Is this a one-bid league? Could it garner three, or even four dance tickets? Those determinations won't grow themselves out for another few weeks, but we at The Dagger wanted to take a look at the ultimate tweener conference.
And it's a situation right now that hasn't been picked apart by too many people, so allow us to display some evidence and come to a few conclusions that will surely be laughable by the time the calendar gets taken off the wall. More than anything, we've got some time to do some amateur-hour evaluating this week, so indulge us, K? Consider this an in-season, in-case-you-missed-it primer of sorts.
The primary question is, just how deep is C-USA, and will Memphis be challenged, or even struggle, en route to winning the regular-season conference title? Just like last year, when UTEP went 15-1, the answer appears to be yes. And this is still sort of alien for this assortment of Conference USA teams-prior to UTEP's 2010 run, the Tigers had won the league every season since massive realignment sent Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida to the Big East.
As of Tuesday, the conference had seven teams with two losses or less (Central Florida was the only one without a loss still standing) and was ranked eighth by KenPom.com, one spot ahead of the Atlantic 10, which was expected to produce three or four NCAA tournament-worthy teams.
Let's look at Memphis (7-1) first. The Tigers haven't yet shown they're as good as expected. Plenty of time left, but Josh Pastner's not fully using all the tools at his disposal. To be fair, some of those tools have faulted him. Freshman Jelan Kendrick was booted off the team last month; veteran Angel Garcia left for overseas play this week.
The Tigers don't rank in the top 40 in any of the four factors-three of the four teams mentioned below do in one or two categories - and in its most recent game, against Kansas, showed not one, not two, but a few signs why it's unlikely to be elite this year. In 2006, 2007, 2008, the Tigers were clearly a level above the rest of C-USA.
So what about Central Florida (8-0)? You can point to the Dec. 1 win against Florida as a reason why UCF should be taken seriously. The Knights have hovered around .500 the past three seasons, so while it's fair to wait to see more from this team, like if it can win with a target on its back, you can't deny the athletic ability and shooting rate from it. Donnie Jones' group protects the tin and attacks it at elite levels, shooting 57.6 percent from the floor in effective field goal percentage and holding opponents to 38.7 percent.
Doubt them if you'd like, but that disparity is eye-popping, no matter the quality of collective foes.
Due to being senior-laden and returning so much statistical help from 2009-10, Southern Miss (7-1) was expected to be a legitimate contender, and so far signs are ... undecided. The only loss came against Ole Miss, a road game. Best win? At Cal. This team rebounds the ball offensively really well, and with three prominent players at 6-8 or taller leading the team, that number shouldn't dip. It should learn to put a hand in a passing lane, though; only six teams steal the ball less frequently than the Golden Eagles. On the heels of its only three-game road trip of the season, the best is yet to come.
Will Mike Davis ever earn respect? His 7-2 UAB team has two losses by a combined five points to Arizona State and Georgia. The best win was a neutral-court one against Arkansas. Jamarr Sanders and Aaron Johnson aren't the most effective scorers right now, but they're factoring into the team the most. The Blazers get a road game at Duke Jan. 5 before conference play begins. Does that make or break the spirit of that team? This has been a schizophrenic group in the past.
We'll close up shop with UTEP (6-2), which has the preseason Player of the Year pick in Randy Culpepper. The problem with Culpepper is, while he's a great highlight reel, he doesn't lift the team around him. And there isn't too much on this roster to like, offensively. When a team averages more than 70 possessions per game, as UTEP does, that's not a fruitful combination. Last year's C-USA Coach of the Year, Tony Barbee, is now at Auburn. No Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie this season has also caused some visible erosion.
Plus, The Miners have a non-D-I team planted right in the middle of their schedule (Western New Mexico on Dec. 28), and that can only anger the hoops gods. They won't contend at the top of the league, but the possibility of being a spoiler exists.