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C-USA basketball: Quality of conference shouldn't diminish

TULSA, Okla. -- Josh Pastner's voice seemed to take on two tones at once. After defeating Tulsa on Friday in the Conference USA tournament semifinals, the Memphis coach both beseeched people to respect the conference's quality and scolded those who disagreed.

"People say to me, 'Man, Tulsa's good, coach. Man, Southern Miss is good,' " he said. "You know what? I've been saying that all year. So it's time for people now to finally be nice to wake up. So I'm glad they woke up and realized there's really good teams and coaches in this league.

"And anyone that says differently, you're not an expert," he added. "The experts are coaches. If you need a heart procedure, you don't go to a basketball coach. You go to a heart doctor. If you want to know about basketball teams and who's good and who's not, you go to a basketball coach."

Less than 24 hours later, Pastner was with his Tigers accepting the C-USA tournament trophy after a 91-79 double-overtime win over Southern Mississippi. It was Memphis' final C-USA hoops crown, as it moves next season to join the Big East football schools in a conference to be named later.

The Tigers have been C-USA's one constant - and sometimes its sole representative - in the NCAA tournament in recent years.

Now they're part of the exodus that includes Southern Methodist, Houston, Central Florida, East Carolina and Tulane.

Yet people in and around C-USA feel some of the schools entering the conference in the next couple of years could maintain its quality, or perhaps improve it.

"I think you're going to see that, top to bottom, it's going to be a better conference," said former Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who was an analyst for a number of C-USA games both during the regular season and the tournament.

"Sadly, the perception around the country is that Memphis is terrific and everybody else is not that good. And that's not accurate. Southern Miss is terrific. UTEP's a young team, but very, very good. Tulsa's young, but on the way up.

"That's what happens with Memphis being so good and so dominant," added Gillen, who once counted Marshall coach Tom Herrion among his assistants. "It makes a false perception of the rest of the programs."

Several of the schools replacing departed C-USA members have fared quite well in their respective men's basketball seasons. Among them are:

  • Middle Tennessee State, won the Sun Belt's regular season, lost in the conference tournament semifinals, but still remained a contender to reach the NCAA tournament.
  •   Florida International, which upset MTSU in the Sun Belt semis and lost 65-63 to Western Kentucky in the conference championship in the first season under Rick Pitino's son, Richard.
  •   Louisiana Tech, which won the Western Athletic Conference regular season, but was upset by Texas-San Antonio - another C-USA newcomer - in the WAC quarterfinals.
  •   Charlotte, who struggled to an 8-8 Atlantic 10 record, but sits 21-11 overall with wins over East Carolina, Davidson and then-No. 11 Butler. The 49ers are returning to C-USA after playing in the Atlantic 10 since 2006.
  • The conference's five departing teams have been solid this year - only SMU currently holds a losing record - but outside of Memphis, they account for just one NCAA tournament berth since C-USA began in 1996. Houston made the 2010 tournament.

    Bolstering the league's basketball roster was part of the plan for C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky when the conference realignment craze forced him to snatch teams from other conferences.

    "Basketball was a foundation piece for the conference," he said. "It goes way, way back. As we balance the realignment, we want to make sure we're competitive in all our programs, but men's basketball is critically important."

    Conference USA once was home to hoops stalwarts like Cincinnati, Marquette and Louisville. While this new batch of schools doesn't match that trio for star power, Banowsky hopes it will reinforce the conference's depth. That's a different strategy from many of the conferences poaching teams during realignment.

    Those leagues often have football in the front of their minds. The football-first mentality of what was once called the Big East spurred the conference's Catholic schools to break away, form their own league and buy the Big East name.

    Banowsky said it's obvious football has been the driver during realignment.

    "It's too bad, because we've really contorted our system in a damaging way, frankly," Banowsky said. "But I think things will settle down, we'll be able to move forward and having men's basketball as a very important centerpiece is critical."

    Gillen also is disappointed with basketball taking a backseat in realignment, robbing the sport of rivalries like Kansas-Missouri and possibly Georgetown-Syracuse.

    "I think it's sad," he said. "It's all about money. The term 'student-athlete' in a lot of ways should be thrown in the ocean. It's just athletes at schools. Everything is done for money now, and that's unfortunate."

    That's why he's hopeful Conference USA's moves will lead to a solid, deep basketball conference, much like it was in the beginning. And that's Banowsky's plan. From 1996 to 2005 there was only one season where C-USA didn't have three NCAA tournament entrants. It might not be easy - look at West Virginia's struggles in moving from Big East to Big 12 basketball - but Gillen feels the new members will get their feet under them sooner than later.

    "I think these teams will adjust quickly," Gillen said. "A lot of them have terrific programs. I think they'll adjust very well. They have great traditions."

     Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.


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