CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- AFTER HIS Ohio team mauled Marshall by a bigger margin Saturday than any of his Kent State teams did last decade - and that's saying something - the question had to be asked.Jim Christian, was this the sloppiest Thundering Herd team you've coached against, or did your team just play that well?He started with, "Well we were a little hungry tonight."Ding, ding, ding! Eventually, he gave the obligatory defense of the vanquished opponent, but the word "hungry" said it all.The Bobcats entered Saturday's 94-57 rout having lost five of the last seven. Those involved solid teams such as Memphis, Massachusetts and Oklahoma, but the losses still stung. The Bobcats were hungry.Following a pounding by Kentucky and an embarrassing home loss to Delaware State, Herd players had every reason to be just as hungry. Down 39-12 in no time, it was clear they weren't.As I offer my annual Conference USA rankings at the start of league play, that's the most disturbing thing about this Herd team - more disturbing than the lack of a D.J. Cooper-like point guard, the injury to DeAndre Kane or any other individual factor.In fairness, I wonder what effect the Robert Goff/Yous Mbao collision had on the team's psyche. Before then, the program lost an emotional investment in point guard Kareem Canty; since then, Kane's injury hasn't helped.None of that matters when the Herd kicks off the league season at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Tulsa. If this MU team doesn't develop the hunger it showed down the stretch of 2011-12, these next two months will be tough to watch.Much like the last few games. nn
The first thing to know about Conference USA this season: It will be a single-bid league, unless Memphis falls in the league tournament. Even then, a second spot in the NCAA tournament is not a cinch.As usual, the league is loaded with fraudulent overall records. Six teams have 10 victories, but only Memphis has a worthy schedule among those.But that doesn't mean every team has regressed. Tulane truly is better under Ed Conroy, Southern Methodist has to be better coached under Larry Brown, I suspect East Carolina is better and I know Texas-El Paso is better than its 6-6 record.
Others are going the other way, though. Southern Mississippi almost has to step back a notch, Tulsa has suffered five double-digit losses and the Rice program has collapsed. After losing their top players from a year ago, the Owls are a good bet to go 0-16 in the league.The order:1. Memphis (10-3) The pretty: 85-80 win over Tennessee. The ugly: 78-65 loss to Virginia Commonwealth.
Name you know: Joe Jackson (13.7 ppg, 4.7 apg, .500 3-pointers). Name to learn: 6-foot-9, 246-pound freshman Shaq Goodwin (8.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg). Comments: Blew 15-point lead to Louisville, tried to squander 21-point lead against Tennessee. Typical Josh Pastner team: Devastating one minute, vulnerable the next.
2. Southern Miss (11-4) The pretty: 67-64 win over Western Kentucky. The ugly: 68-60 loss at New Mexico State. Name you know: Neil Watson (8.9 ppg, 5.2 apg). Name to learn: Dwayne Davis (13.3 ppg, .429 3-pointers). Comments: With Donnie Tyndall stepping in for Larry Eustachy, the Golden Eagles are still the league's RPI darlings (61), and still potent with Watson, former academic casualty Davis and some juco help. Give demerits for a 135-41 win over Dillard. Why?
3. Texas-El Paso (6-6) The pretty: 91-84 win over Oregon. The ugly: 69-48 loss to Clemson. Name you know: Julian Washburn (13.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Name to learn: Konner Tucker (12.6 ppg, .571 3-pointers). Comments: I didn't consider the transfer of double-figure scorer Michael Perez to Nevada a good sign for this program, but coach Tim Floyd is surviving. Miners played a respectable non-conference schedule, as usual.
NR. Central Florida (10-4) The pretty: 66-63 win over Belmont The ugly: 72-50 loss to Miami Name you know: Keith Clanton (16.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg). Name to learn: Calvin Newell (8.3 ppg), Oklahoma transfer. Comments: After getting run out of the postseason by the NCAA Committee on Infractions, the Knights will play with an edge every night.
4. Tulane (12-3) The pretty: 53-50 win over Alabama. The ugly: 78-72 loss at San Diego. Name you know: Josh Davis (18.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg). Name to learn: Ben Cherry (.520 3-pointers as a reserve), Citadel transfer. Comments: The Green Wave tied for fourth in the 2006-07 season and nobody could believe it then, either. Criticize the non-conference schedule if you will, but coach Ed Conroy may turn out to be one of the league's better coaches and he has a solid threesome in Davis, C-USA freshman of the year Ricky Tarrant and Jordan Callahan.
5. UAB (8-7) The pretty: 92-78 win over South Alabama. The ugly: 76-73 loss to TCU
Name you know: 6-6 junior forward Jordan Swing (14.7 ppg, .446 3-pointers). Name to learn: 6-5 juco forward Rod Rucker (14.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg). Comments: Jerod Haase, a first-year head coach but a longtime Roy Williams disciple, has to be an improvement over Mike Davis on the Blazers' bench. Non-conference schedule was reasonably strong, but Blazers didn't beat any of the tough foes.
6. Tulsa (9-6, 1-0) The pretty: 72-68 win at Oral Roberts. The ugly: 57-41 loss at Stephen F. Austin. Name you know: Scottie Haralson (9.8 ppg, 32 made 3-pointers). Name to learn: James Woodard (14.2 ppg, multiple freshman-of-the-week honoree). Comments: Under new coach Danny Manning, the Golden Hurricane survived a 13-point second half Sunday night to beat Larry Brown's Southern Methodist team, 47-46. Old NFL fans will recognize the name of juco transfer Pat Swilling Jr., who hit the winning 3-pointer, but there isn't much familiar with this team after the firing of coach Doug Wojcik.
7. East Carolina (9-4) The pretty: 93-87 loss to North Carolina. The ugly: 86-81 overtime loss to Campbell. Name you know: 6-8 forward Maurice Kemp (18.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 22 steals). Name to learn: 6-foot junior Akeem Richmond (.429 3-pointers), Rhode Island transfer. Comments: This, not Tulane, is truly my hold-your-nose pick. Jeff Lebo's Pirates fattened up on four non-Division I teams, but losses were respectable - until they chunked one to the Camels. Typical ECU.
8. Marshall (7-8) The pretty: 89-82 win over Nevada, a game not nearly that close. The ugly: 94-57 loss to Ohio, a game not nearly that close. Comments: Kane may be two weeks or more away from pain-free use of his right hand, and defenders will exploit that. As mentioned, the biggest problem right now is a lack of hunger.
9. SMU (10-6, 0-1) The pretty: 62-55 win over Utah. The ugly: 72-50 loss at Rhode Island. Name you know: Jalen Jones (14.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg). Name to learn: Nick Russell (14.2 ppg, 4.2 apg), Kansas State transfer. Comments: Expect legendary coach Brown to take a few coaches to school despite a severe lack of depth. If nothing else, the Mustangs showed tenacity in overcoming a 34-17 halftime deficit before losing to Tulsa.
10. Houston (11-2) The pretty: 77-75 win at San Jose State. The ugly: 81-80 loss at Prairie View. Name you know: 6-8 sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas (18.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 28 blocks). Name to learn: 6-7 freshman Danuel House (12.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, multiple freshman-of-the-week honoree). Comments: Same tune, different year - young, athletic team with fluffy non-conference schedule, dangerous enough to take seriously yet too flawed to contend.
11. Rice (3-10) The pretty: 63-60 win over Chicago State. In overtime. The ugly: 97-70 loss to LIU-Brooklyn. Name you know: Tamir Jackson (17.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Name to learn: Austin Ramljak (7.6 ppg, .357 3-pointers). Comments: Player of the year candidate Arsalan Kazemi transferred to Oregon, 7-foot Egyptian Omar Oraby left for Southern Cal and four others left the program, a development linked to coach Ben Braun's release of assistant Marco Morcos. As you witness this disaster, remember this: The Owls were the last C-USA team playing last March, making the CIT quarterfinals. nn
With UCF serving that postseason ban, only 11 teams will play in the C-USA tournament in Tulsa. That means the top five teams receive first-round byes and the sixth-place team faces Rice.As recently as a month ago, one would have figured Marshall to be a shoo-in for the top six, but recent results have cast doubt on that. And a reminder: I nailed the Herd's No. 6 tournament seed last year.But this is no time to gloat. If this Thundering Herd team can't regain its hunger, can't fight adversity, can't hold onto the ball any better at all positions, I am afraid my prediction will be woefully wrong.On the optimistic side.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.