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Pirate Notebook No. 376
Monday, March 23, 2009

Denny O'Brien

March highlights C-USA's shortcomings

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Sooner or later, Memphis will lose another game in Conference USA. There just aren’t many signs to indicate that it will happen anytime soon.

But eventually it will.

It most likely will occur in some half-filled arena in Birmingham, El Paso, Houston, or Tulsa. Someone from that mediocre bunch will experience a night when every shot falls from beyond the arc, including a couple of halfcourt heaves to conclude the first and second halves.

The latter will force the first of four overtimes that finally concludes sometime after midnight while most hoops aficionados are snoozing. One-sided officiating will leave the Tigers with four players — two walk-ons — for the final OT, and the Kings of C-USA will finally surrender to overwhelming boredom and disinterest.

Though tongue-in-cheek, that far-fetched scenario might be the only way we'll witness Memphis lose a conference game in the near future. Because right now, Memphis coach John Calipari is running a breeding stable of thoroughbreds that is terribly displaced among a pasture of mules.

That sentiment is proven each year when the NCAA selection committee unveils the 65 teams rewarded with tickets to the Big Dance. Outside of Memphis, no other team in C-USA so much as finds itself on the bubble with hopes of receiving one of the committee's final invitations.

The only NCAA Tournament path realistically available to the rest of C-USA is a three or four-day run through the conference tournament. Considering Memphis' stranglehold on its league 'rivals', that seems as likely as a presidential pardon for Bernie Madoff.

For C-USA to emerge as a legitimate, respectable basketball conference, it must significantly alter its coaching culture. Outside of Calipari, the league is almost exclusively a haven for coaching retreads or up-and-comers polishing their résumés for better gigs.

The latter certainly applies to Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik. He appears to have the Golden Hurricane on a path similar to the ones directed by Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, Steve Robinson, and Bill Self when Tulsa was an NCAA Tournament fixture.

If Wojcik can find a way to navigate Tulsa back into the Big Dance, it's safe to say that several suitors will start calling. It will be hard for him to reject overtures from schools with deeper pockets and with easier access to the NCAA Tournament.

But if that day comes — and Wojcik takes the Mark Few route and stays — perhaps C-USA will be less of a basketball punch line on Selection Sunday. Maybe then it won't be considered a few notches behind the West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley, Horizon, or even the CAA.

Top to bottom, it's hard to argue that C-USA is better than those leagues today.

Naturally some will argue otherwise and point to Memphis' thorough domination of Maryland as the basis of that argument. After all, shouldn't a blowout over a program from the mighty ACC be a feather in C-USA's cap?


Maryland gave the Tigers a similar battle to the one Tulsa did in the C-USA title game. And the last anyone checked, the Terps had a sub-.500 record in the ACC and lost to the likes of Morgan State and Virginia.

C-USA's current plight is no doubt accentuated by the fact that the league once was considered among the top handful nationally before expansion stripped almost all of the power programs away. Multiple NCAA bids were the rule then, and right now attaining that stature again seems unrealistic.

But there is no reason that C-USA can't shed its one-bid reputation and have one or two others join Memphis on the dance floor. Right now Tulsa and UAB have the best chance of making that happen.

Until then C-USA will lack respect in college hoops.

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03/23/2009 12:05:08 AM

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