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C-USA Play Preview

Conference-USA action kicks off tonight with a classic matchup of player vs mentor when former Jayhawks stud Danny Manning takes his Tulsa team to play his former coach's SMU squad. Here's my own personal predictions on an up-for-grabs C-USA and its awards.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

To say C-USA is up for grabs this year is a huge understatement. A number of teams have experienced coaching changes and are trying to find themselves as the season goes on. A number of teams were thought to be good but are underachieving, and a number of teams were thought to be bad and are overachieving. I like to think that I usually have a good idea of who the best teams in the conference are, but that's not the case this year. Your guess is as good as mine, and I encourage you to give me your predictions for C-USA in the comments section.

But this wouldn't be a PaydirtRenzo post without me throwing some statistics out first. Below are some of the team stats as we reach the end of non-conference play:

Team PPG
1 Houston 79.8
2 ECU 79.2
3 UAB 76.7
4 Memphis 74.8
5 So Miss 73
6 UCF 70.9
7 Marshall 69.1
8 Tulsa 67.1
8 Tulane 67.1
10 SMU 65.5
11 UTEP 63.1
12 Rice 58.2

Team 3P%
1 Houston 0.396
2 UCF 0.392
3 SMU 0.39
4 So Miss 0.367
5 UTEP 0.356
6 UAB 0.348
7 Memphis 0.347
8 Tulane 0.336
9 Tulsa 0.328
10 Rice 0.321
11 Marshall 0.319
12 ECU 0.318

1 Houston 41.5
2 Marshall 41.3
3 ECU 39
4 UAB 38.2
5 Tulane 37
5 Tulsa 37
7 Memphis 35.6
8 UCF 35.4
9 So Miss 35.1
10 SMU 34.3
11 UTEP 29.8
12 Rice 26.8

1 ECU 1.43
2 Houston 1.15
3 Memphis 1.07
4 UAB 1.06
5 UCF 1.05
6 UTEP 0.96
7 Tulane 0.88
8 So Miss 0.87
9 Marshall 0.86
10 Rice 0.82
11 SMU 0.78
12 Tulsa 0.64

Scoring Def DPPG
1 Tulane 56.7
2 So Miss 57.9
3 SMU 60.3
4 UCF 63.6
5 UTEP 63.8
6 Tulsa 64.5
7 Memphis 66.2
8 Houston 67.1
9 Rice 67.7
10 ECU 68
11 Marshall 70.3
12 UAB 73.3

1 Memphis 16108
2 UTEP 8310
3 Marshall 5445
4 Tulsa 4444
5 ECU 4353
6 UCF 4264
7 So Miss 4169
8 Houston 3884
9 UAB 3541
10 SMU 3161
11 Tulane 1777
12 Rice 1455

And here are the individual stat leaders in selected categories:

Minutes per game
Rank Player School MPG
1 DeAndre Kane MAR 38.2
2 Julian Washburn UTEP 36.3
3 Nick Russell SMU 35.8
4 Keith Clanton UCF 35.3
4 Tamir Jackson RICE 35.3
6 Ricky Tarrant TULANE 35.1
7 Josh Davis TULANE 34.7
7 Ryan Manuel SMU 34.7
7 Jacques Streeter UTEP 34.7
10 Isaiah Sykes UCF 34.4

Points per game
Rank Player School PPG
1 Josh Davis TULANE 18.1
2 Maurice Kemp ECU 18
3 Tamir Jackson RICE 17.5
4 TaShawn Thomas UH 17.4
4 Joseph Young UH 17.4
6 Keith Clanton UCF 17.1
7 DeAndre Kane MAR 15
8 Elijah Pittman MAR 14.9
8 Jordan Swing UAB 14.9
8 Isaiah Sykes UCF 14.9

Rebounds per game
Rank Player School RPG
1 Josh Davis TULANE 10.3
2 Keith Clanton UCF 9.9
2 TaShawn Thomas UH 9.9
4 Robert Sampson ECU 9.1
4 Nigel Spikes MAR 9.1
6 Dennis Tinnon MAR 9
7 Maurice Kemp ECU 8.7
8 Jalen Jones SMU 8.3
9 Rod Rucker UAB 7.4
10 Jonathan Mills USM 6.9

Assists per game
Rank Player School APG
1 DeAndre Kane MAR 8.5
2 Neil Watson USM 5.2
3 Isaiah Sykes UCF 5
4 Miguel Paul ECU 4.9
5 Jacques Streeter UTEP 4.8
6 Joe Jackson MEM 4.6
7 Terence Jones UAB 4.4
8 Nick Russell SMU 4.2
9 J.J. Thompson UH 3.8
10 Chris Crawford MEM 3

3-point % *
Rank Player School 3P%
1 Konner Tucker UTEP 0.571
2 Kasey Wilson UCF 0.553
3 Ben Cherry TULANE 0.52
4 Joe Jackson MEM 0.5
4 Matt Williams UCF 0.5
6 Joseph Young UH 0.477
7 Jordan Swing UAB 0.471
8 Daiquan Walker UCF 0.467
9 Brian Bernardi SMU 0.464
10 D.J. Stephens MEM 0.462

(*minimum 15 attempts)

Now, on to my picks:

1. Memphis Tigers

When the conference race figures to be this close, go with the team with the best home-court advantage and the deepest talent. This is not a Calipari-era loaded Tigers team in terms of talent, but Adonis Thomas and Joe Jackson are among the best players in C-USA this year. The Tigers have experience and depth at every position. It's hard to believe Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Tarik Black, and Antonio Barton are juniors already.

2. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

The Golden Eagles are severely undersized, but then again that could've been said about them last year. USM returns just about everyone and despite having a new coach, it's hard to see this veteran group not contending and throwing their weight around a conference of relatively new faces. The Eagles are about as deep as you can get in C-USA, having 5 juniors (Watson, Brooks, Boardingham, Craig, and Jenkins) and 3 seniors (Mills, McGill, Davis) that can contribute significant minutes. Eustachy may have left, but the Eagles have kept his scrappy, defensive-minded attitude.

3. UTEP Miners

This might be partially wishful thinking as the Miners still have one of the youngest teams in the league and rank towards the bottom of C-USA in rebounding and points per game. But the Miners are led by arguably the best coach in the league (unless we defer to Larry Brown's titles) and have faced easily the toughest non-conference schedule. They get Memphis at home towards the end of the year. By then, the team will have figured out their identity and X-factor McKenzie Moore should be in top notch form as well.

4. Houston Cougars

Like the Miners, the Cougars are another very young team that is beginning to cultivate depth. Danuel House and Jherrod Stiggers have proven they can make a difference as freshmen. J.J. Thompson, Joseph Young, and TaShawn Thomas are only sophomores. The Cougars have some size coming off the bench in the form of freshmen Valentine Izundu and rare senior Leon Gibson. Say what you will about their schedule, this team leads C-USA in points per game, 3-point percentage, rebounds per game, and is second in assist-turnover ratio.

5. UCF Knights

Had Jordan remained, I might want to put the Knights higher in these projections. As it stands, the Knights still have a solid, experienced core of Clanton, Sykes, Spurlock, and Newell. Freshmen Matt Williams and Daiquan Walker are important weapons for their ability to knock down 3's, stretching the UCF offense out. Clanton and Spurlock are contenders for the best 1-2 punch inside for any C-USA team and its to their credit, mostly, that the Knights lead the league in field goal percentage.

6. SMU Mustangs

Larry Brown has himself a talented starting five. The problem is there's not much more beyond that. The Mustangs are the only team in C-USA who have five guys average 30 or more minutes per game. Aside from senior guard London Giles's 17 per game, nobody else on the roster plays for more than 10 minutes per game. That has the potential to wear the Ponies down. Jalen Jones is slowly turning into a stud for the Mustangs, improving his RPG average by 5 to 8.3 and leading SMU in scoring. Nick Russell and Ryan Manuel provide SMU with solid guard play.

7. East Carolina Pirates

My brain is telling me that this is too high a projection for the Pirates, but my gut was actually telling me to put them higher and making them my darkhorse. Why? Like So Miss and UCF, this is a pretty experienced team with seniors Miguel Paul, Maurice Kemp, Corvonn Gaines and juniors Robert Sampson, Akeem Richmond, and Ty Armstrong. The Pirates have outstanding bigs, getting almost 20 rebounds and 30 points per game from the combo of Kemp and Sampson. Many of Miguel Paul's assists go to feeding these two guys and Armstrong inside.

8. Tulane Green Wave

The Wave was recently ranked 1st in Anthony's Power Rankings and I'd have to agree with him. Heck, I even think Tulane beats UTEP in the C-USA opener. Tulane has a similar problem to SMU's though. Once you get past the starters, there's not much there. I think Tulane starts off conference play strong before sliding down the standings. SMU has 5 really good starters. Tulane has 4 and a slightly, slightly better supporting cast in my estimation. Josh Davis is putting up very manly numbers as he leads the league in points and rebounds per game. He might have the inside track for player of the year. Tarrant, Callahan, and Timmons round out Tulane four horsemen. Tulane can compete if those guys stay healthy and they get enough good play from the bench.

9. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Tulsa is the one team I will readily admit to know very little about still. I know who their players are, but I have not seen one Tulsa game this year. Sophomre forward Rashad Smith looked to be a key player early on, but he went out with an injury and may or may not be back for early C-USA play. I was fully expecting returning senior guard Scottie Haralson to lead the team in scoring, but instead it's been freshmen guard James Woodard. The Hurricane rank near the middle of the pack in almost every statistical category and shuffle lineups often in Manning's first year.

10. Marshall Thundering Herd

I reallly can't believe I'm putting the Herd this low, but with their best (and arguably the league's best) player out and horrific losses to Delaware State at home and to Ohio by 37, it's hard to see them living up to the preseason hype even with DeAndre Kane back. On paper, the Herd were a contender. They had one of the league's best guards and solid rebounding from players like Spikes and Tinnon. The scoring attack is balanced. Yet Tom Herrion's crew has looked pretty dismal heading into conference play, losing 3 in a row and 5 of their last 7. If they can somehow get their act together, they can still cause major problems for any team in C-USA.

11. UAB Blazers

This seems very low for a team that usually is very respectable, but their defensive play has not been very impressive thus far. The Blazers are allowing 73.3 points per game and their most impressive performances thus far have been in blowout wins against South Alabama and Northeastern. The Blazers do have experience, with 6 juniors contributing significant minutes and a senior guard leading them in Terence Jones. Jordan Swing remains one of the best players in C-USA. Outside of 6'10 Fahro Alihodzic and 6'2 guard Jones, most of UAB's contributors are 6'4-6'6 guards and swingmen. The Blazers will win some games and look good doing so. They will also lose games that make them look awful.

12. Rice Owls

2012-2013 is a sad story for the Owls, considering they were getting ready to be a darkhorse contender. You think Ben Braun isn't looking at a lackluster season so far by C-USA teams and thinking, "Man, if only 6 of my best players hadn't transferred..." Kazemi left to Oregon. Ennis left to Villanova. Oraby left to USC. Chadwick left to Valpo. Reischel left to Rhode Island. Ibrahim went pro in Lebanon. And just like that Rice's season was over before it started. The Owls will be inexperienced and small. Their senior 6'3 combo guard, Tamir Jackson, leads them in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. Their only wins have come against Houston Baptist, Chicago State, and St. Edwards and they rank towards the bottom in almost every statistical category.

JR Josh Davis, Tulane
SR Keith Clanton, UCF
SR Tamir Jackson, Rice
SO, TaShawn Thomas, UH
JR, DeAndre Kane, MAR

JR Joe Jackson, Memphis
SR Maurice Kemp, ECU
JR Jordan Swing, UAB
SO Ricky Tarrant, Tulane
JR Nick Russell, SMU

JR Isaiah Sykes, UCF
SO Jalen Jones, SMU
SO Julian Washburn, UTEP
SO Adonis Thomas, Memphis
SO Joseph Young, Houston

So there are my picks. I'll probably regret projecting SMU and ECU so high while having UAB and Marshall so low, but it's not fun if you don't take some chances. Don't forget to leave your picks in the comments.

Go Miners.