Can Memphis run the table on their way out the door?
After the 2004-05 season, Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul, and Saint Louis all packed up and left Conference USA. And ever since that time, it's not too much to say the league has been absolutely dominated by Memphis.
In the last seven seasons the Tigers have won 88 percent of their conference games and compiled a 97-13 record in C-USA play. Of course John Calipari might hasten to point out that he was responsible for the 61-1 front end of that record. For his part Josh Pastner has posted a 36-12 record in-conference since taking over as head coach in 2009.
And since Pastner and Memphis are packing their bags and moving to the Big East after this season, this may be the last chance we get to ask the following question for a little while. Can the Tigers run the table in conference play? Will that game they dropped at home to UTEP last February go down in the record books as the last C-USA loss Memphis ever recorded?
Now, I know what you're saying. The season hasn't even started yet. But the presidential election hasn't happened yet, either, and people seem pretty sure that Ohio will be kind of important. I think it's fair for us to speculate on how many wins Pastner's team will notch on their final tour of C-USA.
Running the table comes down to two qualities, your team and your competition. Last season Will Barton was the Tigers' best player, and losing your best player to the NBA isn't the guaranteed path to team improvement. But just about everyone else returns, and on the plus side of the ledger let's assume 6-7 sophomore Adonis Thomas is healthy (he was hobbled last season), and further that 6-8 freshman and McDonald's All-American Shaq Goodwin is merely serviceable. (Headlines like this one make me skeptical that he'll be Kevin Durant from day one.) If those assumptions hold, Memphis projects to be about as good as they were last season, when, by the way, they were a lot better than people realized.
But the main reason this conversation is even worth having is the Tigers' competition. It may not be very tough this season. Specifically there's about a 50-50 chance that Memphis won't see a C-USA team as good as last season's second-best team, Southern Miss. One possibility is that UCF, Marshall, and possibly UTEP will form a second tier a couple flights of stairs below the Tigers this season. That being said, the schedule is not necessarily kind to running the table. By chance Pastner's team will play two of those three opponents (the Knights and the Thundering Herd) twice apiece. I'm giving Memphis a 1-in-5 shot at going 16-0.
Who will win player of the year?
Keith Clanton is going to win this award. UCF's 6-9 senior was already chosen by the league's coaches as the preseason POY, and indeed the senior from Orlando has a couple of important qualities that voters will look for in March. Most notably, Clanton's good at basketball. An effective scorer from both sides of the arc (but especially on the interior), Clanton has bulked up and become stronger over the course of his career. Now he's a capable rebounder at both ends of the floor for the Knights, and if he can improve on last season's 59 percent free throw shooting his effectiveness will go even higher. But what will really set Clanton's POY candidacy apart will be the example he set in the offseason.
When the NCAA hit UCF with a postseason ban due to recruiting violations in basketball and football, Clanton was eligible to transfer somewhere else and play immediately -- a fact that was not lost on Division I coaches. UCF's star received numerous calls, including at least one from John Calipari, but Clanton chose to stay put. The loyalty he showed his program, plus his performance on the floor, will win Clanton the POY award in March.
Which team could surprise?
East Carolina. Admit it, you're already surprised. The Pirates topped out at 18-16 in 2010-11, and other than that this program hasn't had a winning record in years. So what makes me think anything's going to change this season?
I'm not penciling in Jeff Lebo's team for the Final Four, I just think they'll surprise people by suddenly showing up at .500 or possibly even above in C-USA play. ECU's led by 6-1 senior point guard Miguel Paul, a Missouri transfer and preseason first-team All-C-USA selection. In all, Lebo returns seven Pirates from what was in effect a nine-player rotation. And East Carolina adds 6-0 junior Akeem Richmond. A Rhode Island transfer who started 26 games for the Rams in 2010-11, Richmond hit 35 percent of his threes over two seasons as a high-volume shooter. Lebo needs to get his guys active on the defensive glass, but I'm predicting an additional three or four conference wins for ECU over and above last year's 5-11 finish.
Who's the league's top newcomer?
Houston freshman Danuel House is the highest rated recruit to enroll at a C-USA program besides Memphis in at least five years. (Think Ray McCallum, Jr. to Detroit in 2010.) House averaged 26 points a game as a senior at Hightower High School in the Houston area, and ordinarily he would rate out as a very promising young player and nothing more just yet. But the 6-7 House will have more opportunities for minutes and possessions with the Cougars right from the start than he would at Memphis or in a major conference. He may not be the most efficient performer in the early going, but I'm guessing he'll record enough points and rebounds to build a convincing case as the top newcomer.
How many NCAA tournament bids will the conference secure?
C-USA has received 11 bids in the last seven seasons. That averages out to roughly three bids every two seasons, and there's a good probability that this could be one of those one-bid seasons where Memphis goes dancing, and goes alone.
One thing that has hurt C-USA on this front is that they've so often (from 2005 to 2009, and again last March) held their conference tournament on the home floor of their best team: Memphis. This has minimized the chances that a dark horse can win the automatic bid and thus get a second team from the league into the NCAA tournament (assuming the Tigers are worthy of an at-large bid, which has been true most seasons). Intriguingly, when the tournament was held in Tulsa in 2010 Houston made a miracle run to the title and earned a bid. Maybe that's why the league decided to move the tournament back to Tulsa for 2013. I'm predicting Memphis will be the only C-USA team in the NCAA tournament, but moving the conference tournament definitely increases the chances of a second bid for the league.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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