For the third time in 10 years -- and the first since 2000 -- Memphis plays host to the Conference USA men's basketball tournament this week at FedExForum. The 10th annual event will be a farewell of sorts for eight programs, as Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, Charlotte, South Florida, TCU, and Saint Louis are leaving for new conferences next season. Twelve teams will play a total of 11 games, with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament awaiting the champ. (Pity conference bottom-feeders Southern Miss and East Carolina, whose lowly C-USA records failed to qualify them for the tourney.)
The C-USA tournament hasn't been kind to this year's host (see "Tourney Teasers," below), and it's never meant more for the Tigers than this year. A schizophrenic regular season that saw Memphis lose at home to TCU but beat mighty Louisville on the road has left the U of M with what amounts to four must-wins. An NIT berth? That's soooo 2002. Here's a look at each of this year's tourney squads. (Teams are listed in order of seeding. The top four seeds have byes into Thursday's quarterfinals.)
1. LOUISVILLE (26-4)
Head coach: Rick Pitino (4th year)
Star attraction: junior forward Francisco Garcia
Biggest win: at Cincinnati (Jan. 15)
Best tourney finish: champion (2003)
Need to know: Memphis beat Louisville to win the Metro tourney title in 1982 and '87. The Cardinals beat the Tigers for the title in 1986 and '88.
Why root for the Cardinals? Just as Obi Wan needed Darth Vader, so Memphis has needed the hated Cardinals. Won't be the same next season.
2. CHARLOTTE (21-6)
Head coach: Bobby Lutz (7th year)
Star attraction: senior swingman Eddie Basden
(2004 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year)
Biggest win: at Indiana (Dec. 22)
Best tourney finish: champion (1999, 2001)
Need to know: The 49ers have made the NCAA tournament four times under Lutz but have yet to reach the Sweet 16.
Why root for the 49ers? Home to the NBA's expansion Bobcats, this is the only postseason Charlotte will see.
3. CINCINNATI (24-6)
Head coach: Bob Huggins (16th year)
Star attraction: senior forward Jason Maxiell
Biggest win: vs. Charlotte (Jan. 19)
Best tourney finish: champion (1996, '98, 2002, '04)
Need to know: Maxiell is second in Cincinnati history in blocked shots behind only Kenyon Martin.
Why root for the Bearcats? For the life of me, I can't come up with one.
4. UAB (20-9)
Head coach: Mike Anderson (3rd year)
Star attraction: senior guard Donell Taylor
Biggest win: vs. Clemson (Dec. 21)
Best tourney finish: runner-up (2003)
Need to know: Donell and Ronell Taylor are twin brothers from Montgomery, Alabama.
Why root for the Blazers? Any team with a guy named Squeaky (Johnson) on its roster is worth supporting.
5. DE PAUL (18-9)
Head coach: Dave Leitao (3rd year)
Star attraction: senior forward Quemont Greer
Biggest win: vs. Cincinnati (Feb. 12)
Best tourney finish: runner-up (2000, '04)
Need to know: Drake Diener (who lit up Memphis for 27 points in 2004) is DePaul's alltime three-point leader.
Why root for the Blue Demons? This once-proud program -- remember Ray Meyer, Mark Aguirre? -- has made the NCAA tournament only twice in the last 12 years.
6. HOUSTON (18-12)
Head coach: Tom Penders (1st year)
Star attraction: senior guard Andre Owens
Biggest win: vs. Louisville (Jan. 5)
Best tourney finish: semifinals (2002)
Need to know: A native of Indianapolis, Owens played his freshman season at Indiana.
Why root for the Cougars? Penders coached for three years (1971-74) at Tufts University, alma mater of at least one renowned Memphis sportswriter.
7. MEMPHIS (16-14)
Head coach: John Calipari (5th year)
Star attraction: freshman point guard Darius Washington
Biggest win: at Louisville (Feb. 9)
Best tourney finish: semifinals (1996, 2001, '03)
Need to know: Carney and Anthony Rice each had 14 points and four treys in last year's opening-round loss to Saint Louis.
Why root for the Tigers? Because your mama told you to.
8. TCU (18-12)
Head coach: Neil Dougherty (3rd year)
Star attraction: senior guard Corey Santee
Biggest win: at Memphis (Jan. 15)
Best tourney finish: quarterfinals (2004)
Need to know: TCU moves to the Mountain West next season.
Why root for the Horned Frogs? Considering the buzzer-beating game-winner Santee slung in on January 15th, TCU clearly has some karma at FEF.
9. MARQUETTE (19-10)
Head coach: Tom Crean (6th year)
Star attraction: sophomore guard Dameon Mason (senior standout Travis Diener broke his hand in February and won't play)
Biggest win: vs. Wisconsin (Dec. 11)
Best tourney finish: champion (1997)
Need to know: Marquette's appearance at the 2003 Final Four is the most recent among C-USA schools.
Why root for the Golden Eagles? After a 13-1 start, their season's been in free-fall since losing to Memphis on January 13.
10. SAINT LOUIS (9-20)
Head coach: Brad Soderberg (3rd year)
Star attraction: senior guard Reggie Bryant
Biggest win: vs. Memphis (March 2)
Best tourney finish: champion (2000)
Need to know: Senior forward Izik Ohanon is a native of Tel Aviv, Israel.
Why root for the Billikens? Bryant had to miss two weeks due to a family emergency.
11. USF (12-15)
Head coach: Robert McCullum (2nd year)
Star attraction: senior forward Terrence Leather
Biggest win: vs. Charlotte (March 5)
Best tourney finish: quarterfinals (five times)
Need to know: Among C-USA schools, only UAB is "younger" than USF. The Bulls played their first season in 1971-72.
Why root for the Bulls? USF has only made the NCAA tournament twice, and not since 1992.
12. TULANE (10-17) Head coach: Shawn Finney (5th year)
Star attraction: junior forward Quincy Davis
Biggest win: at Houston (Jan. 26)
Best tourney finish: semifinals (2000)
Need to know: Tulane didn't make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament until 1992. They also appeared in '93 and '95.
Why root for the Green Wave? One of four original C-USA schools returning for 2005-06. n
by Frank Murtaugh
All the facts on the C-USA tournament you thought you knew but didn't.
· The first C-USA tourney was held right here in Memphis, at The Pyramid in 1996. In what remains the best championship game to date, Cincinnati beat Marquette, 85-84, in overtime. The Bearcats' Danny Fortson (now of the Seattle SuperSonics) was named the tournament's MVP, the first of four Cincinnati players to be so honored.
· Over its first nine years, the tournament has been dominated by Bob Huggins' Cincinnati program. (Huggins is the only coach to have been on the bench in every C-USA tourney.) The Bearcats were the top seed in each of the first seven tournaments and have won four championships (1996, '98, 2002, '04). They lost in the 2001 championship to Charlotte.
· Only twice has a top seed lost its opening game. In the 2000 quarterfinals, ninth-seeded Saint Louis upset Cincinnati, and in 2003, Marquette was beaten by another nine seed, UAB. But take note: Those Golden Eagles went on to reach the Final Four.
· The lowest seeds to ever reach the finals were a pair of nines. Saint Louis beat third-seeded DePaul for the trophy in 2000. UAB lost to Louisville in 2003.
· Only one C-USA scoring champion has played for a tournament champ. Cincinnati's Steve Logan averaged 22.0 points per game in 2001-02, and the Bearcats beat Marquette for the title.
· This has not been a fun tournament for the University of Memphis. Only three times have the Tigers reached the semifinals, losing to Marquette in 1996, Cincinnati in 2001, and Louisville in 2003. On five occasions, Memphis has lost its opening game of the tourney (including last year when, as the second seed, they lost to Saint Louis, 72-61).
· Among C-USA's 14 schools, only three have failed to reach the semifinals on at least one occasion: TCU, South Florida, and East Carolina. The Pirates have yet to win a single tourney game.
· After Cincinnati, the most successful tourney squad has been Charlotte. The 49ers have reached the championship game four times, winning the title in 1999 and 2001.
· The lowest-scoring championship came in 2000 at The Pyramid, when those underdog Billikens beat DePaul, 56-49.
· On two occasions, a single team placed three players on the all-tournament team. In 1998, Cincinnati's D'Juan Baker, Michael Horton, and Kenyon Martin made the squad. A year later, Charlotte placed Diego Guevara, Kelvin Price, and Galen Young on the team.
· Memphis has placed only two players on the all-tournament team: Lorenzen Wright in 1996 and Kelly Wise in 2001.
· The single-game scoring record is 37 points, by Larry Hughes of Saint Louis in a 1998 quarterfinal game against UAB. The Billikens lost to the Blazers, 76-74. (Steve Logan scored 32 points against Memphis in a 2001 semifinal.) The Memphis record is 27 points by Lorenzen Wright against Marquette in the 1996 semifinals.
· Winning the C-USA tournament does not bode well for a team's prospects in the Big Dance. Only once has a tourney champ advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament. In 1996, Cincinnati reached the regional finals.
· Memphis has been an equal-opportunity loser over the course of the tourney's nine-year history. Eight different teams (Marquette, Southern Miss, South Florida, DePaul, Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, and Saint Louis) have eliminated the Tigers. Only Marquette has done so twice.
· The Tigers' four C-USA tournament wins have been over DePaul (in 1996), South Florida (in 2000), Marquette (in '01), and USF again (in '03). n