Realignment on everyone’s lips at C-USA Basketball Media Day

IRVING, Texas – Change has become the norm in Conference USA, which has had its membership altered again by the latest rounds of conference realignment.

Those changes, and their repercussions, were a major topic at C-USA’s basketball media day Tuesday at the DFW Marriott.

“Change can be good,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We’ll find out as we move forward.”

For 2013-14, C-USA’s basketball roster will welcome eight new schools in Charlotte, FIU, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion and UTSA.

They will join holdovers East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, Tulane, Tulsa, UAB and UTEP.

There are more changes to come. After this season, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will leave to join the American Athletic Conference where they will re-align with recently departed C-USA members Houston, Memphis, UCF and SMU.

Losing a longtime national hoops power in Memphis will no doubt have an impact, but the current C-USA membership features six teams that played in postseason tournaments last season. That list is led by Middle Tennessee, which earned an NCAA Tournament berth, and Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss who earned NIT invites.

“I think it’s definitely going to be a transition year for us,” Tulsa coach Danny Manning said. “I think when you look at the teams that we’ve added, especially when you’re talking about Middle Tennessee and La Tech, and then all the other teams that you throw into the mix, I do think it makes it a really tough and unique conference.”

The tough and unique part applies to the current conference schedule. Each team will play 16 conference games – facing 14 opponents once and just one opponent twice.

“We have a non-conference conference schedule,” Manning said. “I don’t know how familiar you’ll be with your opponents, just because by the time you get to the conference tournament it will be the second time you’ll see most of them…There are a lot of challenges that everyone will have to navigate.”

Not only will a lack of frequency affect familiarity with opponents, there’s also the issue of geography for a league that stretches from El Paso to Virginia.

“I think it’s going to be really hard on assistant coaches with those scouting reports,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “They’ll have to do 16 different ones.”

UNT enjoying increased profile of C-USA

Even with scheduling and travel issues, North Texas coach Tony Benford said his program will benefit greatly from moving to C-USA.

“It’s huge,” Benford said. “First of all, the exposure we’re going to get. In the Sun Belt we played one televised game last year.”

C-USA has announced more than 70 national and regionally-televised games for the upcoming season, with a possibility of more games being added.

The list includes 13 games on Fox Sports 1, three games on FSN and one game each on Fox Sports Southwest (UNT at Texas A&M on Dec. 31), Fox Sports 2 and Fox Sports Plus.

The increased profile of C-USA has already helped UNT land one of the state’s top recruit, 6-7 Dallas Carter forward Jeremy Combs, who orally committed to the Mean Green last month. Combs led Texas’ Class 4A in scoring last season with 23.2 per game in addition to averaging 7.7 rebounds.

Conference tournaments coming to El Paso

The men’s and women’s C-USA Tournaments will both be played March 11-15. In addition to great Mexican food and mountain scenery, tournament visitors will experience one of the country’s better basketball hotbeds.

“I think the people that travel in this league are going to find out that El Paso is a town that loves basketball. Always has,” Floyd said. “It will be well-represented in the stands for these ballgames. They’ll be going to a city that has a sophisticated fan base that appreciates good basketball.”
    
Youth movement underway at Rice

With a combined six seasons of prior Division I experience, a young Rice squad suffered through a 5-26 season in 2012-13.

So what was coach Ben Braun’s solution? Get even younger. But in doing so, Braun is counting on the Owls being better.

Rice signed five freshmen in the early signing period and all could potentially play significant roles this season.

The five who signed early are 6-5 guard Drew Bender, 6-8 forward Denzel Davis, 6-10 center Andrew Drone, 6-3 guard Marcus Jackson and 6-9 forward Sean Obi.

“We signed those guys in the fall and four of them went on to play for a state championship,” Braun said. “And three won it. That’s unusual, but it also means we were recruiting the right kids.”

The newcomers got a jump on assimilating to college ball by joining the rest of the Rice team on a week-long summer tour of British Columbia, where the Owls went 3-0 against Canadian colleges.

Coaches select 16 to watch

C-USA coaches picked a 16-team preseason Players To Watch list, with one player from each team.

The list: Charlotte G Pierria Henry, East Carolina G Akeem Richmond, FIU F Tymell Murphy, Florida Atlantic C Dragan Sekelja, Louisiana Tech G Raheem Appleby, Marshall F Elijah Pittman, Middle Tennessee F Shawn Jones, North Texas G Jordan Williams, Old Dominion G Kennan Palmore, Rice G Max Guercy, Southern Miss G Neil Watson, Tulane F Tre Drye, Tulsa G James Woodard, UAB F Rod Rucker, UTEP F/G Julian Washburn and UTSA F Jeromie Hill.

Middle Tennessee tops women’s coaches poll

New member Middle Tennessee topped the preseason coaches poll on the women’s side with eight of a possible 16 first-place votes.

Middle Tennessee was the Sun Belt champion last season and has made five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

UTEP finished second in the balloting with six first-place votes. Tulane was third and Charlotte, which also received a first-place vote, was fourth.

North Texas received the other first-place vote although it was picked 12th in the overall balloting.

Others in order: 5. FIU, 6. Old Dominion, 7. East Carolina, 8. UAB, 9. Tulsa, 10. Rice, 11. Louisiana Tech, 13. Southern Miss, 14. (tie) Florida Atlantic and UTSA, and 16. Marshall.

FIU’s Jerica Coley, the nation’s leading scorer, was the Preseason Player of the Year. Other members of the C-USA Preseason Team were Rice’s Jessica Kuster, Middle Tennessee’s Ebony Rowe, Old Dominion’s Shae Kelley, Southern Miss’ Jamierra Faulkner, Tulane’s Danielle Blagg, UAB’s Karisma Chapman and UTEP’s Kayla Thornton.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire