Conference USA is better off without Calipari

BY foxsports • December 23, 2009

Never mind what Bob Knight says.

Not everybody is howling about John Calipari’s decision to relocate from Memphis to Kentucky.

Ask the coaches in Conference USA.

Finally, there’s oxygen in the gym for somebody other than Calipari to breathe.

“I love Cal, but if he was still here, he would be so dominant that nobody else in the league would get any respect,” UAB coach Mike Davis said. “It took away from our league because of how good he was.”

This is what Davis is talking about: In the last three seasons, here is the list of teams C-USA has placed in the NCAA tournament: Memphis, Memphis and, believe it or not, Memphis.

That is the entire list.

This is what college basketball should be noticing as the season accelerates into league play: Conference USA has regained its swagger.

Davis’ UAB team has won 11 of its first 12, swatting a pair of top 25 teams by double figures — first Cincinnati by 17 points, then Butler by 10. The Bearcats and Bulldogs were introduced to the Best Player You’ve Never Seen — Elijah Millsap, a bruising 6-foot-6 guard who is nearly averaging a double-double.

It’s time for Davis to finally be asked about something other than living in Calipari’s shadow or trying to follow Knight at Indiana.

“I only went out recruiting two days all summer,” Davis said. “People asked me why I would do that. I stayed home because I knew what kind of team we were going to have. I wanted to make sure our system was right for our guys.”

For the first time since 2006, C-USA is not behaving like a one-bid league. Tulsa has won nine of 11, powered by a 7-footer named Jerome Jordan whose name sits in the first round of most 2010 NBA mock drafts.

The nation’s leading scorer lives in Conference USA. Aubrey Coleman, a 6-foot-4 guard, helped the Cougars whack Oklahoma. Coleman went for his average, 27 points, against the Sooners. UTEP (7-2) has worked Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter into its solid lineup, and he’s been a double-double machine the last three games.

Don’t forget Memphis, where Josh Pastner had his bags packed to move to Kentucky until the school named him Cal’s successor in April. Pastner was 31 when he got the job. Now, he’s a more mature 32-year-old who has won eight of his first 10 games and recruited the nation’s top 2010 class, according to Scout.com.

“Before, this league was all Cal,” Davis said. “Now, we might get three or four teams in the tournament. This is a good league with good players and good coaches.”

Davis is qualified to discuss March because he is the only C-USA coach who has coached in the Final Four, guiding Indiana to the 2002 NCAA championship game against Maryland. He stayed in Bloomington four more seasons before departing to UAB, a move that put him in a personal comfort zone back in the state where he grew up and played college ball at Alabama.

Davis was convinced that this Blazers’ team, his fourth, would be his best, although UAB lost nearly 90 percent of its rebounding and scoring. The rest of the world wasn’t as certain. Davis said the Blazers were picked as low as 10th in the 12-team league in one preseason poll.

Not only did Davis lose three guys (primarily Robert Vaden) who are playing professionally overseas, he had an oral commitment from Alabama high school phenom DeMarcus Cousins and was convinced he had a great chance to sign a Birmingham high school point guard named Eric Bledsoe.

Davis had chased Cousins since the kid was an eighth-grader, and he secured an oral commitment from him before his senior season. One problem: Cousins wanted a clause inserted in his national letter of intent that would allow him to leave for another school without penalty if Davis left UAB.

The school balked. So did Cousins. Now, Cousins and Bledsoe are playing for Calipari, two of five guys that Davis thought would be part of this team but landed elsewhere. “If somebody can develop DeMarcus, I’m happy for him,” Davis said. “I just tell people I’ve got two great teams, one that’s here and another on other campuses.”

Davis can’t complain about players who relocate. Four of his top six scorers are guys who transferred to UAB. The list includes a pair of fifth-year seniors — guard George Drake (Vanderbilt) and center Kenneth Cooper (Louisiana Tech) — who became eligible immediately because they earned degrees and then enrolled in graduate programs not offered at their previous schools.

But the real UAB monster is Millsap, who sat out last season after playing two years at Louisiana-Lafayette. He is the younger brother Paul Millsap, who led the nation in rebounding for three straight years at Louisiana Tech before joining the Utah Jazz.

Elijah might not lead the nation in rebounding, but Davis is thrilled to have a guard who is giving him 15.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Millsap punished Cincinnati with 22 points and 15 boards, one of four 15-rebound games he has delivered.

“I know a lot of people didn’t feel that way, but I thought we had a chance to win the conference championship,” Davis said. “We’re pretty good.”

And, like the rest of Conference USA, the Blazers are no longer living in John Calipari’s shadow.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Louisville Courier-Journal and blogs regularly here .


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