AFTER sitting through Marshall's disastrous 67-51 loss Sunday against Akron, I had to rethink my annual Conference USA pre-league schedule projections.
Shoot, I was ready to ride the Thundering Herd into the league's top four. I was ready to down the green Kool-Aid. I was almost ready to award this team its first NCAA tournament berth in 24 years.
After that putrid entrance to 2012, you can forget it.
That aside, this team isn't boring. But it will frustrate its fans again - playing as giant-killers one day, but laying a giant egg the next.
This team is playing from behind way too much, and leaning on DeAndre Kane too much. Kane will make the all-conference team, but backcourt mate Damier Pitts will not - too turnover-prone at times and shooting sub-70 percent from the foul line. I didn't even think that was possible!
Dennis Tinnon is a rebounding monster, but puts the ball on the floor after many offensive boards. Robert Goff is another rebounding force, but shoots sub-50 percent from the line.
Nigel Spikes is still not 100 percent, though he's better. Yous Mbao is 0-for-10 from the floor. Justin Coleman is suspended for being a problem child. The team's turnover margin is minus-11.
Still, the Herd started the season 9-4 against a pretty good schedule. Looking over other C-USA teams, most own good victories but have shown plenty of mortality.
But only one team owns two home losses to the Mid-American Conference.
Herd fans are finding that tough to stomach this morning, two days before Texas-El Paso invades for an 8 p.m. showdown Wednesday.
Seventeen games remain, including the Capital Classic (and legislative love-fest) Jan. 18 against West Virginia. Then comes the Conference USA tournament in Memphis, which will be pivotal in some way. How, we're not sure.
The last two seasons, the Herd suffered the same fate: It was knocked out of the quarterfinals by tournament hosts Tulsa and UTEP. Both appeared to be NIT elimination bouts, beforehand and in retrospect.
So as I put together my annual pre-conference schedule projections, where do I put coach Tom Herrion's second team?
Averaging 19.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks, Will Barton is looking like the C-USA player of the year. The freshman-dominated team that scratched its way to a C-USA tournament championship is now a sophomore-dominated team with experience, and it probably won't get rattled on the road this time around.
The frightening aspect: Darnell Dodson, a 6-foot-7 senior transfer from Kentucky, was reinstated five games ago after his March dismissal and immediately won league player-of-the-week honors. In his first game, he scored 17 points in 15 minutes to lead the Golden Eagles to a win at Arizona State. The Eagles went to double overtime in a loss to aforementioned Murray State.
This should be the best of eight Larry Eustachy-coached teams at Southern Miss. The March 3 season finale at Marshall should be a war. He might stay on the court the whole game.
The Blazers lost six of their first seven in a decent schedule, falling to Creighton, Murray State (them again?), Wichita State, South Alabama and Kent State along the way. But what's up with a loss to Tennessee-Martin? Also, they scored a combined 95 points against Wichita and Virginia Commonwealth.
Cameron Moore is the league's preseason player of the year with good cause, but he'll have to pedal hard to get past Memphis' Barton.