CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- IN THIS season of transition between incoming and outgoing teams, Conference USA is a mess.Go ahead, Marshall fans, name all 16 teams in 30 seconds, without Googling or looking at our standings table on Page 2B. I've tried it, and I almost have better success getting those goofy Atlantic and Coastal divisions straight in the ACC.But I can keep some of these teams straight by not only waiving the 30-second time limit, but thinking of which end of the standings they will fall.Four teams have a fair chance of an NCAA tournament at-large berth IF they put together, say, a 13-3 league record and lose at the C-USA tournament: Louisiana Tech, Southern Mississippi, Charlotte and Alabama-Birmingham. I throw in Texas-El Paso as a league contender, as long as the Miners dominate in their way-out-in-the-desert home.At the other end, Florida Atlantic is yearning for a return to its Matt Doherty era (!) and Texas-San Antonio is a national bottom-five candidate.That leaves a gooey middle with headache-inducing ties possible in early March.As I make my annual attempt to slot the teams before conference play, how do I swim through the muck, and where do I slot Marshall? Remember, I have nailed the Herd's tournament seed the last two years (OK, I picked the Herd eighth and it got the ninth seed a year ago. Only difference: MU wore green jerseys at its funeral.)Without further ado, the order minus Florida International, which is banned from the postseason:
1. Louisiana Tech (12-3): The Bulldogs recently dumped Oklahoma on its keister, 102-98 in overtime. Alex Hamilton dominated that game with 31 points, and he is a great complement to rail-thin (6-foot-4, 160-pound) Raheem Appleby. This team was set up well from the move from the Western Athletic Conference.You have been warned: Tech is attempting an "Operation Sellout" for its Jan. 25 game against the Herd. As of Sunday afternoon, the school's website says 3,056 ducats in the 8,000-seat building are there for the buying. 2. Southern Mississippi (13-2): The good news for the Golden Eagles is they still have Neil Walker and a good upperclassmen presence. Better: They played a better schedule, going 5-2 against top-150 teams, and they're coming off a good 66-49 win over Drexel. Best news: Coach Donnie Tyndall doesn't have to chicken out of a postgame press conference at Cam Henderson center.Bad news: The Eagles are always good for laying an egg or four. They have lost to Western Kentucky and got hammered by Louisville (69-38). I may be overrating them a notch. 3. Charlotte (9-4): I may be showing pro-Pierria' Henry bias on this pick, and the 49ers do own wins over Kansas State and Michigan, taking the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in the process. Problems: losing to Davidson in overtime at home and getting whacked by Florida State, 106-62.Five 49ers average in double figures. The numbers for Henry, the junior and South Charleston grad: 11.4 points, 6.2 assists, 2.24 assist-to-turnover ratio. Willie Clayton, a 6-9, 237-pounder, is nearly averaging a double-double. 4. Alabama-Birmingham (11-3): A lot of familiar names, to which coach Jerod Haase added junior-college point guard Chad Frazier, who is averaging 17.5 points and 5.1 assists. The Blazers have beaten North Carolina, and they're one of the best defensive and rebounding teams so far.
Cons: The Blazers lost big to Louisiana State (86-63) and barely shoot 30 percent on 3-pointers. 5. Texas-El Paso (10-5): You could do worse than veteran front line of Julian Washburn, freshman Vince Hunter and John Bohannon. Adding McKenzie Moore from the juco ranks sets this team up nicely for its role in hosting the C-USA tournament.Cons: Getting swept by New Mexico State (who is good) and losing at home to New Orleans (who is not good). 6. Middle Tennessee (9-5): The Blue Raiders, who beat Marshall and Tennessee in the 2011 National Invitation Tournament, are a year too late in joining C-USA, but don't cry for them. Shawn Jones (13.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg) remains a load inside.Problems: Kerry Hammonds is way off his 40-percent pace in 3-point shooting, and a loss to Maine is dreadful. The Blue Raiders did beat Akron, though. 7. East Carolina (11-4): The problem with handicapping the Pirates is their nonconference schedule, which usually borders on rancid. For every Duke and North Carolina State, this school schedules four Fayetteville States.
But I can't "diss" the Pirates too much, because (a) they made the Blue Devils and Wolfpack sweat and (b) league-leading scorer Akeem Richmond (21.1 ppg) will keep them in almost every conference game. 8. Tulsa (5-9): Nothing impresses me here, including the coaching job by Danny Manning. But for all the Golden Hurricane's losses, the only drubbing has been by Wichita State, 77-54. This is a pure habit pick. 9. North Texas (9-5): Oh, is the middle getting gooey now. So what makes a bigger impression, a 61-41 win over Texas A&M or consecutive 30-point routs by Brigham Young and Stephen F. Austin? Maybe drubbing the Aggies, because that was most recent? 10. Marshall (6-9): One thing about the record - the Thundering Herd didn't cheat itself in scheduling. It is 1-8 against teams in the RPI top 150, but nobody in the league has played as many of those teams. The hard knocks just might pay off.But the problems you saw in November and December will continue to pester this team - shaky foul shooting, inconsistent rebounding, rashes of turnovers and tumbles into double-digit deficits. Shoot, if the Herd were playing anybody substantially better than Presbyterian on Sunday, it would have fallen down 15 by halftime.Mark my words here: This team could go 5-3 in the first half of the league schedule, then tumble down the stretch. Check this list against the schedule and see if you agree. The Herd will be the best team in the first day of the C-USA tournament, which isn't much of a compliment. 11. Old Dominion (6-9): This is a mini-Cinderella pick, considering (a) the Monarchs' 5-25 implosion last season and (b) its current 2-8 run, mostly against former Colonial foes, College of Charleston and other lower-mid-majors. Aaron Bacote (19.3 ppg) is an emerging stud and coach Jeff Jones will resurrect this program - it's just a matter of when. 12. Tulane: Louis Dabney (18.3), Jonathan Stark (16.7) and Jay Hook are the league's fourth-, seventh- and 10th-leading scorers. But this isn't cross country, and the Green Wave has lost to Northern Kentucky, Colgate, Texas State and Southeast Missouri. 13. Rice (5-8): The Owls are 15-points less intelligent than Harvard and 14 points "dumber" than Princeton; that much we know. (On the SAT, too?) They'll upset a team here and there, as always, but they'll be on the short end more often than not. 14. Florida Atlantic: When FAU and Stetson get together, you can throw ... the losing team out the window. Yes, the Owls lost to the RPI No. 350 Hatters. 15. Texas-San Antonio: The Roadkillrunners come to C-USA after winning three games in the WAC a year ago. If they equal that, it's a good season.Come Thursday, Marshall should end its 10-game losing streak away from Huntington when it visits UTSA. If not, it's wrist-slitting time for Herd fans.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.