Game #4. RTC Live visits another new school tonight, enjoying the hospitality of upstate New York in a game between two regional rivals looking for answers.
Fresh off its third consecutive Ivy League conference title and a scintillating Sweet 16 run in last year’s March Madness tournament, Cornell’s Big Red takes a trip to the Capital Region to take on UAlbany’s Great Danes. Cornell welcomes new head coach Bill Courtney to the sidelines after the departure of Steve Donahue, the architect of much of Big Red’s recent success, who has since left to fill a vacancy at Boston College. Coach Courtney has his work cut out for him in trying to replicate Big Red’s 29 wins from last year. On the other sideline, UAlbany coach Will Brown hopes to rebound from a dismal 7-25 campaign, the worst season of his career to date. To do so, he will turn to the talents of sophomores Blake Metcalf and Logan Aronholt, who he named captains back in October. The America East Conference’s preseason poll slated the Great Danes to finish eighth in the conference, just ahead of UMBC, so Coach Brown faces a long road ahead of him in rebuilding the UAlbany brand to its 2006 form, which saw the Great Danes earn a trip to the NCAA tournament and a compelling near-upset of No. 1 seed UConn.
With one round under our belts, the big boys in Conference USA finally get to strut their stuff, with the top four seeds all in action for the first time in this year’s tournament. This is also a big opportunity for the lower seeds to come away with upsets. #5 Tulsa especially has something to prove. The preseason champs fell on hard times, finished 10-6 in the conference, and have been left for dead; but tonight, the Golden Hurricanes have a chance to redeem the lost season with a win over #4 Marshall. They have the home crowd all week, and three straight victories will send them to the Big Dance. Let’s see if they can catch lightning in a bottle. On the other hand, Marshall has a chance to get fitted with their own pair of glass slippers and crash the hometown party with a win. They are both dangerous teams with a shot at the championship, but only one can survive. So come get in on the action with RTC Live!
It’s Feast week and RTC Live will once again be covering games from coast to coast. This week is tournament-heavy, as we’ll have correspondents in Kansas City for the CBE Classic, Anaheim for the 76 Classic, New York for the Preseason NIT, Atlantic City for the Legends Classic, and Orlando for the Old Spice Classic. We’re not crazy enough to cover every game at these venues, but we will try to get ourselves to the best games for your live-blogging enjoyment. We may add a couple more games during the week, so check back periodically.
Wichita State vs. Pittsburgh (in Kansas City, MO) – 7:30 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – the undercard in terms of the evening, but probably the much better game. Pitt is trying to figure out how to move past the DeJuan Blair/Sam Young era without taking too many losses, and this will be a quasi-home game for the Shockers.
#3 Texas vs. Iowa (in Kansas City, MO) – 9:45 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – Iowa has already taken losses at the hands of Texas-San Antonio and Duquesne, so this could get extremely ugly for Todd Lickliter’s team in dealing with Texas’ hordes of young talent.
Tuesday November 24
CBE Classic Finals (in Kansas City, MO) – 10 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – we’d expect this one to match up Texas and Pitt, but it wouldn’t shock (heh) us if Wichita State ended up there instead of the Panthers. Either way it’s an opportunity to get another look at Rick Barnes’ outstanding freshmen corps of Jordan Hamilton, J’Covan Brown and Avery Bradley.
Wednesday November 25
#13 Connecticut vs. LSU (in New York, NY) – 7 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – the Huskies will have a home crowd as they return to NYC to take on a depleted LSU team that was the SEC champion last year. This doesn’t mean that UConn should sleep on the Tigers — Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer are a formidable duo, and Trent Johnson knows how to coach.
#8 Duke vs. Arizona State (in New York, NY) – 9:30 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – Herb Sendek gets another look at Coach K in the nightcap, which would have been a spectacular game last season. Former Dookie Eric Boateng is averaging 12/8 for the Sun Devils, who come into this game scorching hot.
Thursday November 26
#24 Minnesota vs. #11 Butler (in Anaheim, CA) – 8:30 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – Butler continues its difficult nonconference schedule with an opportunity to play three ranked teams in three days at the 76 Classic, starting with Tubby Smith’s Gophers.
Portland vs. UCLA (in Anaheim, CA) – 10:45 pm ET (also on ESPN2) – UCLA bounced back from its loss to Fullerton with a win over Bakersfield, but Portland will be in a class above those teams. Howland’s team better be able to improve upon it’s 21.4% from three percentage if they hope to come out of the 76 Classic with a winning record.
Friday November 27
Preseason NIT Consolation & Finals (in New York, NY) – 2:30 pm & 5 pm (also on ESPN2/ESPN) – if everything goes according to plan here, we’ll have an undercard game of Arizona State vs. LSU followed by a blockbuster of #9 Duke vs. #12 Connecticut. You could spend your “Black Friday” afternoon fighting crowds in the stores, or you could watch some great early-season basketball with us — your choice.
76 Classic Semifinals (in Anaheim, CA) – 2:30 pm & 9:30 pm (also on ESPN/ESPNU) – we would expect to see two phenomenal games involving #8 West Virginia vs. #22 Clemson and UCLA vs. #11 Butler, but other teams such as Long Beach State, Texas A&M, Portland and Minnesota may have other ideas.
Saturday November 28
Legends Classic Consolation & Finals (in Atlantic City, NJ) – 5:30 pm & 8 pm (also on HDNet) – we’d expect to see an undercard of Florida vs. UMass in a run-n-gun showdown, followed by the finals featuring loaded #2 Michigan State vs. Rutgers in an upset bid in its home state.
Sunday November 29
Old Spice Classic Consolation & Finals (in Orlando, FL) – 5 pm & 7:30 pm (also on ESPNU/ESPN2) – there’s no telling who these teams will be at this point, but our best guess results in Creighton vs. Baylor as the consolation game and Florida State vs. #15 Michigan in the title tilt.
76 Classic Consolation & Finals (in Anaheim, CA) – 5pm & 10 pm (also on ESPN2) – again, this is a very difficult tournament to project, but if things go according to favorites, then we’ll see #24 Minnesota vs. #22 Clemson for third place and #8 West Virginia vs. #11 Butler in a slugfest for the 76 Classic title.
Hopefully by now you’ve realized that ESPN is running its second annual 24 Hours of Hoops Marathon beginning tonight at midnight ET. If you haven’t and you still call yourself a college basketball fan, you should probably turn in your credential right now. RTC’s John Stevens will be hooked up to his caffeine drip all night long live-blogging the entire event from start to finish, but you know us, that’s not nearly enough. So we’ll help keep him awake with a 2 am ET RTC Live from the beautiful campus of St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, as the Gaels host San Diego State. Both teams have played one home game thus far, resulting in a blowout win for each (SMC 100, New Mexico State 68; SDSU 77, UC San Diego 52), and the Gaels and Aztecs both have serious aspirations of surprising folks in their respective leagues this year. SDSU was the second selection in the preseason poll of Mountain West media (behind BYU), and St. Mary’s was predicted third in a competitive race for the top of the WCC. The Aztecs, however, may be without the services of three of its stars, as star forwards Billy White and Tim Shelton along with guard Tyrone Shelley are suffering a variety of ailments and sat out the last game against UCSD (today’s reports are inconclusive on all three’s status). The two teams have played in each of the last two seasons (and seven times in the last six), with a split last season — SDSU taking last year’s NIT quarterfinal 70-66 behind 17 pts from White, and St. Mary’s winning a close battle 67-64 the December prior. We expect another good one tonight as we burn the midnight oil in Moraga.
Rick Henderson of The Owl’s Nest is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt conference.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Middle Tennessee (19-11, 13-5)
Western Kentucky (18-11, 12-6)
South Alabama (18-11, 11-7)
Florida Atlantic (17-14, 10-8)
Florida International (15 -16, 8-10)
Troy (12-20, 5-13)
Arkansas-Little Rock (17-9, 12-6)
North Texas (16-13, 10-8)
Louisiana-Lafayette (15-14, 10-8)
Arkansas State (14-15, 8-10)
Denver (12-17, 7-11)
Louisiana-Monroe (15-14, 7-11)
New Orleans (11-19, 4-14)
WYN2K. The Belt took a step forward last season with the NCAA Tourney appearance of South Alabama, and the deep run of Western Kentucky into the Sweet 16, jumping from 17 to 14 in the RPI rankings. Accordingly, recruiting is on the way up all around. However, this year the final league standings should look different as both teams lose key contributors from last year’s roster (we’ll get to that later). You can expect a couple games difference in parity within the final standings at season’s end. Here are our preseason SBC All First Teamers and Player of the Year picks:
Desmond Yates – MTSU
Carlos Monroe – FAU (Player of the Year)
Josh White – NT
Russell Hicks – FIU
Brandon Davis – USA
Trio of new Head Coaches a big plus for the League. The SBC welcomes the return of Mike Jarvis to the coaching ranks as the new Head Coach for the Fighting Owls of Florida Atlantic. Jarvis boasts a conference best resume with 350 career wins and a myriad of post season tournament appearances – 9 NCAA and 5 NIT. He is confident the Owls are a stock on the rise, having all but promised that they will make a return trip to The Big Dance in the very near future. Jarvis is known for the development of NBA Hall of Fame player Patrick Ewing, and also coached a talented Ron Artest while at St John’s University. He has added a pair of nationally recognized prep guards to the already solid nucleus he inherits at FAU. PF Carlos Monroe (15.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg) will get some much needed double team help from this duo. A little further north and west, John Brady joins The Sun Belt assuming the reins of the recently rebranded Arkansas State Redwolves program. Brady enjoyed very successful tutelages with Samford (89 wins), and LSU (192 wins), where he led the Tigers all the way to The Final Four in 2006. A heralded recruiter, Brady has coached an impressive 25 All TAAC (now The Atlantic Sun) and Southeastern Conference selections. He hit the JUCO recruiting trail hard in the off-season, with four transfer signees heading to Jonesboro for the upcoming season. Rounding out the trio of newcomers, Ken McDonald returns to Bowling Green to take over for the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. McDonald previously served as an Assistant Coach at WKU and most recently as the top assistant under Rick Barnes at the University of Texas. He is a talented recruiter and was instrumental in the Longhorns signing of NBA draftees Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. McDonald will have his hands full though, as this year’s team will be without the services of Courtney Lee, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic in the first round of the NBA draft (22nd).
Predicted Champion. Arkansas-Little Rock (#13 Seed NCAA). Bold pick? Absolutely. Realistic? Definitely. Destiny? Perhaps. Here’s why: The Trojans have finished atop the West Division in three of the last five years, but have never won the crown. Unlike all other West Division teams (and even the East minus MTSU), all five starters return for UALR. Couple this with a weaker East Division, and a potential homecourt advantage for the SBC Tournament and you have the makings of a championship. Rest assured that someone will knock out one of the higher eastern seeds given its parity this season – paving the way for UALR. The Sun Belt has gained much needed size all around this year, but UALR will display the truest balanced attack. They will feature the league’s lone true big man down low in Ole Miss transfer Mike Smith 6-7, 295Lbs (52.9 FG%). And that will be a big advantage (pun intended) along the way. Joining him will be SG Steven Moore who should emerge even more this season after shooting a staggering 42-97 (43.3%) from downtown last season. The clincher: come March they can both click their heels like Dorothy, and say “there’s no place like home.” Despite the fact that the SBC front office claims the tournament site is neutral this season, the championship will be played in Hot Springs, AR, which is 52 miles from UALR. This virtually ensures them home court advantage during the SBC Tournament.
Others Considered. They will be formidable opponents on a number of nights this season, but Western Kentucky has flat out lost too much: a whopping 60.3% of total offense, 59.2% of total assists, 50.3% of total steals, and 39.6% of total rebounds. A lot of this can be attributed to the departure of both SG Courtney Lee (20.4 ppg), and PG Tyrone Brazelton (14.4 ppg). The same goes for South Alabama who must find backcourt answers for the losses of 1st Team All SBC guard Demetric Bennett (19.7 ppg), and 2nd Team All SBC guard Daon Merritt (11.5 ppg, 5.5 apg). North Texas could be in the race for the West Division with the return of PG Josh White (13.9 ppg), but like the others considered, they face key losses with only two starters returning. MTSU should be atop the East Division as season’s end, and does have talented returnees in both Desmond Yates (16.0 ppg) and Demetrius Green (12.5 ppg), but it’s a long drive to Hot Springs come tournament time.
Games to Watch. Traditional powers South Alabama and Western Kentucky will face off in a nationally televised contest that is sure to be entertaining. The Deuce will also air the SBC Championship live:
South Alabama @ Western Kentucky (02.07.09) 1:00PM ESPN2
Sun Belt Conference Championship Game (03.10.09) 9:00PM ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. Quite a few non-conference games could help elevate the SBC in the RPI standings this season. SEC opponents are strewn throughout league schedules, as well as a few quality west coast opponents. Winning these contests would certainly offer nudges here and there. And some are winnable. But upsetting the bad boys below would do some serious damage. Are they winnable? Probably not. Cliché alert: That is why they play the game. Well, that and some guarantee money. Without any further ado, please cue: “Facing the Giants.”
Florida Atlantic @ Arizona (11.17.08) 10:00PM
Tennessee @ Middle Tennessee (11.21.08) 7:00PM
Western Kentucky @ Louisville (11.30.08) 2:00PM
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Last year was a pleasant surprise, with both WKU and USA making the tourney. If the West Division represents the SBC in The Big Dance, there is a long shot that an East Division top finisher could get in. But it is highly unlikely and would take some serious non-conference results to convince the committee.
65 Team Era. During the era, the Sun Belt is 13-34 (.277), but with WKU’s two additional wins last year, the Hilltoppers are responsible for seven of those wins and both of the conferences trips to the Sweet 16. In fact, WKU is the only Sun Belt team to win an NCAA game in the past sixteen seasons (Louisiana-Lafayette won a game in 1992). Seven times during this era has the Sun Belt gotten more than one team into the Dance, including last year’s duo of S. Alabama and W. Kentucky. Speaking of which, who can forget what was arguably the (second) most exciting moment of the 2008 Tournament?
Final thought. The SBC is one to two years away from making the climb back to where it was prior to adding football as a sponsored collegiate sport. Serious recruiting classes have come in during the off-season. It will be fun to watch some of the young talent begin to develop and blossom on the hardwood this upcoming season.