C-USA on par with best leagues nationally

Mar 5, 2002 7:20 AM

Conference USA is one of the stranger leagues in the country. In some circles it is considered a mid-major, on par with leagues like the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West Conference. But in many ways this league is just as important as the ACC, Pac 10 or Big 10.

Programs like Cincinnati, Charlotte, Marquette, Louisville DePaul, Memphis and Houston all have outstanding basketball histories, even if the recent past hasn’t been very good to some of those schools.

After a bad 2000-2001 season in which just two teams made the NCAA Tournament field and the league was rated 10th in America, according to the RPI Index, C-USA has bounced back. This season was key for the future of every basketball program in the league.

Cincinnati and Marquette were among the National Top 10 for most of the year and there was renewed excitement in places like Louisville and Houston. Both are NIT-bound, unless they can win the conference tournament and four teams merit serious consideration for the Big Dance.

Cincinnati has been the best team in the league all season, and one of the best in the country. The Bearcats have been ranked in the Top 5 and possess one of the nation’s best players in senior guard Steve Logan. Cincinnati lost its season opener at Oklahoma State, 69-62, and then proceeded to win 18 straight. The Bearcats had just three losses entering the weekend, with the other two losses on the road at Marquette and Louisville.

There doesn’t seem to be anything Logan can’t do on a basketball court, despite being just six-feet tall. Logan has played more minutes than anyone else on the roster and is averaging 22 points per game, about 10 more than the unit’s second leading scorer, swingman Leonard Stokes.

Logan makes about 40 percent of his three-point attempts, almost 90 percent of his free throws, averages five assists and just two turnovers per game. In addition to Logan, Cincinnati has an assortment of athletic bodies that all make contributions. Seven players on the team average more than six points per game and eight average double-figure minutes. The Bearcats have the depth to go further than last year’s Sweet 16 finish.

Marquette got some national recognition way back in November after defeating Tennessee, Indiana and Gonzaga in consecutive games to win the Great Alaska Shootout. The Golden Eagles played a pretty good schedule and have represented their league well. Their two non-conference losses were at Wisconsin and at Wake Forest.

Marquette fans weren’t sure what to expect from this team, primarily because the team’s best player, Dwayne Wade, is a freshman. Prognosticators knew Wade had the potential to be the team’s top player, but few could have expected he’d be one of the best in the league. Wade is leading the Golden Eagles in points, rebounding and assists and, along with senior point guard Cordell Henry, have formed a top backcourt combination.

Charlotte finished behind Cincinnati and Marquette in the American Division, but last year’s tournament champ still has the talent and experience to surprise again. The 49ers played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation, with early season contests against Indiana, Temple, Florida and Miami (Fla.).

The 49ers have a prolific scorer in senior shooting guard Jobey Thomas. Forward Cam Stephens is the team’s best interior player, averaging more than nine boards per game and making about 55 percent of his field goal attempts.

Memphis won the National Division and has at least one future NBA star on its roster in freshman shooting guard DeJuan Wagner. Lanky big man Kelly Wise averages a double-double (12 pts, 11 reb.) per game. The problem for the Tigers is a low RPI rating. The Tigers didn’t play the toughest non-conference schedule and faced weak teams like UAB, TCU, Tulane and Southern Miss twice. Still, a win or two in the league tournament should give Memphis a good shot at the NCAAs.

Cincinnati will be a one or two seed in the Big Dance, while Marquette should be at least a four, barring any catastrophe. Charlotte and Memphis also have the potential to be dangerous in a one and done setting. The league has flourished and next year should be better as Louisville and Houston continue to add talent to go with their talented head coaches.










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