Checking In On… the Sun Belt ConferencePosted by dnspewak on January 28th, 2012
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
- Now off to the best start in program history, Middle Tennessee has its sights set on more than just a Sun Belt East Division title. Instead, the Blue Raiders have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, especially if they can win at Vanderbilt in an out-of-conference tilt this weekend. At 20-2, MTSU has not lost in league play yet, and it leads preseason favorite Florida Atlantic by four games in the win column. Joe Lunardi from the vaunted four-letter network has the Blue Raiders in the NCAAs as a #12 seed, so they may actually have a little breathing room if they fail to win the SBC tourney. Of course, this is all moot if they stumble down the stretch in conference play.
- A lot of teams have beaten Lousiana-Monroe this season — 19, to be exact. But during the Warhawks woeful 2-19 season, no team has come close to what Troy did to them last weekend. The Trojans, never shy to jack up three-pointers under coach Don Maestri, tied an NCAA record by making 11 straight three-pointers in a 91-63 victory. Overall, Troy made 15 threes, and that streak of 11 threes ties marks set by Niagara and Eastern Kentucky in 1997. The statistics get better and better, too. Troy made almost as many threes (15) as twos (15), and Justin Wright tied his career-high with four made treys. And as for the Warhawks? They made a measly six three-pointers.
- Middle Tennessee (20-2, 9-0): Nothing has changed since our last update two weeks ago. The Blue Raiders, who entered the season as a questionable pick in the East because of offensive concerns, are far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference. It’s to the point where Middle Tennessee can no longer judge itself purely by the wins it amasses. Rather, it looks as though this team could beat just about anybody when March rolls around. That’s because the Blue Raiders hound opponents on the defensive end and have the size of a major-conference squad. Bruce Massey has also played terrific basketball on both ends of the floor, as he’s been a catalyst for this team’s 20-2 start.
- Florida Atlantic (9-12, 5-3): With a few close victories over rival FIU and Western Kentucky, the Owls are back on track. Unlike North Texas last season, which fell from preseason consensus favorite to middle-0f-the-pack, FAU actually has a chance to turn this thing around in 2011-12. It’s not dead yet, but it may need to run the table from here on out to have any chance of catching Middle Tennessee. Point guard Ray Taylor still doesn’t look like the Player of the Year candidate he should be, but he’s starting to play better after a tough start to the season. If he gets his game going, this team could make a late push.
- Florida International (5-14, 2-5): Individually, DeJuan Wright is enjoying an All-Conference season, and he’s going to add a huge lift to this team now that he’s returned from injury. Still, it’s been a struggle for Isiah Thomas’ program, especially since freshman Joey De La Rosa has not offered much production since joining the team mid-season. After gaining eligibility, De La Rosa has not acclimated to the college game, and he’s now on the bench after starting the first five games of his career. In fact, he has not logged a minute in two of the past three games for the Golden Panthers.
- South Alabama (10-9, 2-6): Inexplicably, USA has now lost all four of its Sun Belt home games, most recently dropping contests to FIU and MTSU. The Jaguars have now lost three straight games overall, mostly because of an inability to execute offensively. With a brand-new set of guards this season, Ronnie Arrow‘s bunch has played inconsistently. Take Freddie Goldstein, for example, who averages double-figures but finished 0-10 from the floor against Middle Tennessee.
- Troy (6-9, 1-3): Normally a high-octane offensive squad, Troy has struggled to score this winter. Save for that game against ULM, the Trojans are struggling from three-point land and can’t find that take-over scoring option. Mo Weathers may be one of the league’s more talented point guards, but he needs a guy like Vernon Taylor to score for him like he did last year. With Taylor gone, nobody’s been able to fill the void.
- Western Kentucky (5-13, 1-4): The Hilltoppers are at least showing signs of life under coach Ray Harper, knocking off West contender UALR before playing FAU tough. This is a fast, athletic team with a lot of potential down the road, especially if Derrick Gordon keeps playing better basketball. Gordon, a celebrated recruit out of New Jersey, has finally found his groove in the middle of his freshman season. He scored 15 points on 5-10 shooting in that close loss to the Owls, and he’s been held to fewer than 10 points in only one Sun Belt contest so far.
- UALR (9-13, 6-2): After two straight losses, the Trojans got back to the basics this week by playing stifling defense and hitting the glass. Steve Shields’ team responded with a 75-50 win over South Alabama, thanks in part to strong guard play from D’Andre Williams and Chuck Guy, as well as Courtney Jackson‘s 12 points. Guy and Williams combined for 10 assists against just two turnovers, serving as the catalysts for a blowout victory that was never in question. Now, UALR hosts the most important home game of the season this weekend when Denver comes to town.
- Denver (16-5, 6-2): With the Sun Belt schedule halfway finished, that game at the Jack Stephens Center on Saturday will determine first place in the conference. The Pioneers need to avenge an earlier home loss to UALR, a game in which the Trojans dominated the boards and held Denver’s three-point shooting in check. That’s a good recipe for a home win for UALR this time around. For DU, it’s all about offensive efficiency. Brian Stafford will need a big night, and it wouldn’t hurt of Chris Udofia exploited a favorable match-up. He scored 21 in a win over Arkansas State this week, and he’s also very difficult for most opposing bigs to stop because of his blend of size and athleticism.
- Louisiana (11-11, 5-3): Don’t think Bob Marlin‘s team is out of this race yet. Last year, UL went on a tear in February to earn a share of the West title out of nowhere. This year, even with an injury earlier in the season to star forward J.J. Thomas, Marlin’s team is hanging around, sitting just a game out of first place. Thomas seems finally recovered from his injury, too — he scored a season-high 20 points last weekend against Arkansas State. With two games remaining against Denver and another contest with UALR, the Ragin’ Cajuns just may sneak up on us again.
- North Texas (12-9, 5-3): Talk about a tough break for coach Johnny Jones. The Mean Green learned that freshmen Chris Jones and Jordan Williams will not play the rest of the season because of academic problems. Jones, one of the league’s top freshmen guards and UNT’s leading scorer, did just about everything for this team. He was a defensive pest, too, and he’ll be sorely missed. So will Williams, a big-time recruit with loads of potential who averaged double figures this year. Without those two, even phenom Tony Mitchell probably can’t carry this young team to a title.
- Arkansas State (9-13, 3-5): John Brady also knows a thing or two about losing his star. He had to kick of Martavius Adams off the team before the season, which has crippled ASU in this division. Even though Malcoln Kirkland has responded well to an expanded role, this team’s guards are not getting it done. Only Trey Finn currently has an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 1:1 right now. That’s not good enough to cut it in this league on the offensive end.
- ULM (2-19, 1-7): Just keep trucking on, Keith Richard. ULM’s last five losses have come by double-digits, including this beat-down and three-point barrage by Troy recently. With only eight games remaining — the Warhawks are not eligible for the SBC tourney- – Richard will need to look for small improvements here and there. Sophomore Charles Winborne is one of those players to keep an eye on. He’s actually one of the league’s better outside shooters and has developed as a scoring threat for ULM.
- Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt, Jan. 28: At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for MTSU. Win this game and the Blue Raiders could be well on their way to an NCAA tourney at-large bid an a top-25 ranking. Otherwise, all of the pressure may come down to three games in March. And that’s not what Kermit Davis wants.
- Denver at UALR, Jan. 28: UALR may top our power rankings, but it was hardly an easy decision. These two squads have something to prove on Saturday — especially Denver, which already lost at home to the Trojans. Denver also plays four of its next five on the road, so a loss could send it into a potential tailspin if it’s not careful.
Caught on Film
FAU needs every win it can get at this point. Watch its most recent nail-biter here, from an up-close perspective: