Memphis juggernaut leaves improved C-USA brethren behind
By: By ANTONIO GONZALEZ, Associated Press Writer
Despite making some progress, the rest of Conference USA still hasn’t come close to knocking off top-ranked Memphis this season.
The league has made strides and has improved since Louisville and Cincinnati left it scrambling after the 2004-2005 season as they went to the Big East.
It just hasn’t been enough to overcome coach John Calipari and his perfect Tigers, who seem to overshadow the league’s progress.
“I think we get criticized because John has Memphis so far ahead,” Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said Monday on the league’s coaches teleconference. “We’re chasing Memphis, but we’re chasing Secretariat. Anyone would look bad chasing Secretariat.”
The league that expected to show significant improvements this season isn’t doing much to fight its perception as a one-team league, or make a case it deserves multiple bids in the NCAA tournament.
A win against Memphis can change that.
But if the Tigers roll through the league 16-0 again this year, it will be difficult to offset the notion that the league has improved.
That perception likely will be the difference between multiple teams making the NCAA tournament or a second straight year with just one bid.
“I don’t think there’s a conference in the country that they wouldn’t be favored to go undefeated in,” Houston coach Tom Penders said. “If they’re in the SEC and they go undefeated, does that mean the SEC only gets one bid?”
Calipari’s Tigers have reigned the past two seasons as C-USA champions, and things haven’t changed much this year.
In fact, the gap between Memphis and everyone else appears to be getting wider.
The Tigers (21-0, 7-0) have won by an average of 22.8 points this season against conference opponents. Last year, the Tigers won by 18.5 points.
Houston, the school expected to challenge Memphis this season, lost by 12 on its home floor despite playing well.
UTEP gave the Tigers their closest call of the season Saturday, losing by only six at Memphis.
Of course, the Miners still lost. But, in what’s becoming a trend in C-USA, losing close counts for something.
“We’ll have to play unbelievably well, and they’ll have to play unbelievably bad to beat them,” said SMU coach Matt Doherty, whose Mustangs play at Memphis on Wednesday.
The Tigers’ dominance isn’t helping the small strides the league has made.
The league has four teams in the top 100 in the RPI as they’ve begun to schedule tougher nonconference games.
“These programs are committed to not pulling back Memphis, they are committed to chasing Memphis,” Calipari said.
Houston (16-4, 5-1) and UAB (15-6, 5-1) scored wins against Kentucky, which has struggled to adjust under first-year coach Billy Gillespie.
But Houston also suffered tough losses to Arizona, Massachusetts and Virginia Commonwealth.
And UAB lost to Florida State, Georgia Southern and Rhode Island.
Both are likely the only hopes for a C-USA team other than Memphis to make the tournament.
“We would have multiple bids if we won some more non-league games,” Calipari said. “We got to win some of those games.”
In the meantime, it seems the conference will continue to be judged by the separation between the league and Memphis. C-USA coaches said the tournament committee shouldn’t make that comparison because the league is still rebuilding from its realignment.
“That’s an unfair thing to do,” UAB coach Mike Davis said. “No one’s beaten Memphis. Gonzaga, Georgetown and Arizona all lost to them.
“Memphis is in a league by themselves.”