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Conference USA preview: Can anyone replace Memphis as the league’s flagship program?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Memphis capped its era of C-USA dominance last March with another title (AP)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 12 league, Conference USA.

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In the eight years between the Big East's first and second raid of Conference USA, there's no question who the league's premier team has been.

Memphis took out its frustration over being left behind on its lower-profile C-USA peers, capturing six league titles and amassing an absurd 113-13 conference record.

The era of Memphis dominance is over now that the Tigers have also left the league, which raises an obvious question entering the new season: Can any of the remaining teams take advantage of the power vacuum and emerge as C-USA's new flagship team?

It will take a few years to answer that question in the long-term, but the short-term answer appears to be no. Even though UTEP and Southern Miss are poised to build on their recent success, newcomer Louisiana Tech is on the rise and former powers Charlotte and UAB are taking strides toward recapturing their glory days, the 2013-14 edition of C-USA figures to feature a jumble of decent teams but none among the nation's elite.

The best bet to emerge from the morass and take control of the league may be UTEP, which returns five of its top seven scorers and its four leading rebounders from last season's 18-14 team. The Miners' upside would be higher had McDonald's All-American Isaac Hamilton not backed out of his letter of intent over the summer and transferred to UCLA, but the returning talent is accomplished enough that it would be a surprise if UTEP isn't in league title contention.

Small forward Julian Washburn is formidable perimeter defender who blossomed into a scoring threat late last season, though his outside shooting remains a major weakness. Veterans John Bohannon and Cedrick Lang, 7-foot-1 Matt Willms and top freshman Vince Hunter combine to form a strong frontcourt, but the Miners have questions at point guard, where a replacement for last year's starter, Jacques Streeter, must emerge.

In addition to UTEP, it would be a surprise if Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech weren't factors in the league title race.

Three starters return for Southern Miss from a 27-win NIT team and the Golden Eagles also add 6-foot-5 wing Aaron Brown, a Temple transfer who led the team in scoring during its five-game August exhibition tour of the Bahamas. Four starters including standout guards Kenneth "Speedy" Smith and Raheem Appleby return for Louisiana Tech from a team that also won 27 games last season but must prove it can handle a step up in competition from the WAC to C-USA.

If one or more of the three leading contenders falter, there are a handful of teams more than capable of taking advantage.

Tulsa returns three starters from Danny Manning's inaugural season and gets back forward Rashad Smith, a sophomore who led the Golden Hurricane in scoring through four games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Charlotte should also be strong in its first season back in C-USA thanks to the return of guard Pierria Henry, forward Willie Clayton and two other starters from a 21-win team that advanced to the NIT. And Middle Tennessee and UAB also could factor in the league race if the Blue Raiders' eight newcomers prove ready to contribute immediately or the Blazers' five key returners make significant progress.

Even at the height of Memphis' run, C-USA has often struggled to shake the reputation of being a one-team league and earn multiple NCAA tournament bids. It won't be any easier to win respect now that the Tigers are gone, but at least the league promises to have a far more competitive title race.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Akeem Richmond, East Carolina. Trained by his father to release his shot at the peak of his jump and hold his follow through until the ball went through the rim, Richmond put those lessons from the dirt court behind his house to good use last season. The 6-foot-1 guard led Conference USA in 3-pointers made (105) and percentage behind the arc (42.0), punctuating a stellar season by sinking the game-winning shot in East Carolina's CIT title-clinching victory over Weber State.

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Julian Washburn (Getty Images)

Best playmaker: Kenneth "Speedy" Smith, Louisiana Tech. Though Smith only averaged 6.8 points per game and shot a modest 40.1 percent from the floor, he started every game for the Bulldogs and earned first-team all-WAC honors last season because of his ability to create for his teammates. The 6-foot-3 junior averaged 5.0 assists per game and gets a slight nod over Southern Miss point guard Neil Watson, who had a 17-assist game against Dillard last season.
Best defender: Julian Washburn, UTEP. The lone returning member of Conference USA's all-defensive team, Washburn hampered some of the league's premier perimeter players last season with his length and quickness. The 6-foot-7 junior held Tulane's Josh Davis to 6 of 19 shooting in two games and limited Southern Miss star Dwayne Davis to 3 of 13 shooting in their lone matchup.
Top NBA prospect: Once Isaac Hamilton backed out of his letter of intent to UTEP during the summer, Conference USA lost its lone prospect already on the NBA's radar. Perhaps UTEP's Julian Washburn or Marshall's Elijah Pittman can play their way into opportunities at the NBA level, but neither they nor anyone else in the league has established themselves at that level yet.
Best backcourt: Louisiana Tech. Even on a team that relies on its depth to fuel its full-court pressure and overwhelm opponents, Louisiana Tech will still lean heavily on its starting guards. Raheem Appleby, the Bulldogs' lone double-digit scorer last year, averaged 14.9 points per game and lit up Florida State for 27 in a first-round NIT victory. Speedy Smith is not a scorer like Appleby, but he creates chances for his teammates off the dribble and he fuels Louisiana Tech's transition attack with his defense.
Best frontcourt: UTEP. Though Tulsa's duo of D'Andre Wright and Rashad Smith should prove formidable if healthy, it's the Miners who have the best combination of interior talent and depth. Small forward Julian Washburn is an emerging scorer and an elite defender, 6-foot-8 Cedrick Lang and 6-foot-10 John Bohannon provide low-post scoring, rebounding and experience and 7-foot-1 redshirt freshman Matt Wilms is a former hockey player with the tools to become an all-league player someday. Oh, and don't forget 6-foot-8 Vince Hunter, a high-scoring freshman capable of contributing immediately.

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Best recruiting class: If McDonald's All-American Isaac Hamilton were still coming to UTEP, then the Miners would have easily Conference's USA's best recruiting haul. The presence of coveted forward Vince Hunter might still give UTEP the nod, but it's not so clear-cut now with UAB, Marshall, North Texas and Middle Tennessee all welcoming large, sometimes junior college-heavy recruiting classes.
Coach on the rise: Michael White, Louisiana Tech. Hired to resuscitate a long-struggling program coming off a 2-14 season in the WAC in 2011, White has accomplished that goal with stunning speed. Louisiana Tech won 18 games in White's first season, 27 in his second and returns four starters and 11 players from that team this season. Not bad for a 36-year-old who had no head coaching experience before coming to the Bulldogs.
Coach on the hot seat: Ben Braun, Rice. A flurry of transfers short-circuited Braun's once-promising rebuilding process and led to a disastrous 5-26 campaign last year. Braun received another year, but the reprieve may be short-lived since Rice lacks the talent to be competitive in Conference USA once again next season and the Owls will hire a new athletic director this fall.

FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Memphis
Tourney winner last season: Memphis
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 9th, 2011-12: 9th ; 2010-11: 8th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 5 (Memphis (3), Southern Miss, UAB)

More from The Dagger's College Hoops Countdown:

No. 12: Conference USA
Energetic, ambitious Michael White has built Louisiana Tech into an NCAA tournament contender
Conference USA Capsule Preview: Can a new flagship program emerge now that Memphis is gone?

No. 11: West Coast Conference
A breakout season from Przemek Karnowski would ease concerns about Gonzaga's frontcourt. Can he deliver one?
WCC Capsule Preview: It's still Gonzaga's league, but can BYU ascend in the pecking order?

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