Conference USA enters another season with some considerable talent at the top of the table, but some serious question marks beyond that. While other teams emerged as serious contenders a season ago, this season should mark a return to “normalcy”, with Memphis once again in a league of its own atop the conference standings. This is due in large part to the fact that a great deal of senior talent was lost amongst CUSA’s top tier teams. UAB’s Jamarr Sanders, Southern Miss’s Gary Flowers, UTEP’s Randy Culpepper and Tulsa’s Justin Hurtt all graduated after leading their teams to winning records in conference play.
But even though the All-Conference USA first team was comprised entirely of seniors, the vast majority of the league’s talent returns from a year ago. The following is a watch list for potential NBA prospects, all of whom should have a significant impact in conference play.
Will Barton, Memphis: Coming in as the most highly decorated recruit in Conference USA last season, Barton did not disappoint and thereby emerged as one of the premier freshmen in the nation. While he got off to a slow start, Barton was able to demonstrate his exceptional physical tools and ability to attack the basket off the dribble. Look for him to become more efficient offensively this season, and to begin to realize his potential on the defensive end.
Arsalan Kazemi, Rice: Kazemi is one of the top rebounding presences in the entire country, who ranked 2nd in the nation in Defensive Rebounding % and 15th in Offensive Rebounding % a season ago. On the offensive end, Kazemi was one of the more efficient weapons in the NCAA, posting a 59.9% True Shooting Percentage. Further, Kazemi is adept at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. Look for him to continue this trend, and to receive more national attention this season.
Marcus Jordan, UCF: Michael Jordan’s youngest son improved considerably a year ago and earned a spot on CUSA’s Second Team in 10-11. In terms of what he will bring to the table this season, Marcus is a bulky combo guard that is capable of attacking the basket. He finished 5th in Conference USA in Fouls Drawn and had little trouble getting to the line. Look for him to become more of a distributor and to improve his shooting percentages in his second season as a high usage player.
Damier Pitts, Marshall: Pitts is Marshall’s steady point guard, who can both score and distribute the basketball. As a facilitator, he posted a 1.68 Assist to Turnover Ratio and finished 3rd in Conference USA in Assist Rate. And, as an offensive threat, Pitts proved to be a capable slasher. With that said, he must extend his range in order to keep defenses honest. Expect Pitts to lead the Thundering Herd to a top 3 finish in CUSA.
Cameron Moore, UAB: Moore is a 6’7 forward with the range to occasionally step out and hit shots from beyond the three point arc. He is also one of the league’s best defensive rebounders, and a capable shot blocker. With the losses of Sanders and Johnson, look for Moore to take on a go-to role in the UAB offense this season.
Keith Clanton, UCF: The other half of UCF’s inside-outside combo is a fierce interior presence that is capable of blocking shots and snatching rebounds. This ultra-efficient forward is a face up player that has a high skill level in the post. Look for Clanton to make some strides on the defensive end this season and for UCF to emerge as one of the top tier teams in CUSA.
Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis: Witherspoon is a lengthy guard that can hit jump shots and distribute the ball. While he will be playing off the ball this season, Witherspoon can score inside or function as a point forward, feeding cutters or making post entry passes. Look for him to take on a considerable leadership role in his senior year, particularly on the defensive end.
DeAndre Kane, Marshall: This redshirt sophomore is a powerfully-built combo guard that relentlessly attacks the basket. Even though he is older than most in his class, Kane should make strides in his offensive efficiency, while simultaneously increasing his aggregate scoring output.
Tarik Black, Memphis: Black should once again provide an excellent defensive presence inside for the Tigers. His athleticism and aggressive nature on this end will help the Tigers contend in March.
Steven Idlet, Tulsa: Idlet is a steadily improving center with ideal size for the NBA. He is able to wreak havoc and alter shots on the defensive end, and provide an efficient interior option on offense.
Adonis Thomas, Memphis: Freshman Adonis Thomas should immediately step in and assume Will Coleman’s role as Memphis’ physically imposing presence in the paint. As it currently stands, Thomas is improving as a jump shooter and is capable of beating defenders off the dribble. Overall, Adonis is the most highly touted freshman in CUSA, and he should be one of the more promising young talents in the country.
Darian Thibodeaux, Houston: With the losses of Adam Brown and Zamal Nixon, Thibodeaux should become a focal point on offense for the Cougars. He is an accurate jump shooter- one who finished 38th in the country in Effective Field Goal Percentage- that needs to attack the basket more frequently in order to diversify his offensive game. Look for Thibodeaux to assume a leadership role for Houston, and for them to surprise in spite of their losses from a year ago.
Jordan Clarkson, Tulsa: Due to the loss of Justin Hurtt (and Ben Uzoh before him), Clarkson is looking to follow in the footsteps of recent Tulsa greats. To do this, he is going to need to build on his solid freshman campaign and pick his spots better from the floor.
Joe Jackson, Memphis: After gaining experience with the USA’s U19 squad, Jackson will likely become a more dependable point guard option in his sophomore campaign. He has the blazing quickness and scoring instincts to be one of the best players in CUSA. Now, he must play under control and limit his turnovers.
Keith DeWitt, Southern Miss: DeWitt is one of the top JUCO transfers in all of college basketball. He has the size (6’11) and the grit to average a double-double alongside Maurice Bolden. When it is all said and done, DeWitt should be a first or second team All-Conference player.
Kendall Timmons, Tulane: In his second season at Tulane, Timmons was given the reigns to the offense. He responded by getting to the line virtually at will, but struggling to shoot a high percentage from the floor. Look for him to make strides in this area as he adjusts to his greater offensive responsibilities.
Joseph Young, Houston: This redshirt freshman should make an immediate impact after redshirting last season. The former Yates great can hit shots from the mid range, and has the length and athleticism to defend at a high level this season. Young is probably the most underrated player in CUSA entering this season. But, with his proven track record of winning, his impact will certainly be felt.
Other Players to Watch
Ovie Soko, UAB
Dexter Fields, UAB
Robert Nyakundi, SMU
Dago Pena, Marshall
Darrius Morrow, East Carolina
Tamir Jackson, Rice
Angelo Johnson, Southern Miss
Johnny Thomas, Marshall
Antonio Barton, Memphis
Darius Nelson, UTEP
Justin Haynes, SMU