RTC Summer Updates: Sun Belt ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on July 26th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Sun Belt correspondent, Danny Spewak.
- Staying Put: Not a single head coach in the Sun Belt changed jobs this summer. That fact is especially noteworthy in Bowling Green, a city that nearly chased Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald away during a mid-season losing streak. Athletic director Ross Bjork chose to retain McDonald, and he gave a fascinating interview to Nick Baumgardner about his decision. Down south in the state of Texas, Johnny Jones will return to North Texas after rumors linked his name to a few power-conference job openings. The folks over at ESPN Dallas saw a silver lining to UNT’s underachieving regular season and loss in the finals of the SBC Tourney. Jones interviewed at Auburn prior to last season, so although he’s in Denton for now, his name may keep popping up on the national radar.
- They Don’t Count: Kentucky coach John Calipari made headlines this summer when NCAA officials asked him to apologize for holding a ceremony in February celebrating his 500th career victory. After all, due to vacated wins at Massachusetts and Memphis, some of Calipari’s wins don’t count in the formal record books. Turns out, Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis is getting the same message from the NCAA—just without the media coverage. Reporters at FAUOwlAccess.com did some serious investigative reporting by obtaining a letter sent to FAU, telling the school not to count Jarvis’ vacated victories at St. John’s. School officials say they have no objections to the NCAA’s request.
- Big-Time Transfer: Games between Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe just got a little more interesting. Vanderbilt transfer Darshawn McClellan announced in May he will transfer to ULL, and that means coach Bob Marlin picks up a 6’7″ forward who averaged more than 14 minutes per game during his first two years in the SEC. But more importantly, it means he’ll play against his brother, Steven McClellan, a sophomore forward who averaged 5.1 points per game last season. Who will the family root for?
- Florida Atlantic: The graduation of Brett Royster leaves quite a hole in the paint. He’s just the all-time blocked shots leader in Sun Belt Conference history, after all. The good news is, Royster is the only notable graduation. Mike Jarvis still has the luxury of a dual-point guard approach with First Team All-Conference selection Ray Taylor and senior Alex Tucker, and he still has leading scorer Gregg Gantt and skilled forward Kore White to work with. This team succeeded last year because it made a commitment to the defensive end, and Royster had a lot to do with that. It wasn’t afraid to grind out a win when it needed to, and although Florida Atlantic looks poised to repeat as East champs, it will need to regain that mentality. Of Note: Jarvis might turn to JUCO transfer Julien Sargent to do his best Royster impersonation. The 6’10″ center is known as a defensive specialist and will play “early and often,” according to his head coach.
- Middle Tennessee State: In true Kermit Davis fashion, MTSU quietly pieced together a decent season in 2010-11 during a supposed rebuilding year. This fall, the Blue Raiders will welcome a load of junior college transfers in the backcourt to mix with juniors Jason Jones and J.T. Sulton. But Davis’ biggest addition is probably LaRon Dendy from Iowa State, who comes to MTSU after logging minutes as a reserve in Ames. Davis may receive his share of criticism for failing to take this program to an elite level, but his teams compete on a yearly basis. The 2011-12 squad should be no different. Of Note: Davis will have a new face on his bench this year in assistant Greg Grensing. This isn’t front-page news, of course, but he’s an experienced coach with 14 NCAA Tournaments to his name. MTSU hired him away from UNLV, where he worked for Lon Kruger. He’s also worked at Creighton and Kansas State.
- Florida International: Admittedly, this is an incredible stretch. Florida International lost 13 of its last 15 regular season games and finished in last place in the East. It lost 73-38 (not a typo) to Middle Tennessee in the conference tournament quarterfinals, the starting point guard is graduating and the coach is 18-44 in his only two seasons at the college level. Again, like we said before, this is the stretch of all stretches; one of the more ambitious picks you’ll see this summer. But keep an open mind about this Florida International team. First of all, a remarkable 12 of those 13 losses down the stretch came by single digits. And the Golden Panthers’ roster last year was a who’s who of junior college newcomers and four-year transfers. Of the eight players that averaged at least 20 minutes per game, six were in their first season at FIU. It’s been said that it sometimes takes JUCO players a year to adjust to Division I basketball. If that’s the case, then FIU figures to see improvement out of leading scorers DeJuan Wright and Eric Frederick. Also, while the renowned Phil Taylor and Dominique Ferguson did not make significant impacts as freshmen, there’s a reason they were both coveted recruits. Add in a new slew of strong recruits and an intriguing big man named Joey De La Rosa—more on his story later—and this is a classic sleeper pick. Isiah Thomas has finally assembled a roster that can win. Trust us. Of Note: Thomas made the mistake of telling a reporter months ago that he thought about returning to his position as president of the New York Knicks “every single day of the week.” Apparently, he’s starting to grow fond of Florida International: He said in June that he has “no desire” to go back. He still has a lot to prove as a college head coach, but this quote at least helps the stability of his program.
- Western Kentucky: If Ken McDonald actually finishes fourth—and God forbid, below Florida International—he’ll probably add to that 9.2 percent unemployment rate. Unfortunately for him, he’s got a difficult task with this year’s team. Steffphon Pettigrew, Sergio Kerusch and Juan Patillo were the heart of last year’s team, but they’ve all since graduated. Snap Peters, who was supposed to return this year after the school declared him academically ineligible, actually didn’t make the grades to play. And not a single one of WKU’s returners averaged double figures in scoring last year. Of course, there’s always a possibility that a cleansing of the team could give this coaching staff a fresh start, and McDonald inked two of the league’s best freshmen in Derrick Gordon and George Fant as a part of a stellar freshman group. There’s no doubt this team will be athletic, quick and filled with talented parts. But that was the case last year, too, and that team finished 8-8 in the Sun Belt. Of Note: The loss of Peters is more important than it appears. He only appeared in 12 games, but he was one of McDonald’s more notable recruiting coups. Peters played the point at times last year and would have had a crack at the position this year, but instead he becomes the eleventh player to leave WKU early since 2008-09, according to beat writer Nick Baumgardner. Ouch.
- South Alabama: Sophomore Augustin Rubit shocked the league with his rookie performance last season. He’s an undersized center that led the Sun Belt in rebounding; a redshirt freshman who turned into a double-double machine. Unfortunately for him, it will be difficult for his team to improve after leading scorer Martino Brock transferred to South Florida. That leaves coach Ronnie Arrow with just three returning players to work with. Interestingly, all three returners are forwards, which means every single newcomer for USA next season is a guard. That’s not exactly a recipe for success in this league. Of Note: One of those returning forwards is Antione Lundy. The lone senior on the squad missed most of last year because of an ACL injury, but Arrow says he should be the “hungriest guy in Division I basketball” after missing time. In fact, Arrow went even further, saying “there shouldn’t be a ‘4’ or ‘5’ man in the country that can shoot three-pointers better than him.” That’s hyperbole, of course, but we’ll let Arrow off the hook for this one. Point is, the head coach is high on his only senior.
- Troy: The Trojans are always fun to watch. They love to push the pace, they’ve got a long-tenured and respected coach in Don Maestri and they always score a lot of points. Plus, Maestri’s had a decent run of success at Troy, both at the Division II and Division I level. That’s probably not in the cards this year, though, even though point guard Mo Weathers is back to run the frenetic offense. Troy is still in the rebuilding process after graduating all five seniors from a division champion two years ago, and Maestri has signed seven junior college transfers to join the program. They come from six different states, ranging from Ohio to Florida, and they’ll need to play right away to replace five seniors. Of Note: Troy is preparing to move into a new arena in 2012, and the athletic website has pictures of the construction posted on its website. There’s still work to do, of course, but we trust it’ll be finished by the targeted fall 2012 grand opening. The building, which cost $31 million, will seat more than 5,000 people.
- Louisiana-Lafayette: When J.J. Thomas scores, the Rajun’ Cajuns usually win. It doesn’t take a calculus whiz to figure that out. During an 11-game winning streak to close the regular season, the freshman forward averaged more than 16 points per game; in a disappointing first round loss to WKU in the conference tournament, he scored two points and played limited minutes due to foul trouble. After emerging as the central figure during ULL’s improbable run to a division title, Thomas is a likely All-Conference candidate this season. At 6’5″, he’s not very tall for the power forward position, but he’s able to score with sheer will and by exploiting matchups. With Thomas back in the fold, a good set of guards and the aforementioned Darshawn McClellan, it’s perfectly logical to believe this team will build on its improbable late-season run in 2010-11. Plus, Bob Marlin just might be the best coach in this league. Of Note: It also doesn’t take a calculus genius to figure out that a winning team leads to more fans. And that’s exactly why Louisiana-Lafayette’s attendance last season grew at the eighth-fastest rate in the nation. By the end of the year, the Cajundome was rocking. ULL also led the Sun Belt in attendance during conference games. Take a look at that list, though, and notice the team in the second spot: Denver.
- Denver: And that brings us to the Pioneers, who did indeed see a 71-percent increase in attendance last year. In January, it looked as though Denver would run away with the West Division, but the team apparently forgot how to score during the last month of the season and finished third in the division. Despite the late-season swoon, we believe in this team in its last year as a member of the Sun Belt. Denver will move to the WAC in 2012-13, but it returns the bulk of its starting lineup next year. Coach Joe Scott, a former Princeton player and coach, has an ideal roster for his offense. Brothers Chase and Travis Hallam are two of the league’s best three-point shooters, and guard Brian Stafford is in that category as well. When they’re winning, the Pioneers pass well, knock down shots and play with the kind of intelligence that would warm the heart of Pete Carril. But consistency’s the issue offensively, and this team also isn’t very big up front. That’s why sophomore forward Chris Udofia is such a key, as he brings an element of athleticism in the frontcourt that no other player can match. Of Note: Although the publications that rank academic institutions are about as unpredictable as college basketball recruiting gurus, Denver is a top-100 university and it’s no secret that the students are well-educated. That goes for athletes, too: eight basketball players received honors from the National Association of Basketball Coaches for their classroom performances. According to the basketball team’s official Twitter feed, that’s the most of any team in the nation.
- Arkansas State: Red Wolves’ fans may take exception with this selection, considering their team won a share of the West last year and brings back most of its starting lineup. Placing ASU here is more of a statement about the potential for Denver to improve, though. This team will be right in the mix for a division title once again, especially with senior Martavius Adams anchoring the frontcourt. Finding a point guard could be a roadblock after Rashad Allison graduated, so it’s up to sophomore Ed Townsel, junior Adam Sterrenberg and combo JUCO guard Marcus Hooten to run the team. Of Note: There are a lot of roster changes to note with Arkansas State. So many, in fact, Brady needed to release an entire statement just to clear things up. Most notably, LSU transfer Dennis Harris will not join the team this year. Brady actually recruited him to Baton Rouge originally before the school fired him, but he won’t be reunited with his former center after all.
- Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans’ departed senior class lived the dream last season. Solomon Bozeman’s game-winner in the conference finals sent UALR to the NCAA Tournament play-in game in front of a national audience. That dream’s over now—and reality has set in. Bozeman is gone, and so are Matt Mouzy and Alex Garcia-Mendoza. That leaves UALR without its three leading scorers from last year, but it’s not as if this program needs some sort of epic rebuilding project. Steve Shields, winner of four division titles at Arkansas-Little Rock, is an underrated coach. He’s had a fairly steady eight-year tenure, and this year he has two very good point guards in Chuck Guy and D’Andre Williams. The two newcomers last season shared duties and combined for an average of more than five assists per game. Freshman Ben Dillard will play alongside them at shooting guard after he turned down Iowa—the school his father is an assistant coach for—to play in Little Rock. For this team to really shine, though, it’ll need better production out of forwards Courtney Jackson and Marlon Louizero. There’s still enough of a core here for a decent season. Of Note: Dillard is an interesting story. His dad, Sherman, had been a head coach at Indiana State and James Madison before landing at Iowa as an assistant. He’s also a former NBA Draft selection. According to ESPN’s description of Dillard, he has good offensive skills as a shooting guard but could use some work defensively. With the graduation of those three senior guards from the 10-11 team, Shields will have to throw Dillard in the fire right away.
- North Texas: A team with blue-chip forward Tony Mitchell finishing fifth? It seems impossible on the surface, but this program loses four starters from a team that collapsed in the face of lofty pre-season expectations. Mitchell is joined by a solid group of newcomers, including small forward Jordan Williams, who could play in any power conference. Just be careful not to let all those Rivals.com stars and fancy recruiting magazines convince you that these kinds of players will immediately dominate the Sun Belt. That kind of mentality is a disservice to the league’s proven, veteran players. Use last season as a case study, for example. Dominique Ferguson had all kinds of trouble adjusting in the Sun Belt at FIU, and he was a top-50 recruit with offers from Kentucky and Arizona. And looking toward other leagues, what about Trey Zeigler and Ray McCallum, Jr., both unique in that they played for their fathers at Central Michigan and Detroit? CMU went 10-21 with Zeigler, and Detroit barely finished above .500. It’s not that star freshmen like Mitchell and Williams can’t contribute or even have All-Conference-type seasons in their first seasons, but they’re going to have trouble leading this young team to a West title all by themselves. Of Note: Mitchell logged significant minutes in the Under-19 FIBA World Championship this summer. He didn’t make the All-Tournament team, but he was the third-leading shot blocker in the 15-team tournament and even set a U.S. record with four blocks in a game against Poland. At the very least, it’s nice for Mitchell to finally see some action after failing to qualify at Missouri last year.
- Louisiana-Monroe: If there’s one thing ULM has going for it, it’s experience. The Warhawks will likely start three seniors, including star Fred Brown. After transferring from Kansas State, Brown scored a lot of points, but he often took a lot of shots to do so. He also turned the ball over at an alarming rate, but that’s not surprising considering the team had no true point guard. Four starters actually had an assist-to-turnover ratio of less than 1:1. That’s why Ladarius Horton could be the difference-maker this season after spending two seasons at the Marion Military Institute. He’s an actual point guard, something second-year head coach Keith Richard could have really used during a 7-24 season in 2010-11. Of Note: Who would have thought last year’s last-place team would actually produce two award-winners? Sportswriters from the state of Louisiana named Brown and graduated forward Tommy Sykes to the All-Louisiana Team this spring. It’s not exactly the Naismith Award, but it’s something.
The West is the deeper of the two divisions, and it’s certainly more wide open. Every team besides Louisiana-Monroe looks like a contender in some fashion. In the East, FAU is an easy choice to repeat as champs, and it’s clear that this team even deserves the title of the overall pre-season favorite in this league. Even with a relatively young roster, it proved itself as the conference’s top team throughout the regular season in 2010-11. It’s scary to think about the potential improvement these more mature Owls could show this season.
The two wildcards in this league are Western Kentucky and North Texas. No team will suffer more roster turnover than these two, but that might be a good thing after both programs went in the tank last season. It will be intriguing to see how both McDonald and Jones handle their newcomer-dominated teams. They’re both bringing in a lot of good basketball players, but it is very difficult to predict how well these young teams will fare. We have more faith in Jones, who despite last season’s misstep has some of the best credentials in the conference.
With four of last year’s All-Conference First Team selections gone, there’s a new crop of stars ready to break through. And the best news is, most of them aren’t seniors. Ray Taylor, for example, will enter the season as the favorite to win Player of the Year, but he’s just a junior. Other budding stars like J.J. Thomas, Augustin Rubit, Mo Weathers, Jason Jones and Gregg Gantt also have more than one year of eligibility remaining. Clearly, the Sun Belt has some room to grow these next few seasons.
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to recognize that Chris Udofia has a gift for playing basketball. Coach Joe Scott eased him along last year as a freshman and did not start him until the final three games of the season, but Udofia gave him outstanding minutes off the bench. Although Udofia is the type of athlete that can jump out of the gym, he doesn’t take that natural skill for granted. He also has a hard-nosed side to him, and he’s a smart player that plays within himself. That’s exactly the kind of player that fits well with Scott’s style of play. Udofia breaks the Princeton-style stereotype and adds an element to the Denver frontcourt that no other player on the roster can offer. That’s why he’s ready to break out. Remember it now: Chris Udofia is the next star of the Sun Belt.
Mark Your Calendar
- Nov. 17-20: Charleston Classic: GT, LSU, St. Joe’s, Seton Hall, Tulsa, Northwestern, VCU and Western Kentucky: This isn’t the strongest non-conference tournament around, but VCU has everyone’s attention after their Final Four run, LSU may be improved and the rest of the field provides competition that the Sun Belt can’t always provide. While Western Kentucky shouldn’t be considered a favorite by any means, there’s no reason the Hilltoppers can’t compete with these guys. Last season, WKU did not play especially well in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, losing to Minnesota and Davidson. It did knock off Hofstra, but even in that game WKU needed a miraculous comeback in the final few minutes. That tournament last November was a sign that the Hilltoppers had some issues to sort out, and the Charleston Classic will give us a similar preview.
- Nov. 30: Florida Atlantic at Kansas: Last season, pre-season SBC favorite North Texas took a trip to Allen Fieldhouse and fell apart in the second half, losing in a blowout. But FAU will face a weaker Kansas team, having lost the bulk of last year’s Elite Eight production. That’s still not any reason to predict the Owls to win in Lawrence.
- Jan. 3: Arkansas-Little Rock at Kentucky (in Louisville): These programs have one thing in common: They both went to the NCAA Tournament last season and lost some key players. Then again, UALR’s banner freshman is Ben Dillard, who could have gone to Iowa. Kentucky’s banner freshmen would have gone to the NBA if the rules were different. This one could get ugly, but Trojan fans can dream, right? If nothing else, they’ll get a nice payday for the trip that can be used to invest in the program.
In the end, 6’10″ center Joey De La Rosa signed with Isiah Thomas and Florida International. The story of the coveted big man’s recruitment is not that simple, though. Back in mid-April, De La Rosa had second thoughts and withdrew his verbal commitment to FIU, and Thomas had a lot to do with it. According to the Miami Herald, De La Rosa’s parents were bothered by the fact that they had barely met Thomas, and they also got the sense that Thomas would leave FIU in the near future. In another interesting twist, De La Rosa’s uncle had to do all the talking to the media because his parents don’t speak English. The situation made for a confusing, muddled controversy for about a week. But all that matters now for Thomas and the Golden Panthers is that they’ve got one heck of a center heading to the FIU campus this fall.