RTC Conference Primers: #21 – Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 14th, 2010

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.


Predicted Order of Finish

East:­

  1. Western Kentucky (12-4)
  2. Florida Atlantic (11-5)
  3. South Alabama (11-5)
  4. Middle Tennessee State (6-10)
  5. Troy (4-12)
  6. Florida International (4-12)

West:

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

All-Conference Team (key stats from last season in parentheses)

  • G: Josh White, North Texas (14.5 PPG, 3.5 APG)
  • G: Ray Taylor, Florida Atlantic (14.2 PPG, 5.9 APG)
  • F: Sergio Kerusch, Western Kentucky (14.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG)
  • F: Steffphon Pettigrew, Western Kentucky (14.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG)
  • F: Brett Royster, Florida Atlantic (10.0 ppg, 7.4 RPG, 3.0 BPG)

6th Man

  • Tim Williams, South Alabama (15.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG)

Impact Newcomer

  • Fred Brown, Louisiana-Monroe. The transfer from Kansas State appeared in two postseasons as a Wildcat, including an NCAA Tournament in 2007-08 alongside superstar Michael Beasley. Brown’s perimeter shooting and defensive ability will earn him immediate playing time for the Warhawks, who return just five players and introduce a rookie head coach in Keith Richard. Brown edges former Oklahoma defensive standout Juan Pattillo in this category, who joins East division favorite Western Kentucky, as well as Louisiana-Lafayette’s David Perez, a streaky shooter from Centenary.

What You Need to Know

  • Tightening Up: The Sun Belt Conference may have lost New Orleans to the Division III ranks, but the rest of the league stayed intact for 2010-11. Moving to a 16-game format from an 18-game schedule with the Pioneers’ departure, the conference figures to be stronger than ever. North Texas represented the Sun Belt in the NCAA Tournament last year after winning 24 games and returns all but one starter. Western Kentucky graduated its top scorer and said goodbye to an NBA Draft pick, but coach Ken McDonald welcomes a promising class of newcomers to team with two potential All-Conference forwards. Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic and South Alabama could all be in the mix for postseason bids and will compete in their respective divisions.
  • Never a Dull Moment: Several Sun Belt teams dealt with offseason drama. Arkansas State coach John Brady saw stud guard Brandon Reed transfer to Georgia Tech after earning SBC Freshman of the Year honors—and then made harsh statements about his departure. That wasn’t the only transfer Brady dealt with. Former Nebraska and Jacksonville State guard Jay-R Strowbridge stayed in Jonesboro for two weeks before leaving, citing a possible postseason ban, which the school denies. Perhaps the most notable drama came from Florida International. Divisive head coach Isiah Thomas agreed to help the New York Knicks as a consultant, but backed down after public criticism. His top recruiting class also took a hit during the offseason, thanks to the first-semester ineligibility of elite recruits Dominique Ferguson and Phil Taylor. Their status for the second semester is unknown. South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow kicked off two newcomers before they ever played a minute of basketball, including Kentari Nettles, a forward who garnered high-major interest out of junior college.
  • Musical Chairs: The conference also introduces two new head coaches. Richard replaces Orlando Early at Louisiana-Monroe, while Louisiana-Lafayette hired the established Bob Marlin away from Sam Houston State. Interestingly, Robert Lee, the former Ragin Cajuns’ coach, now works for Richard at ULM as an assistant.

With a loaded roster, it’s time for Johnny Jones and North Texas to make some noise in March. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Predicted Champion

North Texas (NCAA Seed #13): The reigning champions of the Sun Belt could not hang with second-seeded Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year. If the Mean Green qualifies for the Dance this year, however, the results could be different. Coach Johnny Jones, who has led UNT to four straight 20-win seasons, has four seniors returning to the starting lineup. Josh White is an SBC Player of the Year candidate at point guard, having started all but three games during his career. Fellow guards Tristan Thompson and Shannon Shorter join White to form the most vaunted backcourt in the league. Thompson provides the scoring for the Mean Green, while Shorter is the team’s defensive specialist. That backcourt also got a boost when senior Dominique Johnson gained an extra year of eligibility. He missed last season with an injury but led the Mean Green in assists in 2008-09. In the frontcourt, George Odufuwa led the conference in rebounding last year and just narrowly missed the All-Conference team listed above. Graduated forward Eric Tramiel—who signed with the Dallas Mavericks’ summer team, by the way– won’t be easy to replace after playing so well in Sun Belt competition last winter. A few candidates are expected to compete for Tramiel’s minutes. Kendrick Hogans redshirted last year but started 11 games in 2008-09. Sophomore Jacob Holmen showed promise in his first year in Denton, and Jones says former Nebraska Cornhusker Alonzo Edwards can help offset the loss of Tramiel. Edwards may be the only notable newcomer for Jones, but Johnson’s return from injury can’t be overlooked. With two straight postseason appearances and NCAA Tournament experience, North Texas has the right mix of experience and balance to pull a Northern Iowa this March.

Top Contenders

  • Western Kentucky: In terms of individual playmakers and potential, Western Kentucky might have more flash than North Texas. However, there are still too many unknowns to choose the Hilltoppers as the Sun Belt champs. Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch aren’t unknown to anybody, of course, and they’ll form one of the top scoring duos in the Sun Belt. After losing leading scorer A.J. Slaughter and NBA Draft selection Jeremy Evans, questions remain about WKU’s supporting cast. Guard Caden Dickerson drew praise as a freshman and led the team in three-point percentage, but he’s never started a full season. Another skilled guard, sophomore Jamal Crook, struggled in his rookie campaign and saw his playing time dwindle late in the year. Coach Ken McDonald is also waiting on senior center Cliff Dixon to reach his full potential. Western Kentucky’s anticipated recruiting class could be a plus. Forward Juan Pattillo brings energy and shot-blocking to a program that has struggled defensively the past two seasons. Guards Brandon “Snap” Peters, Khalil McDonald and Ken Brown were coveted by teams nationwide. Athletic center Teeng Akol also joins the frontcourt after the first semester after transferring from Oklahoma State. If WKU shores up its defense and gets some help for Pettigrew and Kerusch, it may overtake North Texas as the class of the league by the end of the season. Not that any of this matters until the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, of course.
  • Arkansas State: Brandon Reed’s transfer to the ACC this summer put a damper on the Red Wolves’ 2010-11 expectations. That is, until ASU received the news that the NCAA granted D-Ray Boone a sixth year of eligibility. Boone, who led the team in scoring two years ago, injured his knee in the season opener last November and missed the rest of the season. Recovery from knee injuries are never a given, but Boone won’t need to carry the team by himself. Junior forward Martavius Adams is a match-up nightmare for Sun Belt centers. The backcourt is loaded with experience, led by steady point guard Rashad Allison. Tough-nosed sophomore Trey Finn started every game last year and Daniel Bryant might be the team’s best shooter. John Brady can bring freshman Edward Townsel along slowly behind Allison. Brandon Peterson, a very athletic defender, is a potential breakout candidate at forward. Oklahoma State transfer Malcoln Kirkland will help up front as well, along with blue-collar big man Jeremy Thomas. Arkansas State also enjoys the advantage of Brady’s coaching. The former LSU coach with a Final Four to his name shocked everyone by winning 11 games in conference play last season, earning him Coach of the Year in the league. Brady could be the factor that pushes Arkansas State near the top of the West Division to make North Texas a bit nervous.
  • Florida Atlantic: When pre-season prognosticators pick a sleeper team, they usually look at the same generic criteria. Most of the starting lineup returning; Prolific, young scorers; A great point guard. An established coach. Florida Atlantic has all of these things, which is why the Owls are a trendy pick to climb the East standings despite winning just 14 games last season. Playing underclassmen almost exclusively, coach Mike Jarvis did manage to win 10 conference games with his group, but lost five of seven games to finish the regular season. Guard Sanchez Hughley, who battled a blood clot and decided to graduate early, is the only player departing from that squad. As for the returners: it starts with senior Brett Royster. He changes opposing gameplans with his dominant shot-blocking and was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Sun Belt in that statistic by a wide margin. Point guard Ray Taylor may be only 5’6, but he averaged six assists per game last year and shoots the ball well from the perimeter. Gregg Gantt led the SBC in three-pointers made last year and averaged more than 15 points per game. Taylor and Gantt, both sophomores, are joined by junior Alex Tucker, who’s simply too good not to play meaningful minutes. Jarvis also has high hopes for Kore White, a transfer from Marshall, claiming the forward will “drastically alter how the team plays.” FAU is still quite young; Royster is the only senior. And these youthful Owls didn’t rebound or defend with enough consistency last year—they allowed opponents to shoot the highest three-point percentage in the Sun Belt. Florida Atlantic needs to make strides in those areas to seriously compete with Western Kentucky this year. Otherwise, the Owls might still be a year away from stardom.
  • South Alabama: Coach Ronnie Arrow and the Jaguars had too much working against them last winter. Injuries and other issues derailed one of the more consistent programs in the Sun Belt. Bryan Scherrer (who has since graduated) and Gary Redus both missed time in conference play, and LaShun Watson was ruled ineligible in January. It all culminated into a poor finish and an anemic offensive performance late in the year. Arrow may have the program back on track in 2010-11, with Tim Williams back for his senior season. Williams is the top returning scorer in the Sun Belt Conference and has the assistance of an improving sophomore swingman in Martino Brock. The only thing holding USA back is its troubling lack of size. Andrew Gowins is the only player taller than 6’6—and he’s never played college basketball before. The Jaguars were supposed to have Kentari Nettles, a big-time junior college forward, but Arrow dismissed him from the team this off-season. That’s why Javier Carter is so important to this squad. He played extensive minutes as a freshman and could earn a starting job.

Top 5 RPI Boosters

  • Florida State vs. Florida International, Nov. 18 (7 p.m.): Isiah Thomas scheduled quite the challenge for his team’s season opener, as Florida State will enter the 2010-11 campaign on the fringe of the Top 25. Several transfers, including Alex Legion (formerly of Kentucky and Illinois) and Brandon Moore (from Arkansas) will see their first regular season action at FIU.
  • Western Kentucky vs. Minnesota, Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Nov. 18 (7:30 p.m.): WKU draws a likely NCAA Tournament team in the first round and could meet North Carolina the next day. A couple of wins in Puerto Rico could make the Hilltoppers an early contender for an at-large bid.
  • North Texas at Kansas, Nov. 19 (7 p.m.)— A senior-laden Cornell team with NCAA Tournament experience took Kansas to the wire last year in Lawrence. With the Jayhawks adjusting to the loss of Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and Sherron Collins, along with the possibility of Josh Selby staying ineligible, they could be prone to a slip-up against the grizzled Mean Green.
  • Florida Atlantic at Florida, Nov. 23 (TBA)—South Alabama represented the SBC well by knocking off the Gators last season. This is an improved Florida team—but, then again, so is Jarvis’ crew.
  • Middle Tennessee at Tennessee, Nov. 30 (TBA)—Coach Kermit Davis has established a consistent winner at Middle Tennessee—but he’ll be in rebuilding mode this year after losing Boogie Yates, the program’s all-time leading scorer, and two other starters. Davis’ point guard, James Washington, does return along with a few other key reserves—but will it be enough to stay competitive with the Vols in Knoxville?

Key Conference Games

  • North Texas at Western Kentucky, Feb. 12 (2 p.m. CT, ESPN/ESPN2)—The four-letter network made sure to broadcast this marquee February match-up between the East and West Division favorites. The two teams will not meet again in the regular season.
  • North Texas at Arkansas State, Feb. 24 (7 p.m.)—ASU swept the West champions last year and beat the Mean Green by double-digits in Jonesboro.
  • Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky, Jan. 15 (7 p.m.)— Mike Jarvis’ squad could make an impression by winning in Bowling Green early in Sun Belt play.
  • Western Kentucky at South Alabama, Jan. 20 (7:05 p.m.)— As with FAU, South Alabama needs to knock off Western Kentucky to have any shot at the East crown.
  • Denver at North Texas, Feb. 26 (7 p.m.)—After losing Nate Rohnert, the man who led Denver from a four-win season as a freshman to 19 wins last year, the Pioneers won’t get much preseason publicity. Third-year coach Joe Scott has steadily improved this program, though, and has a budding star in sophomore forward Chase Hallam. Denver looks like a classic candidate to overachieve, and if it does, this regular season finale with North Texas could be meaningful.

Digging Deeper

Coaches often talk about the difficulty of winning road games in college basketball. Steve Shields knows all about that, considering his Arkansas-Little Rock team did not win a road game last season. Crippled by an injury to forward Mike Smith after just 11 games, the Trojans finished 0-15 away from home (including two neutral-site losses). Perhaps another year of experience and a roster shakeup will help the road woes. Four players from last year’s squad left the team, but Shields brings eight newcomers to UALR. The Trojans’ backcourt also consists of three very good seniors. One of those guards, Matt Mouzy, broke his foot in the final game of the season and will need to be a full strength to give Arkansas-Little Rock a chance to surprise in the West.

NCAA Tournament History

The Sun Belt ranks 17th in tournament wins among active conferences. After you go down the line of power conferences and top-tier mid-majors like the Missouri Valley and Atlantic-10, you’ll find the Sun Belt right in the thick of things. The Hilltoppers seem to know something the rest of the league doesn’t, as no other team has tasted victory in the Big Dance since 1992 (Louisiana-Lafayette over #4 seed Oklahoma). Western Kentucky also owns perhaps the conference’s biggest upset since the tournament expanded; in the second round of the 1993 tournament, WKU, as a #7 seed, toppled PJ Carlesimo’s Seton Hall squad, a #2 seed.

Final Thoughts

Multiple NCAA Tournament bids are a long shot for the Sun Belt. Still, if Western Kentucky or North Texas grabs the automatic bid, either team looks capable of scaring the daylights out of a top-five seed, especially the Mean Green. Jones has a winning mentality established in his program, and with all of the experience returning, he has an exact recipe for a first-round upset. WKU’s winning mentality isn’t anything new, of course, considering the program has made the NCAAs five times this decade. If the Hilltoppers’ newcomers are as good as expected, McDonald’s team could match up fairly well with a high-major squad.

    Brian Goodman (748 Posts)

    Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.


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