2013 Conference USA Tournament Preview

When and where: Wednesday to Saturday at the 17,839-seat BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Last year: The CUSA Tournament has become a broken record. Last season top-seeded Memphis cruised to double-digit wins in all three of its games to garner their sixth tournament crown in the last seven seasons. But the Tigers didn't have to go up against the two-seed, Southern Mississippi, which bowed out in the semifinals thanks to No. 6 Marshall.

This year: Whereas last season's tournament was held in Memphis' frontyard, at the FedEx Forum IN Memphis where the Tigers play their home games, the CUSA Tournament this year has been moved to more neutral grounds. Google Maps tells me that the BOK Center is about a 10-minute drive from No. 5 Tulsa's campus, but at least the Golden Hurricanes aren't the wild favorites (as Memphis was) going in.

You'll notice also that Central Florida, despite a 9-7 conference record isn't listed in the bracket. They were banned from all postseason play by the NCAA.

The favorite: Despite all that shuffling, No. 1 Memphis (27-4 overall, 16-0 CUSA) remains the runaway favorite that everyone loves to hate. I mean, not only have the Tigers not once lost in conference play, only twice (vs. Marshall and at UTEP) did any conference foe come within one possession of a Memphis upset. That includes a visit to Southern Mississippi in February in which the Tigers scored 1.25 ppp in an 89-76 blowout.

Memphis already has won more games this season (27) than in any previous season under fourth-year head coach Josh Pastner, which includes a pair of NCAA berths and one NIT berth. The Tigers are ranked in both Top-25 polls (20 AP/17 Coaches), rank 38th on Pomeroy's charts, and boast the conference's most efficient defense (0.89 ppp) and second most efficient offense (1.07 ppp).

Junior guard Joe Jackson, an all-conference first-team selection, scores with high efficiency, despite getting essentially equal touches to third-teamers Adonis Thomas and Geron Thompson. Senior D.J. Stephens, a 6-5 forward, garners few minutes (56.0 percent) and even fewer possessions (13.0 percent) but provides an immeasurable spark. He currently lays claim to the second highest offense rating in the nation (132.9) to go with incredible rebounding figures and a 10.4 percent block rate that ranks 25 nationally. Even better, the guy has a great story and was selected to the all-CUSA third team.

The contender: No. 2 Southern Mississippi (23-8, 12-4) probably has to win the conference tournament to earn an invite to the NCAA Tournament.

The Golden Eagles picked up their first at-large nod since 1991 on the strength of their 25-win season last year, and that earned then-Head Coach Larry Eustachy a new gig. Now not many are considering USM an at-large contender, so the pressure is on for first-year head coach Donnie Tyndall. 

His Eagles boast Conference USA's most potent offense (1.10 ppp) and a competitive defense (0.96 ppp), but struggled to close out road games in the final third of the regular season. They lost three of their last four road games of the season, including an 88-84 loss to Marshall last week that likely burst their at-large bubble. An ankle injury that ended the season of junior sixth man Michael Craig in February didn't help.

Senior Dwayne Davis, an all-CUSA first-teamer, drives the USM offense from inside where he uses the bulk of his team's possession to score effectively, but junior point guard Neil Watson deserves credit for providing excellent dishes, dangerous outside potential (51-110 from 3-point range) and beautiful court vision.

Credit junior Daveon Boardingham with leading the defense. The 6-7 junior blocks a shot in 9.6 percent of his chances to go with a 2.7 percent steal rate inside.

USM certainly has some excellent pieces that could make a great run. It'd be great to see them make the CUSA Tournament finals to challenge big bad Memphis.

The dark horse: I can't even convince myself that any of these teams qualify for dark horse status. Even if No. 3 UTEP or No. 5 Tulsa made the finals, they would still be squashed by either Memphis or Southern Mississippi. There are only two options here.