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Everything about the new Conference USA seems a little backward,
beginning with its name. Because of its rookie status, the
11-team league, a merger of the Metro and the Great Midwest,
doesn't qualify for an automatic NCAA tournament bid, although
the presence of five of its members in SI's Top 25--Memphis
(page 72), Cincinnati (page 88), Louisville (page 104), Tulane
(page 105) and Marquette (page 106)--indicates that it will be
every bit as tough as such established leagues as the Coast
Atlantic and Eight Big. But in this topsy-turvy conference, why
shouldn't a team from its lower echelon turn the conference on
its head and win the first title? "There are no easy games in
this league," says Saint Louis coach Charley Spoonhour (who may
change his mind after Houston joins the conference next season).


In '94-95, South Florida earned a postseason trip for the fourth
time in six years, finishing a respectable 18-12 and losing to
Marquette 57-50 in the quarterfinals of the NIT. No reason coach
Bobby Paschal can't make it five bids in seven seasons for the
Bulls. The leading returnee, 5'10" point guard Chucky Atkins,
led the Metro in assists (6.5 per game) and three-pointers (2.8)
in '94-95. In the off-season, Atkins beat out several stellar
point guards as the chosen backup to Georgetown's Allen Iverson
on the U.S. team at the World University Games.

Atkins will be Mr. Outside; Mr. Inside will be his roommate,
6'9", 244-pound center Donzel Rush, the team leader, who in the
off-season added 15 pounds in the weight room. In the final
eight games of last year, Rush averaged 13.4 points and 8.6

Southern Mississippi coach M.K. Turk, who's beginning his 20th
season in Hattiesburg, once again finds himself in need of a
big-time player. But not to worry; Turk always seems to find
one. First there was Clarence Weatherspoon, now with the
Philadelphia 76ers, and then there was Glen Whisby, who averaged
15.2 points and 9.8 rebounds last season. The most logical
candidate to be the next big player is the Golden Eagles'
smallest player--5'10" junior point guard Damien Smith, who led
the team in scoring, assists and steals.

Alabama-Birmingham has four of its five leading scorers back,
and although the Blazers outrebounded their opponents by 5.9
boards per game, their size may be a real shortcoming. Of the
four returning starters, the tallest is 6'6". The best UAB can
hope for is that Carlos Williams, a swingman who went down with
a knee injury midway through last season, and forward Anthony
Thomas, who finished second to Williams in scoring average and
led the team in rebounds per game, will thrive on mismatches
against bigger, slower opponents.


UNC Charlotte fans are excited about the arrival of the biggest
player in school history--Alexander Kuhl, a 7'2", 275-pound
native of Brammer, Germany, who is transferring from Palm Beach
(Fla.) Junior College, where he averaged 16.5 points, 9.1
rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. But it will take more than
bulk to fill the void left by Jarvis Lang and Jermain Parker,
last season's 1-2 punch in scoring and rebounding. Among those
surrounding Kuhl are 5'10" point guard Roderick Howard, last
season's team assists leader; 6'8" sophomore forward DeMarco
Johnson, who was selected for the Metro's all-freshman team; and
6'1" junior shooting guard Andre Davis, the 1993 Metro Freshman
of the Year, who sat out last season because of poor grades and
cannot return until after Christmas at the earliest.


Given his druthers, Spoonhour would have preferred the
conference to have launched itself last season, when he had a
veteran team at Saint Louis that finished 23-8 and took Wake
Forest to the final seconds before being eliminated, 64-59, in
the second round of the NCAAs. But Spoonhour does know how to
rebuild in a hurry. When he was coach at Southwest Missouri, he
brought in 11 new players for the '91-92 season and came away
with 23 wins and an NCAA berth. Says Spoonhour, "Our expectation
every year is to go out and play hard, compete for the
conference championship, qualify for postseason play and have
some fun along the way."

Well, Spoonhour should certainly have some fun this season. On a
team of newcomers-the top returning scorer is junior forward
Jeff Harris (7 ppg)--the most intriguing is 6'7" transfer Jamal
Johnson, who led his team in scoring (9 ppg) in 1993-94 when he
was a junior at Miami. Other new Billikens include 6-foot
freshman guard Jamall Walker, last year's player of the year in
Kansas; 6'7" Tyrone Caswell, who averaged 20.3 points and 10.1
rebounds at Butler (Kans.) Community College; and sophomore
shooting guard Corey Frazier, a three-point specialist who was
academically ineligible last year.

Even if DePaul does put together its 25th consecutive winning
season, the Blue Demons will have a difficult time matching last
season's 17-11 record. Gone is Tom Kleinschmidt, who led the
team in scoring, assists and three-pointers. Coach Joey Meyer's
hopes rest on the broad shoulders of center Bryant Bowden, a
6'8", 250-pound senior who averaged 12 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Meyer, a chronic whiner, is already warning Blue Demon fans that
life in the new league could be rough. Says Meyer, "If people
can't look at these teams and know how good this league is, they
don't know much about college basketball."

--William F. Reed

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Harris is one of a few seasoned Billikens. [Jeff Harris]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER UNC Charlotte backers hope to have a ball watching Howard & Co. [Roderick Howard]



1 Tulane (24)
2 South Florida
3 Southern Miss
4 Alabama-Birmingham


1 Memphis (7)
2 Louisville (23)
3 UNC Charlotte


1 Cincinnati (15)
2 Marquette (25)
3 Saint Louis
4 DePaul