scorer if he fully recovers from his off season knee surgery. Cannen Cunningham (6-9, 225) and Jalen Jones (6-6, 210) will see a lot of time in the forward positions. Although Brown is a Hall of Fame level coach, SMU is hardly a quick fix. The Mustangs are going to take a little while to get running as Brown's new system settles into place.
UAB: First-year head coach Jerod Haase will be tested right away as he tries to rebuild the Blazers program. UAB finished 15-16 last season before Cameron Moore (16.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg) graduated and Ovie Soko (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) transferred to Duquesne. The Blazers were a solid team defensively last season and finished second in the C-USA with only 61.5 ppg allowed. The ability to shut opponents down will not come as easily this year with an inexperienced frontcourt made up of Fahro Allhodzic (6-10, 240) and Rod Rucker (6-5, 220). However, Haase has a run-and-gun style which favors talented guard play. His backcourt is led by Jordan Swing (11.2 ppg), who has the ability to play any position. Swing may play more forward in the up-tempo scheme and allow Robert Williams (6-4, 210), Jekore Tyler (6-3, 185), and Texas A&M-CC graduate transfer Terence Jones (13.7 ppg) to handle the perimeter action. Still, UAB lacks the depth and size it will need to compete for the league title.