Daniel Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.
A Look Back
- According to the beat writer for Western Kentucky’s hometown newspaper, star forward Sergio Kerusch was benched for much of Wednesday night’s 59-52 victory at Bowling Green. Coach Ken McDonald played the Sun Belt pre-season Player of the Year for only six minutes, citing a general lack of focus. In a similar move, McDonald also benched guard Khalil McDonald in a December 4 loss to Memphis because of on-court issues. The personnel changes opened an opportunity for freshman forward Stephon Drane the past two games, who has finally cracked the rotation.
- Bob Marlin’s first season at Louisiana-Lafayette hasn’t started so smoothly with a 1-6 record. Clearly frustrated with his new team, Marlin called out his squad for a lack of competitiveness and even a subpar performance in the classroom. He’s got even bigger problems, though, after learning in late November that guard Josh Brown may miss three or four weeks after injuring his knee in practice. He’s expected to return for conference play. Brown led the team in scoring before his injury, and ULL has lost both contests without him.
- Brandon Peterson, who started at forward for Arkansas State’s first six games, did not dress against Memphis last Wednesday because of an illness—and his team still battled the #14 Tigers to overtime without him. He returned to the court five days later in a win over Lyon College, scoring seven points in 20 minutes off the bench.
- Tristan Thompson had a masterful four-game stretch for North Texas recently, averaging 26.5 points per game against Rice, Texas State, Texas Arlington and Grambling. Although Josh White and George Odufuwa are also All-Conference performers, nobody’s been better than Thompson. The senior is averaging 20 points per game and has taken the reigns offensively for the Mean Green. It should be noted that Thompson’s past two outings have been a bit rough—he shot 3-11 from the field at Texas Southern and scored only seven points against Sam Houston State. But don’t expect that to continue very long.
- Tim Williams led South Alabama in scoring last year, but Martino Brock has that title right now as a sophomore. Brock doesn’t appear intimidated by USA’s big-time competition. He looked perfectly comfortable scoring 27 points against Louisville and also scored 15 against LSU. If the Jaguars want to rebound from last year’s injury-riddled nightmare, Brock will need to be a big part of it.
Quote of the Week
“We didn’t expect to wear red, so it was a surprise…that just set it off; we knew we had to perform.”
–FAU forward Kore White, after his team beat South Florida wearing new red uniforms
1. Western Kentucky (4-5): After ending a four-game losing streak with Wednesday’s ugly road win at Bowling Green, WKU still holds the top spot in the East—just barely. The Hilltoppers’ record is deceiving because of the murderer’s row schedule they’ve played, which has included games against Minnesota, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Memphis. Still, Western Kentucky is having a serious identity crisis early in the season, no matter the competition. Even in Wednesday’s victory, WKU turned the ball over 29 times while at the same time had its best defensive effort of the season. Ken Brown, who’s battling for minutes at the point guard position, committed seven of the turnovers, and sophomore Jamal Crook played only seven minutes at the point. Coach Ken McDonald has said he’s looking for more consistency out of his inexperienced point guards, and the growth of Brown, Crook, Snap Peters and Khalil McDonald could shape the rest of the season for Western Kentucky.
Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Southern Illinois, Dec. 18 at Murray State, Dec. 24 vs. Louisville
2. Florida Atlantic (5-4): The Owls are living up to the pre-season hype. In the span of five days last week, FAU won at Mississippi State and beat South Florida at home, bringing its record to 5-4, tops in the East. Interestingly, the high-octane Owls slowed the tempo and ground out their last two wins, even playing a zone against South Florida to combat the Bulls’ size and athletic advantage. Florida Atlantic’s defensive struggles hurt it last season, but Mike Jarvis has to be pleased with his team’s progress on that end of the floor after holding USF to 32 percent shooting. The most astonishing part about FAU’s marquee wins is that point guard Ray Taylor has largely been a non-factor. After dealing with disciplinary issues early in the season, Jarvis is still bringing Taylor off the bench. He scored just seven points against Mississippi State and did not score against South Florida. After averaging more than 32 minutes per game last season, Taylor has logged more than 30 minutes just once. Thanks to Alex Tucker, who exploded for 18 points against USF, Taylor’s struggles haven’t made a difference. The emergence of forward Kore White, a transfer from Marshall, has also helped. There are still questions about consistency with this group—it lost to American and George Mason by double-digits in November—and center Brett Royster can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. If the young Owls continue to grow, however, Western Kentucky will be in for a fight this winter.
Up Next: Dec. 11 at Hofstra, Dec. 13 at Siena, Dec. 16 at Troy
3. South Alabama (2-5): Much like WKU, it’s hard to get a gauge on this team right now because of its schedule. South Alabama has lost four straight to UAB, LSU, Alabama and Louisville—and it has looked downright bad throughout that stretch. The Jaguars’ opponents get a bit easier in the next few weeks, so we’ll see if they can hang with teams of similar caliber. With as well as sophomore Martino Brock has played lately and the established scoring of guard Tim Williams, this team appears to have enough talent to at least stay competitive with Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic.
Up Next: Dec. 12 vs. Houston Baptist, Dec. 18 at Georgia Southern, Dec. 21. vs. Alcorn State
4. Middle Tennessee (4-5): 95 minutes. That’s how many minutes of basketball the Blue Raiders played in a December 4 overtime win against SIU-Edwardsville and a double-overtime loss at Belmont Dec. 7. Belmont, an Atlantic Sun favorite that beat Arkansas State by 33 points, needed eight three-pointers from senior Jordan Campbell to edge Middle Tennessee at home. After losing three starters from last year’s 20-win team, this is an encouraging December loss.
Up Next: Dec. 12 vs. Furman, Dec. 18 at Evansville, Dec. 21 vs. Vanderbilt
5. Florida International (4-4): Two weeks ago, we urged you to hold off on evaluating FIU, despite a 3-1 record. Two of those wins came against non-Division-I schools, while the other was Utah Valley. Well, the Golden Panthers responded by blasting Chattanooga 80-59. Since then, Florida International has lost at Marshall, Louisville and Jackson State, so there’s nothing to suggest that this team will make much noise in the East Division right now. However, the win over Chattanooga, a team that currently owns a 2-0 record in the Southern Conference and has a recent NCAA Tournament appearance to its name, boosts it ahead of Troy. But that’s not saying much. If high-profile freshman Dominique Ferguson gains eligibility for the second semester, coach Isiah Thomas might have something to work with, especially since he’s already getting Illinois transfer Alex Legion in a few weeks. For now, it’s juco transfer Eric Frederick doing the scoring. Although he hasn’t started a game in a month, he’s averaged around 30 minutes per game during the past three contests and went for 26 against Marshall. With a combination of its famous head coach and the possible arrival of Ferguson, Florida International may have the most compelling team in the Sun Belt.
Up Next: Dec. 12 at Bowling Green, Dec. 18 vs. Sam Houston State, Dec. 22 vs. Florida A&M
6. Troy (1-6): The Trojans may be replacing five starters, but they’re not giving up. Despite a 1-6 record, there are positives for legendary coach Don Maestri’s squad. Troy took Mississippi State to overtime Nov. 26, trailed by just two at halftime against UAB and scared Arkansas by getting within seven points late in the second half. Nobody’s going to hang a banner for any of those “accomplishments.” But it’s a sign that Troy won’t roll over in Sun Belt play. Maestri still has an experienced core of three seniors in the starting lineup in Vernon Taylor, Levan Patsatsia and Bernard Toombs, all of whom came off the bench for a team that won 20 games and reached the SBC title game last season.
Up Next: Dec. 11 at Miami OH, Dec. 16 vs. Florida Atlantic, Dec. 18 vs. Belmont
1. North Texas (7-2): The first eight games—besides a loss at Kansas—were mostly a breeze for the senior-laden Mean Green. At 7-1, North Texas looked primed for another Sun Belt title and NCAA Tournament appearance. And then came Sam Houston State, which exposed every flaw of Johnny Jones’ team Wednesday night in a 92-74 win. First, there are issues of depth with this team right now. After the first six or seven in the rotation, there’s an obvious drop-off. This team looks like it could use Eric Tramiel, the graduated forward who received looks from NBA squads. Although Kendrick Hogans appears to be an adequate replacement for him, neither Jacob Holmen nor Nebraska transfer Alonzo Edwards have shown too much in backup roles. It’s only December, though, and Holmen and Edwards aren’t logging serious minutes yet. The other issue for North Texas is the defensive end. UNT hid this deficiency against inferior opponents, but Sam Houston State torched it from the field and seemed to have little trouble with North Texas’ athletic defenders. One road loss at SHS doesn’t change a thing for this team’s expectations, however. North Texas is still the clear front-runner in the conference.
Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Jackson State, Dec. 19 vs. Texas State, Dec. 22 at LSU
2. Arkansas State (2-6): In our last SBC check-in, we didn’t panic at Arkansas State’s winless record. Luckily, the Red Wolves made us look smart by winning two games and taking Memphis to overtime during the past two weeks, which keeps them slotted at number two in the West. Sure, the two wins were at Southeast Missouri State and against Lyon at home. That Memphis game should be enough to convince you of the talent level on this team, though. ASU fell behind 23-5 but slowly chipped away, trailing throughout the entire game before tying it in the final minute of regulation. Arkansas State had no business hanging that close with Memphis, but it even held a four-point lead in overtime. The Tigers didn’t play especially well, but John Brady’s guys clearly outplayed them. Even more impressively, the Red Wolves played harder than Memphis, staying in contention with second-chance points and a strong effort on the offensive glass. Consider this: Arkansas State shot about 39 percent from the floor, missed 13 of 18 three-point attempts and didn’t get a stellar performance from any of its scorers (leading scorer Daniel Bryant finished with 16 on just 5-17 from the field). Somehow, it took the 14th-ranked team in America to overtime on its home floor.
Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Alabama State, Dec. 18 at Georgia, Dec. 20 vs. Savannah State
3. Arkansas-Little Rock (6-3): So the team that won zero road games in 2009-10 still can’t win on the road. Big deal. Arkansas-Little Rock is at least playing well at home, having knocked off both Louisiana Tech and Tulsa in recent weeks. The latter is an especially impressive win over a team that’s already beaten Oral Roberts, Missouri State and Stanford. UALR’s 34-point road loss to Missouri State looks ugly, especially since it has also lost by 26 to Oral Roberts and 13 to Saint Bonaventure. But coach Steve Shields appears to have found a starting point guard in D’Andre Williams, who got the majority of the minutes over freshman Daylon Guy against Tulsa and dished out six assists. And Shields also has a road win under his belt—a season-opening win at SMU—so he’s got to be thrilled with his team’s 6-3 start.
Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Mississippi, Dec. 16 at Rice, Dec. 21 at Akron
4. Denver (2-6): The Pioneers haven’t played the kind of schedule Western Kentucky has, but they’ve still challenged themselves outside of the conference here in the first two months. That has resulted in an ugly loss to St. Mary’s this week, as well as a competitive loss at home to Utah State. Sandwiched in between those losses was a home win against CSU-Northridge, in which budding star Brian Stafford scored 18 points. Denver is trying to find other options outside of Stafford and forward Chase Hallam. Case in point: those two combined for 12 points against St. Mary’s, and their team lost by 30 points.
Up next: Dec. 11 vs. Portland, Dec. 14 at Wyoming, Dec. 18 vs. Northern Colorado
5. Louisiana-Lafayette (1-6): ULL got off to a blazing start at McNeese State Dec. 1 but couldn’t finish the game, falling by three points. And three days later, the Rajun Cajuns were deadlocked with Tulane in the second half… and couldn’t finish the game, falling 63-52. It’s a work in progress for Bob Marlin, who has lost guard Josh Brown until conference play due to a knee injury. All kinds of injuries and sicknesses have affected Louisiana-Lafayette during this discouraging 1-6 start. The squad hasn’t been horrendously bad in any of the losses, so there’s hope for conference play if Brown returns fully healthy.
Up Next: Dec. 12 vs. Texas College, Dec. 15 at UCF, Dec. 19 vs. Lamar
6. Louisiana-Monroe (2-7): Fred Brown scored 18 points in a loss to Louisiana Tech. That doesn’t seem too peculiar, until you read the rest of his stat line: Brown took 28 shots and missed 11 three-point attempts. He did tally seven assists, but the point is clear: he’s relied upon to do everything for this team. He’s averaging about 17 shot attempts per game, but the pressure might be getting to Brown, whose assist-to-turnover ratio is less than 1:1. It’s been a rough start to the season for ULM, which also lost by double-digits to South Dakota and Kent State the past month.