Checking in On… the Sun Belt ConferencePosted by dnspewak on January 13th, 2012
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
- It wasn’t Ken McDonald‘s fault this his team lost in overtime to Louisiana earlier this month. The Ragin’ Cajuns, after all, scored the winning bucket with six players on the floor. After more than three years of McDonald’s frustrating tenure, though, the Sixth Man loss must have been the final straw for athletic director Ross Bjork. McDonald lost his job after the game, departing with a 67-49 record. Now, interim head coach Ray Harper must mold this young team into a competitor this winter, which should be a tall task for a team mired in a 1-7 free-fall since December 7.
- Tony Mitchell‘s debut in Sun Belt play did not exactly make any headlines, as he fought foul trouble and scored just six points in each of his first two games. The third SBC contest with South Alabama was a charm, however. Mitchell went for 34 points and 16 rebounds, scoring in every way imaginable. He attacked the glass, fired from three-point range and finished 11-14 from the field. And last night, Mitchell’s hot streak continued with a 21-point effort in front of several NBA scouts in Denton. We knew this would be the case, but it’s starting to look like Mitchell is a sure one-and-done.
- Middle Tennessee (16-2, 5-0): Here’s an easy formula to dominate a league: bully people on the glass and on the defensive end. That’s where MTSU makes its living. Averaging 11 offensive rebounds per game as a team, the frontcourt duo of LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton is simply unfair right now. Plus, with Bruce Massey playing well at the point and MTSU’s depth starting to round into shape, Kermit Davis doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses right now. Except, of course, for one big one: three-point shooting. Even though they do most of their damage in the paint, the Blue Raiders do not have an outside threat right now. Raymond Cintron is the only player really capable of getting hot from the perimeter, and even he shoots less than 40 percent from the field. Besides that, it’s hard to envision Davis’ team suffering a collapse after this 5-0 start. Saturday’s game at preseason favorite Florida Atlantic might be the most important game of the season.
- Florida Atlantic (6-11, 2-2): That’s the good news for FAU — despite a subpar non-conference performance and a couple of ugly road losses in SBC play, the Owls have a chance to redeem themselves with MTSU coming to town this weekend. Although it’s not even February yet, the importance of this game cannot be understated for FAU. If it wants to repeat as East champs, it must win this basketball game. Otherwise, nobody’s going to knock off MTSU in this division. It all comes down to Ray Taylor. The veteran point guard was a preseason Player of the Year pick by many, but he’s fallen off the map in 2011-12. UALR held him scoreless last week, and he missed the Owls’ most recent game against Arkansas State with an injury. If he can’t get healthy this season, Mike Jarvis is in trouble with this once-promising team.
- South Alabama (9-6, 1-3): Here’s where the drop-off in the Sun Belt East begins. USA, which won its first league game on Thursday night, sits in the third spot here by default. There’s still reason to believe Ronnie Arrow can make something out of this season, though. The Jaguars have lost to three league contenders in MTSU, North Texas and Denver to begin the SBC season, and that’s not an easy slate for a team with an entirely new backcourt to take on. A 70-65 win on Thursday at the Cajundome over Louisiana might jump start this team, and it’s especially encouraging that South Alabama won without a major contribution from star center Augustine Rubit.
- Troy (6-9, 1-3): The Trojans broke a four-game losing streak by winning at reeling Western Kentucky last weekend. After a week off, they’ll now play three straight home games, capped off by a date with hapless ULM on Jan. 21. There’s an opportunity here for Don Maestri‘s team to approach .500 in the Sun Belt, which sounds like a nice goal considering how low expectations were a few months ago. Just don’t doubt the legendary Maestri, and don’t judge his team’s 1-3 start. Like USA, Troy also had to play three contenders in its first three SBC games (Denver, UNT and MTSU). By grinding out a win in Bowling Green, the Trojans might be jockeying with USA for that third-seed in the East this March.
- Florida International (4-12, 1-3): After appearing to turn a corner with a blowout victory over WKU on New Year’s Eve, the Golden Panthers hit rock bottom in a loss to Louisiana-Monroe a week later. That’s the first and perhaps only game ULM will win in Sun Belt play this season, and it happened on FIU’s home court. Florida International shot 33 percent from the field, and guards Jeremy Allen and Phil Taylor combined to take 34 shots (they made 10). Poor shot selection plagued it again in a loss to Middle Tennessee on Thursday, as Isiah Thomas could not find any production out of anyone besides Allen and Dominique Ferguson. This was the year Thomas was supposed to turn this program around, but that’s not happening right now.
- Western Kentucky (5-13, 1-4): Let’s go easy on the Hilltoppers, who have now lost four straight and could be headed for a disastrous season. This team is already fighting severe inexperience and major injuries. Now, they’ve lost their head coach and must play through a time of complete turmoil. The passionate fan base is angry right now, but who can blame them? This proud program should never sit in last place in the East Division, especially not with this sort of talent on the floor. The path won’t get any easier, either. WKU’s next three games: at Denver, vs. UALR and at FAU. Ouch. Can you say 1-7?
- UALR (7-11, 4-0): Sitting at 3-10 after a loss at Illinois State in late December, the Trojans looked like a cellar-dweller. Sure, they’d played a tough non-conference schedule, but clearly this wasn’t the same team without Solomon Bozeman and the rest of last year’s backcourt. But fast-forward a month, and Steve Shields has worked his magic. It’s been miraculous, really. UALR has now won four of five games. The loss? It came at Rupp Arena against Kentucky, and the Trojans led that game at halftime. After blowing out ULM in a trap game on Thursday, the Trojans are now the only undefeated team in the West. UALR is starting to shoot the ball better — save for a peculiar 40-38 win against FAU, the lowest-scoring game in Jack Stephens Center history. With a terrific defensive effort, the Trojans made this a true Steve Shields game, showing resiliency by capping the game on an 8-0 run. That’s the mark of a contender right there.
- Denver (13-4, 3-1): The upstart Pioneers were the Sun Belt darlings during November and December, and there’s no reason they can’t still win the West. But with a home loss to UALR already, there is no justification to slot them at the top besides the ever-subjective “gut-feeling.” Along with MTSU, Denver has one of the better overall resumes in the SBC, but it will need to keep executing offensively to continue the success. Defense is never a problem for Joe Scott’s team, but UALR clamped down on the Pioneers and forced them into a horrendous shooting night from the perimeter. That’s the only way to beat DU, which loves to shoot the three. Despite a loss at Colorado State this week, the Pioneers at least recovered nicely from that home loss with two gritty road wins.
- North Texas (10-8, 3-2): Tony Mitchell might get all the accolades, but freshman Chris Jones is the heart and soul of this team right now. He’s a big reason why this young team has won three of four games. Even in a sluggish shooting effort in Thursday’s win over WKU, Jones still dished out seven assists. And though he’s turned the ball over a bit too much this year, he also defends with tenacity and has scored in double figures in 13 of 18 games. Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin is also helping this team as a veteran presence. He scored 20 against Western Kentucky and has become a big part of Johnny Jones‘ rotation.
- Louisiana (8-10, 2-2): If you thought Bob Marlin was going to take his money and run so-to-speak after beating WKU with six players on the floor, you’re wrong. Marlin, a consistent winner and a stand-up guy by all accounts, told the Daily Advertiser he feels “distraught that it’s brought publicity to our team and university and our conference.” Either way, the call isn’t getting overturned, and UL survived what could have been an RPI-killer loss at Western Kentucky. The Ragin’ Cajuns are still waiting for star sophomore J.J. Thomas to come around after returning from a mid-season injury. He’s played reasonably well for the most part, but Marlin isn’t starting him yet in order to ease him back. Thomas did not fare very well against MTU’s bigs, making just one field goal in a five-point effort.
- Arkansas State (8-10, 2-2): John Brady‘s teams have not lost in Jonesboro much during his tenure, but it suffered two surprising losses at the Convocation Center to Denver and FAU to open Sun Belt play. That is simply unacceptable for this team, which still has the talent to compete in the West. Maybe the odd scheduling had something to do with it — ASU played three games in five games from Jan. 5 to Jan. 9. And it lost two home games. You think Brady might complain to the league about that one in the 0ff-season?
- ULM (2-16, 1-4): This team is showing life despite its rough start and ineligibility for the post-season. In addition to knocking off FIU, it also played ASU to the wire at home. Keith Richard doesn’t have a ton of scoring options right now. Fred Brown, the team’s leading scorer for the past two seasons, rarely leaves the floor and is asked to shoulder a pretty heavy load as the main offensive threat. That’s a lot to ask of one guy, and it has hurt his percentages. Richard also does not have much size, instead relying on Brown, Charles Winborne and Hugh Mingo to carry this team in the backcourt.
- Middle Tennessee at Florida Atlantic, Jan. 14: As we mentioned earlier, this is a critical game for FAU at home. The Owls won’t be able to match MTSU’s size, and things could get ugly if Dendy and Sulton take over the game in the paint. Jarvis has a lot of speed to utilize, though, and it would help if Ray Taylor could return and play productively.
- Denver at North Texas, Jan. 21: Mitchell is a terrific athlete, but it’s going to be a blast watching him play against DU’s Chris Udofia, who can run and jump with the best of them. Udofia is enjoying a breakout season as a sophomore, and though he’s not as good of a rebounder as Mitchell, he won’t be an easy matchup for him. DU needs this road win to stay on track in the West.
Caught on Film
WKU AD Ross Bjork had been under fire for the Ken McDonald situation for months now. After finally letting the coach go, here’s what he had to say about the debacle: