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2012 C-USA Conference Tourney: SMU Plays Marshall Wednesday

After a 20-win season and a post-season berth in 2011 that had many thinking Matt Doherty might have turned a corner, the Mustangs' spectacular plunge down the C-USA standings has the embattled coach on very, very thin ice.

The program: The excitement around former UNC coach Matt Doherty has long faded on the Hilltop, as SMU's basketball program is no closer to respectability than when he came on board six years ago. The Mustangs are in line for the fifth losing season in Doherty's tenure while the school still hasn't developed a recruiting pipeline into the Dallas public schools, which annually produce at least half-a-dozen Division I prospects. SMU, set to join the Big East in 2013, is a sleeping giant, and Doherty is living on borrowed time.

The season: The Mustangs 13-18 overall record isn't as embarrassing as their 4-12 mark in C-USA play. They even got a rare burst of (extremely negative) national publicity when they lost 47-28 (!) to UAB in February. If the talent level on this team doesn't significantly improve over the next two years, the beatings they will suffer at the hands of conference foes (at least for now) like UConn, Louisville and Cincinnati are fairly gruesome to contemplate.

The stakes: With a losing record, SMU's only chance of a post-season berth is running the table and winning the conference tournament. More realistically, a victory over a nationally recognized program like Memphis might give Doherty some breathing room on the Hilltop.

The conference: The departure of John Calipari has brought Memphis (somewhat) back to the pack in C-USA, but the Tigers are still a clear notch above the rest of this mid-major conference. With Joe Jackson underwhelming and Jelan Kendrick decamping for Ole Miss, Memphis coach Josh Pastner's epic 2010 recruiting class hasn't quite lived up to its hype, but 6'6 175 SG Will Barton could be a lottery pick if he stays in school for one more season.

The schedule: SMU, the No. 11 seed, plays Marshall, the No. 6 seed, in the first round Wednesday. The Thundering Herd have had a solid 18-14 season, including wins over Iona, Belmont and Cincinnati as well as a six-point loss to No. 6 Syracuse, but in their first meeting this year, they only beat the Mustangs 73-68 at home. It's at least something for Doherty to hang his hat on as SMU prepares for the game. The game is being played at 2:30 PM, will be broadcast on something called "the CSS" network (if you're in Dallas and you know what channel this is, drop us a line) and streamed online here.

The player to watch: Robert Nyakundi, the Mustangs leading scorer at 15 points a game, has a professional future overseas: 6'8 220 players who can shoot 42.5% from the college three-point line should be able earn a paycheck hooping. However, his 0.9 assist average indicates that he isn't capable of putting SMU on his back offensively or taking over a game.

For more casual fans, the most intriguing name in the C-USA tournament is clearly Central Florida guard Marcus Jordan. He's only 6'3 205 and he's not nearly the athlete his father was, but he is averaging 14.2 points a game as a junior. He also wears what appears to be Rec Specs, which aren't quite as stylish as MJ's gold chain.

The prognosis: SMU has done nothing this year to suggest they'll be able to get out of the first round, much less win four games in four days. At this point, the 20-win season last year looks more like the doings of the graduated Papa Dia than anything Doherty's doing, and there don't seem to be many Papa Dia's coming down what can only be loosely described as a "pipeline" for talent.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.