CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There was a hope among the latest incarnation of the Conference USA brethren - a hope that extended all the way to the conference's top offices - that men's basketball could shoulder the burden of conference legitimacy.Football, with the loss of heavier hitters like the University of Central Florida and Houston, might have to wobble through a transitional phase. But men's hoops, with schools like Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech joining the fray, could give C-USA a boost in respectability it needed with the departure of 800-pound gorilla Memphis."Basketball was a foundation piece for the conference," C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said during last season's conference tournament in Tulsa. "It goes way, way back. As we balance the realignment, we want to make sure we're competitive in all our programs, but men's basketball is critically important."Based on early NCAA Tournament projections, though, that respect might need at least a year to germinate. Right now, bracketology is no friend to Conference USA.After a quick scan of the most prominent bracket projections, only ESPN has C-USA as anything more than a one-bid league. So every other prognosticator keeps the conference at a level with the Horizon and Big Sky. That's obviously not what the conference was hoping for when it mapped out its latest version, hoping new entrants and some old names would perhaps not match Memphis' quality level, but populate the roster with enough solid teams to earn two or three mid-seed bids.What has C-USA sitting at the tournament kids' table? It's a numbers game. Right now, the conference doesn't have enough of the good ones.The RPI is considered one of the key components in a college basketball team's tournament-bid viability. Beat enough teams at the top of the RPI, and you'll likely build a resume strong enough to contend for the Big Dance. Lose to enough teams at the bottom and you're only watching Selection Sunday to fill in your brackets.As of Sunday night, Conference USA's 16 teams owned a total of seven wins over RPI top 50 teams and 15 over teams in the top 100. Southern Mississippi, which most feel will win C-USA's automatic bid, leads the pack with one top 50 win (North Dakota State) and two more in the top 100 (Louisiana Tech and Georgia State).The other end of the spectrum, though, is where C-USA cringes. The conference has 31 losses to teams ranked 200 or lower in the RPI. Southern Miss isn't to blame here, and neither is Louisiana Tech, which lost to USM 80-71 earlier this season and looked dominant in its Saturday win over Marshall. Neither the Golden Eagles nor the Bulldogs have a sub-200 loss.
Yet Charlotte's wins over Michigan (13th in the RPI) and Kansas State (40th) are canceled out by the 49ers losses to the College of Charleston (225th), Rice and (291st) and the University of Texas at San Antonio (301st).Those last two are real causes for concern for any C-USA team angling for an at-large bid.The conference has just two teams in the RPI top 100, No. 35 Southern Miss and No. 74 Louisiana Tech. Almost half of the conference, seven of the 16, sits lower than 200.So anyone who has some argument-bolstering wins over better competition now has to play in fear that the wrong loss to the wrong conference team could dash his dreams. And those in C-USA who don't already have an RPI top-100 win likely can get the veggie dip ready for their NCAA Tournament viewing parties. They'll spend most of the rest of their respective seasons padding their resumes against tomato cans.There remains a sliver of hope or two that C-USA could send more than one team to the tournament. If Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech don't lose again until meeting in the conference championship game, that could be enough to send both dancing. The University of Texas at El Paso already has 14 wins, including one over RPI No. 52 Tennessee. The Miners still have USM and LTU left on the schedule, so they could climb the chart, though that loss to No. 214 New Orleans doesn't help.Plus, these bracket predictions hold about as much weight as I would judging the Westminster Dog Show. Yet they do offer a view into the minds of those who pay the closest attention to college basketball. And, right now, they don't think too highly of Conference USA.
The good need to get great. The bad must get better. At that point, national respect could come. But at this point, Conference USA will spend the Big Dance moping on the stoop outside.Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.