CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A MONTH ago, I was ready to half-jokingly declare Conference USA a four-bid league. You know, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech.I was half right.And so what if it included an exiting team (Memphis) and a yet-to-arrive team (Middle Tennessee State)? Take what you can get.I am pleased the selection committee saw fit to include Middle Tennessee, which was blowing through the Sun Belt until the Blue Raiders lost to fellow C-USA entrant Florida International 61-57 in the league semifinals. At 28-5, coach Kermit Davis' team plays in its first NCAA tournament since 1989.
Louisiana Tech wasn't so lucky. The Bulldogs won their first 16 league games before losing at New Mexico State and at Denver to end the regular season. No shame there - the Aggies and Pioneers have won a combined 45 games.Then the Bulldogs got in the WAC tournament and lost to another C-USA entrant, ninth-seeded and 9-21 Texas-San Antonio. So Tech slid from 26-3 to 26-6 and the NIT.You know the Southern Miss story. If Neil Watson takes a little more time on his shot at the end of the first overtime against Memphis, the Golden Eagles are in. But they finished on the outside, in part, because of a loss to a 19-loss, 211th-RPI team.You know which team.With that, enjoy C-USA's two bids, even if you have to stretch to claim them. That will be tough to replicate in the coming years.nn
Conference USA still has a few years in its television contract with CBS Sports and Fox, but you have to wonder how the championship game of its basketball tournament will be treated.
When the league realigned in 2005, it enjoyed one of the better situations for a mid-major league, an 11:30 a.m. Eastern time slot on the Saturday before Selection Sunday, on big-boy CBS. Perhaps aided by the star power of Memphis, the league kept that spot, which is a nice lead-in to CBS's airing of power-league semifinals.The start time brought some grumbling at the arena on those Saturday mornings, because those games usually fell at 10:30 local time. In the 2011 final at El Paso, that was 9:30. (As a newspaper guy, I gladly ate my huevos rancheros and enjoyed the free afternoon.)I guarantee C-USA won't get a better TV placement, and it might go the other way. With Memphis leaving and the Dallas, Orlando and Houston markets (sorry, Rice) following, you have to wonder.On the plus side, CBS and CBS Sports don't have unlimited inventory, and Fox and ESPN seem to be most active in the realigned leagues. CBS may have to stand pat.
And maybe it will be rewarded with some more games like Memphis' double-overtime win over Southern Mississippi over the weekend.
With Memphis, Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida on the way out, I've got to say it: I'll miss Tigers coach Josh Pastner.That he was one of the better interviews in the league goes without saying. But I was impressed how he handled the Tigers' one and only butt-whipping by Marshall, back in 2011 at Cam Henderson Center.It may have been the most informal chat by a visiting coach I've seen. Pastner arrived in royal blue sweats, sat on the table instead of behind it, smiled and admitted that his team had been flogged. You detected the tinge of frustration, but he knew he could do nothing but move on - which his team did, to another C-USA tournament title.I'll miss the Tigers' home building, FedEx Forum, I'll miss the Rendevous rib joint, the Blues City Café and other notable landmarks in Memphis. I won't miss a cold, empty Thursday night at the Liberty Bowl.
With Houston, I'll miss watching incredibly athletic football and basketball teams, though the latter always underachieved. I won't miss Robertson Stadium and neither will Cougar fans - that dungeon has been torn down to make way for a 40,000-seat replacement.With Southern Methodist, I'll miss a quaint campus with that tinge of excess. In the Herd's last trip there, the school was hosting a George W. Bush presidential exhibit about 500 feet from the press box. I won't miss the Herd's head coach melting down after a loss (both Mark Snyder and Doc Holliday peeled the paint there).With Central Florida, I'll miss George O'Leary. Best described as "prickly" by a local scribe, I have nonetheless found him polite and candid. In some strange way, I'll miss Bright House Networks Stadium, the bounciest athletic venue on Earth.I won't miss Orlando, the most overrated, tollbooth-infested, tourist-trap city in Florida. Its best feature is I-4 to Daytona Beach or Tampa.nn
As Marshall begins spring football practice eight days from now, it will be interesting to see how Doc Holliday's retooled coaching staff comes together.Perhaps the top concern is the loss of JuJuan Seider, who is probably WVU coach Dana Holgorsen's best addition to that staff. I'm certain he was the Herd staff's biggest loss, both as recruiting coordinator and running backs coach.Seider was classy, always upbeat, and his roots in Florida seemed to grow deeper by the year. As a position coach, he typically had the No. 4 running back as prepared as the No. 1 - and had to prove it a few times. I mean, who developed Essray Taliaferro into a legit ground gainer when called upon?Good news for Herd fans, though: I see a lot of Seider's traits in Todd Hartley, who took over the coordinator role (not that it will be formally announced until April or May). Hartley's name was all over MU's recruiting release in February.Not sure if Hartley will direct traffic as efficiently as did Seider, but he will bring the same energy. And he may have his biggest recruiting year yet in the state of Georgia.I just want to see Hartley coach tight ends. I know he is capable of making the move from safeties coach, but he'll give up 100-plus pounds to all his protégés.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.