Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Conference USA Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By John Agovino, College Basketball Editor

FACTS & STATS: Site: FedExForum (18,400) — Memphis, Tennessee.
Dates: Wednesday, March 8th through Saturday, March 11th. Television: CSTV
and CBS (Championship game). Annual: 11th. Defending Champion: Louisville

OUTLOOK: Last season the Conference USA Tournament was filled with teams such
as Cincinnati, Marquette, Charlotte and the tournament winner, Louisville.
However, those teams are gone this season, leaving Memphis with the best
chance at winning the tournament. The Tigers come into the event as the top-
seed and the fifth-ranked team in the nation. Memphis closed out the regular-
season with an outstanding 27-3 overall ledger and finished the C-USA with a
dominating 13-1 mark. UAB ended the season with a 22-5 record, taking
the second-seed in the tournament and a first-round bye as well. The third-
seed in the tournament will be Texas-El Paso, which finished the season with a
19-8 overall ledger and an 11-3 mark inside conference action. The final team
to enjoy the luxury of a first round bye is the Houston Cougars, who finished
the season 9-5 in Conference USA play. After the top four schools, there is a
large dip in production, as the fifth-seed coming into the tournament is the
UCF Golden Knights, who finished the year with just a 13-14 overall ledger
and an even 7-7 mark inside league play. After the Golden Knights, there are
three teams that finished the season with a 6-8 record inside conference play.
Rice, Tulane and Tulsa all posted a 6-8 mark against Conference USA opponents,
but because of tiebreakers the Owls enter the postseason as the sixth-seed,
while the Green Wave follow as the seventh-seeded, with the Golden Hurricane
finishing the year as the eighth-seed. Following the three 6-8 teams are the
Marshall Thundering Herd and the SMU Mustangs. Both teams finished the year
12-15 on the season, but the Thundering Herd closed out their Conference USA
schedule with a 5-9 mark, while the Mustangs ended with a 4-10 ledger.
Southern Mississippi and East Carolina round out the bottom of the Conference
USA standing, as the Golden Eagles posted a terrible 3-11 ledger in league
play, while the Pirates finished with an even worse 2-12 mark.

From day one of the regular-season the Tigers were considered one of the top
teams in the nation and now with the Conference USA Tournament here, nothing
has changed. Memphis lived up to the hype and possibly even exceeded some
expert projections, finishing the year with an outstanding 27-3 mark, and an
equally impressive 13-1 ledger inside conference action. The Tigers were one
of the most exciting teams in the nation this season and was the top scoring
team in the Conference USA, posting 80.9 ppg in league action.

Finishing a game behind the Tigers were the UAB Blazers, who posted an
impressive 12-2 mark inside league play. UAB was 22-5 overall on the season
and was the only team to defeat Memphis inside conference action. The Blazers
were extremely tenacious at the defensive end of the floor all season, forcing
a whopping 21.5 turnovers, while finishing the regular season with 11.6 steals
per contest, which ranks second in the nation.

Third place in the standings are the Texas-El Paso Miners, who finished the
year 11-3 in conference action. UTEP, which will be making its first
postseason appearance in the Conference USA, used solid defensive play to
achieve the third-seed and a first round bye, surrendering a meager 56.0 ppg.
The Miners were 19-8 on the season and if they continue to play solid at the
defensive end they could end up giving the Tigers a run at the title.

Houston is the final team to receive a bye into the quarterfinal round, as the
Cougars finished the year with a 19-8 overall record, and a 9-5 mark inside
conference action. The Cougars come into the postseason, with two losses in
their last three games, and that includes a season-ending setback to Memphis.
Houston is relatively new to the conference and is just 3-8 in postseason
play.

First round play begins on Wednesday, when the 10th-seeded SMU Mustangs tangle
with the seventh-seeded Rice Owls. The Mustangs were one of the worst teams
inside the Conference USA, finishing the year with a 4-10 ledger in league
play. SMU struggled down the stretch losing six of their last seven games, and
finished the season averaging a mere 63.4 ppg. As for the Owls, they were one
of three teams to finish the season 6-8 in conference action, but because of
tiebreakers they finished with the seventh-seed. Rice might be the higher seed
in this contest, but the Owls struggled to close out the season, losing six of
their last nine games. A main reason for the Owls struggles this season is
because the team was terrible defensively, surrendering 70.4 ppg, which was
the most by any team in the Conference-USA. This will be the first postseason
game in the Conference-USA for both SMU and Rice.

The 11th-seeded Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles will clash with the sixth-
seeded Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the second first round matchup on Wednesday.
The Golden Eagles were simply atrocious this season, and although the team
collected a victory over East Carolina in its season finale, it was only the
second victory for Southern Mississippi in its final 13 games. As for Tulsa,
they closed out the season with a 6-8 ledger in conference action, but the
team was just 11-16 overall and averaged a meager 61.2 ppg on the season. The
Golden Hurricane will be making their first-ever Conference-USA postseason
appearance.

The third matchup of the first round is an intriguing contest, as the ninth-
seeded Marshall Thundering Herd will battle the eighth-seeded Tulane Green
Wave. The Thundering Herd finished with a 5-9 mark inside conference action,
just one game behind the 6-8 Green Wave. While the Herd finished one game
behind Tulane in league play, the team posted a 12-15 overall ledger, which
was better then Tulane’s 11-16 mark. The Green Wave have been terrible in
conference postseason action, posting a meager 3-10 ledger since joining the
Conference USA.

The final first round game will have the 12th-seeded East Carolina Pirates
clash with the fifth-seeded UCF Golden Knights. The Pirates were terrible
inside conference action, finishing with a horrendous 2-12 mark, while
averaging an anemic 58.4 ppg in league play. ECU closed out its season with
seven losses in the team’s last eight games. As for the Golden Knights, they
were just 13-14 overall on the season, but at least finished conference play
with an even 7-7 record. UCF avoided a lower seed with a strong run at the end
of the year, winning three of the last four games of the season, including a
solid 66-55 victory over third-seed UTEP in the season finale.

As for as the history of the Conference USA is concerned, it is in a bit of
transition. Due to teams leaving the conference in the offseason, only
six of the current teams have played in the Conference USA postseason, while
the other six teams will be making their first-ever appearance. None of the 12
current teams in the tournament have won a Conference USA tourney title, so
really no team has an edge in the experience category. UAB has collected the
most wins in the postseason with 10, while Memphis is just behind the Blazers
with seven victories.

As mentioned before, the powerhouses such as Cincinnati, Louisville and
Marquette have all left the Conference USA, leaving no real competition for
the Memphis Tigers this time around. The Tigers are the clear cut favorite to
win the tournament, but even if the team falters along the way, Memphis is
still a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The UAB Blazers and UTEP Miners could
pose as a threat for the Memphis, while the Houston Cougars are a dark horse
to win the title. UAB was able to upend Memphis on March 2nd, giving the
Tigers their only conference loss. If the Blazers continue to play solid
defense they could end up in the title game with Memphis. As for the Miners,
they also are capable of giving the Tigers a tough time if they were to meet
in the tournament. Finally there is Houston, which is also a solid defensive
team, but is still a long shot to win the tournament title.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: Memphis