As long as Memphis continues its rampage, Conference USA will defeat any and all attempts at categorization. Can one team remain so widely separated from its conference, and if not, will the conference come up to the level of the team or will the team come back down to the level of the conference? Watch and see.
Consider that C-USA’s cumulative RPI was a mere 11th in the nation last year, lower than not only the Missouri Valley, of course, but also the A-10, the WAC or the Mountain West. That, naturally, was with Memphis pulling these numbers up, way up. Not that so-called power conferences don’t have their own skeletons in this particular closet. Look at the Big 12 North, where Kansas is the local Memphis and no fewer than 10 C-USA teams posted a better RPI than Colorado.
So, yes, this conference really does constitute its own category. That is why I’m going to dispense with the standard format that we’ve been using here for conference previews. Memphis will get the full power-conference treatment here, then I’ll follow that up with an overview of the other 11 aspirants to the status currently enjoyed by John Calipari’s program.
One note about the conference as a whole before we get started. If you like defense--or perhaps a lack of offense--this is the conference for you. With the exception of pace (C-USA games are very much in the D-I mainstream in terms of speed, about as fast as Big 12 games), Conference USA pretty much embodies every cliché that’s usually applied to the Big Ten. C-USA teams shoot worse from the floor (their shooting on twos is particularly horrific) and score fewer points per possession in conference games than do the teams from any power conference. Even the best team in the conference has a defense that’s better than its offense…
What Memphis did well: Achieve a level of in-conference domination unmatched by any team in the nation.
Sure a big part of that, maybe even most of it, is a function of Memphis’ conference, but just look at what this team did last year. It went 16-0. Fourteen of its 16 wins were by double-digit margins. One of those single-digit nail-biters came in the last game of the season at SMU, when the Tigers had already locked up anything worth locking up and the regulars played limited minutes. Then again with this team and this conference, the regulars play limited minutes as a matter of course. Over 16 games, Memphis outscored its opponents by almost 300 points. That’s beyond domination. It’s czardom.
The Tigers are sometimes regarded as an unstoppable team loaded with NBA-level talent, one that can score virtually at will. That characterization isn’t entirely off the mark, yet like Kansas, the real story with this loaded team is its defense. It’s excellent.
Given their talent level and their conference, the Tigers would rule the roost no matter what style they employed. That said, their emphasis on defense is perfectly suited for C-USA, a conference full of teams that love to shoot threes. Among major conferences, only the SEC shoots threes more frequently. Memphis simply shuts down the perimeter completely. It defends from the outside in and does so beautifully. The Tigers make you turn the ball over and, on those relatively infrequent possessions when you don’t, they make you miss your shot, whether it’s from outside or in close. C-USA opponents scored just 0.86 points per possession against this D. In effect, Memphis turned every opposing offense in the conference into East Carolina for a game. It was a remarkable performance.
What we learned in 2007: Still, the Tigers are mortal.
You’ll quite rightly be hearing a lot about Memphis in the next few weeks. It’s not the Tigers’ fault that much of what you hear will be exaggerated, ill-informed or both. Over these next few weeks, then, just bear in mind that this team’s record against power-conference opponents last year was 5-4, and that the five wins included triumphs over such relatively benign foes as Cincinnati and Mississippi. The Tigers’ most impressive win of the year was almost certainly their one-point victory in the Sweet 16 against an excellent Texas A&M team.
One conclusion this track record leads to is that you simply won’t beat Memphis with threes. It’s not going to happen. Even decidedly perimeter-oriented Tennessee was limited to 35 percent shooting from beyond the arc in Knoxville, a game the Volunteers nevertheless won by 18.
The example provided by last season suggests the best way to attack the Tigers might be with dribble penetration. One hesitates to read too much into Ohio State’s win over Memphis in the Elite Eight for fear of “learning” merely that the way to beat Calipari’s team is to have two lottery picks (and three first-round picks overall) on your team. Still, Ron Lewis went undrafted...and he scored 22 points, thanks in large part to getting to the line 10 times and making all ten free throws.
Bringing the ball and, more importantly, bodies into the paint on offense exposes the two areas where Memphis is less outstanding than it otherwise is. One, the Tigers, like just about every C-USA team except SMU, commit a lot of fouls. Two, Memphis is a surprisingly average defensive rebounding team. (Almost exactly average, in fact, in C-USA play. Then again, maybe that shouldn’t be so very surprising. This is a team, after all, with no starter taller than 6'9".)
What’s in store for 2008: The Tigers lose Jeremy Hunt from last year’s team, and with a normal roster that would be a big loss. Hunt shot more frequently than any other Memphis player. Moreover, Hunt was a legitimate perimeter threat who recorded steals at a high rate. Don’t cry for Calipari, however. His backcourt is ridiculously loaded. Let’s start with the new guy: freshman Derrick Rose is consistently mentioned up there in Kevin Love/O.J. Mayo territory in discussion of the nation’s top recruit this year. The 6'4" McDonald’s All-American from Chicago is projected as a lottery pick in the 2008 draft.
Rose will have plenty of veterans keeping him company on the perimeter. Chris Douglas-Roberts is a force of nature. He shoots often and shoots well, making 59 percent of his twos and largely abstaining from threes--shots he hasn’t yet shown he can hit. (A simple lesson, yet one that remains unlearned by so many players.) He gets to the line frequently and shoots 73 percent once he gets there, which on this team is outstanding). He takes care of the ball and, at 6'6", has both the length and the quickness to inflict pain upon opposing backcourts on defense. This may well be the junior’s last season at this level.
Antonio Anderson functioned last year as the closest thing to a point guard for a team that hasn’t really needed something as old school as assists in order to score points. While he poses no threat from the perimeter, the 6'6" junior takes excellent care of the ball and gets opposing guards to cough up turnovers at a high rate. Depth at point will be furnished by 5'10" senior Andre Allen, who is likely to be the best creator of steals on a team with no shortage of such defenders.
Sophomore Willie Kemp, at 6'2", is the best perimeter shooter among returning Tigers who saw regular minutes. If he can get on the floor in this crowded lineup, 6'5" sophomore Doneal Mack is a classic spot-up shooter who hit 41 percent of his threes last year. Lastly, Jeff Robinson is still another highly touted freshman, though at this writing it’s unclear whether the 6'5" wing will miss some time due to an early September incident at a Beale Street club.
In stark contrast to this cast of thousands on the perimeter, the interior for Memphis last year consisted of Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey alone. They were enough, to say the least.
Dorsey is 6'9" and huge. On offense, the senior exists solely to rebound misses, getting to an absolutely ridiculous 18 percent of all shots that his teammates miss during his time on the floor. (Keep in mind that number would be a very nice defensive rebound percentage. Unreal.) On defense, Dorsey is a very good shot blocker who also records an unusually high number of steals for a player his size. The only downside to report here is that Dorsey, given his role and his conference, is fouled with astonishing frequency, but is just a 47 percent shooter at the line. Dozier is 6'9" and less huge--unlike Dorsey he attempts shots besides put-backs and thus actually records misses. (Given their druthers, Memphis opponents would prefer that among the Tigers’ starters the shots come from either Dozier or Anderson.) Bench support will be furnished this year by Shawn Taggart, a 6'10" transfer from Iowa State. Taggart was also involved in the late-night incident mentioned above; he, like Robinson, may have to miss some time.
Again, due to the competition in January and February and the talent on hand all season long, Calipari’s top seven players logged an unusually low number of minutes last year. There are high expectations being placed on these players for March and beyond and, if last year is any indication, they should be well rested and ready to go when the madness begins.
Speaking of the competition, here it is, in predicted order of after-Memphis finish…
In his first year in Birmingham, head coach Mike Davis struggled with a team that had lost point guard Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson and leading scorer Marvett McDonald from a 2006 NCAA tournament team that went 24-7. With those two no longer in residence, the Blazers’ offense declined significantly last year. The good news, though, is that the defense stayed where it was, near the top of the conference, allowing less than a point per possession to C-USA opponents. If UAB can score this year, it can once again compete for the title of best C-USA team outside of you-know-who. Help toward that end is arriving in the form of two transfers who saw big minutes in the power conferences: Robert Vaden (from Indiana) and Channing Toney (Georgia). Vaden should team with Lawrence Kinnard to form a legitimate threat from the perimeter. Toney, like Paul Delaney, likes to go to work inside the arc. UAB’s offense will be better this year.
Talk about no respect. At 11-5 in-conference and 22-9 overall the Knights, along with Houston, were clearly the next-best thing to Tigerhood in C-USA last year. Yet they couldn’t even swing an invite to the NIT? Good grief. Be that as it may, Central Florida was the best shooting non-Memphis team in a conference that, as we’ve seen, didn’t shoot very well last year. The Knights shot a fair number of threes and did OK out there, but where they really excelled was in the paint, hitting 51 percent of their twos in-conference. That doesn’t sound all that great--usually it isn’t--but in the 2FG-bricklaying C-USA this was in fact stellar. It separated UCF from its competition. This year the Knights return the bulk of their rotation. Jermaine Taylor didn’t get any starts last year, but the 6'4" guard did get big minutes and proved to be an effective scorer. Dave Noel is a lethally efficient role player. Mike O’Donnell hit 43 percent of his threes last year. Yes, UCF is playing some tough opponents in the non-conference schedule and will have some losses early, and its defense is mediocre. Even so, something’s telling me this team is getting too little love.
The Cougars lost starting point guard Lanny Smith to an injured toe on December 30th last season, yet went on to post a very respectable 10-6 record in C-USA. There might be a lesson there. Yes, Smith is marvelous at generating assists, and Tom Penders told all who would listen that losing Smith was huge. Still, in 2006 Smith missed a lot of twos. If he can improve his shot selection inside the arc during his final year, Houston will have a shot at improving an offense that was already one of the best in the conference, behind Memphis and Central Florida. The secret of that success last year was that the Cougars simply held on to the rock, committing a turnover on fewer than 17 percent of their trips against conference foes. This year, Penders will add Marcus Cousin to the roster. A 6'11" transfer from Seton Hall, Cousin has been brought in to improve a defense that was only average last year.
This Green Wave moves fast, averaging 71 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference. It makes opponents miss their twos: starter David Gomez and reserve Donnie Stith are each adequate shot blockers who together insure a formidable presence in the paint at all times. On offense, the Wave pounds the pall into the paint, with the 6'7" Gomez taking a lot of the shots. Again, “adequate” is probably the best adjective for Gomez’s 2FG percentage (53.1), but he does draw fouls and is a 77 percent shooter at the line. Note that Tulane shot much better from the field than did its C-USA opponents in 2007. The only thing dragging this team down, relatively speaking, to 9-7 was a pronounced disadvantage in turnover margin: the Green Wave coughed the ball up on 22 percent of its trips, while opponents gave it away just 19 percent of the time.
This was far and away the best defensive rebounding team in the conference last year, and that figures to continue. Last year’s dominance was the result of a team effort by a really young group of players: Gijo Bain and Andre Stephens were very good when they were on the floor, which wasn’t often. When they weren’t on the floor, Courtney Beasley, Sai’quon Stone and Jeremy Wise were good enough for coach Larry Eustachy. (Stone’s free throw attempts actually outnumbered his shots from the field. No player in the nation was better at getting to the line.) All of the above are back this year. Now the strange part: the Golden Eagles were only average on defense, so even though opponents didn’t get any offensive boards, they shot really well and never turned the ball over. On the plus side, Southern Miss was able to manufacture points despite not shooting very well by hanging on to the ball and by crashing the offensive glass. The 6'2" Wise was a prototypical freshman scorer, hinting at a promising future but displaying an inefficient present, especially inside the arc. He has, however, shown an ability to make the right pass and he hits his free throws. Keep an eye on him.
The Golden Hurricane’s interior defense last year was freakishly outstanding—“freakishly outstanding” being a synonym here for: “I saw the number, I didn’t believe it, I went back and checked it again, and it is indeed correct.” C-USA opponents made just 40 percent of their twos, actually putting Tulsa on a level with beastly Connecticut teams of yore. (Gratis scouting note for Tulsa opponents: shoot threes. The Hurricane perimeter D is several orders of magnitude inferior to that of the interior.) Unfortunately Doug Wojcik’s men were almost equally inept at making their own twos, and this team coughs the ball up with frightening regularity. There’s unlikely to be any dramatic improvement in taking care of the rock this season. While freshman point guard Mark Hill’s struggles in this area were indeed a little more pronounced than those of his teammates, the problem was more or less across the board. Tulsa games promise to be low-scoring affairs.
Though Tony Barbee’s team went just 6-10 in-conference, it actually outscored its C-USA opponents by a hair, giving UTEP a better point differential per possession than UAB. Then again, the Miners were the only team that (shudder) lost to East Carolina. Not to mention UTEP’s strength last year was creating turnovers, and it lost its two top producers of steals with the graduation of Kevin Henderson and the transfer of Malik Alvin. On the bright side, junior Stefon Jackson returns. A little like Martin Zeno at Texas Tech, the 6'5" Jackson produces points simply by holding on to the ball and getting to the line. Note also the Miners were the speediest team in the conference, averaging 72 possessions per 40 minutes against C-USA opponents.
The Herd was very fortunate to post a 7-9 conference record last year. It had an anemic offense (shooting 29 percent on threes in C-USA play) and its per-possession point differential in-conference was only a little better than that posted by an SMU team that went 3-13. Had Marshall not gone 6-2 in conference games decided by less than eight points, it would have been more readily apparent that this was pretty clearly the tenth-best team in the conference, above only East Carolina and the aforementioned Mustangs. If that run of luck ends this season, first-year coach Donnie Jones will have to find some new scoring to match the old record. On defense, Jean Francois Bro-Grebe blocked a higher percentage of opponents’ twos last year than any other 6'9" player this side of Tyrus Thomas, albeit in limited minutes.
Morris Almond wasn’t just Rice’s leading scorer. He was their offense, period. Almond took an astounding 39 percent of the Owls’ shots during his minutes on the floor, and he hit a lot of those. He was just so-so inside the arc, it’s true, but when you hit 46 percent of your threes, as did Almond, you’re allowed to be so-so inside the arc. Rice, a lot like Texas A&M last year, rarely shot threes but when they did they were deadly. Now the C-USA player of the year is gone, drafted in the first round by the Utah Jazz. Everyone left behind was a mere role player on offense, of course. Given Almond’s prominence there was no other possibility. (Almond was even the best defensive rebounder among the starters.) The Owls got to 8-8 last year with a little luck and a slightly above-average offense that was powered by a first-round pick. This year coach Willis Wilson will need a lot more luck for his team to simply stay where it was.
At the top of this conference preview I noted that C-USA teams have a tough time making their twos. That wasn’t a problem for SMU’s conference opponents last year, however. The Mustangs were eaten alive on the inside, and as a result they allowed 1.05 points per trip to C-USA opponents. (Only East Carolina was more giving on D. Interestingly, SMU’s numbers here did not worsen at all when seven-footer Bamba Fall missed the last six games of the conference season.) The Mustangs’ offense was equally sub-par, in large part because it gave the ball away on 24 percent of its trips in-conference. Jon Killen, in particular, struggled to hang on to the rock, though he did record a lot of assists as well. This year Matt Doherty has a large class of solid recruits coming in, but that class will need time to mature.
All those weird-looking East Carolina final scores in the 40s last year weren’t merely the byproduct of a slow pace. (ECU was indeed more glacial than the conference average but still wasn’t as slow as, say, Central Florida, which as we’ve seen had a very good offense.) No, those scores were the direct result of a non-existent offense, one that scored just 0.86 points per possession in the C-USA. That would be a big hole to climb out of under any circumstances. Now consider that East Carolina has a new coach, Mack McCarthy, who, strangely, was hired on an “interim” basis and, even more strangely, was only brought on board in August. The Pirates will do well in 2008 to merely tread water (yes, alright, shiver me timbers, etc.) until this program’s condition stabilizes.
I have no specific scenario to offer wherein Memphis is actually (gasp) defeated by a C-USA team this season. I’m just expecting that the gravitational pull of chance and fatigue (as well as the acknowledged irrelevance of a single loss to its seeding in the NCAA tournament) will combine for one wholly meaningless loss. After all, 3-13 SMU came within four points of winning a game against the Tigers last year after Calipari’s team had locked everything up tight and had little to play for. It can happen.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
Memphis 14.9 83.4 15-1
UAB 7.6 60.1 11-5
Central Florida 9.9 72.1 11-5
Houston 10.0 56.6 10-6
Tulane 9.1 70.2 9-7
Southern Miss 8.6 77.3 9-7
Tulsa 8.0 72.3 9-7
UTEP 8.1 56.1 8-8
Marshall 5.3 61.1 5-11
Rice 6.8 58.2 4-12
SMU 4.2 41.5 3-13
East Carolina 1.6 71.4 2-14
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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