Memphis hosts the Conference USA basketball tournament for the fourth year in a row this week, with the hometown Tigers aiming for a third straight championship. (The most distinct memory from these tourneys at FedExForum remains Darius Washington's tears at the end of the epic title game won by Louisville in 2005.)
While the players in uniform for the Tigers will be familiar, there will be 11 other teams aiming to steal some spotlight from the country's second-ranked team. Here are five C-USA stars who have earned some attention.
Robert Vaden, UAB -- The junior guard from Indianapolis is the Tigers' Chris Douglas-Roberts' only competition for C-USA Player of the Year (to be announced on Wednesday). Vaden is among the top 20 scorers in the nation (22.8 points per game) and leads the entire country in three-point field goals (138). He scored 27 points against Memphis on February 16th in a game his Blazers should have won, a miraculous run by the Tigers over the game's final 90 seconds reversing fortunes. Last Saturday at FedExForum, he made only three of 13 three-point attempts and was limited to 13 points in a blowout U of M victory. He scored a career-high 41 points (including nine treys) in a win at UTEP February 27th, earning his second C-USA Player of the Week honor of the season. A transfer from Indiana, Vaden was a second-team All-Big 10 selection in 2005-06.
Robert McKiver, Houston -- This senior guard from New Haven, Connecticut, scored 52 points in a Cougar win over Southern Miss February 27th. The outburst is the highest point total for a Division I player this season and broke a Hofheinz Pavilion scoring record previously held by one Larry Bird. McKiver is the second-leading scorer in C-USA and, like Vaden, among the top 20 in the nation. He scored 20 against Memphis on January 30th, then 21 at FedExForum on February 13th. With more than 120 three-pointers, McKiver is just behind Vaden and among the top 10 long-distance shooters in the country. A three-time C-USA Player of the Week this season, McKiver will certainly be named first-team all conference for the second year in a row.
Stefon Jackson, UTEP -- Miner coach Tony Barbee -- a longtime assistant under John Calipari at Memphis -- has had as talented a go-to scorer as any coach in C-USA. The junior from Philadelphia is sixth in the nation in scoring, averaging more than 24 points per game. Jackson dropped 27 on the Tigers at FedExForum on February 2nd, a game Memphis pulled out in the final minutes, 70-64. Unlike Vaden and McKiver, Jackson's team doesn't have a bye into the tourney quarterfinals. UTEP will play SMU at 2:30 Wednesday, then face Houston Thursday if they can top the Mustangs. A three (or four?) game run by the Miners will leave Jackson atop this week's scoring chart.
Jermaine Taylor, UCF -- Don't confuse this sharp-shooting swingman with the middleweight boxer of the same name. This Taylor's knockouts come from behind the three-point stripe, where he was among the C-USA leaders with more than 70 bombs on the season. The Tigers' Antonio Anderson bottled him up on February 9th, holding him to 13 points and nary a trey. Taylor's Knights are the fourth seed in the tourney and will receive a bye into Thursday's quarterfinals. Should they beat the winner of the Southern Miss/Rice opening-round game, UCF could face Memphis in the semifinals.
Darrell Jenkins, East Carolina -- The Pirates struggled to a record of 11-18 this season, but it was no fault of their senior point guard, who led C-USA in assists for a second straight year, averaging 6.1 per game. He enters the tournament having scored a career-high 30 points against Tulane in ECU's final regular-season game. Along with Jackson, Jenkins will be among Wednesday's headliners, as the Pirates (the 10th seed) face Tulsa in the tourney's opening game at noon.
NOTE: The tourney's top seed, Memphis will open play at 6 pm in Thursday's quarterfinals. Should they advance, they'll play in the semis at 3:30 pm Friday. The championship will tip off at 10:30 am Saturday and be televised nationally on CBS.