Daniel Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.
A Look Back
- At least it’s not a guard this time, we suppose. Senior center Cliff Dixon is the latest victim in the Western Kentucky saga, as coach Ken McDonald dismissed him from the team last weekend for violating team rules. Brown already dismissed point guard Ken Brown for academic violations, while freshman guard Snap Peters is academically ineligible. That’s left WKU with a thin backcourt and only two players capable of running the point, and now the team will have to deal with the departure of a frustrating but still potentially useful big man.
- Breast cancer is a disease we can all get behind—and that includes Louisiana-Monroe coach Keith Richard. The school held “Pack The Place Pink Night” during a men’s and women’s double-header against Arkansas State February 10. For every student that attended, Richard and his wife, a cancer survivor, donated one dollar to research. ULM’s men’s team lost by 19 points, but more than 2,500 fans showed up, meaning breast cancer research just received a nice boost. No matter a person’s income, it’s impressive for Richard’s family to take on a task like this.
- It’s just one day, but the league moved North Texas and Arkansas-Little Rock’s make-up contest to March 1 from February 28, according to ArkansasSports360.com. The two teams had a game postponed two weeks ago due to a snowstorm, and the rescheduled game falls just four days before the start of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
- Solomon Bozeman has always been a scorer, but he’s never been a shooter. Until this season. The UALR two-guard is the most efficient three-point shooter in the conference with a 47.8 percent mark from behind the arc. That’s amazing considering he’d never shot better than 33.3 percent during his first three seasons. The improved point guard play of D’Andre Williams and Chuck Guy has helped ease the pressure off Bozeman, and that’s reflected in the statistics.
- We’ll reveal our award-winners from the SBC later this season, but here’s an early hint: Jason Jones is an obvious candidate for Newcomer of the Year. The UTEP transfer has added a new element to Middle Tennessee State in the frontcourt, and he’s played a factor in MTSU’s surge toward the top of the East standings. Even better for the Blue Raiders is that he’s got two more years of eligibility.
Quote of the Week
“Fifty-seven percent, case closed… We just don’t guard and it is disappointing. Our guys just don’t accept the challenge to guard for 40 minutes.”
–South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow, expressing his frustrations with his team’s shooting defense (via Yahoo! Sports)
1. Florida Atlantic (18-9, 10-3): Two weeks ago, we said the East was “all but over.” With a month left in the season and teams crumbling around the conference, Florida Atlantic looked immune to struggle. The Owls were perfect: efficient offensively, dominant defensively and playing as one cohesive unit. So much for all that stuff. FAU has lost two straight games and three of five, which included an ugly 69-42 loss at Denver February 10. Gregg Gantt scored two, yes, two points against DU in that defeat. And that’s your leading scorer for the league’s top team, ladies and gentleman. Florida Atlantic still leads Middle Tennessee State by two games with three remaining and already swept that series, so it’d take a collapse of epic proportions for FAU to lose its division title. Still, the Owls aren’t invincible anymore, which means we’re heading toward a wide-open conference tournament next month in Hot Springs.
Up Next: Feb. 19 at FIU, Feb. 24 vs. Troy, Feb. 27 at USA
2. Middle Tennessee State (14-13, 9-5): This conference is officially insane. Middle Tennessee State, which appeared dead two weeks ago, suddenly had life with FAU’s stumble… before promptly losing at Troy last night in overtime, meaning it will need a miracle to take the East crown. Losing at Troy isn’t the worst offense a team can commit. After all, Troy beat Denver at home last weekend and has lost just two conference home games this season. It’s simply maddening, though, for coach Kermit Davis’s team to win five straight games, get back into contention and then shoot 0-9 in the overtime period against a beatable team with just eight overall wins this year.
Feb. 19 at UALR, Feb. 22 at Houston Baptist, Feb. 26 at WKU
3. Western Kentucky (13-13, 7-6): Would you look at that! A .500 record for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers! It took until February for WKU to reach even again after a 2-5 start in November, but Ken McDonald’s squad has finally figured out how to play basketball—together, you know, as a team. Point guard Jamal Crook, one of the catalysts of this modest turn-around, made the game-winning shot last night to lift WKU to an important win at Arkansas-Little Rock. Star forward Sergio Kerusch only scored three points, but frontcourt mate Steffphon Pettigrew helped him out with 18 points and 10 boards. They’ve both been inconsistent this season, along with newcomer Juan Patillo, but lately at least one of these forwards seems to emerge in each game.
Up Next: Feb. 19 at ULL, Feb. 24 vs. FIU, Feb. 26 at MTSU
4. Troy (8-17, 6-7): Don Maestri’s guys have been quite the pests this season. Although Troy played like one of the Sun Belt’s worst teams in November and December, the Trojans are just one game under .500 in conference play and, like we stated earlier, has lost just two league games at home. Will Weathers may turn the ball over too much, but he makes plays for star Vernon Taylor and controls his team’s up-tempo pace. Troy can score—we know that—and when it defends, it can win. Heading into the SBC tourney, this is a typical “sleeper.” Troy has no expectations after losing five starters and nothing to lose, so there’s no reason it can’t make a run in March.
Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. ASU, Feb. 24at FAU, Feb. 26 at FIU
5. Florida International (9-16, 4-9): The swagger the Golden Panthers had early in January has vanished. The team started 3-0 but has won just one game since—a one-point victory at Troy in early February. There is obvious talent on this team, but it hasn’t quite come together. Poor free throw shooting has doomed FIU in particular. One positive from this recent slide: freshman point guard Phil Taylor, who missed most of the season due to eligibility issues, is logging a ton of minutes in the backcourt. Better yet, he’s producing—he scored 21 points in a loss at Middle Tennessee State last weekend.
Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. FAU, Feb. 24 at WKU, Feb. 26 vs. Troy
6. South Alabama (10-14, 4-9): You heard it from coach Ronnie Arrow above. USA’s not defending well enough to win right now, and it’s not getting enough from Tim Williams, last year’s leading scorer. He’s shooting less than 40 percent from the field and has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. After a mid-season revitalization, South Alabama has lost three straight and doesn’t look like a team able to compete in the league tourney.
Up Next: Feb. 19 at Denver, Feb. 24 vs. UALR, Feb. 27 vs. FAU
1. Louisiana-Lafayette (11-14, 8-5): It’s the most improbable climb imaginable. Louisiana-Lafayette is atop the West Rankings after sitting one spot from the cellar two weeks ago. The team that started 3-14 has now won eight straight games, and it’s one of only two SBC teams to win at Florida Atlantic in league play. Just a game out of first place, the Rajun’ Cajuns are our pick to stun the conference and earn the number one seed in the West Division. It’s difficult to explain just how surprising this winning streak is. Until the past few weeks, we’ve treated this as a “throw-away” season of sorts for coach Bob Marlin in his first year. His track record at Sam Houston State speaks for itself, but he dealt with too many injuries and lack of personnel to win this year, right? Apparently, that’s not the case. ULL’s playing physical basketball and has a tall, tough starting lineup, and Marlin has his players defending—they held FAU without a basket for the final 11 minutes of the game. There aren’t many offensive stars on this team, but that’s the beauty of Louisiana-Lafayette. With Travis Bureau and J.J. Thomas playing hard-nosed basketball on the boards, this is an efficient squad on both sides of the floor. For what it’s worth, we did say in November that Marlin would at least keep this team competitive in the West. But there’s no way anyone could have predicted this.
Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. WKU, Feb. 24 vs. Denver, Feb. 26 at ULM
2. Denver (13-13, 9-4): It’s hard to slide the team with the best record in its division to the second spot in the power rankings, especially since Denver did beat ULL on its home court. That game happened back in December, though, and it’s obvious that the Rajun’ Cajuns have changed, both in terms of momentum and just sheer roster moves. The two teams play each other Feb. 24 to possibly decide the West title, so we’ll see then which team deserves the championship. Denver has been difficult to figure out lately. The Pioneers embarrassed Arkansas State 74-36 at home in January, leaving fans shaking their heads at the putrid offensive output of ASU. Less than a month later, the two teams met again in Jonesboro, and Denver was the team that finished with 35 points in a 25-point blowout. Yet DU found a way to limit the league’s best team in a 69-42 win over FAU Feb. 10. The real problem with this conference is that nobody can win on the road.
Up Next: Feb. 20 vs. USA, Feb. 24 at ULL, Feb. 26 at UNT
3. Arkansas State (14-14, 8-5): Speaking of road woes, Arkansas State’s got them too. It has won only one league road game this season and even lost at Savannah State Feb. 1. It’s a good thing, then, that Arkansas State is perhaps the Sun Belt’s most dominant home team. With an undefeated record at home, ASU could realistically win this division if it can win at Troy tomorrow, considering its final two games are at the Convocation Center. Maybe senior D-Ray Boone can lead his team to a title in his last hurrah. We’ve been waiting for Boone, who led the team in scoring two years ago but missed the 2009-10 season, all year. He may have finally emerged, as he’s scored in double figures in five straight games.
Up Next: Feb. 19 at Troy, Feb. 24 vs. North Texas, Feb. 26 vs. UALR
4. North Texas (17-8, 6-6): UNT’s season isn’t over yet by any means. Mathematically, the Mean Green are still in the West race with four games remaining. More importantly, this season can still be a success with a conference tournament title, and this senior-laden squad is more than capable of pulling that off, especially considering how wide open the field appears. If the Mean Green don’t act fast, though, there’s no chance they’ll improve enough to get on a roll. Frankly, they’d been putrid the past few weeks before knocking off South Alabama yesterday. Point guard Josh White is the key to a potential turn-around. He’s the Sun Belt’s leading active scorer, but he’s not making plays with the same frequency as a senior. North Texas doesn’t have a whole lot of offensive punch on the bench, and it needs White to find another gear before time runs out.
Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. ULM, Feb. 24 at ASU, Feb. 26 vs. Denver, March 1 at UALR
5. Arkansas-Little Rock (14-13, 6-6): The team that didn’t win a road game last year finally got it done away from home, winning at ULM February 12 for its third road win of the season. And then, UALR suffered the most heartbreaking loss of the season when WKU’s Jamal Crook secured the ball in a scramble situation and made a game-winner with less than a second to play at the Jack Stephens Center last night. The Trojans had played so well at home throughout the 2010-11 campaign, and after securing a rare road victory, the loss makes a West title nearly impossible.
Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. MTSU, Feb. 24 at USA, Feb. 26 at ASU, March 1 vs. UNT
6. Louisiana-Monroe (6-22, 1-13): This season was lost from the day it started for the Warhawks, so disregard the record and all the bad losses and remember this: ULM still hosts Louisiana-Lafayette one more time in the season finale Feb. 26. This season is still meaningful for coach Keith Richard. He’ll be a god if he can find a way to knock his archrival out of first place in the West division on the final day of the season, no matter how many losses his team has already suffered.
Up Next: Feb. 19 at UNT, Feb. 26 vs. ULL