AFTER sitting through Marshall's disastrous 67-51 loss Sunday against Akron, I had to rethink my annual Conference USA pre-league schedule projections.Shoot, I was ready to ride the Thundering Herd into the league's top four. I was ready to down the green Kool-Aid. I was almost ready to award this team its first NCAA tournament berth in 24 years.After that putrid entrance to 2012, you can forget it.That aside, this team isn't boring. But it will frustrate its fans again - playing as giant-killers one day, but laying a giant egg the next.This team is playing from behind way too much, and leaning on DeAndre Kane too much. Kane will make the all-conference team, but backcourt mate Damier Pitts will not - too turnover-prone at times and shooting sub-70 percent from the foul line. I didn't even think that was possible!Dennis Tinnon is a rebounding monster, but puts the ball on the floor after many offensive boards. Robert Goff is another rebounding force, but shoots sub-50 percent from the line.Nigel Spikes is still not 100 percent, though he's better. Yous Mbao is 0-for-10 from the floor. Justin Coleman is suspended for being a problem child. The team's turnover margin is minus-11.Still, the Herd started the season 9-4 against a pretty good schedule. Looking over other C-USA teams, most own good victories but have shown plenty of mortality.But only one team owns two home losses to the Mid-American Conference.Herd fans are finding that tough to stomach this morning, two days before Texas-El Paso invades for an 8 p.m. showdown Wednesday.Seventeen games remain, including the Capital Classic (and legislative love-fest) Jan. 18 against West Virginia. Then comes the Conference USA tournament in Memphis, which will be pivotal in some way. How, we're not sure.The last two seasons, the Herd suffered the same fate: It was knocked out of the quarterfinals by tournament hosts Tulsa and UTEP. Both appeared to be NIT elimination bouts, beforehand and in retrospect.So as I put together my annual pre-conference schedule projections, where do I put coach Tom Herrion's second team?
Ahead of 7-5 Memphis? Nope. The Tigers have lost five, but none are grimace-inducing (bear in mind that Murray State is 14-0). They have belted Belmont and Miami, and beat Tennessee in double overtime in Maui. (The Vols come to FedExForum on Wednesday.)Averaging 19.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks, Will Barton is looking like the C-USA player of the year. The freshman-dominated team that scratched its way to a C-USA tournament championship is now a sophomore-dominated team with experience, and it probably won't get rattled on the road this time around.
Ahead of 12-2 Southern Mississippi? Nope.The frightening aspect: Darnell Dodson, a 6-foot-7 senior transfer from Kentucky, was reinstated five games ago after his March dismissal and immediately won league player-of-the-week honors. In his first game, he scored 17 points in 15 minutes to lead the Golden Eagles to a win at Arizona State. The Eagles went to double overtime in a loss to aforementioned Murray State.This should be the best of eight Larry Eustachy-coached teams at Southern Miss. The March 3 season finale at Marshall should be a war. He might stay on the court the whole game. How about Alabama-Birmingham, sitting down there at 4-7? Maybe.The Blazers lost six of their first seven in a decent schedule, falling to Creighton, Murray State (them again?), Wichita State, South Alabama and Kent State along the way. But what's up with a loss to Tennessee-Martin? Also, they scored a combined 95 points against Wichita and Virginia Commonwealth.Cameron Moore is the league's preseason player of the year with good cause, but he'll have to pedal hard to get past Memphis' Barton.
Central Florida at 10-3? The win in the Bahamas over then-No. 4 Connecticut may be another aberration, but this team shouldn't flop like it did a year ago.More often, Marcus Jordan is playing like an MJ, if not his father. He had 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against UConn, and tossed in five 3-pointers against North Carolina A&T. Keith Clanton can dominate.But the season shows the up-and-down nature of the Knights under Donnie Jones. While they beat UConn and Old Dominion, they lost by 23 to Florida State, by 10 to Harvard (yeah, yeah, I know the Crimson is 12-1) and by one to Louisiana-Lafayette.You'll be happy to know 5-foot-6 A.J. Rompza is back from his 12-game suspension from UCF's "runner scandal," and is ready to resume his role as C-USA's biggest annoyance. Tulsa or UTEP, near the .500 mark? Maybe.Doug Wojcik's Golden Hurricane has one full-time starting junior and one senior in the regular rotation. The closest thing to a bad loss was 83-64 to Creighton, but the wins aren't great.UTEP recently lost to Colorado State (yuck) and has lost 53-35 to Stephen F. Austin (triple yuck), and has exactly one senior. However, the Miners have a three-week grip on C-USA freshman of the week honors, and sophomore shooter Michael Perez is starting to bloom. Stat Herd fans must endure this week: UTEP is 7-0 since both teams moved to Conference USA. Tulane at 11-2? Don't even try to wave that green flag at me.Give coach Ed Conroy's team a win over Georgia Tech, and you've got to like Kendall Timmons. But the Green Wave has lost to Wofford and has feasted on a diet of Southern, New Orleans, Alcorn State, etc.By the time this team hits Huntington on Feb. 1, it will be no better than 3-4 in the league. More likely, 2-5. Anybody else? Houston (8-5) beat Arkansas at North Little Rock. A year after its surprise run to the C-USA semifinals, East Carolina (9-4) is bolstered by Missouri transfer Miquel Paul.Southern Methodist (8-5) took Oklahoma State to double overtime, and Rice has beaten Texas A&M. Is there a tough out anywhere in this league?Here are my highly hazardous pre-conference season projections: 1. Memphis; 2. Southern Miss; 3. UCF; 4. UAB; 5. UTEP; 6. Marshall; 7. East Carolina; 8. Tulsa; 9. Houston; 10. Tulane; 11. Rice; 12. SMU.Yes, I placed the Herd sixth, exactly where it was seeded in last year's C-USA tournament. I can see this team going 9-7 in the league, as it did last year.Is that enough for an NIT berth? If it can't get past the C-USA tournament quarterfinal again, that would be about 19-13 or 20-12, depending on the WVU game - eerily similar to what the Herd presented postseason committees last year.What does this team need to impress an NCAA tournament panel? My best guess is to go 12-5 from here and reach the C-USA tournament semifinals. That would give MU a 22-9 or 23-9 mark.Can this team do it?After Sunday, that's a tough sell.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com.