The Conference USA that the Charlotte 49ers temporarily left behind in 2005 bears little resemblance to the C-USA of today.
As Charlotte returns to the league after an eight-year hiatus in the Atlantic 10, gone are traditional basketball powers like Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and Memphis, all of whom have moved on to other conferences. In their place are schools such as Texas-El Paso and Texas-San Antonio, the 49ers road opponents Thursday and Saturday as league play begins.
The football-driven move back to C-USA means Charlotte must become acquainted with new teams, new gyms and probably a different style of play.
I think theres more depth in (C-USA) than people realize, said 49ers coach Alan Major, whose team plays UTEP at 9 p.m. Thursday in the Miners Haskins Center (CBS Sports Network). A lot of fans said the Atlantic 10 had so many household names Dayton, Butler, Richmond, Temple, (Virginia Commonwealth). Now, in Conference USA, theyre going to say Louisiana Tech, (Alabama-Birmingham), Southern Miss, UTEP. People might not realize how good they are. But theres more depth and balance than meets the eye.
The 49ers arent alone as newbies in C-USA. Seven others Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, North Texas and Texas-San Antonio also joined this season. East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane leave after this season and will be replaced by Western Kentucky. That will pare down an unwieldy 18-team conference to a somewhat more manageable 16.
C-USAs league Ratings Percentage Index is 17th as nonconference season wraps up (as compared to the A-10s seventh). Southern Mississippi (13-2), Louisiana Tech (12-3) and UAB (11-3) have had top-100 RPIs. The 49ers (9-4) have an RPI of 133, according to realtimerpi.com
The main difference people are probably going to see is that the A-10 was probably more smash-mouth, said Major. Youre probably going to see more up-tempo games in Conference USA.
The unfamiliarity of the gyms the 49ers beat UTEP in Haskins Arena in a nonconference game in 2000 will take some getting used to.
Its going to be catchy, said Charlotte forward Willie Clayton. Well be feeling everything out. But weve just got to go in there and do our thing. Every (floor) is the same. Every rim is the same.
Heres a look at the Conference USA teams that can best hope to contend for the leagues regular-season title and the conference tournament March 11-15 in El Paso, Texas.
Southern Miss has some decent victories against Rhode Island and Drexel, but also suffered a humiliating 69-38 loss at Louisville (not unlike what happened to Charlotte in a 44-point defeat at Florida State). But Louisiana Tech (12-3) and UAB (11-3) have had eye-opening victories, the Bulldogs beating Oklahoma and the Blazers knocking off North Carolina.
East Carolina (11-3) has the leagues scoring leader in guard Akeem Richmond (20.0 points per game) as the Pirates continue to improve under coach Jeff Lebo. Richmond averages 4.73 made 3-pointers. The leagues most complete guard is probably Charlottes Pierria Henry, who averages 6.2 assists, 2.7 steals and 5.3 rebounds. UTEP was 10-5 in nonconference, but the Miners season hangs in the balance after three players (including leading scorer McKenzie Moore) were kicked off the team for allegedly gambling.
Have a chance
Middle Tennessee (10-5) is led by forward Shawn Jones, who hits 59 percent of his shots. North Texas (9-5) blew out Texas A&M 61-41 in College Station last week, the Aggies first home loss. David Scott
Charlotte (9-4, 0-0) at Texas-El Paso (10-5, 0-0)
9 p.m., Haskins Center (CBS Sports Network)
The Miners have been embroiled in a controversy this week that has involved the suspensions of three players due to alleged gambling. UTEP will finish the season with nine scholarship players and four walk-ons. UTEP, which beat Tennessee earlier this season, has won five straight and is 8-2 at home. Miners forward Julian Washburn is the son of former N.C. State center Chris Washburn. Charlotte has Conference USA leaders in 3-point percentage (Ben Cherry, 51.1 percent), field-goal percentage (Willie Clayton, 62.2 percent) and steals (Pierria Henry, 2.67 per game). DS
Thursdays C-USA league openers
Florida Atlantic at Louisiana Tech, 7 p.m.
Florida International at Rice, 8 p.m.
Marshall at Texas-San Antonio, 8 p.m.
Southern Miss at North Texas, 8 p.m.
Charlotte at UTEP (CBS SN), 9 p.m.
Tulane at Tulsa, 9 p.m.
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