Checking In On… the Sun Belt ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on November 18th, 2011
The Week That Was
- Blue Raiders > Blueblood: Middle Tennessee came to play this November. The Blue Raiders quietly earned a solid season-opening victory over Austin Peay, a favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. Two days later, it knocked off Loyola Marymount—and then, the Blue Raiders earned one of the more significant victories of Kermit Davis’s tenure by blowing out UCLA 86-66 on Tuesday night. Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy dominated the Bruins, who played without star forward Reeves Nelson, and MTSU’s famous defense held UCLA in check. Most impressively, the Blue Raiders made 10-11 three-point attempts. Even Davis wasn’t quite sure how to describe the performance: “it was a perfect storm tonight,” he said.
- Arkansas State Sputtering: The start of the season didn’t fare so well for the Red Wolves. After losing all-conference forward Martavius Adams to dismissal earlier this fall, ASU fell by three points to Lamar and then got embarrassed by Missouri State in a home blowout. John Brady’s team didn’t start very well last year either, and it still finished with a share of the Sun Belt West title. But the Red Wolves have a long way to go at this point, but maybe they started to turn it around last night with a win over UT-Martin.
- Owls Struggle Out Of The Gate: The consensus favorite in the Sun Belt, Florida Atlantic, may be 1-3, but it looked very competitive in those two losses to solid Portland and Washington teams. FAU even nearly completed a double-digit comeback against the Huskies, cutting the lead to four before eventually falling short. The trouble came Wednesday night, when the Owls went cold from the field in an ugly loss to American. Again, it’s early; too early to make any sweeping judgments. These are the same players that dominated the East division last year, so we’ll cut them some slack for now.
- Florida Atlantic (1-3): There’s no panicking here: FAU is still the top dog in the East. The Owls salvaged a victory in the World Vision Classic by knocking off Georgia State on Monday, making 15 three-pointers in a seven-point victory. Greg Gantt, who struggled from beyond the arc last season, has already shown improvement in that category this year; he made five three-pointers on Monday, and freshman sharpshooter Omari Grier made a trio himself in each of the past two games. Grier’s performance is especially noteworthy. If he can keep shooting like that, he’ll be able to push for minutes in a crowded backcourt. FAU may have missed two opportunities for quality wins against Portland and UW, but it can redeem itself with a killer non-conference schedule against the likes of Kansas, Mississippi State and Harvard.
- Middle Tennessee State (3-0): If we were to purely judge the performance of the opening week, Middle Tennessee would find itself in first place in these rankings. After three games, Kermit Davis’ team has played exceptionally well. LaRon Dendy has looked every bit as good as predicted, and the Blue Raiders’ defense has carried the team. MTSU is considered one of the Sun Belt’s top defensive squads, and it’s showed so far.
- Florida International (1-1): Facing a team with a Final Four appearance and a steady stream of NCAA Tournament berths, nobody gave Isiah Thomas’s team much of a shot in the first round of the Preseason NIT against George Mason. In fact, nobody ever gives Thomas much of a shot at all as a college coach, but his team scored a major victory by knocking off the Patriots in overtime. Point guard Phil Taylor already looks like a different player as a sophomore, and star DeJuan Wright played his role perfectly by scoring the tying bucket in the final seconds of regulation. Despite a loss to Virginia Tech in the next round, it’s looking like FIU could be a sleeper in this league.
- Western Kentucky (1-2): Be patient with this young team. The year got off to a rocky start with a home loss to St. Joseph’s on November 11, and WKU even looked a little rusty in a win over Tennessee State. With so many new faces and not much experience, it’s more important to focus on the individual bright spots at this point. Freshman phenom Derrick Gordon made 16 of 18 free throws against the Hawks and then scored 10 points against TSU, but even he’s a work in progress. He turned the ball over nine times in that TSU game and shot poorly from the floor in the season opener. Like the rest of the team, though, you take the bad with the good right now. By the end of the year, this team’s talent will be evident.
- South Alabama (1-1): Even against a Mississippi State team missing Renardo Sidney, South Alabama dropped its season opener in a blowout on the road in Starkville. Offensively, the bright spot was Augustine Rubit, who showed he can play with the big boys. He can play with the Division II teams, too, of course, as he scored 18 points in a win over Mobile on Wednesday.
- Troy (1-1): If only the Trojans could play La Grange every night. The Division II team did not fare well against Troy, as Don Maestri’s team hung 116 points in its home opener. Maestri let his large group of newcomers get most of the minutes, as star point guard Mo Weathers played just 17 minutes. That’s OK, though: he scored 24 points in a competitive loss to Texas Tech last weekend.
- Louisiana (1-2): If not for a heartbreaking loss in the final minute against San Francisco, UL might have left the Hilltop Challenge feeling OK about itself. Instead, the Ragin’ Cajuns headed home with a losing record, which probably isn’t exactly what head coach Bob Marlin envisioned. Still, the Dons are a decent West Coast Conference program, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about for a close, nail-biting loss to a team like that. Make no mistake, this is still the West favorite right here.
- Denver (3-0): Brian Stafford made us look good for a couple of games, at least. The RTC pre-season All-Sun Belt selection scored 32 points in a season-opening victory over Portland State, and he then followed up that performance with 25 points over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, before suffering a tough third game (only three points) against Southern Miss on Thursday night. Still, DU won the game and Denver is looking like that classic sleeper pick right now. And speaking of sleepers, Chris Udofia is also playing like the breakout candidate we predicted he’d be. The sophomore forward, now a starter after playing as a reserve as a freshman, has rewarded coach Joe Scott by scoring in double-figures in each game.
- North Texas (1-1): Talk about a missed opportunity. With a chance to knock off a Big 12 opponent in a half-full arena, UNT fell short in a down-to-the-wire battle with Texas Tech. The young Mean Green made just one three-pointer, and it came from freshman Chris Jones, who lit up the scoreboard with 31 points. The point guard was spectacular all night, so much that it’s surprising he’s not trending on Twitter right now.
- Arkansas-Little Rock (2-1): UALR needed a scorer after the graduation of SBC Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman. And it appears Chuck Guy is more than ready to take on that role. There are a lot of unknowns still with these Trojans, but Guy has stepped up his productivity. He’s now the player taking most of the shots for Arkansas-Little Rock, and he’s got a lot of help from D’Andre Williams, the steady veteran presence and one of the league’s top point guards.
- Arkansas State (1-2): After two bad performances followed by a win last night, John Brady’s team is stepping away from the ledge. No, it’s not time to fold the men’s basketball program at ASU or anything. This team started slow a year ago and recovered quite well. But last year’s team didn’t lose its star player before the season started. After a loss at Lamar and a shellacking by Missouri State, the Red Wolves have gone from a West contender to a struggling team missing its best player. Unfortunately, Martavius Adams isn’t coming back, so the team will need to learn how to win without him, and maybe UT-Martin was just what the doctor ordered (in the form of a 63-45 win).
- Louisiana-Monroe (0-3): The Warhawks looked like a team with nothing to lose for at least a half on Wednesday night, matching Tennessee punch-for-punch until halftime. After the break, reality set in. But it’s apparent that Keith Richard’s players are going to compete this season, despite the fact that the program is ineligible for the post-season. ULM also battled reigning Missouri Valley tourney champs Indiana State admirably, as that game did not get out of hand until late in the second half.
- Denver at California, Nov. 26: The upcoming six-game stretch for the Pioneers is brutal: they’ll play home games against Southern Miss and St. Mary’s before this contest with Cal. After that, DU plays at Utah State in late November and hosts MAAC favorite Iona in early December. If the Pioneers even win two of those games, Joe Scott will have to consider the stretch a success.
- Louisiana at Kent State, Nov. 28: This may be the Ragin’ Cajuns’ most difficult challenge of the non-conference season, as the Golden Flashes bring back the majority of their roster from last season and should contend in the MAC. They also just handled West Virginia in a ten-point victory during the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon. The MAC is traditionally one of the hardest leagues to win on the road, so UL will get a first-hand look at that urban legend in this contest.
- Florida Atlantic at Kansas, Nov. 30: After hosting North Texas last November, the Jayhawks will once again welcome the Sun Belt favorites to Allen Fieldhouse. FAU hasn’t looked sharp early, but maybe a few weeks of play will help it find its rhythm. KU’s size will pose problems, of course, but from a quickness standpoint, the Owls’ guards can run with anybody.
Caught On Film
For most of the college basketball world, FIU’s overtime victory over George Mason barely mattered. For Isiah Thomas, the win was monumental. With his status as a Hall of Fame NBA player, he has faced excessive criticism early in his tenure at Florida International, more so than a more anonymous coach would have had to deal with. On Monday, Thomas finally helped silence the critics. His team knocked off a perennial postseason contender, and for a mid-major, it could be just the start they need for the 2011-12 season.