Checking In On The… Sun Belt ConferencePosted by dnspewak on February 10th, 2012
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
- Florida Atlantic’s season may be the strangest in recent memory in the Sun Belt. The preseason favorites dropped games to South Alabama (February 2) and Florida International (February 4) by a combined 31 points, appearing to hit rock bottom during this miserable 2011-12 campaign. And then, something funny happened: the Owls recovered from a blown 15-point lead to edge upstart Denver on Thursday, moving above .500 in Sun Belt play. With five games remaining, Mike Jarvis‘ team is essentially eliminated in the East, but perhaps edging the Pioneers will offer it a little late-season momentum.
- North Texas may have lost two starters due to eligibility issues, but Tony Mitchell is single-handedly carrying the Mean Green right now. Lately, he’s showing flashes of his NBA potential as the league’s leading rebounder. He shoots 53.6% from three-point range, he has five double-doubles already and he’s dropped 30 points on two teams — as a freshman. Last week, Arkansas State became his latest victim. Mitchell went for 21 points and 15 rebounds in UNT’s 76-64 win.
- Middle Tennessee (22-4, 11-1): It was bound to happen at some point. Facing an especially energized crowd at Denver thanks to an ESPN2 telecast, the Blue Raiders were no match for the intensity of the building. Unable to impose its will on the boards or defend at its normal level, Middle Tennessee also turned the ball over 17 times and looked rattled for the first time, well, ever. It carried over to Thursday night, when Western Kentucky forced the Blue Raiders to miss 18 of their first 20 shots. Eventually, they recovered for a fairly easy win, but we’re finding out that MTSU is human after all.
- Florida Atlantic (10-14, 6-5): At this point, Mike Jarvis has to focus on getting better in small increments in order to make a run in the Sun Belt Tournament next month. With his veteran team’s collapse this year, FAU can now only share an East title if a) Middle Tennessee loses out and b) the Owls win out. That would have seemed like a ridiculous situation just a few months ago, but that’s the nature of sports and college basketball in general. Much has been made of Ray Taylor‘s subpar season, but this team has a lot of problems that extend beyond his play. Kore White never showed up this year, nor did any other forward on this roster. Jarvis has to wish Brett Royster could gain a little eligibility these days.
- Western Kentucky (8-16, 4-7): In an era of so many negatives for Western Kentucky basketball, let’s give a little credit to Ray Harper and his staff for salvaging something out of a disaster scenario in 2011-12. The turnaround has been modest, but the Hilltoppers have won three of five and played Middle Tennessee tough for a good portion of Thursday’s contest. Finally, Jamal Crook has taken over as the leader of this team at point guard. He struggled against the Blue Raiders, but he dished out 20 assists in his previous three games. The junior is a likable, hard-working defender and facilitator, so it’s nice to see him excelling near the end of his career. Amazingly, he has also made a trio of three-pointers during Sun Belt play. Keep in mind that Crook had never made a three-point shot before this season.
- Florida International (7-16, 4-7): This season hasn’t materialized for Isiah Thomas, but at least DeJuan Wright is enjoying a stellar senior season. He has flown under the radar a little bit in this league, but he actually leads the Sun Belt in scoring and has been nothing short of brilliant since returning from an injury in mid-January. Never one to force a shot or play outside of the flow of the offense, Wright also defends and rebounds at an elite level and almost never leaves the floor. He may be overlooked because of the time his missed this season, but Thomas is fortunate to have a senior star to lean on like Wright.
- South Alabama (13-10, 5-7): Look who’s emerging in the Sun Belt East. USA has won three of four games by defending its home court, a modest improvement for a program still trying to get over the hump under Ronnie Arrow. Sophomore forward Augustine Rubit hasn’t missed a beat, averaging nearly a double-double and 14.7 points per game. His production is still down a little bit from last year, though that’s to be expected since he burst onto the scene as a freshman and caught the Sun Belt off-guard. Even now that the league has caught up, Rubit’s career should only continue to improve.
- Troy (7-15, 2-9): Now mired in a four-game losing streak, Troy has forgotten how to score. How often do you say that about a Don Maestri team? The Trojans scored a season-low 50 points in a loss to FIU and shot 22 percent from three in Saturday’s loss to Louisiana. Mo Weathers can make things happen with the ball in his hands, but he can’t do everything alone. His fellow three-point snipers are not pulling their weight right now.
- UALR (12-13, 9-2): The Trojans heated up at just the right time Thursday night, rallying to force overtime before eventually knocking off Louisiana, 72-70. It’s a huge win for UALR, which now takes sole possession of first place in the West Division. The victory also avenges an earlier home loss, in which the Trojans were thumped by 19 points. Steve Shields’ team isn’t ready to stop here, though. UALR now heads to Murfreesboro for a showdown with Middle Tennessee this weekend, a potential preview of the Sun Belt title game in March.
- Louisiana (14-12, 8-4): Despite throwing away a golden opportunity on Thursday at home, the Ragin’ Cajuns aren’t dead just yet. With home games against Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe still remaining, this team could easily win out or take three of its final four games. Yes, UL will need some help from UALR — and the way the Trojans are playing, it doesn’t appear they’ll slip up — but at least Bob Marlin‘s guys have recovered from a somewhat disappointing non-conference season, mostly hampered by J.J. Thomas’ injury.
- Denver (17-8, 7-5): Chris Udofia blew up in that home win over Middle Tennessee, refusing to back down against the league’s top frontcourt by scoring 27 points and blocking four shots. The sophomore then followed up that performance with 20 points and six blocks on Thursday night in a heartbreaking loss to Florida Atlantic. Despite his breakout season, he and his teammates simply cannot win close games. The Pioneers have lost five Sun Belt games by a combined 21 points, including two one-point losses. That simply means this team will be dangerously underseeded in the league tournament. After all, remember how the Pioneers handled Southern Miss, St. Mary’s and Utah State back in the non-conference season? That team hasn’t changed all that much.
- North Texas (14-10, 7-4): Count us as people who though North Texas was dead and buried without Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. Already a young team lacking leadership, how could the Mean Green recover from that? Well, Tony Mitchell provides an answer. He’s dominating this conference, and UNT has taken care of business lately against the likes of Arkansas State and Florida International. UNT is hardly a distant fourth in these competitive West power rankings.
- Arkansas State (10-16, 4-7): Want an example for why not to schedule a road game in the Pacific Northwest in February? Arkansas State tried that and lost at Seattle on Feb. 4, about a year after losing a similar road game at Savannah State during a break in Sun Belt play. Maybe John Brady will learn his lesson. He’s got bigger problems than weird non-conference losses, though. His team has struggled to score, although point guard Ed Townsel is starting to play much better basketball. That’s a key development for the future of this program.
- ULM (2-22, 1-10): At least Keith Richard has one victory under his belt already in league play. Interestingly, the lowly Warhawks have played more competitively in their last three games, falling by single-digits to Louisiana, Arkansas State and UALR. With only five games remaining — they are ineligible for the conference tourney — maybe ULM can snag another win or two. Saturday’s home game against South Alabama might be its best opportunity.
- UALR at Middle Tennessee, Saturday 12 p.m. CT: Even at home, don’t expect the Blue Raiders to run away with this one just because of their gaudy record and size advantage. The Trojans are a different team in Sun Belt play, and they’re not going to roll over. Just as Western Kentucky did, it wouldn’t be surprising to see UALR hang around, as long as it keeps limiting turnovers and matches MTSU’s defensive intensity.
- Louisiana at Denver, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. CT: This is a critical game for both teams to stay alive in the West race. Watching J.J. Thomas man up on Chris Udofia could be one of the more entertaining one-on-one match-ups of the season.
Caught on Film
Middle Tennessee may not have been ranked, but let Denver have its fun with a Rush the Court: