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Jeff Eisenberg

Conference USA has unusual plan to fix its basketball woes

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Hoping to revitalize an underachieving league that has produced just two at-large bids in the past five years, Conference USA officials have adopted a simple but unusual strategy to try to fix the problem.

They'll pay the most money to the teams who win the most games.

Whereas other leagues tend to distribute postseason revenue equally among their member schools, Conference USA determined last week it will now do so on the basis of winning percentage. The idea is to encourage coaches to build schedules that allow their teams to win 70 percent of their non-conference games, elevating the entire league's RPI come NCAA tournament time.

"We want to see our teams regularly ranked in the top 25," Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "We want to see teams do what Memphis did and make deep runs in the tournament, and we want to see the strength top to bottom."

Whether or not the strategy proves successful, at least Conference USA is admitting its basketball needs fixing. The league has finished 11th in conference RPI in back-to-back seasons, falling well behind the likes of the Missouri Valley, Mountain West and Atlantic 10.

The 2005 departure of Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati is often blamed for Conference USA's mediocrity, but the underachievement of the remaining programs besides Memphis is just as big a factor. Tulsa is only a decade removed from being one of the nation's elite mid-major programs, Houston has Final Four pedigree and an enviable recruiting base and Alabama-Birmingham has slipped a few rungs from where it was under Mike Anderson.

The league can only truly make great strides if some of those teams start recruiting at a higher level again, but smarter scheduling from the lower-tier teams would certainly help give them a chance to reap the rewards of doing so.

Rebuilding teams Rice, Tulane and East Carolina each had losing records in non-conference play this season, dropping eight of the nine games they played against BCS opponents. The result of those programs dragging down Conference USA's RPI was that teams who had strong seasons weren't rewarded for it.

A UTEP team that went 15-1 in league snuck into the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed after losing to Houston in the conference tournament title game. UAB's 11-5 conference record precluded it from even being in the bubble conversation despite non-league wins over Butler, Cincinnati, Arkansas and Georgia.

Memphis should be a shoo-in to return to the NCAA tournament this season, but the rest of the league clearly will need all the help it can get to position itself for the postseason.

Look for Conference USA to watch very closely how its teams schedule the next two seasons. And if coaches start straying from the new scheduling directive, look for the league to get even more hands-on enforcing it.

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