CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There was a hope among the latest incarnation of the Conference USA brethren - a hope that extended all the way to the conference's top offices - that men's basketball could shoulder the burden of conference legitimacy.
Football, with the loss of heavier hitters like the University of Central Florida and Houston, might have to wobble through a transitional phase. But men's hoops, with schools like Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech joining the fray, could give C-USA a boost in respectability it needed with the departure of 800-pound gorilla Memphis.
"Basketball was a foundation piece for the conference," C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said during last season's conference tournament in Tulsa. "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."
Based on early NCAA Tournament projections, though, that respect might need at least a year to germinate. Right now, bracketology is no friend to Conference USA.
After a quick scan of the most prominent bracket projections, only ESPN has C-USA as anything more than a one-bid league. So every other prognosticator keeps the conference at a level with the Horizon and Big Sky. That's obviously not what the conference was hoping for when it mapped out its latest version, hoping new entrants and some old names would perhaps not match Memphis' quality level, but populate the roster with enough solid teams to earn two or three mid-seed bids.
What has C-USA sitting at the tournament kids' table? It's a numbers game. Right now, the conference doesn't have enough of the good ones.
The RPI is considered one of the key components in a college basketball team's tournament-bid viability. Beat enough teams at the top of the RPI, and you'll likely build a resume strong enough to contend for the Big Dance. Lose to enough teams at the bottom and you're only watching Selection Sunday to fill in your brackets.
As of Sunday night, Conference USA's 16 teams owned a total of seven wins over RPI top 50 teams and 15 over teams in the top 100. Southern Mississippi, which most feel will win C-USA's automatic bid, leads the pack with one top 50 win (North Dakota State) and two more in the top 100 (Louisiana Tech and Georgia State).
The other end of the spectrum, though, is where C-USA cringes. The conference has 31 losses to teams ranked 200 or lower in the RPI. Southern Miss isn't to blame here, and neither is Louisiana Tech, which lost to USM 80-71 earlier this season and looked dominant in its Saturday win over Marshall. Neither the Golden Eagles nor the Bulldogs have a sub-200 loss.