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.