Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2010

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

  • The wait is over for Florida International. Jeff Goodman of FoxSports reported Tuesday that freshman forward Dominique Ferguson, a consensus top-100 recruit, is eligible for the second semester. Earning a start in his debut against Florida A&M Wednesday night, Ferguson missed nine of 12 shots from the field. Coach Isiah Thomas’ other high-profile freshman, point guard Phil Taylor, likely will not join the squad this season after also sitting out the first semester. But after adding Ferguson to the mix with six new transfers from the Division I and juco ranks, Thomas should have more than enough to work with in the East division.
  • Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald dismissed point guard Ken Brown after nine games because of a “violation of a team academic policy.” Brown led the team in turnovers and hadn’t been the answer to WKU’s point guard problems, but he also led the team in assists and may have been the Hilltoppers’ quickest guard.  He appeared to have a bright future with the program, but his departure will now mean more minutes for sophomore Jamal Crook. Freshman Snap Peters, who’s played the point sparingly early in the season, will also see time at the position.
  • Troy’s leading scorer, Vernon Taylor, went down with an injury in a win over Western Michigan Tuesday. He missed Troy’s loss to Idaho State Thursday night, but he’s not expected to miss extended time.
  • The SBC must have ACC-syndrome. That’s the only explanation for why Florida Atlantic began conference play Dec. 16 with an 82-77 overtime win at Troy, two weeks before the rest of the Sun Belt kicks off. FAU won at Louisiana-Monroe three days later and now sits at 2-0 in the league. League competition begins for everyone else next week.

Shoutout Section

  • Ray Taylor is his old self again. Suspended for the season opener because of disciplinary problems, the FAU point guard did not start his first game until the SBC opener at Troy. He’s made the most of his return to the starting lineup, averaging 18.3 points per game during the past three contests. Considering he’s barely left the floor in those games, it’s obvious that he’s back on coach Mike Jarvis’ good side.
  • Taylor’s teammate, Brett Royster, isn’t scoring very much this season. At 7.6 points per game, he’s hardly worthy of our pre-season First-Team All-Conference selection, right? Not exactly. The reigning SBC Defensive Player of the Year has actually elevated his game defensively and has blocked an astonishing 26 shots in his past five games. Excluding Dominique Ferguson, who’s only played one game, Rosyter leads the Sun Belt in blocks by nearly two per game. And among players who have appeared in at least 10 games, Royster is fourth nationally in blocked shots.
  • Denver freshman Chris Udofia scored a career-high 14 points in a win over Northern Colorado Dec. 18. He followed up that performance in another victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff with 10 points in 22 minutes. Teammate Travis Hallam, a former high school rival of Udofia’s, had high praise for the freshman’s freakish athleticism in a television interview with Fox Sports Net after the UNC victory. Udofia’s minutes should continue to increase into league play.
  • Augustine Rubit is on fire. He’s recorded a double-double in three of South Alabama’s past four games and has grabbed at least 12 rebounds in each of those contests. Rubit tallied 18 rebounds against Georgia Southern and 17 against Alcorn State. And he’s only a freshman, too.

Quote of the Week

“That sad thing is that it was two of our, supposedly, better shooters in Regis (Huddleston) and Travis (Lee). They were just terrible from the 3-point line. They couldn’t hit a shot. I don’t know what the reason was, but if they hit any shots at all, we win the game. I’m not putting the blame on them, I don’t think any one person loses a game, but they could have won it for us.”

–Troy coach Don Maestri after a 77-73 loss to Idaho State

Power Rankings

East

1. Western Kentucky (5-7): Louisville just put up 114 points on WKU—at home. Ken Brown’s off the team. And the Hilltoppers are two games under .500 and blew every opportunity to bolster their resume against top competition by losing games to Minnesota, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Memphis and Murray State. It may be overkill to use the word “disastrous,” but that’s the term frustrated WKU fans may use to describe the non-conference season. In fact, Hilltopper Haven, one of the main message boards for Western Kentucky, polled its users about the fate of coach Ken McDonald—and 24 of 32 respondents want to “fire him immediately.” The 5-7 start hasn’t been pretty, and watching Louisville make 16 three-pointers had to have been discouraging. The fans are frustrated with a perceived lack of effort, but we’ve got a message for them: stay patient. WKU has one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the nation, and the only thing we’ve learned from these first 12 games is that Western Kentucky won’t be making the top-25 any time soon. If the shaky play continues next week, it’ll be time to be worried.

Up Next: Jan. 1 at Arkansas State, Jan. 6 vs. Denver, Jan. 13 at Troy

2. Florida Atlantic (8-6, 2-0): It wasn’t easy, but Florida Atlantic found a way to open the Sun Belt season with two road victories. After outlasting Troy in overtime Dec. 16, FAU escaped Louisiana-Monroe three days later with a 60-58 win after Tommy Sykes missed two free throws with 0.2 seconds on the clock. Known for its high-flying offensive attack, Florida Atlantic is showing the ability to win games at slower tempos this season. This is a different team defensively than last season, which has helped FAU grind out wins even when it hasn’t done the job offensively.

Up Next: Dec. 30 vs. Manhattan, Jan. 3 vs. Florida Memorial, Jan. 6 vs. South Alabama

3. South Alabama (5-5): The Jaguars didn’t fare very well against SEC and Big East schools early in the month, but they’ve responded with a three-game winning streak by defeating Houston Baptist, Georgia Southern and Alcorn State. Those three teams have a combined five victories, but USA will at least enter conference play with a little momentum. Augustine Rubit’s mini-tear has helped, but we’ll see if the freshman’s 6 foot 6 frame holds up in conference play. He did have 15 points and 14 rebounds against Louisville from the big, bad Big East.

Dec. 27 vs. Mobile, Dec. 30 at Arkansas State, Jan. 2 vs. Middle Tennessee

4. Florida International (5-6): Former Kentucky and Illinois guard Alex Legion has joined the team for the second semester, and freshman stud Dominique Ferguson is now academically eligible. So how can we rank the Golden Eagles fourth in their own division? There are still question marks for Isiah Thomas’ team. It has beat only three Division I schools this season and most of its roster is either a junior college or D-I transfer. Legion signed with Kentucky out of high school as a big-time recruit, but he’s never caught fire during his career, and Ferguson had never played a game until Wednesday night. Thomas, who finished 7-25 in his first season, is another unknown as a college coach. Still, if all the pieces come together for FIU, there’s no telling how good this squad could be.

Up Next: Dec. 28 at Utah Valley, Jan. 2 at Louisiana-Monroe, Jan. 6 vs. Arkansas State

5. Middle Tennessee (4-8): Kermit Davis’ team took a bit of a tumble during the past two weeks, losing four straight games. Middle Tennessee fell apart in a 15-point loss to Furman Dec. 12 and then lost at Evansville by two points– after beating the Aces at home earlier in the season. The Blue Raiders have struggled to find consistent scoring, but their 4-8 record is a little deceiving. They’ve lost in overtime twice, lost to Evansville on a buzzer-beater and have been blown out in only three losses.

Up Next: Dec. 29 vs. Tennessee State, Kan. 2 at South Alabama, Jan. 5 vs. North Texas

6. Troy (2-10, 0-1): The Trojans can’t play without leading scorer Vernon Taylor much longer. If he’s back for the start of Sun Belt play, his team can’t be taken lightly on any night. Despite the horrid record, Troy hasn’t been a pushover for anyone. Florida Atlantic knows that as well as anyone after the Trojans forced overtime. Coach Don Maestri’s track record can’t be questioned, and this team showed signs of life in an overtime win at Western Michigan Tuesday. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of firepower on this team at the moment, especially without Taylor.

Up Next: Dec. 23 at Utah State, Jan. 6 at Louisiana-Lafayette, Jan. 8 at Arkansas-Little Rock

West

1. North Texas (10-2): LSU doesn’t have Shaquille O’Neal, Pistol Pete or Tyrus Thomas on its roster anymore, and the Tigers will probably slide to the bottom of the SEC West this winter. But that doesn’t make North Texas’ 75-55 win in Baton Rouge Wednesday night any less satisfying for anyone involved. Against the inexperienced Tigers, the grizzled Mean Green veterans dominated from start to finish and won the game with stifling defense and efficient offense. North Texas missed just one free throw and held LSU to less than 37 percent from the field. That has to please coach Johnny Jones, a former LSU point guard. North Texas has now ripped off three straight wins after a humbling loss at Sam Houston State by recommitting itself to the defensive end.

Up Next: Dec. 28 vs. Panhandle State, Dec. 30 vs. Arkansas-Little Rock, Jan. 1 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

2. Arkansas State (4-8): The record hasn’t exactly reflected it yet, but Arkansas State is improving with each week. After starting 1-6—a stretch that included a 33 point loss to Belmont—ASU has won three of five games, with two respectable losses at Georgia and Missouri State. This team still has issues. Most notably, Donald Boone hasn’t been the scorer we all expected him to be. And this team still can’t quite put everything together. In stretches, Arkansas State has played very well: in second-half rallies against UGA and Missouri State, in an overtime loss to Memphis, and in the first half of the season opener against Mississippi.

Up Next: Dec. 28 vs. Central Baptist, Dec. 30 vs. South Alabama, Jan. 1 vs. Western Kentucky

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (7-6): Steve Shields has won four division titles at UALR, so last season’s 8-22 record was an anomaly. That’s evident here in 2010-11, as the Trojans are one of the league’s more improved squads. After losing at Oral Roberts by 26 in November, Arkansas-Little Rock got revenge with a three-point win in Las Vegas Wednesday night. At 7-6, UALR has overachieved with solid point guard play, leadership from its four seniors and an improved defensive effort. The Trojans have lost only once at home, to Mississippi.

Up Next: Dec. 23 vs. Stetson, Dec. 30 at North Texas, Jan. 2 at Denver

4. Denver (4-9): The team that donned the Denver uniforms in November is not the same team that’s playing now. The Pioneers have won two straight games and cannot be taken lightly in SBC play. Joe Scott’s teams normally run the Princeton offense as effectively as anyone, but early in the season it hadn’t been crisp enough for his liking. In two home wins over Northern Colorado and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the entire offense has improved. Chris Udofia’s giving Denver a lift off the bench, and the three-pointers are starting to fall—DU made 10 against UNC and nine against Pine Bluff. Travis Hallam, who’s scored at least 17 points in the past three contests, also seems to be developing into a go-to scorer.

Up Next: Dec. 30 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, Jan. 2 vs. Arkansas-Little Rock, Jan. 6 at Western Kentucky

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (2-9): Bob Marlin finally has a full team. With Josh Brown and Travis Bureau back in the lineup, ULL beat Lamar and lost by just six points to a New Mexico State team that beat the Rajun Cajuns by 16 on their home floor in November. Thanks to a rash of personnel issues, Louisiana-Lafayette suffered through a seven-game losing streak before beating Lamar, but Marlin’s squad may have seen the worst of its season. Much like Don Maestri’s Troy squad, it’s hard to bet against the proven success of Marlin. As his players continue to get acclimated to him—and as they get healthier– there’s a chance for ULL to move up the standings.

Up Next: Dec. 30 at Denver, Jan. 1 at North Texas, Jan. 6 vs. Troy

6. Louisiana-Monroe (4-9, 0-1): After letting the game get out of hand early against UTEP in a blowout loss, the Warhawks responded with two encouraging performances last week. First, they nearly knocked off East contender Florida Atlantic in its SBC opener. Then, they edged Northern Colorado at home, holding one of the nation’s better three-point shooting teams to just 33 percent from beyond the arc. ULM was even able to win the game with do-it-all guard Fred Brown on the bench for much of the game due to foul trouble. He took only six shots and scored 10 points, allowing for forward Lawrence Gilbert to explode for 28 points. That’s great news for a team that must find other options besides Brown.

Up Next: Dec. 29 at Stephen F. Austin, Jan. 2 vs. Florida International, Jan. 4 vs. Union

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