In a lot of ways, Conference USA is at a crossroads. With the perennial powerhouses of Marquette, Louisville and Cincinnati gone, it's no surprise that Memphis has run roughshod over everyone. But with John Calipari not staying forever (he's on top of a lot of almost every coaching vacancy list), some of the other schools have to step up and improve the overall quality of the league. Bringing in coaches like Mike Davis will help. Houston and UTEP are improving as overall programs as well. There is a decent crop of recruits coming in next year, not even including the typical set of bluechips at Memphis (overall class ranked 7th on Scout.com, 11th at Rivals). Rather than discuss who will win this conference (since Memphis is basically a lock), let's look at the best of the rest:
Houston was probably the second best team in the conference last year, and they certainly gave Memphis fits in the CUSA Finals. The good thing for Cougars fans is that this recent improvement hasn't been due to any one player, but because Tom Penders has done an excellent job. They were a deep team this past year, and that shouldn't change too much next year. They should have a slew of athletic scorers on the wing, including rising-Seniors Rob McKiver (19 ppg, 3 apg) and Jahmar Thorpe (11 ppg, 6 rpg). They will definitely lack size on the inside, but no one in Conference USA has a lot of seven-footers anyway.
UAB is another program that is improving, under coach Mike Davis. The criticism of Davis at Indiana was that he was a bad bench coach, and that is actually a pretty honest assessment. But he is definitely an excellent recruiter. This year's class is highlighted by Keenan Ellis (Scout: 24 PF, Rivals: 18 C). UTEP, also, brings in an excellent recruiting class including two players ranked by Scout.com as Top 30 at their position in the country (SF Manuel Cass and C Claude Britten). Another improving program is Southern Miss, on the back of last year's recruiting class, which turned up several gems including Jeremy Wise (16 ppg, 3 apg) and Sai'quon Stone (10 ppg, 5 rpg). Putting it all together, here's how I see CUSA next year:
4. Southern Miss
There have been years in recent memory when the MAC competed for at-large spots and single-digit seeds in the Tournament. But 2006-07 wasn't one of those years. There weren't any real elite players or stars, and the overall quality suffered. I would expect the MAC to improve next year, mostly due to a lack of graduations. The recruiting classes aren't as good as Conference USA, for example, but the MAC should be full of experienced and deep teams.
Toledo owned the best record last year, but graduates three key starters. They should still be good, but I don't see a repeat. Akron was probably the best overall team in the MAC last year, and loses less than Toledo. They will have a good set of guards and forwards, and should fill their largest whole (size) with star recruit Steve Swiech (Scout: 29 C). Miami of Ohio was the team that actually won the MAC's automatic bid. They graduate two starters, but neither should be impossible to replace. I question their size, as they don't return anyone over 6'8", and that fact alone might preclude them from a repeat Tournament bid.
Another team I see improving is Western Michigan, which doesn't graduate a single player. Another directional-Michigan, Central, returns most of their key players as well. They also bring in what might be the best recruiting class in the MAC. Kent State is another rebuilding program, that I don't expect to win the conference next year but which could be very good in 2008-09. Overall, here's how I see it:
2. Central Michigan
3. Miami (OH)
5. Western Michigan
6. Kent State
Missouri Valley Conference
The Missouri Valley is still listed as a Mid-Major because they don't quite have the name recognition of the BCS conferenes. But after several straight years of being ranked as high or higher than conferences like the Big 12, there's no question that the Valley has arrived. The conference only got two Tournament teams this past year, but that was almost unfair. Missouri State probably deserved a bid, and I would have preferred seeing a team like Bradley over a school like Stanford. Before Wichita State fell off the map they were ranked in the Top Ten in the nation. And let's not forget that Northern Iowa competed to win the whole conference for much of the year. Clearly, we can expect atleast two teams get in again, so let's look at it:
Southern Illinois loses star Jamaal Tatum, and that could really hurt their offense. Coach Chris Lowery has put together a great team defense at Southern Illinois, and that shouldn't change next year. It will continue to be a chore for anyone to score more than about 50 points against them yet again. So, no matter what scorers they graduate, the Salukis will continue to be good. But what made them a great team this past year was that they could get a basket when they needed it. That was what made that team better than the teams that came before and got 11 and 12 seeds. Time will tell whether a new player steps up and becomes elite at creating his own shot. But either way, as long as Chris Lowery is on the bench you can pencil Southern Illinois in as one of the top teams in the Valley.
Creighton got great news when Dana Altman decided to come back for another year. Honestly, he picked a good time to go as his team probably maxed out its talent. They lose Nate Funk, Anthony Tolliver and Nick Porter to graduation. So, no way will this team be as good next year as they were this past year. Missouri State, too, graduates a lot. A team that should be improved is Wichita State. They were a good team that just fell into an awful funk and couldn't get out of it until too late, like Clemson and LSU. They will continue to be in good hands with PJ Couisnard (12 ppg, 50% shooting).
A team that should be really improved next year will be Indiana State, which made a solid hire with Creighton assistant Kevin McKenna. They return all five starters, highlighted by rising-Senior Gabriel Moore (12 ppg, 4 apg, 2 spg). If you're looking for a surprise dark horse, Illinois State might make a move up the standings next year under their new head coach, Kansas assistant Tim Jankovich. Overall, here's what I see for the Valley:
1. Southern Illinois
2. Wichita State
3. Northern Iowa
4. Indiana State
6. Missouri State
7. Illinois State