Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 29th, 2010

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

  • Ray Taylor is the speedy point guard and primary playmaker for Florida Atlantic, but he’s dealing with disciplinary issues here in November. Coach Mike Jarvis suspended him for the team’s two exhibition games—one of which FAU lost—and he missed his team’s season opener against UC-Davis. The Owls better hope the suspension keeps Taylor in line, because their high-powered offense can’t survive without him.
  • Travis Bureau sat out Louisiana-Lafayette’s 60-55 loss to Cleveland State last week due to illness. The senior guard, who rotated in and out of the starting lineup last year, opened the season with a promising 21-point performance against New Mexico State. Bureau seems to have recovered from his sickness—he scored 10 points in 22 minutes against Houston four days after the CSU game.
  • In his first game at Louisiana-Monroe, former Kansas State guard Fred Brown torched old conference foe Texas Tech for 25 points. But against Iowa the next week, coach Keith Richard kept his star guard in Louisiana because of academic problems. Predictably, the game got out of hand. That’s the only game Brown missed, and his team can’t afford to lose him again.
  • The rumors have circulated for months, but now it’s official: Denver will leave the Sun Belt for the Western Athletic Conference in 2012. As Andy Katz wrote back in September, Denver isn’t a very logical fit for the SBC anyway from a geographical standpoint.

Power Rankings

East

1. Western Kentucky (3-2): It’s clear already that there is no limit on the potential of this Western Kentucky team. That’s an odd statement to make after the team’s performance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, considering WKU finished 1-2 in the tournament and needed a frantic comeback in the final four minutes against Hofstra to avoid returning home without a victory. Just keep in mind that coach Ken McDonald is playing a combination of sophomores and newcomers at guard. Also, the Hilltoppers weren’t helped by star Sergio Kerusch’s subpar play in Puerto Rico; he looked nothing like the forward that lit up St. Joseph’s for 31 points in the season opener. McDonald is still trying to set his rotation and find a consistent point guard, and he’s not lacking for options at the point. Ken Brown looked a bit overwhelmed against Minnesota and lost his starting spot to sophomore Jamal Crook, but it was newcomer Khalil McDonald who helped orchestrate that rally against Hofstra at the point guard position. Even Snap Peters played a little lead guard—point is, McDonald was trying everything this weekend and everything should eventually work itself out. Kerusch, Steffhon Pettigrew and Juan Patillo will be fine up front, and once the guards gets on the same page, there’s no telling how good this team could eventually become. The success of this team may also depend on the defense, which has been one of the team’s downfalls the past few years. The Hilltoppers’ active, athletic guards show a ton of potential defensively and were able to force turnovers this weekend, but Minnesota shot a blistering 62.5 percent from the field.

Next Four: 11/27 vs. South Carolina, 12/1 at Vanderbilt, 12/4 at Memphis, 12/8 at Bowling Green

2. Florida Atlantic (3-3): After losing an exhibition game to an NAIA school, FAU has looked just fine through its first six games. Plagued by poor defense last season, the Owls didn’t defend well enough in losses to American or Portland, but they clamped down in a solid road victory at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Florida Atlantic even stayed close with Florida and trailed by just two points at halftime. We know FAU will score, especially when point guard Ray Taylor re-enters the starting lineup after undisclosed disciplinary problems. But can Mike Jarvis get his team to defend and rebound consistently? Depth is another issue, as only six players scored against the Gators—five of whom reached double-figures.

Next Four: 11/27 at George Mason, 11/30 at Mississippi State, 12/4 vs. South Florida, 12/11 at Hofstra

3. South Alabama (2-2): When South Alabama has lost this season, it hasn’t been pretty. At all. USA fell 93-58 to Southern Mississippi and 82-58 to UAB, and in those two games, the Jaguars averaged six assists. Stud scorer Tim Williams is doing his job and scored 33 points to lead USA to a win over Central Michigan at home, but a lack of size is killing the Jaguars so far. Against Southern Miss, the rebounding margin was atrocious, and there’s only one player on the roster taller than 6’6.

Next Four: 11/28 vs. LSU, 12/1 at Alabama, 12/4 at Louisville, 12/12 vs. Houston Baptist

4. Middle Tennessee (3-3): The Blue Raiders blew a 17-point lead at Auburn last week, but they handled a young and fairly talented Evansville team Wednesday night, blowing the game open in the second half. There will be growing pains for Kermit Davis’ rebuilding team, which lost three starters. Point guard James Washington has to be the leader this year, and he’s looked the part during the first six games. UTEP transfer Jason Jones also appears to be making an impact already.

Next Four: 11/30 at Tennessee, 12/4 at SIU-Edwardsville, 12/7 at. Belmont, 12/12 vs. Furman

5. Troy (1-4): After losing all five starters from a championship squad, we knew it wouldn’t be pretty for Troy. And it hasn’t been—the team’s only win is against Huntingdon. In losses to Alabama, Georgia State and Texas-San Antonio, the Trojans haven’t even come within single-digits. There are encouraging signs from senior Vernon Jones, who played 33 games off the bench last year. He scorched UTSA for 25 points and isn’t having much trouble adjusting to his new role.

Next Four: 11/26 at Mississippi State, 11/29 vs. UAB, 12/4 at Arkansas, 12/11 at Miami OH

6. Florida International (3-1): Maybe it’s unfair to rank a team tied for the best record in the league last in its division. Let’s take a look at Florida International’s three wins, though: Florida Memorial, Barry and Utah Valley. And FIU lost to Florida State by 23 points. Had Troy played the Golden Panthers’ schedule, it would be 3-1 as well. For now, all we can say is that Florida International has handled inferior competition as well as it can. Let’s wait to evaluate this squad in a couple of weeks.

Next Four: 11/27 vs. Chattanooga, 11/29 at Marshall, 12/1 at Louisville, 12/4 at Jackson State

West

1. North Texas (3-1): the Mean Green trailed Kansas by nine at halftime Nov. 19 and had aspirations of ending the Jayhawks’ 61-game home winning streak. But things got away from Johnny Jones’ team in the second half, losing by 33 points. At least the Mean Green have one Big 12 win under their belt—they knocked off Texas Tech in overtime three days earlier. The most impressive win during UNT’s 3-1 start, though, might be a gutty home win over Rice this weekend. North Texas trailed for much of the game but found another gear late in the second half, as senior Tristan Thompson scored 26 points to help his team seal the victory. The second half against Kansas wasn’t pretty, but the SBC favorites haven’t disappointed early on.

Next Four: 12/27 at Texas State, 12/30 vs. UT-Arlington, 12/2 vs. Grambling, 12/4 at Texas Southern

2. Arkansas State (0-5): That’s not a mistake: Arkansas State is 0-5 and still sits at number two in the West power rankings. The season couldn’t have started more disastrous. John Brady’s team has played good competition, but it’s 0-5 with an especially embarrassing loss to Belmont by a score of 93-60. Yes, Belmont is an Atlantic Sun contender and consistent program, but no team picked to finish second in its division should lose like that on a neutral floor. That loss is even more surprising considering the Red Wolves actually led Ole Miss for a good portion of the second half and hung tough with MVC contender Missouri State and Pacific, which won 23 games last year. Let’s not give up on Arkansas State just yet though. Senior guard Donald Boone, who led the team in scoring two years ago but missed 2009-10 with a knee injury, hasn’t found his stroke yet. This team is also still figuring out how to play without Brandon Reed, the SBC Freshman of the Year who transferred to Georgia Tech. Brady has more than enough to work with on this roster to turn this season around—so for now, ASU stays in the second spot in the West power rankings.

Next Four: 11/27 at SEMO, 12/1 at Memphis, 12/6 vs. Lyon, 12/11 vs. Alabama State

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (3-2): after failing to win a road game all of last season, the Trojans’ season-opening victory at SMU came out of nowhere. UALR was since been blown out in its last two road contests against St. Bonaventure and Oral Roberts, but things could be worse for Steve Shields. The Trojans also earned a home win against Illinois State, which is rebuilding in the Missouri Valley but still reached the post-season last year. Keep an eye on the point guard situation down in Little Rock. Slashing guard Solomon Bozeman can score from anywhere on the court, but he’ll need someone to get him the ball. Right now, Shields is splitting time evenly between freshman Daylon Guy and juco transfer D’Andre Williams. Williams is getting more of the minutes lately, but he turned the ball over four times Wednesday night and tallied only one assist.

12/26 vs. Louisiana Tech, 12/1 at Missouri State, 12/5 vs. Tulsa, 12/7 vs. Philander Smith

4. Louisiana-Lafayette (1-4): Don’t let the 1-4 start deceive you. Not surprisingly, coach Bob Marlin has his team playing good basketball in his first season at Louisana-Lafayette. All four losses have been to strong teams, and besides a 16-point loss to New Mexico State to open the season, the Rajun’ Cajuns have played Creighton, Cleveland State and Houston very competitively. Guard Randell Daigle looked like an All-American with seven three-pointers to keep ULL close in Omaha, and Houston needed a second-half rally just to win on its home court. Marlin has a few pieces to find success this year with his variation of the Princeton offense. Once Centenary transfer David Perez finds his groove after an inconsistent start, Marlin’s guard play with point guard Josh Brown and Daigle will be enough to stay competitive in the West.

12/1 at McNeese State, 12/4 at Tulane, 12/12 vs. Texas College, 12/15 at Central Florida

5. Denver (1-4): Without departed star Nate Rohnert, the Pioneers’ season got off to a frustrating start at a three-game tournament in the Pacific Northwest, losing games to UCSB, Oregon and North Dakota State. Denver then lost a fourth straight game– at home against Colorado State– before knocking off Alcorn State this week. It’s not panic time yet for Denver though. The rest of the squad besides Rohnert is back, and frankly NDSU is the only loss Denver should feel even the least bit embarrassed about. The other three are simply better teams.

Up Next: 11/27 at Boise State, 12/1 vs. Utah State, 12/4 vs. CSU-Northridge, 12/8 at St. Mary’s

6. Louisana-Monroe (1-3): New coach Keith Richard almost had his first D-I victory this week, but his team fell to Stephen F. Austin on a three-pointer in the final seconds Tuesday night. At least Richard did beat Southeast Oklahoma State after losing ugly at Texas Tech and Iowa. This team is riding Fred Brown, which was our pick as SBC Newcomer of the Year. He’s averaging 20 points per game and played all 40 minutes Tuesday.

11/26 vs. Jacksonville State, 11/27 vs. Illinois State, 11/28 vs. South Dakota, 12/2 at Kent State

Shoutout Section

  • Dixon’s Time: It’s time for Cliff Dixon to come alive for Western Kentucky. He’s got the 6 foot 10 frame, the soft touch and the sneaky athleticism for a big man. And he’s the half-brother of a guy named Kevin Durant. But he didn’t adjust that well in 2009-10 after transferring from junior college. The skills were there, but coach Ken McDonald couldn’t get consistent effort out of the talented big man. Dixon looks like a different player as a senior. The coaching staff has fallen in love with him, and he’d be in the starting lineup if WKU didn’t have the deepest frontcourt in the Sun Belt. He grabbed eight rebounds in just 17 minutes against Davidson and scored eight points, and in the opener against St. Joseph’s he scored 11 points off the bench. Dixon is a difficult match-up for opposing centers because of his quickness and provides a nice change of pace to the bruising Juan Pattillo.
  • Stafford steps up: Denver’s Brian Stafford has taken the reigns from Nate Rohnert. The Pioneers need the 6’4 guard to develop into a reliable scorer, and he exploded for 26 points in a loss to Colorado State. He’s always been a strong outside shooter, but he’s become a more complete offensive player this year. There’s a lot more to Stafford’s game besides shooting—so remember his name once conference play rolls around.
  • Daigle on fire: There was no reason for Louisiana-Lafayette to even stay within single-digits of Creighton earlier this month, but Randell Daigle single-handedly kept an undersized Rajun Cajuns’ team within striking distance. No matter what the Bluejays did, Daigle kept gunning from three-point land and finished with 25 points on 7-13 from three. If ULL had any answer for Doug McDermott and Kenny Lawson Jr. in the paint, Daigle would have led his team to a win at the Qwest Center.

Quote of the Week

“We had 12 minutes tonight where we don’t win and don’t score and that’s a deadly combination. To give this team 43 points in the second half is ridiculous and makes no sense to me.”

–ASU coach John Brady after a loss to Pepperdine

Brian Goodman (772 Posts)

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


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