Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can also find his musings online at Sun Belt Basketball or on Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
Middle Tennessee continues to roll. Despite a slip-up at UAB, the Blue Raiders got revenge on Belmont with a narrow three-point victory, offsetting a double-overtime loss earlier in the season to the Bruins. Behind a spirited home crowd at the Murphy Center, MTSU’s physicality and strength eventually wore down Belmont, who could not hold its own on the boards. With the victory, the Blue Raiders improved to 10-2, and they picked up what could prove to be the most important win of the season for coach Kermit Davis.
Speaking of important wins, Florida Atlantic has wasted several opportunities to claim them recently. Mike Jarvis scheduled a difficult slate to test his defending Sun Belt champion squad, but so far, the Owls have fallen flat against the likes of Washington, Kansas, South Florida and Mississippi State. But don’t give up hope for an upset just yet: FAU travels to Miami and Harvard during the next week.
A week after shocking the nation with a road win at Utah State, the Denver Pioneers dropped an overtime heartbreaker to MAAC favorites Iona. There’s no shame in losing to a team that has the talent to win 25 games this year, and the Gaels might be an at-large contender if they do not win their conference tournament. Still, in the end, it was Iona’s up-tempo style that sped up DU and forced it into 20 turnovers. The Pioneers actually held their own on the boards and shot reasonably well from beyond the arc, and had they held on to the ball, they could have picked up another quality victory in the non-conference.
Mike Jarvis and Floirda Atlantic Have Faced a Rugged Non-Conference Schedule (AP)
Middle Tennessee (10-2, 0-0): Kermit Davis may finally have the team his fan base has been waiting for all these years. Gone are the days that MTSU finished with a middling .500 record — these Blue Raiders look like NCAA Tournament contenders. With LaRon Dendy (14.4 PPG/6.7 RPG) leading the way, Middle Tennessee has the sort of size you might find in a power conference. Davis’s team rebounds with authority and dominates its opponents in the paint. The Blue Raiders are the best defensive team in the conference, and though they won’t wow you with perimeter shooting and an explosive offense, this team plays as hard as anybody around. Florida Atlantic has the guards we all love to talk about, but you won’t find any team with more intimidating size than MTSU.
Florida Atlantic (4-6, 0-0): It’s not time to panic yet, but we’re finding out early in this 2011-12 campaign that FAU is human. The consensus pick to repeat as East champs, the Owls’ undersized forwards have struggled against bigger post players. What’s more concerning, though, is the way FAU’s experienced guards have struggled. In particular, Ray Taylor (8.3 PPG/5.1 APG) hasn’t quite found his groove yet, and he’s even started coming off the bench. We’re talking about one of the league’s best players here, people — playing off the bench. He scored 20 points in a loss to Mississippi State, but coach Mike Jarvis even said he can still play better. He has to, or Florida Atlantic won’t go anywhere this season. Read the rest of this entry »
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can also find his musings online at Sun Belt Basketball or on Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was:
Pioneers Rolling:Denver looks like the best team in the Sun Belt Conference having knocked off both St. Mary’s and Utah State in the span of a week. And did we mention Denver is the first team since 2009 to beat the Aggies on their home floor? Nobody wins road games at Utah State—except for Denver, apparently. JoeScott’s team played flawlessly leading from start to finish. At one point, Denver led by 20 points eventually routing USU 67-54. And the game wasn’t even as close as that score would suggest.
Jags Pick Up Pace: South Alabama has quietly pieced together a couple of quality wins. Widely considered a bottom-feeder in the East Division, the Jaguars are now riding a two-game winning streak with wins against LSU and UAB. Not bad, huh?
Arkansas State In Neutral: The Red Wolves got a bit of national attention for their bizarre 54-27 loss at Louisville, simply because of the horrid offensive output. ASU rebounded with a blowout over Southeast Missouri State, however, but a 2-4 start isn’t what John Brady probably had in mind.
Denver's Chris Udofia Has The Denver Pioneers On The Rise After Quieting One Of College Basketball's Loudest Road Environments In Utah State. (AP/Tony Avelar)
1.Florida Atlantic (3-5, 0-0): Kansas was too much for FAU as the Owls fell by 23 points in Lawrence on Wednesday. Mike Jarvis probably hoped his team could compete a little better, but it simply did not have the size to slow down either Thomas Robinson or Jeff Withey. Florida Atlantic lost the rebounding battle by 20, and it missed an opportunity to gain a signature upset. It will have plenty of chances for that, though, later in the month: Jarvis brings his team to Mississippi State, Miami, and Harvard.
2. Middle Tennessee (6-1, 0-0): The only thing keeping MTSU from an undefeated record right now is a double-overtime slip-up against a good Belmont team a few weeks ago. That’s how well Kermit Davis has his team playing right now. LaRon Dendy has been a major factor in his first season in Murfreesboro after transferring from Iowa State, and the Blue Raiders have been stellar both defensively and on the boards. If this team can keep flexing its strength in those areas, the offense will come, especially now that Jason Jones is healthy.
3. South Alabama (3-2, 0-0): Something has clicked with this USA team, and a lot of that can be attributed to freshman guard Xavier Roberson’s play. Ronnie Arrow has zero returning guards from last year’s team so he needed somebody to step up quickly. Roberson has seized that role, and he scored 19 points in that overtime win at LSU. With Augustine Rubit doing his thing, Roberson’s emergence is great news for the Jaguars.
4. Florida International (2-3, 0-0): After a three-game losing streak, FIU salvaged the month of November with a victory over a solid Coastal Carolina team this weekend. The Golden Panthers have struggled to defend the three-point line at times this season, and they fell into old habits by dropping another nailbiter to Arkansas Pine Bluff. Last season, close losses killed Isiah Thomas’s squad. He’ll need to fix that as the year goes on.
5. Troy (3-3, 0-0): These sneaky Trojans may not be so bad after all. In coach Don Maestri’s 30th season at the helm, Troy is now at .500 after a victory over East Tennessee State. Mo Weathers continued his spectacular point guard play with seven assists and 14 points, and he’s picked up right where he left off last season. Weathers is a special player—the kind of guy who should make an All-Conference team at the end of the season—and he’s getting a lot of help from his teammates these days.
6. Western Kentucky (2-5, 0-0): They are young, inexperienced, playing under pressure, may have lost veteran guard Caden Dickerson for the rest of the year due to injury. We understand why WKU isn’t playing well right now, but those excuses won’t sit well with the demanding fan base. The Hilltoppers fell apart at home against VCU last week, just days after playing the Final Four participants to the wire in the Charleston Classic. WKU did finally get a victory over Southeast Lousiana, but this team has a long way to go.
1.Denver (5-1, 0-0): Hello, Pioneers. In typical Joe Scott fashion, Denver made Utah Statelook silly on Wednesday night by boring it with a well-oiled offensive machine. Denver coasted against the Aggies, snapping a 33-game home winning streak and stunning the nation. It’s not often you hear a buzz like this about a Sun Belt team, but you better believe Denver will get some national press for this victory. Chris Udofia is offering a new look at forward for this team, and the guards are shooting the ball well from beyond the arc. The most important thing, however, is that Denver isn’t relying on the three-point shot. It has offensive options in the frontcourt now—like Udofia—and it’s much less one-dimensional than a year ago.
2.Louisiana (3-5, 0-0): They haven’t played murderer’s row, but a decently competitive non-conference slate is wearing the Ragin’ Cajuns down. They battled MAC favorite Kent Statefor 40 minutes but ultimately lost this week without J.J. Thomas, and they also dropped a road contest at Duquense. Thomas, the star of the UL and a Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate, dealt with a knee injury during that Kent State game.
3.Arkansas State (2-4, 0-0): Although the West appeared to be the more competitive division in the pre-season, only Denver has overachieved to this point. ASU’s play has been disappointing after losing Martavius Adams, and it hit rock bottom when it scored 27 points in a loss to Louisville. The Cardinals are a terrific team. But 27 points? It’s tough to swallow at the Division I level. Rick Pitino’s pressure turned ASU over 23 times, and it made just 10 field goals on the night.
4.North Texas (1-4, 0-0): After a dominating victory over a Division II opponent, UNT has fallen flat lately. In four road losses—three to BCS-conference teams—the Mean Green have struggled to acclimate the large cast of newcomers. Freshman Jordan Williams, a heralded recruit, can’t find his shot right now, but it’ll come around. When Tony Mitchell joins this team in the second semester, things may turn around.
5.Arkansas Little Rock (2-5, 0-0): The defending Sun Belt tourney champs aren’t defending their title well so far, and like ASU, they also may have hit “rock bottom” in a blowout to Northwestern State. When UALR develops its primary scorers, it will be fine. Right now, though, the loss of reigning SBC Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman is evident.
6.ULM (1-6, 0-0): Keith Richard is in the W column. He’s battling through a difficult year with this team, considering it is not eligible for post-season play and a few key players have redshirted. Surprisingly, despite the 0-6 start, the Warhawks earned an easy road victory at Nicholls State this week by dominating the second half of play. Loyola transfer Charles Windborne came to play this year, as he’s scored in double figures four times already. That will help take the pressure off leading scorer Fred Brown, who took an absurd amount of shots for this team last year.
Denver vs. Iona, Dec. 7: The Pioneers have already defeated two mid-major powers in St. Mary’s and Utah State. Can they beat a third in Iona? Tim Cluess has a heck of a team here, complete with Arizona transfer Momo Jones, stud point guard Scott Machado, and Mike Glover, the man so ferocious they call him Optimus Prime. Iona loves to run, and it has athletes all over the floor. If Denver can slow the pace, it can control this game.
Florida Atlantic at Mississippi State, Dec. 13: It’d be nice for Jarvis’s program to at least notch one of these upset road wins. The Owls’ problem isn’t quickness or athleticism—it’s sheer size. They don’t have the bigs to play with teams like Mississippi State, who throw out the towering Arnette Moultrie and Renardo Sidney.
Middle Tennessee vs. Belmont, Dec. 13: It’s revenge time for MTSU, which lost the first meeting in double-overtime. That’s the only thing standing in the way of a 7-0 start for the Blue Raiders, and that’s got to weigh heavily on Kermit Davis’s mind. With a second chance at a victory, Middle Tennessee has a chance to pick up a quality non-conference win to add to its post-season resume.
Caught On Film
John Brady has had a difficult start to this season. After kicking off his best player, his Arkansas State squad has struggled to find a new scorer. You can see that frustration and hear it in his voice in the press conference below, which followed a blowout loss to Missouri State.
Danny Spewak of SunBeltBasketball.com is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference and a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @dspewak.
Reader’s Take I
Restoring the Glory: In a mere three-year span, the Sun Belt has taken a discouraging tumble. During the 2007-08 season, the league’s RPI ranked 14th among the 31 Division I conferences. It placed two teams in the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 squad in Western Kentucky (thanks in part to this shot). Now, fast forward to present day: the SBC finished 23rd in the conference RPI in 2010-11, and the auto-bid winner (Arkansas-Little Rock) lost the play-in game as a 16-seed. Hoping to curb the trend, the commissioner’s office decided to take action, forcing every team to schedule a stronger non-conference slate starting this year. That tactic should help improve the league’s overall rating, but more importantly, it actually appears the league has upgraded its talent significantly. With every head coach returning and a wave of star recruits incoming (see below), the Sun Belt looks ready for a rebound.
The New Guys: Tony Mitchell, the five-star North Texas forward who originally signed with Missouri, headlines a brilliant crop of newcomers across the conference. In addition to Mitchell, UNT coach Johnny Jones inked all sorts of talent out of the state of Texas, including coveted shooting guard Jordan Williams. Western Kentucky will also rely on a highly-touted recruiting class to help rebound from a disappointing season, and Middle Tennessee welcomes Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy. Florida International might have the most intriguing prospect in big man Joey De La Rosa, but his eligibility isn’t a given right now.
After Enrolling at North Texas, Tony Mitchell Is Finally Set To Take The Court. (USA Basketball)
Goodbye, Denver: The Pioneers will leave for the Western Athletic Conference after the season, but coach Joe Scott has a competitive roster in place to compete for the West division in DU’s final year in the Sun Belt. That’s the only realignment update to note with this league, although more moves at the top of college sports could eventually trickle down to the SBC.
Tough Luck, ULM: After failing to meet academic standards, the NCAA ruled the Warhawks ineligible for postseason play in 2012. Keith Richard is still in the process of rebuilding the program, so an appearance in even the CIT or CBI looked like a pipe dream. Still, the ruling also means the Warhawks cannot participate in the Sun Belt Tournament, and that’s a harsh way to end the careers of the five seniors on this squad.
Predicted Order of Finish (conference records in parentheses)