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Chuck Landon: New teams will move C-USA up on court

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 12:30 AM

Basketball matters.

Such television networks as ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS College Sports and NBC Sports would have us believe otherwise.

What has been drummed into our heads?

That college football is the driving force behind the massive reconfiguration of conferences that has skewed the membership in the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC, Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, WAC, Atlantic 10 and Colonial.

And, granted, football has played a key role in this exodus. But don't forget about college basketball. Remember, March Madness is still the greatest annual event in collegiate sports.

There's a reason the seven basketball-only schools that are leaving the Big East are scheduled to sign a more lucrative contract with Fox Sports than the new Big East is getting from NBC Sports.

It's because basketball still matters.

That's particularly true in Conference USA. Just look at such future C-USA members as Middle Tennessee State, Charlotte, FIU, FAU, Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, North Texas and UT-San Antonio.

When those eight join Marshall, Southern Miss, UAB, Tulsa, Rice and UTEP, C-USA will be a better basketball league than football conference.

Skeptical?

Consider what Middle Tennessee State, Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, FIU and Old Dominion bring to the basketball dance.

MTSU: The Blue Raiders are 23-4 overall, 15-1 in the Sun Belt and rank No. 25 in RPI as well as No. 12 in non-conference strength of schedule. They have a 12-game winning streak, are 14-0 at home and have a tremendous coach in Kermit Davis.

Among those 23 wins are several impressive victories. They include a road win over UCF, 75-61; as well as wins over UAB, 84-64; Vanderbilt, 56-52; and Ole Miss, 65-62.

Not bad for a program that has only one player averaging double-figure scoring, Marcos Knight at 12.7 points.

Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs are 23-3 overall, 14-0 in the WAC and rank No. 46 in RPI. They are 11-0 at home and are riding a 15-game winning streak. That has propelled La. Tech to No. 28 in The Associated Press Top 25 voting with 48 points.

The Bulldogs have a 65-55 win over Southern Miss, which is the second-place team in Conference USA's standings. Besides that, La. Tech is tied for the most road wins in the nation with 12.

Charlotte: The 49ers are 18-7 overall, 6-5 in the rugged A-10 and are ranked No. 56 in RPI. Charlotte is 11-2 at home and won 11 of its first 12 games. The 49ers upset 10th-ranked Butler, 71-67, and beat East Carolina, 76-64.

Charlotte's starting point guard is former South Charleston High School star Pierria Henry, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who was recruited by Marshall. Henry is averaging 9.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and team highs of 3.6 assists and 2.8 steals.

FIU: First-year coach Richard Pitino is turning the program around with a 14-12 record. The Panthers barely lost to Middle Tennessee State, 66-64.

Old Dominion: The Monarchs are struggling through an uncharacteristically bad season with a 3-23 record and already have fired Blaine Taylor, who was the winningest coach in school history.

But ODU will be back. This is a program that had been to eight consecutive national postseason tournaments and in seven of the last eight years averaged 24.3 wins.

So, yes, basketball still matters.

Especially in Conference USA.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at 304-526-2827 or clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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