Checking in On… the Sun Belt ConferencePosted by dnspewak on December 31st, 2011
The Week That Was
- There’s not much excitement to report from the Sun Belt’s first night of conference play on Thursday, but UALR looks like the big winner with a road win at North Texas. The Trojans, who have struggled on the road under Steve Shields in recent years, had lost all six away contests during non-conference play, but a double-double from forward Will Neighbour and stellar guard play helped grind out the victory over the Mean Green. That will probably be a theme this year in the wide open West Division, where only Denver has established itself as a power. The Pioneers, by the way, handled Troy at home in their opener. East leader Middle Tennessee also held off a pesky Florida International team in Murfreesboro, and Western Kentucky escaped in overtime at Louisiana-Monroe.
- With the second semester underway, the much anticipated debut of Tony Mitchell at North Texas hasn’t disappointed anybody. Although Mitchell struggled with foul trouble in the loss to UALR on Thursday, he has already showcased his freakish athleticism by throwing down dunk after dunk during his first four games. In wins over Jackson State, Grambling and New Orleans, Mitchell averaged more than 13 points per game and looked more than comfortable on the court. Even in a loss to LSU, Mitchell scored 11 points in 27 minutes after earning the start for Johnny Jones. He’s still improving at this point, but Mitchell should be a different player by early March.
- Middle Tennessee (12-2, 1-0) — Congratulations, Kermit Davis: you are now the winningest coach in MTSU history. Davis won his 165th game against FIU on Thursday, but more importantly, his team looks like the runaway favorite in the East after completing an impressive non-conference run. Two months ago, suggesting another division champ besides Florida Atlantic would have seemed insane, but Davis finally may have turned the corner with this program. This team is physical, nasty and downright intimidating, especially on the defensive end with LaRon Dendy and Shawn Jones as the shot-blockers. These forwards rebound well and they don’t give an inch in the paint, and on the other end — Dendy in particular has emerged as a back-to-the-basket scorer. There was never a question that MTSU would defend this season, but Bruce Massey, Marcos Knight and the rest of the guards have also answered every offensive concern Davis had in the pre-season. Middle Tennessee looks like a machine on offense right now, and that’s because it shares the ball as well as anybody in the Sun Belt.
- Florida Atlantic (4-9, 0-0) — Don’t give up on the Owls. Sure, the record doesn’t look pretty, but Mike Jarvis challenged this team by taking his players to every city imaginable: Seattle, Washington D.C., Hempstead (N.Y.), Tampa, Lawrence, Starkville, Sunrise (Fla.) and Cambridge. That’s a lot of plane trips and bus rides, so it’s not surprising that the East Division favorite stumbled. It’s not encouraging that Jarvis’s squad could not pull even a single road upset over the likes of Kansas, Mississippi State, Miami or Harvard, but this team has not looked intimidated in any of those contests. It fought admirably in a double-overtime loss to the Hurricanes, using a frantic comeback late in regulation to shock UM. And the good news is, all-league point guard Ray Taylor is starting to play better after an early-season slump, and freshman Omari Grier has cracked into this loaded backcourt as the team’s best outside shooter. When FAU kicks off Sun Belt play on Saturday at Louisiana, don’t expect it to roll over and die.
- South Alabama (8-3, 0-0) — If there’s anybody in the league that can line up and match MTSU’s physicality up front, it might be South Alabama. With Augustine Rubit leading the way, the Jaguars are ferocious on the offensive glass. Sure, South Alabama doesn’t have any quality wins yet, and it has not played well against high-level competition. That doesn’t mean these Jaguars aren’t a surprise, though. With guard Xavier Roberson injured, coach Ronnie Arrow just needs to find a way for this backcourt to compliment Rubit, Antione Lundy and Javier Carter, all of whom are not easy to keep off the boards.
- Western Kentucky (5-9, 1-0) — Every time WKU appears to turn a corner, it subsequently takes a step back in some fashion. After opening a double-digit lead at Louisville and fighting the Cardinals all the way to the final minutes in an encouraging loss, the Hilltoppers then needed overtime on Thursday to defeat 1-13 Louisiana-Monroe. What gives? Let’s chalk it up to the youth. The players seemed to think the UL loss was a turning point in the season, as it showed them they could actually play together as a cohesive unit. That’s the kind of effort Ken McDonald needs if he wants to save this 2011-12 season. This team still doesn’t seem to know where it will get its shots on the offensive end, and that’s because guys like Derrick Gordon, T.J. Price and George Fant are so new to the college game. Veteran point guard Jamal Crook has lost playing time recently, but he has to take the reigns here and play better in order for this team to thrive.
- Troy (5-7, 0-1) — Coach Don Maestri‘s 30th season hasn’t been a disaster by any means. In fact, with a brand-new squad, he’s done a nice job with this group so far. Still, this team isn’t defending or rebounding well enough to be a compete in the East this year. Troy actually ranks #294 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, part of which stems from Maestri’s lack of bulk in the paint. Like a traditional, guard-oriented Maestri team, these guys love to get out and run, and Mo Weathers is terrific at handling that pace. Still, with no post presence to speak of, bigger teams will pound the Trojans over and over again. Luckily, it does appear that Troy’s newcomers can shoot the basketball a little bit, which is good news considering they shoot as much as anybody around.
- Florida International (3-10, 0-1) — The season looked promising for FIU after a win over George Mason to open the season, but Isiah Thomas‘s team has lost control ever since. The Golden Panthers have now lost four in a row, but they’re not dead yet. Freshman center Joey De La Rosa, who has potential through the roof as a big man under Thomas, made his debut on Thursday night in a close loss to MTSU. He was not very productive in 25 minutes of playing time (four points, two blocks and three turnovers before fouling out), but the point is he’s back in the game. De La Rosa could be a key for FIU’s turnaround, especially if Phil Taylor and Dominique Ferguson continue to play well. The sophomore duo combined for 36 points on Thursday night.
- Denver (11-2, 1-0) — Joe Scott is about to make history. If his team can knock off UALR on New Year’s Eve, it will officially surpass its best start in DU history. The Pioneers, who now have their sights set on a post-season berth, are winning for very simple reasons. Scott’s teams always resemble his Princeton predecessors in some way, but this year, Denver has consistently passed well, defended well and shot lights-out from three. This team never wastes possessions and every single player on the team shares the ball. There are no egos, no agendas and no selfish play. Sure, DU won’t bully anybody down low, but Chris Udofia has become an irreplaceable part of this frontcourt because of his shot-blocking, scoring and passing abilities. Brian Stafford also looks like an early pick for all-league honors, as he’s shooting nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc.
- Louisiana (6-8, 0-0) — J.J. Thomas is back. Be scared. He returned from an injury to score 12 points in 18 minutes during a 61-60 victory over Central Florida, and now that he’s in the fold, the Ragin’ Cajuns are a completely different team. Bob Marlin orchestrated quite a turnaround in his first year on the job in 2010-11, overcoming early injuries to lead his program to a West title. That’s what might happen again this winter, with Thomas forming a dangerous trio up front alongside newcomers Kadeem Coleby (junior college transfer) and Darshawn McClellan (Vanderbilt transfer). Those two players have already established themselves as major contributors, and it’s clear Marlin has the talent to at least compete for another division title.
- Arkansas State (6-8, 0-0) — It’s amazing John Brady has managed to win six games so far this season. Without an efficient point guard, ASU has managed to stay afloat by winning the majority of its home games. The problem is, strong opponents have exposed the Red Wolves. Kent State whooped Arkansas State for 40 minutes on Thursday in Jonesboro, leading from start to finish by holding ASU to 36 percent shooting. Point guard Ed Townsel may have hit rock bottom in a 1-10 shooting performance, though it should be noted that he finished with five assists. There just aren’t a lot of scoring options on this team right now. Keep an eye on how guard Marcus Hooten develops — he does appear to have the potential to take a game over.
- North Texas (7-7, 0-1) — As Tony Mitchell continues to get better, his team should only follow suit. Freshman point guard Chris Jones is carrying this team right now as the leading assists man and scorer, but he must cut down on the turnovers (4.1 per game). That’s just another sign of the youth on this squad. It won five of six games to close non-conference play before falling at home to UALR on Thursday, and some of the problems stem from poor outside shooting. Jones, Jordan Williams and Brandon Walton are the team’s top gunners, but they’ve all disappointed in that category so far. In fact, UNT is statistically one of the worst teams in Division I basketball from beyond the arc.
- UALR (4-10, 1-0) — It’s probably unfair to list the Trojans below UNT. They did just knock off the Mean Green in Denton. But this team is difficult to gauge after faring so poorly against a tough non-conference slate. Had North Texas played Steve Shields’ schedule, it probably would not be sitting at .500 right now. And Shields has to be pleased with the way Will Neighbour handled Tony Mitchell on Thursday night, dominating him in every aspect of the game. Mitchell was a non-factor, whereas Neighbour finished with a double-double. Not bad, young fellow.
- ULM (1-13, 0-1) — So close, Keith Richard. Your team played admirably at home against Western Kentucky, rallying from a six-point deficit in the final minute to force overtime. ULM had even trailed by 15 in the second half, but it could not contain WKU guard Kevin Kaspar in overtime, as he scored six points to lead the Hilltoppers to a win. It’s been that kind of year for the Warhawks, who are ineligible for post-season play due to substandard graduation rates. Richard’s team previously scored just 35 points against Indiana State, and it won its only game back in late November.
- South Alabama at Middle Tennessee, Saturday, December 31: Break out the gauze pads and the band-aids — this one’s getting nasty. Augustine Rubit will go head-to-head with LaRon Dendy in a battle of two of the toughest men in the league, and we can’t wait to see how this one shakes out. MTSU has a more complete team and better guards, but Rubit is a handful for every forward he faces in the paint. He is undersized but relentless, and Dendy will have to match his energy in order to outplay him.
- Denver at Arkansas State, Thursday, January 5: The Pioneers’ hot start could be in jeopardy here, as they’ll hit the road in Sun Belt play for the first time. ASU has always played well at home under John Brady, and you’ve got to think his Red Wolves will be gunning for the upstart Pioneers in this matchup. Denver has played just fine on the road this season, however. After all, it did end Utah State’s lengthy road winning streak by knocking off the Aggies by 13 points, and it also won a sneaky game at in-state rival Northern Colorado earlier this month.
Caught on Film
How much does Tony Mitchell mean to the North Texas fan base? Judge for yourself — there’s a video of his first practice as a member of the Mean Green. Check it out below: