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2011 Conference USA Tournament Preview

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(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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EL PASO (Sports Network) – The 16th annual Conference USA Tournament is slated to kick off Wednesday from the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas with newly-minted top seed UAB gunning for its first-ever tournament championship. You can hear the Conference USA Championship game on 105.3 The Fan (Dallas – Fort Worth) Saturday March 12th at 10:00am.

The UAB Blazers finished 12-4 in-conference, narrowly edging out both tournament host Texas-El Paso and Tulsa (11-5) in a race that came down to the final weekend of the regular season. At 22-7 overall, UAB closed out the year with four straight wins to clinch its first C-USA regular-season crown.

Joining UAB with first-round byes are second-seeded Tulsa, No. 3 seed UTEP and the four seed, Memphis. The first round starts Wednesday afternoon with a full slate of four games beginning with the 8-9 game as East Carolina battles UCF. Then fifth-seeded Southern Miss takes on the No. 12 seed, Tulane, sixth-seeded Marshall squares off against the 11th seed, Houston, and No. 7 SMU plays 10th- seeded Rice in the nightcap.

Southern Miss is the highest seed to have to start its trek through the bracket Wednesday, a stark contrast to the position it held just a little more than a week ago. The Golden Eagles were in prime position to challenge for the league crown before dropping their final three games to end at 9-7 in conference and 21-9 overall. They had reeled off seven wins in eight games prior to the collapse, including victories over the two of the top three seeds in UAB and UTEP. Southern Miss still boasts the league’s best offense thanks in large part to the efforts of senior Gary Flowers, who is third in C-USA with a 19.0-point average. He also leads the team with 7.8 rebounds and 48 three-pointers, shooting 41.0 percent from long range and 47.6 percent overall from the floor. The Golden Eagle offense puts up 74.8 points per game and also tops the conference in scoring margin (plus-8.8) with the defense holding teams to 66.0 points on average. The well-rounded squad also outclasses all C- USA opponents on the glass, averaging 38.5 rebounds per game, while standing second in free-throw percentage (73.3).

Tulane experienced a painful 3-13 run through the conference schedule, finishing the regular season at 13-16 overall. You could say the season ended on an upswing of sorts with the Green Wave halting a 12-game losing streak with a win against Houston followed by a tough five-point loss at Memphis Saturday. Tulane’s offense is generally pretty effective despite their monumental struggle to find the win column, with Kendall Timmons’ 17.0 points per game and 8.5 rebounds leading the team in both categories. Jordan Callahan adds a healthy 13.9 ppg and tops the roster with 60 three-pointers on 37.7 percent shooting. A sense of ball security hasn’t abandoned the Green Wave during a trying season, having led the league in turnover margin at plus-3.2 and finishing second in steals with 7.1 per game. Tulane averages 69.3 points and ranks fifth in scoring defense (65.9 ppg) among its fellow league members.

Marshall was another team that once had its hopes fixed on a C-USA title, having ripped off five straight wins in February before falling short at 9-7 with a respectable 21-10 overall record. The Thundering Herd relied on the big three of Damier Pitts, Tirrell Baines and DeAndre Kane heading down the stretch to significantly improve their standing for the tournament. Pitts came on in the second half to lead the Herd with 15.8 points per contest while Kane posts a solid 15.1 points and 5.4 boards. Baines is a solid third option at 12.7 points per contest, with a 52.4 shooting percentage from the floor and a team-leading 6.7 rebounds to his credit. Marshall owns the league’s second- ranked offense, putting up 73.3 points per game, while connecting on 45.5 percent of its field goals and securing 38.1 rebounds per game — second to Southern Miss in C-USA.

Houston has a long way to go for an encore performance of its first-ever tournament championship in 2010. The Cougars fell on hard times in 2011, limping to the finish line with a six-game losing streak and defeats in 11 of 12 to close out the year. UH was just 4-12 in league play and 12-17 overall with severe deficiencies in a number of key areas, namely scoring defense, free-throw percentage and scoring margin where they finished dead last in the conference in each category. The Cougars do have a host of steady contributors on offense, though, and shoot the ball well at 45.5 percent from the floor. Maurice McNeil leads the way at 13.2 points and 7.5 rebounds while ranking second in conference with a 52.6 shooting percentage. Adam Brown adds his 13.0-point average to the mix, while Zamal Nixon leads the conference in free- throw shooting at a 91.1-percent accuracy.

SMU was another team that stumbled down the stretch, losing three game in a row to close out the year and four of its last five to finish at 8-8 in C-USA and 17-13 overall. The Mustangs have the league’s worst-ranked offense (65.5 ppg) and top-ranked defense (61.6 ppg) yet offer up a pair of big contributors to the scoring game in senior Papa Dia and junior Robert Nyakundi, who average 18.5 and 15.1 points, respectively. The duo are also 1-2 in rebounding for SMU, posting 9.0 and 4.3 boards per game. Dia’s scoring average ranks fourth in conference while posting a top-ranked field-goal percentage of 58.2 and his rebounding average is third-best, though the Mustangs’ collective rebounding total stands last in the league (27.1 rpg). Nyakundi led the league in three- pointers with 88 and in accuracy (48.9 percent), part of a top-ranked three- point shooting percentage of 40.0 percent for SMU.

Rice found the wins tough to come by in 2011, dropping a host of close decisions early on in non-conference matchups before struggling to a 5-11 mark inside the conference. The Owls ended the regular season with a 13-17 record, ended second from the bottom in league scoring (67.3 ppg) and placed last with a 43.0 shooting percentage on field goals. Standout sophomore Arsalan Kazemi tops the roster at 15.0 points per game and led the conference with 11.1 rebounds per contest. His field-goal percentage (52.2) stands fifth in C-USA. Kazemi is backed by a solid 13.9-point average from Tamir Jackson.

UCF could be one of the more interesting lower-seeded teams in the tournament at No. 9, having experienced a 14-0 start to the season only to post a 6-10 record in C-USA competition. The Knights still nearly reached 20 wins (19-10) and finished up the year more like the team that started it with wins in five of the last seven games. Marcus Jordan, son of basketball legend Michael Jordan, leads the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game while Keith Clanton chips in with 13.9 points and a team-leading 8.2 rebounds. UCF’s offense finished middle-of-the-pack in C-USA at 69.4 points per game but the defense clamped down to allow just 62.6 ppg — good for third in the league — with teams shooting just 40.2 percent from the floor, second only to UTEP.

East Carolina had a few bright spots during the year, including a nice three- game run entering March that saw UTEP and Memphis fall to the Pirates, but otherwise struggled on a whole. ECU wound up 8-8 in-conference and 16-14 overall with an offense that generally has to scrap for every last point. The Pirates ranked ninth in C-USA with 68.2 points per game and equaled Rice’s poor shooting marks from the field at 43.0 percent. Jontae Sherrod’s 15.6 points per game and 64 three-pointers lead the team. The senior shoots 39.3 percent from long distance, while Jamar Abrams drained 60 threes and shoots 40.5 percent from beyond. Abrams averages 10.3 points per game, while Darrius Morrow stands second on the team with 12.0 ppg and a team-leading 5.3 rebounds.

The quarterfinals get underway Thursday with the top four seeds springing into action. UAB will await the result of ECU/UCF to size up its next opponent and brings with it a steady balance of ability at both ends of the hardwood. Though the Blazers garnered the tournament’s No. 1 seed, they failed to top even one statistical category of note in C-USA despite excelling in multiple areas. UAB’s defense ranks second in giving up a stingy 61.9 points per game, though the offense stood just eighth at 68.9 ppg. Still, the Blazers pack a serious 1-2 punch with the scoring of senior Jamarr Sanders and junior Cameron Moore. Sanders leads the team in scoring at 17.8 points per game and in three- pointers with 81 on 37.9 percent shooting. Moore stands above most secondary scorers with a 14.8-point average to go along with 9.5 rebounds — good for second in the league. The duo is helped along by the deft ball-handling of senior Aaron Johnson, whose 7.9 assists per game leads the nation. He adds an 11.1-point averages as well, with the Blazers ranking second in the league in assist-turnover ratio (1.1). UAB owns the conference’s longest winning streak entering the tournament (four games).

Tulsa has the winner of the Rice/SMU game, which will have to contend with the league’s top scorer in Justin Hurtt. Hurtt puts up 20.3 points per game and buried a team-high 82 threes on the year, connecting at a 36.9-percent accuracy from beyond. Steven Idlet follows with a solid 12.0-point average to pair with a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game. His 52.3 shooting percentage stands fourth in league play. Scottie Haralson provides 11.1 points per contest and is second on the team with 80 three-pointers on 38.3 percent shooting. Jordan Clarkson adds further depth with an 11.2-point average. The Golden Hurricane offense ranks fifth in conference with 70.7 points per game but a suspect defense surrenders 67.6 points on average — good for just 10th in C-USA. Another source of strength for the Golden Hurricane is a third- ranked rebounding attack that pulls in 37.1 per contest. Tulsa comes into the tournament as one of the hotter teams having won eight of the last 10 games and three straight.

Texas-El Paso hopes to enjoy some home-court magic with history on its side, as the host school has appeared in eight of the last nine championship games. The Miners lost to Houston in last year’s final and will take on the winner between those same Cougars and Marshall. UTEP boasts a solid defense that limits opponents to 63.5 points on average — good for fourth in C-USA — while the Miners’ offense also slides in fourth in conference at 71.1 ppg. Randy Culpepper serves as C-USA’s second-leading scorer with 19.5 points per game and tops the Miner roster with 62 three-pointers on 33.3 percent shooting. Christian Polk’s 11.3 points per game and 56 three-pointers (44.4 percent) help carry a significant load, Jeremy Williams adds 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds and Julyan Stone does a little bit of everything with an 8.8- point average and team-leading totals of 7.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists — the last of which also stands second in conference. UTEP generally shoots the ball well, standing second in the league in field-goal percentage (46.5), but can struggle at the free-throw line where they hit at just a 67.1-percent clip to place them 11th in the league. The Miners hit a minor bump in the road late in the year, likely costing them the regular-season crown, but rebounded nicely with three consecutive wins to close out the campaign, including a statement game against Memphis in which the Tigers were dealt a 27-point loss — its worst league defeat in over 11 years.

Memphis has the most issues of any of the top seeds heading into the postseason where the team will first face the Southern Miss/Tulane winner. The Tigers scored just 52 points in a loss to Rice on February 19 that started a string of sketchy play that also resulted in the embarrassing loss to UTEP and another to East Carolina before barely pulling off a five-point win against C- USA bottom-feeder Tulane to close out the regular season. The Tigers were one of a number of teams in contention to win the conference title prior to their slide, ending the year at 10-6 in league play and 22-9 overall. Memphis still has a lot of weapons that can turn the tide, using a balanced roster to check in third in C-USA scoring at 72.3 points per game. Defense is part of the problem, as the Tigers stand 11th out of 12 teams in average points allowed (68.7 ppg), while free-throw shooting (67.3 percent, 10th) and three-point shooting (31.9 percent, 12th) have also been sore spots. At the head of the team-first scoring attack is Will Barton with 12.5 points. Wesley Witherspoon averages 10.3 points while Tarik Black and Joe Jackson score 9.5 and 9.0 ppg, respectively. In addition, the Tigers check in fourth in the league in rebounding (35.8 rpg), first in steals (8.6 per) and second in assists per game (14.7).

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