RTC Conference Primers: #25 – Sun Belt ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on October 10th, 2011
Reader’s Take I
- Restoring the Glory: In a mere three-year span, the Sun Belt has taken a discouraging tumble. During the 2007-08 season, the league’s RPI ranked 14th among the 31 Division I conferences. It placed two teams in the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 squad in Western Kentucky (thanks in part to this shot). Now, fast forward to present day: the SBC finished 23rd in the conference RPI in 2010-11, and the auto-bid winner (Arkansas-Little Rock) lost the play-in game as a 16-seed. Hoping to curb the trend, the commissioner’s office decided to take action, forcing every team to schedule a stronger non-conference slate starting this year. That tactic should help improve the league’s overall rating, but more importantly, it actually appears the league has upgraded its talent significantly. With every head coach returning and a wave of star recruits incoming (see below), the Sun Belt looks ready for a rebound.
- The New Guys: Tony Mitchell, the five-star North Texas forward who originally signed with Missouri, headlines a brilliant crop of newcomers across the conference. In addition to Mitchell, UNT coach Johnny Jones inked all sorts of talent out of the state of Texas, including coveted shooting guard Jordan Williams. Western Kentucky will also rely on a highly-touted recruiting class to help rebound from a disappointing season, and Middle Tennessee welcomes Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy. Florida International might have the most intriguing prospect in big man Joey De La Rosa, but his eligibility isn’t a given right now.
- Goodbye, Denver: The Pioneers will leave for the Western Athletic Conference after the season, but coach Joe Scott has a competitive roster in place to compete for the West division in DU’s final year in the Sun Belt. That’s the only realignment update to note with this league, although more moves at the top of college sports could eventually trickle down to the SBC.
- Tough Luck, ULM: After failing to meet academic standards, the NCAA ruled the Warhawks ineligible for postseason play in 2012. Keith Richard is still in the process of rebuilding the program, so an appearance in even the CIT or CBI looked like a pipe dream. Still, the ruling also means the Warhawks cannot participate in the Sun Belt Tournament, and that’s a harsh way to end the careers of the five seniors on this squad.
Predicted Order of Finish (conference records in parentheses)
- Florida Atlantic (12-4)
- Western Kentucky (9-7)
- Middle Tennessee (9-7)
- Florida International (7-9)
- South Alabama (5-11)
- Troy (3-13)
- Louisiana (12-4)
- Arkansas State (11-5)
- North Texas (9-7)
- Denver (9-7)
- UALR (8-8)
- ULM (2-14)
All-Conference First Team
- PG: Ray Taylor, FAU (11.6 PPG, 3.9 APG): The lightning-quick point guard makes everything happen for league-favorite Florida Atlantic, which sports the best backcourt in the conference.
- SG: Brian Stafford, Denver (12.9 PPG, 43.7% 3FG): The Pioneers love to shoot the ball from behind the arc, and Stafford’s one of their top gunners.
- F: J.J. Thomas, Louisiana (11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG): At 6’5″, Thomas plays the power forward position with authority. As a freshman, he keyed the 11-game winning streak that earned ULL a share of the West title.
- F: Martavius Adams, Arkansas State (11.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG): The senior forward is one of the toughest matchups in the post in the Sun Belt Conference.
- C: Augustine Rubit, South Alabama (13.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG): After spending his redshirt year improving his body physically, Rubit romped his way to Freshman of the Year honors in the SBC last year. He also led all freshmen nationally in rebounding in 2011.
6th Man: D’Andre Williams, UALR (6.7 PPG, 3.0 APG): One of the hidden gems of the league, Williams quietly played an important role for the Sun Belt tourney champs in 2010-11. He’s an excellent defensive point guard and finished with an assist-to-turnover ratio near 2:1.
Impact Newcomer – Tony Mitchell, North Texas: After he failed to qualify at Missouri, Mitchell heads to Denton as one of the top newcomers in Sun Belt Conference history. The forward can play multiple positions, and he’s projected as an eventual NBA lottery pick.
Florida Atlantic (NCAA Seed: #14): The NCAA should outlaw the kind of guard play coach Mike Jarvis has at his disposal. FAU, the defending East champions, has two of the league’s top point guards in Ray Taylor and Alex Tucker, in addition to leading scorer Greg Gantt at shooting guard. And, as if the league wasn’t already discouraged enough by that trio, the Owls bring energetic sophomores Dennis Mavin and Pablo Bertone off the bench, as well as freshman Omari Grier (known for his shooting) and senior Shavar Richardson. No team in the SBC can match that kind of quickness, scoring and depth. Taylor and Tucker are both cerebral point guards who combined for more than eight assists per game last season, and Gantt is lucky to have them running the offense. That’s the good news. Now, for the bad: The Sun Belt’s all-time leading shot blocker, Brett Royster, graduated, leaving uncertainty in the paint on the defensive end. Junior forward Kore White, inconsistent last season but potentially an All-Conference player down the road, becomes the focal point of the frontcourt. Jarvis’ top recruit at center did not qualify, but he did sign Jelani Floyd, a former Brown and UC Davis forward, to team with White and improved junior Jordan McCoy. As long as White comes around—and he should, considering last season was essentially his first as a Division I basketball player after playing sparingly at Marshall, Florida Atlantic could be in store for a special season. With these guards, the Owls could create all kinds of problems if they manage to make the NCAA Tournament.
- Louisiana: The Ragin’ Cajuns sat at 3-14 in mid-January, depleted by injuries during coach Bob Marlin’s first season. It looked like a throwaway season—until the unthinkable happened. The team that appeared lost for two months meshed under Marlin’s leadership, winning 11 games in a row to share the West division regular season title. Sophomore forward J.J. Thomas emerged as the team’s top offensive option in his rookie campaign. Although he’s just 6’5″, he simply finds a way to score when he gets the basketball. Slasher Josh Brown and point guard Raymone Andrews are both back, too, and Marlin’s got a couple of newcomers that could do some damage. In particular, juco guard Alan-Michael Thompson and Vanderbilt transfer Darshawn McClellan could play major roles on this team. The only thing standing between UL and a West title is health—only two players on last year’s roster played all 29 games. Other than that, Marlin has a team that plays good, smart basketball, which is a winning formula in any conference.
- Arkansas State: If guard Trey Finn hadn’t suffered an injury in practice before the Sun Belt Tournament, the West co-champs could have easily marched their way to the NCAA Tournament. A fan favorite for his defense and all-out effort, Finn could emerge as more of a scoring threat this season with the graduation of two starting guards. Forward Martavius Adams is the closest thing to a star on this team. His combination of strength and speed helps coach John Brady’s offense flourish. Brady will need to find a replacement for point guard Rashad Allison, but he’s got a couple of decent options to turn to, including sophomore Ed Townsel. The strength of this team, though, lies in the frontcourt. Along with Adams, junior Brandon Peterson looks like an obvious breakout candidate as one of the league’s top defensive post players. Brady’s incoming recruiting class isn’t too shabby, either: juco guards Marcus Hooten and Bryce Clark are names to remember.
- North Texas: After graduating four starters, coach Johnny Jones has a brand-new team. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case, considering he signed an NBA prospect in Tony Mitchell as a part of the league’s top recruiting class. Plus, Jones just inked a transfer this summer from Grambling in forward Justin Patton, an all-SWAC selection as a junior. Patton bolted when the NCAA deemed Grambling ineligible for postseason play, and the rules allow him to play immediately at his new school. With Patton on board and Kendrick Hogans returning in the frontcourt, Jones has an even more dangerous crew. Keep in mind, of course, that most of this roster has never played major minutes in Division I basketball. Patton’s a proven commodity and Hogans started 24 games last year, but the rest of the returning players (Alonzo Edwards, Jacob Holmen and Alzee Williams) are fairly unproven. Jones will also need to find the answer at point guard after losing the accomplished Josh White. Right now, it appears newcomers Chris Jones and Brandan Walton will duke it out for that spot. Williams and freshman Trey Norris could be in the mix for minutes as well.
- Western Kentucky: After finishing a modest 8-8 in Sun Belt play last season, the Hilltoppers lost their top three scorers and face a rash of questions entering the 2011-12 season. Still, there’s a lot to like with coach Ken McDonald’s team. Point guard Jamal Crook took control of the team late last season, and he’s one of the most efficient and reliable players in the league. As a junior, he could establish himself as one of the conference’s better lead guards. Caden Dickerson, the team’s best shooter, and Kahlil McDonald return alongside him in the backcourt. Shot-blocking forward Teeng Akol has a lot of buzz around him too, but not as much as freshmen Derrick Gordon and George Fant. Gordon’s a four-star guard from New Jersey who could start right away. Fant, a hometown product from Bowling Green, Kentucky, is a tough-nosed player who’s still working on his perimeter skills.
- Middle Tennessee: Coach Kermit Davis has finished below .500 just once during his tenure at Middle Tennessee, and he has one of the best defensive teams in the league returning. The big addition to note here is transfer LaRon Dendy, who played one season at Iowa State. Davis said he could be the best player in the Sun Belt—that’s an exaggeration, of course, but Dendy provides the Blue Raiders with a wide frame in the paint. Jason Jones is the top returning player, and he’s a strong attacking wing with a great frame. Forward J.T. Sulton also returns, and Oklahoma State transfer Torin Walker could be joining he and Dendy in the frontcourt, depending on his eligibility. Walker is embroiled in a scandal dating back to his AAU days—it’s a long story involving illegal payments—but if he can play, Davis will have one scary group of forwards. Like several other teams in this league, he’s also trying to replace his point guard after losing James Washington, the leading scorer on last year’s team. Juco guard Raymond Cintron looks like the early favorite to steal the starting spot.
- Denver: In their final season in the Sun Belt Conference, the Pioneers are a classic sleeper pick. They looked like a runaway favorite in the West Division after a 7-1 start last winter, but poor shooting and a lack of size in the post led to problems. DU eventually finished 9-7, but coach Joe Scott has most of his key pieces back for 2011-12. In particular, he’s got a trio of outstanding shooters in Brian Stafford, Chase Hallam and Travis Hallam. Also, sophomore forward Chris Udofia could become this team’s next star. Even though he’s known for his off-the-charts athleticism, Udofia has a grounded approach to basketball and plays his tail off on both ends. Scott’s team is a little small, but Udofia could bring a dangerous element to this team after playing most of last season as a reserve.
Reader’s Take II
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Tony Mitchell, UNT: Maybe the media hype will bring Mitchell down. After all, nothing’s a given in college basketball. Still, by all accounts, Mitchell deserves the praise he receives from writers and fans. NBADraft.net projects him as a lottery pick in 2013, and it’d be a surprise to see him spend more than a few years in Denton. While he’s there, though, he should certainly leave his mark. With a strong team surrounding him, Mitchell won’t need to take all the shots or carry the Mean Green by himself. And he’s playing for a consistent winner in coach Johnny Jones, which should help his development as a basketball player.
Dominique Ferguson, Florida International: We didn’t mention the Golden Panthers in the above section, but with Ferguson and point guard Phil Taylor returning for their sophomore years, along with the possible addition of big man Joey De La Rosa, FIU could finish near the top of the East division. Ferguson’s expected growth is a large part of that. He did not play poorly by any means as a freshman, but he did not dominate the conference after joining the team mid-season. Coach Isiah Thomas is lucky to have him for another year, though. Ferguson should only get better—and he’s the kind of player that could have a decent professional career in the future.
Spotlight on… Don Maestri, Troy
Head coach Don Maestri is the definition of longevity. He now enters his 30th season leading the Trojans, and assistant David Felix has stuck around for all three decades. Together, they’ve transitioned a successful Division II program into a winning Division I team, even taking the Sun Belt East crown in 2009-10. Masetri runs a distinct, up-tempo style of basketball, predicated on scoring in transition and shooting the three. It’s fun basketball to watch, and it’s helped Maestri win games for a long, long time. After losing five starters from that 2009-10 team, the Trojans struggled through an 8-21 campaign, and the rebuilding process continues this season with 12 new players surrounding star point guard Mo Weathers. Still, Weather is a perfect fit for Maestri’s team, so it’d be foolish to entirely ignore the 30th edition of Don Maestri’s Troy Trojans.
There’s no sugarcoating it: The Sun Belt has not performed well the last few seasons. But the future looks bright, and the 2011-12 season could mark the turnaround for the league. Florida Atlantic might be the league favorite, but it’s not the only team with the talent to compete with high-major teams in March. Louisiana and Arkansas State are the sort of tough, veteran squads that excel in post-season play, and North Texas and Western Kentucky have flashy, high-level talent on their squads. Even Middle Tennessee, Denver, Florida International and UALR have the potential to challenge in their respective divisions. The strength here certainly lies in the West, as every team besides Louisiana-Monroe looks like a contender. Overall, the Sun Belt Conference is back—it’s got NBA prospects, stud sophomores like Augustine Rubit and J.J. Thomas and recognizable head coaches in Mike Jarvis and John Brady. The commissioner’s office should be pleased at the improvement of this league this year.