Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Conference USA teams see prominence arrive too late

Eight of 14 schools are leaving after 2004-05 season

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Having spent 14 years in the Big East Conference, DePaul coach Dave Leitao has seen first-hand how a new league can grow into national prominence, the way the Big East did in the 1980s and '90s.

He sees the same thing happening with Conference USA.

"There are a lot of similarities," the former Connecticut assistant said. "It's a physical league with a lot of athletes. There are teams that you don't want to play in their gym that not a lot of people know about. Going on the road to Saint Louis is not an easy game. Going on the road to West Virginia is not an easy game. At the same time, you have your marquee teams. Top to bottom, you can find a lot of similarities in the league."

But there's one big difference.

As 12 of Conference USA's 14 basketball schools gather in Cincinnati this week to play their ninth conference tournament, the league is about to undergo a transformation that will radically change the nature of the conference and remove it from among the elite conferences in the country, just as it has achieved that distinction.

After next season, eight of the current schools will move to other leagues - five of them to the Big East - and five others will take their places.

"We'll be better off in terms of being more compatible," C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said. "We won't probably be as good initially in men's basketball. If your focus is men's basketball, everyone would agree you can't replace the quality and tradition of these programs immediately. In football, I think we'll be every bit as good, maybe better."

The league has never been better in basketball. Five teams shared the regular-season championship. Six have a shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament, which would break the previous record by two teams.

"Cincinnati and Bob Huggins have been the flagship for the conference for the first seven years," Leitao said. "The other programs are catching up. Everyone has realized the level you have to play at in this league is very high, so they've worked very hard toward that."

The result is that this league tournament shapes up as the most competitive in the league's brief history.

Defending tournament champion Louisville is seeded sixth. Marquette, the defending regular-season champion, is seeded eighth.

"You go into this tournament and you don't think Marquette is thinking they can't win?" Memphis coach John Calipari said. "You think Louisville's thinking they can't win? They're a six and an eight seed and they think they can win this tournament.

"And you know what? They can."

The league made its breakthrough last year, when Marquette made it to the Final Four, and has built on that this season. It's ranked fifth in the Ratings Percentage Index, ahead of the Big Ten and the Pac 10.

"That was the first time we had pushed a team that deep into the tournament," Banowsky said of Marquette's run last year. "I think it was an eye opener for a lot of people. But the people who worked so hard to build this league knew there was a lot of quality people in the league and have not been surprised by the quality top to bottom."

Huggins, the only coach who has been in the league since its inception, said this is the best parity the league has seen, but he isn't so sure the overall quality is better.

He remembers the first media day in Memphis in 1995, when he looked around and saw players such as Danny Fortson, Lorenzen Wright, Samaki Walker, DeJuan Wheat and Jerald Honeycutt.

"It was a new league and nobody wanted to admit how good we were," Huggins said. "We've been good for a long time. Our bottom teams have pulled us down, but you take the top of our league, it's always been very good."

The difference this year is that there are more teams at the top than ever before.



Tournament preview section

Conference USA teams see prominence arrive too late
Leader a quiet force for UC
Fan's guide to the C-USA tournament
C-USA Tournament tidbits
C-USA Tournament trivia

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Muskies' A-10 goal: Boost NCAA odds
Fan's guide to the A-10 Tournament
A-10 Tournament tidbits
A-10 Tournament trivia

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Tournament scores & schedules