2009-10 Conference Primers: #20 – Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on October 17th, 2009

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Matt Poindexter is a regular RTC contributor.

Predicted Order of Finish:

East

  1. Western Kentucky (17-1)
  2. Troy (14-4)
  3. Middle Tennessee (11-7)
  4. Florida Atlantic (6-12)
  5. South Alabama (5-13)
  6. Florida International (2-16)

West

  1. North Texas (15-3)
  2. Denver (12-6)
  3. Arkansas-Little Rock (11-7)
  4. Louisiana-Lafayette (9-9)
  5. Louisiana-Monroe (8-10)
  6. Arkansas State (5-13)
  7. New Orleans (2-16)

All-Conference Team:

  • A.J. Slaughter (G) – Western Kentucky
  • Nate Rohnert (G) – Denver
  • Desmond Yates (F) – Middle Tennessee
  • Rudy Turner (F) – Louisiana-Monroe
  • Jeremy Evans (C) – Western Kentucky

6th Man: Brandon Hazzard (G) – Troy

Impact Newcomer: Isiah Thomas. Usually, this is where we pick out the best incoming freshman or transfer in the conference. But for the first time in a very long time, people are paying attention to a Sun Belt team in a month that is not March. One can’t be sure if Isiah’s hiring at FIU will be a huge boon for the conference in terms of exposure, or if his actions will make him a white elephant, but his impact will be unparalleled either way. As far as on the court, New Orleans guard Billy Humphrey, a transfer who averaged 12.2 PPG for Georgia before being dismissed from the team following a DUI, is the most proven and highest rated player to make a Sun Belt debut in 2009-10.

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What You Need to Know:

  • If you’re going to pick out guy to win Player of the Year, it has to be WKU’s A.J. Slaughter. He probably would have won the honors in 08-09, but his teammate Orlando Mendez-Valdez overshadowed him. Now that Mendez-Valdez has graduated, expect Slaughter to outshine everyone else in the Sun Belt.
  • For the past two years, Western Kentucky has been the team to beat in the Sun Belt. In 2008 and 2009, they won the conference tournament and went on to NCAA tournament upsets, beating a #5 seed each year in Drake and Illinois. If not for poor free throw shooting, the Hilltoppers very well could have claimed a victory over Gonzaga in last year’s tournament to go to the Sweet 16.
  • Isiah Thomas isn’t the only one who has moved out of a powerful program and into a Sun Belt coaching position.  John Brady, coach at LSU during their 2006 Final Four run, is now at Arkansas State and Mike Jarvis helmed the St. John’s program prior to his current job at Florida Atlantic. North Texas’ Johnny Jones was the last coach (for one season) at Memphis before some guy named Calipari took over.

Predicted Champion. Western Kentucky (NCAA Seed:  #11). Since North Texas made a run and won the conference tournament in 2007, it has been WKU all the way in the Sun Belt. Even though conference Player of the Year Mendez-Valdez is no longer with the Hilltoppers, the return of guard A.J. Slaughter should mean that the conference championship trophy stays in Bowling Green for another year. Couple that with the increased inside presence of WKU center Jeremy Evans and the fact that they return 4 starters from last year, and there’s no reason to bet against the Hilltoppers.

Top Contenders:

  • Though North Texas finished with only an 11-7 in conference record last year, they return five starters from that team to this squad, all of whom will be seniors or juniors this year. That superior experience should be enough to vault the Mean Green to the top of the Sun Best West. However, North Texas lacks something the Hilltoppers have — a go-to guy that can control the game down the stretch. Unless someone steps up in Denton, the Mean Green will be at a loss in close, end of game situations.
  • Troy has a proven game changer that should be able to match Slaughter shot for shot in senior guard Brandon Hazzard. On top of that, they won 14 conferences games last year and return three players that played more than 20 minutes a game. The problem is that Troy lost both of last year’s frontcourt starters, including 7-foot rebounding and blocking extraordinaire Tom Jervis. Without any height, players like Middle Tennessee’s Desmond Yates, and the stable of forwards at WKU will have a field day with Troy’s defense.

Top 5 RPI Boosters:

  • Nov. 11, 2009 – Florida International at North Carolina (7 pm ESPNU)
  • Nov. 17, 2009 – Louisiana-Monroe at Oklahoma  (7 pm)
  • Nov. 20, 2009 - Troy at Florida  (7 pm)
  • Dec. 19, 2009 – Western Kentucky at Louisville  (4 pm ESPN2)
  • Dec. 23, 2009 – Louisiana-Lafayette at Louisville (7 pm)

Key Conference Games:

  • Jan. 14, 2010 – North Texas at Troy
  • Jan. 21, 2010 – Western Kentucky at Troy
  • Jan. 28, 2010 – North Texas at Western Kentucky
  • Feb. 13, 2010 – Denver at North Texas
  • Feb. 16, 2010 - Troy at Western Kentucky

Digging Deeper. These days, the Sun Belt almost always sends a single team to the NCAA Tournament, and that team inevitably has a seed in the double digits. However, in 1977, the first year of the Sun Belt’s existence, they sent a team to the Final Four and almost to the national title game. UNC Charlotte lost to eventual champion Marquette 51-49, led by future NBA finals MVP Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. To date, no Sun Belt team has been able to match the success UNCC had in their first year.

Fun With KenPom.  Three Sun Belt teams had really interesting profiles last year in terms of the differences between offensive and defensive efficiency.  Troy (14-4) and North Texas (11-7) were competitive teams who won with offense – their difference in terms of ranking between offensive and defensive efficiencies were off the charts – Troy was #90 in offense and #296 in defense, for a difference of 206.  North Texas was #86/#271 for a difference of 185.  Conversely, Arkansas-Little Rock (15-3) was a good defensive team but not such a great offensive one.  They rated at #220 on offense and #96 on defense, for a difference of 124 spots.  It goes to show that successful teams in this conference can use different way to achieve the same results. 

NCAA Tournament History.  The Sun Belt has revitalized itself in the NCAA Tourney the last two years behind Western Kentucky’s three wins, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2008.  Before that, you have to go back to 1995 to find a win by the league in the Big Dance (WKU again).  And you need to go back even further to find another school winning a game (1992 – Louisiana-Lafayette).  The bulk of the conference’s 24 wins (24-48, .333) came in the 80s, though, with teams like UAB and VCU joining WKU on runs to the S16 and generally carrying what was then a much stronger league. 

Final Thoughts. This year, the Sun Belt might be one of the best mid-major conferences to follow this year. On the court, North Texas’ experience should create a real threat for Western Kentucky’s talent. Of all the non-BCS conferences, the Sun Belt is bound to receive more media attention than any other, thanks to the Isiah Thomas Traveling Roadshow. Most importantly, if WKU can make it through the conference tournament unscathed, expect them to be the most popular upset pick in the first round of March Madness.

rtmsf (3728 Posts)


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