Here we go… headfirst into another season heralded by our 2014-15 edition of Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball, our annual compendium of YouTube clips from the previous season completely guaranteed to make you wish games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on November 14. We’ve captured what we believe were the 30 most compelling moments from last season, some of which will bring back goosebumps and others of which will leave you shaking your head in astonishment. For all of this year’s released posts, click here.
As expected Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid announced that he will be entering this year’s NBA Draft. In our minds, there was really no question as to Embiid’s decision as he is a guaranteed top-five pick (barring any serious findings during his physicals). Before his back injury we would have said that Embiid might have been the favorite to the #1 overall pick. Now we would only hedge a little bit by saying that he will be a top-five pick because despite his back injury, which can be concerning, he does have a skill set that very few NBA big men have, which makes him an extremely valuable commodity. Embiid’s departure could also open the door for Kansas to land Myles Turner, the #2 overall recruit in the class of 2014 and the lone remaining uncommitted recruit, as Embiid and Turner likely would have been sharing minutes. With Embiid off to the NBA it might lead Turner to head to Lawrence.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee will not be repeating its surprise run to the NCAA Tournament next year. In fact, they won’t even be able to defend their Horizon League Tournament crown after receiving a one-year post-season ban for its low APR score. This clearly is not as high-profile as Connecticut’s one-year ban in 2013 and we don’t expect to see a player (sorry student-athlete) standing next to Rob Jeter talking about being banned, but it is a significant blow to the program. At this point, we have to place blame the program particularly when they have known about these APR guidelines for years.
The big news of the day in the college basketball world was Massachusetts point guard Derrick Gordonannouncing that he is gay. There have been countless opinions posted online and spoken over the air so we won’t get into the issue too much other than to applaud Gordon for his decision to make the announcement more for the change it can make for others than anything related to himself although that clearly is a big issue too. We hope that opposing players and fans (particularly the fans) behave appropriately when they play Massachusetts. We also hope that we see the day when this type of announcement not only does not need to be made, but it also is not a news story because society has become so accepting.
It did not take Jim Fox very long to become one of our favorite college basketball coaches. Just one day after taking over at Appalachian State, Fox released Devonte Graham from his previously signed National Letter of Intent. As we mentioned yesterday, Graham had signed before his recruiting stock rose significantly and then wanted to back out. The entire issue had been handled poorly by the previous Appalachian State coaching staff and probably affected their ability to recruit players. In the end, this works out best for both Graham and Appalachian State so we are glad that the new staff was able to take a step back and do what was best for both parties.
Tony Jasick will be introduced as the new coach at Jacksonville later today. Jasick, who led Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne to a 25-win season and a win in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament this season, is just 36 years old, but already has three years of head coaching experience compiling a 52-47 record with a significant improvement in the team’s record each season. He recently received the Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year as the top Division I mid-major coach in college basketball, which we guess is a big deal even though we have never heard of it. Jasick will be replacing Cliff Warren, the longest tenured coach in the school’s history, but who also finished with three losing seasons.
Derek Kellogg’s UMass team was picked to finish fourth in the new-look Atlantic 10 this season, which would seem to position the Minutemen squarely on the bubble in pursuit of their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998. In recent years, UMass has missed nearly every key opportunity to strengthen its non-conference resume (losing to Boston College, Seton Hall, Florida State, North Carolina State, Tennessee, and Miami twice), but this squad has garnered national attention by passing every tough test. Through eight games, UMass remains perfect, collecting wins over four power-conference teams (Boston College, LSU, Nebraska, and Clemson), along with high-mids New Mexico and BYU, and earning a championship in the Charleston Classic. What’s more impressive — aside from overcoming a nine-point second-half deficit to defeat Boston College, UMass has been in complete control of each of its other games. The Minutemen find themselves ranked in both major polls (#22 AP; #20 Coaches), and are currently ranked #1 in the RPI.
Senior guard Chaz Williams is living up to his preseason all-conference accolades (umassathletics.com).
Senior guard Chaz Williams, a preseason first team all-A-10 selection, has led the attack – averaging 17.5 points per game, thanks in part to shooting 44 percent beyond the arc. When he’s not scoring, he’s helping others do so, as Williams ranks 20th nationally in assist rate. He finished the BYU game with a ridiculous 15:1 assist/turnover ratio, and all of it has led to a balanced and potent offense, as three other Minutemen are also averaging 12 points or more per game: Cady Lalanne (15.0 PPG, to go along with 10.4 rebounds per game), Sampson Carter (13.8 PPG), and Raphiael Putney (12.6 PPG). To boot, each of these contributors is 6’8″ or taller, constantly testing opponents’ interior defense.
Trendy sleepers only stay trendy for so long. After receiving preseason love as an Atlantic 10 darkhorse before each of the last two seasons, the UMass Minutemen watched that buzz quiet a bit this time around. That’s not to say UMass was expected to struggle this season – they were picked a respectable fourth in the A-10 Preseason poll – but the familiar makeup of this group of Minutemen left many wondering how they could possibly carve out a different, happier ending from that of years past. Well, fast forward a week into the season and take a nice whiff of the optimism emanating from Western Massachusetts. Opening week victories over BC and LSU don’t make UMass anyone’s team of the week, but they do show this team’s capability (thus far, at least) to do something their predecessors could not – handle their business in the non-conference. March fates are rarely decided in the second week of November, but take notice, even if it is a year or two past schedule: That sleeper may finally be waking up in Amherst.
Chaz Williams Has One Final Chance To Lead UMass Back To The NCAA Tournament; Does A Strong Opening Week Mean Williams And Company Are Ready To Make It Happen?
A couple of 9-7 records in Atlantic 10 play (UMass’ finish in both 2012 and 2013) are rarely part of the recipe for an at-large bid to the Dance, but in each of the last two seasons, the more damning portion of the Minuteman resume was not their so-so in-conference performance. Two years ago they posted just one top-130 victory before January (a home win over Davidson), while striking out on opportunities against top-50 foes Florida State and Miami (FL). Last season’s non-conference effort was marginally better, but wins over Harvard, Providence and Ohio should not be the pre-conference highlights for a team with serious NCAA Tournament aspirations – especially one from a non-BCS conference. Making matters worse, the chances were again there for Derek Kellogg’s club, but losses to NC State, Tennessee, and Miami (FL) all came by double figures. Once again, those touting the Minutemen were quickly made to look too ambitious.
Conference Realignment, Round Two – When back in March 2012, Temple — followed quickly by Charlotte — announced their intent to leave the conference at the end of the 2012-13 season, Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade had nearly 15 months to deliver their replacements. The former ACC Associate Commissioner took less than eight weeks to ink two stellar programs (VCU and Butler) that could potentially eclipse the departing teams. Through an accident of timing, the conference drew five NCAA bids from its 16 teams, matching their previous bid highs of 1996-97 and 1997-98. The A-10’s second brush with Realignment Fever (Butler and Xavier to the Big East, effective June 30, 2013) handed McGlade a far smaller window to audition replacements. Her second attempt at matchmaking yielded George Mason and Davidson, two solid additions that fall short of her first effort. That headliners Temple, Xavier and Butler (Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye) departed together, with Davidson not due to join until 2014-15, leaves the conference with less name recognition than it has had since the early 1990s.
It has been a whirlwind 18 months for Bernadette McGlade and the Atlantic 10 conference. (AP)
The “It” Place – Inking a five-year deal with the Barclays Center to host the Atlantic 10 Tournament seemed prudent at the time. The shovels had barely turned the dirt on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and the conference was in the early stages of negotiations for television coverage. McGlade’s gamble paid dividends as the 2013 conference tournament offered the strongest field in a decade in one of the year’s hottest new basketball venues. Couple the exposure from basketball (the Brooklyn Nets, the A-10 Tournament, several in season double- and triple-headers) and music, and suddenly the Barclays Center has become one of the most popular entertainment venues in New York City. For the A-10, the challenge will be to develop comparable gate numbers to those of the venue’s higher profile entertainment offerings.
Predicted Order of Finish
Rankings from the conference coaches’ Media Day Poll are in square brackets to the right of the projected conference record.
The past season was an interesting one for Xavier‘s Mark Lyons and after a falling out with Chris Mack, reportedly based on Lyons’ tendency to try to take over games and play outside of the team’s system, he decided to transfer making him one of the most coveted transfers on the market. On Sunday his name announced that he would be heading to Arizona (clarified in a subsequent tweet). The mercurial rising senior, who averaged 15.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game last season will likely start for the Wildcats next season as he is set to graduate from Xavier this summer and would be eligible to play next season if he enrolls in a graduate program at Arizona that is not offered at Xavier. One of the more interesting aspects of the transfer is that it reunites Lyons with Sean Miller, the coach who recruited Lyons to Xavier before himself departing to Arizona. The arrival of Lyons in Tucson this summer likely shifts the balance of power in the Pac-12 from Pauley Pavilion to the McKale Center and adds to the conference’s respectability even if we still have doubts about the rest of the conference after the top two teams.
On Saturday, Trent Lockett announced that he will transfer from Arizona State to Marquettefor his senior season to be closer to his mother who is battling cancer. Lockett, who already completed his undergraduate degree, should be eligible to play for Marquette next season either through enrolling in a graduate program at Marquette that is not offered at Arizona State or through a family hardship waiver. Last season, he averaged 13 points and 5.8 rebounds per game for a dysfunctional Sun Devil team and although he is joining a much better team he should get plenty of court time for a team that lost its two best players to graduation.
Lyons and Lockett may have a more immediate impact, but the biggest transfer news of the weekend may be Derrick Gordon who announced on Friday afternoon that he was leaving Western Kentucky to go to Massachusetts. The freshman guard averaged 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while leading the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament and managing to put up some decent numbers against eventual national champion Kentucky (12 points and 5 rebounds) when he got there. Gordon will have to sit out next season, but he does have three more seasons of eligibility left making his impact much more important in the long-term and could serve as a foundation for the program to build around for the future rather than just one year like the two players we already mentioned.
Having brought Kentucky its eighth national title a month ago, John Caliparitook his team to the White House on Friday. While the White House visit was most likely the most memorable part of Calipari’s day, getting a 8.3% pay raise (or $400,000 extra guaranteed per year) was a nice cherry on top. Although we would like to think that this was just a thank you for bringing title #8 to Lexington, this was more likely a preemptive strike against any other basketball organizations that might try to lure Calipari away from Rupp Arena like a certain organization that could use someone to lead them who can keep their players focused on the opposition and not fire extinguishers. With the President election coming up in November, President Obama is doing more than just inviting the national champion Kentucky Wildcats to the White House. He is also campaigning for reelection and to do that he will be relying in large part on his campaign rallies. While we are not aware of any deals President Obama made with John Calipari, he did enlist the help of another well-known coach: Shaka Smart. The Virginia Commonwealth coach hosted a rally for President Obama on Saturday. It is unlikely that Smart, who was a guest of Obama at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, will help deliver the state of Virginia for Obama, but when you have a popular local figure it seems like Obama picked the right coach in the state of Virginia to bring out to pull in a few extra votes.
While some teams go to exotic destinations for their offseason trips they usually stick to fairly frequently visited destinations such as France, China, and the like. That will not be the case for Washington this year as they will also head to Senegal as part of a 15-day trip. In addition to stops in Spain, France, and Monaco, the Huskies will also visit Senegal and play a game in Dakar. The impetus for the trip is senior Aziz N’Diaye, who is from Senegal, and serves as one of the more unique ways to honor a tradition of rewarding seniors with a game in their hometown. The trip will also serve as a way for the Huskies to get used to their new pieces as they will have to adjust to live after underachieving last season before losing their two best players early to the NBA Draft.
All Business. Kentucky had this one wrapped up and in the mail by halftime. The specific play that did it was at the end of the half when the Wildcats put together an Anthony Davis dunk, a Doron Lamb three, and a block by Davis to lift the lead at 19 and bring the crowd to life. Western Kentucky walked off the floor and, frankly, didn’t provide much resistance upon coming out for the second half.
There Was a Little (One-Sided) Fun, Actually. Watch for two straight Davis alley-oop dunks on your favorite highlight show tonight if you didn’t see them live. He got a technical on the second one…for pulling his KNEES up to the rim. Deserved it for the knee maneuver, and probably would have broken his back if he had let go of the rim, but hey, it looked cool.
How Long Will the Wildcats’ Legs Hold Up? John Calipari has played seven guys, and almost EXCLUSIVELY seven guys, all year long. They’ve played such tough defense and quick, motion offense for a long, hard year. Even with a lead that got up to 30 at one point, Calipari still had his blue-chippers in there with less than ten minutes to go. He didn’t clear his bench until there was less than a minute left. There was a little bit of buzz along press row as to whether Cal’s affinity for leaving his big boys in to close out games even with big leads will eventually cause the legs to fail, given the minutes those seven guys have had to log all season — maybe against, say, a Connecticut or Iowa State? — a buzz not mitigated by the fact that Calipari’s boys let up on defense near the finish line, allowing the ‘Toppers to get the lead down to 15 by the final buzzer.
Star of the Game. Terrence Jones donated 22/10 to the UK cause and was rivaled only by Davis’ 16/9 and seven blocks. Let’s be fair, though. WKU has a couple of ballers, notably freshmen T. J. Price (21/4 on 6-11) and Derrick Gordon (12/5). Once the UK defense decided to take them out of the game (especially Price) at the start of the second half, the matter was decided, but safe to say those gents will have WKU back in the Tournament in short order — and not as a 16-seed.
Quotable. Calipari, who has remarked in the past about how he’s not really a fan of tournament-format basketball: “I’ve told my guys, just forget about the whole tournament. We’re just playing basketball. I told them tonight, I don’t care about offense, let’s just play defense. Let’s show everyone what kind of defensive team we can be.”
Sights & Sounds. Credit to the WKU band for the taunts during Kentucky’s free throws, referencing Davis’ unibrow, questions of Kentucky players’ gender, and other cleverness. They were doing what they could. UK finished 18-25 from the line for 72%.
What’s Next? Everyone knows what’s next. Not many UK fans will leave the KFC Yum! Center until they know who their team is playing on Saturday. There is a palpable fear of Connecticut in this building. UK fans know the Huskies have enough NBA talent on that team to challenge the ‘Cats, and of course UConn disposed of UK last year in the Final Four. A burnt child, indeed, shuns fire.
On Thursday, Kentucky and Vanderbilt open their NCAA Tournament runs facing Western Kentucky and Harvard, respectively. Here we preview the Thursday/Saturday possibilities for the Wildcats and Commodores.
SEC NCAA Tournament Thursday/Saturday Capsules
#1 Kentucky: Championship Appearances: 53; Record 107-47; Best Finish: Champion – 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998; How Qualified: At-Large, SEC; Last Appearance: 2011 – L, National Semifinal
#16 Western Kentucky: Championship Appearances: 22; Record 19-22; Best Finish: Third Place – 1971; How Qualified: Automatic Bid, Sun Belt Conference; Last Appearance: 2009 – L, Second Round
#8 Iowa State: Championship Appearances: 14; Record 12-13; Best Finish: Final Four – 1944; How Qualified: At Large, Big 12; Last Appearance: 2005 – L, Second Round
#9 Connecticut: Championship Appearances: 47; Record 35-43; Best Finish: Champion – 1999, 2004, 2011; How Qualified: At Large, Big East; Last Appearance: 2011 – Champion
Kentucky vs Western Kentucky: Kentucky leads 3-2; Last Meeting: Nov. 15, 2001 (Western Kentucky 64, Kentucky 52)
Kentucky vs Iowa State: Kentucky leads 2-0; Last Meeting: Mar. 22, 1992 (Kentucky 106, Iowa State 98)
Kentucky vs Connecticut: Connecticut leads 3-1; Last Meeting: April 2, 2011 (Connecticut 56, Kentucky 55)
A Starting 5 of the Top Players Kentucky Could Face
Derrick Gordon, Western Kentucky, Fr., G: Gordon has amassed 400 points in his first year as a Hilltopper. Only two freshmen have scored more points in Western Kentucky history (Courtney Lee, 467; Ralph Crosthwaite, 437). He is on pace to become the first Hilltopper freshman to pace the team in scoring and he will be the first in five years to lead in rebounding.
Chris Allen, Iowa State, Sr., G: Allen leads the team with 72 3-point field goals and he has played in the most NCAA Tournament games (14) in this year’s 68-team ﬁeld. Allen played in two Final Fours for Michigan State (2009, 2010.
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut, So., G: Lamb earned First-Team All-Big East honors and the NABC District I Player of the Year after leading the Huskies in scoring at 17.1 points per game.
Royce White, Iowa State, So., F: White is the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring (13.1), rebounding (9.2), assists (5.1), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.9). He is on the verge of posting top-10 single seasons in assists and rebounds in Cyclone history. He is one of 12 players in the county to post a triple-double this season.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut, Fr., C: Drummond has tallied 10 double-doubles this season, a UConn freshman record under Coach Jim Calhoun. He won four Big East Rookie of the Week honors, and leads the team in rebounding (7.7) and blocks (2.7).
The First Round Lede. Debate all you want about the structure of the new NCAA Tournament (since last year) – the First Four format is the new norm, and it must be appreciated because of the momentum it can give to the teams that win these play-in games. Of course, last year VCU began its run to the Final Four from the First Four. Over the past two nights, we saw a couple of really interesting games and a couple of blowouts. We’ll analyze the best moments for you here, as well as preview what’s next to come for the four winners. Here’s your First Round wrap-up…
Your Watercooler Moment. BYU Mounts An Enormous Second Half Comeback
Noah Hartsock Brought Intensity to BYU's Second Half Comeback (AP Photo/S. Peterson)
At the 4:00 mark of the first half of their game against Iona, the BYU Cougars trailed 55-31. Not a single soul watching this game on Tuesday night was thinking about a BYU comeback, and even the announcing crew on truTV was discussing how Iona could pose a serious threat to Marquette in the next round. But Dave Rose was not having it; the BYU coach made the necessary adjustments that included putting his defense into a 2-3 zone that it had hardly used during the season. The result was a complete shift in momentum, and the Cougars continued to convert on the offensive end while holding the Gaels to nothing offensively. Just 16 minutes later, at the 8:00 mark of the second half, Iona’s lead had vanished. BYU controlled the game from there and pulled away with a 78-72 victory, a seemingly impossible result after watching the events of the first half. The upperclassmen forward combo of Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies was terrific, combining for 41 points and 20 rebounds against the undersized Iona front line. The Cougars will take this momentum into Friday night when they take on Marquette in the Round of 64.
No matter whether you feel the First Round of the NCAA Tournament is legitimate or not (and we know at least one person writing Amicus briefs to the Supreme Court on this very issue), it all gets under way at 6:40 PM tonight. From 68 to 16 in the next six days… let’s analyze the first two games this evening.
#16 Western Kentucky vs. #16 Mississippi Valley State — South Region First Round (at Dayton, OH) — 6:40 pm ET on truTV.
It's Still the Big Dance to Big Red
It is hard to believe that the NCAA Tournament officially tips off tonight — it seems like the 24 hours of college basketball marathon on ESPN was just last week — as Western Kentucky will do battle against Mississippi Valley State in the First Round. Things looked bleak for both squads midway through the year as MVSU entered conference play with a 1-11 record, while Western Kentucky stood at 5-14 just six games into league play. In fairness to the Delta Devils, however, they did play one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the nation with virtually all of their contests being so-called “guarantee games.” As for the Hilltoppers, they fired Ken McDonald halfway through the season, and have looked like an entirely different team since. Mississippi Valley is 20-1 since SWAC play began, while Western Kentucky is 10-7 since Ray Harper took over the helm in Bowling Green. Hailing from the weakest conference in America, the Delta Devils will enter the game as slight underdogs, even though they have a much more impressive overall record than their opponent. Western Kentucky is led by freshman Derrick Gordon (11.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG), but junior transfer Teeng Akol — formerly of Oklahoma State — has provided the Hilltoppers with a formidable presence in the frontcourt as of late; Akol scored a career high 23 points in the Sun Belt championship game. Meanwhile for MVSU, it has a balanced approach as five players on the squad average nine points or better. Terrence Joyner is their sharpshooter as he connects on just over two triples a game, while Paul Crosby (13.3 PPG, 7.4 RBG) mans the paint. Despite Sean Woods‘ team losing only one game since the New Year, Western Kentucky is the more talented team and is playing with a real chip on its shoulder.
As we move through Championship Week (the second half of Championship Fortnight, of course), we’ll continue to bring you these short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. In this post, we’ve got the WCC, Summit, Horizon, and Sun Belt winners from the past two nights…
Matthew Dellavedova (And His Mouth Guard) Are Dangerous (AP/ Tony Avelar)
WCC Champion (27-5, 16-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #25/#43/#35
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +11.3
Likely NCAA Seed: #6-#8
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
St. Mary’s has been a nationally-recognized mid-major for a number of years now, but the Gaels program did something this year that it had never done before, and especially not in the Mark Few/Gonzaga era — win both the outright regular season WCC title and the conference tournament championship. Whether this is a notable achievement en route to a nice run in the NCAA Tournament or something that represents the highlight of the season remains to be seen, but there’s no question that this group has the team chemistry, coaching, and talent to do some damage in the coming week. Two years ago, the Gaels rode a red-hot Omar Samhan past two perimeter-oriented teams into the Sweet Sixteen, and if the matchups break favorably for them again, Randy Bennett‘s team certainly has the capability of breaking through again.
The straw that stirs the Gaels’ drink is WCC Player of the Year, Matthew Dellavedova. The sneaky-quick Australian point guard can score (15.6 PPG), shoot (59 threes, 36.0% 3FG), dish (6.4 APG) and board (3.3 RPG), but more than any of that, it is his ability to successfully run Bennett’s offensive sets that makes him invaluable. St. Mary’s has an elite offense (#20 nationally), which is roughly on par with the Sweet Sixteen team of two seasons ago. Where it struggles, of course, is on the defensive end. As exhibited on nights against athletic teams when the shots aren’t falling, the Gaels have trouble keeping the game close enough to grind out a victory.
As good as Dellavedova and his senior compatriot Rob Jones are (14.8 PPG, 10.7 RPG), the duo struggles against superior athletes. Jones was harassed into a rough outing against the waves of rangy athletes that Murray State threw at the Gaels in their Bracketbuster game last month, while Dellavedova was bumped into a 3-10 shooting performance (1-8 from three) against Baylor earlier in the season. This is why matchups are absolutely key for St. Mary’s next week. If they come up against a first game opponent that can out-run and out-jump them at most positions, they’re probably in big trouble — Connecticut or Mississippi State comes to mind — but if they instead find themselves matched up against a team that plays under the rim like they do — say, Harvard or Purdue — they have a great shot to advance one or two rounds.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
Sun Belt Tourney Outlook (by seed)
Middle Tennessee (25-5, 14-2): The heavy favorite to win the tournament, the Blue Raiders have a decent computer profile in case they falter. Still, Kermit Davis won’t want to leave anything to chance.
UALR (15-15, 12-4): The Trojans won the tournament last year out of nowhere. This year, they can’t sneak up on anybody.
Denver (21-8, 11-5): By far the scariest team in the league right now. If you watched them play back in November and December, you probably thought they’d win this league running away. Now, they’re starting to play like that again.
Louisiana (16-14, 10-6): Yes, the ULM loss is ugly, but this team must simply forget about that and move on.
North Texas (16-13, 9-7): The Mean Green are in a different position in the tournament this year as opposed to 2011. Back then, a senior-laden team was on a mission—a mission that fell short in the final seconds thanks to UALR. These young guys are a little more happy-go-lucky, though, which could be to their benefit.
South Alabama (16-11, 8-8): The Jaguars are one of the league’s most surprising teams, finishing .500 despite bringing in an entirely new backcourt. Ronnie Arrow definitely has a major sleeper here.
Western Kentucky (11-18, 7-9): UALR could have a difficult time with WKU in the quarterfinals, especially since the Hilltoppers have nothing to lose and have played well lately.
Florida Atlantic (11-18, 7-9): Despite this season’s disastrous results, four wins in four days are all Mike Jarvis needs to forget all about it.
Arkansas State (12-19, 6-10): The Red Wolves probably aren’t as bad as their record suggests, since they’ve lost a lot of close games and have competed somewhat against the top of the league.
Florida International (8-20, 5-11): In DeJuan Wright’s last stand, maybe his teammates will rally for him.
Troy (10-17, 5-11): The Trojans closed the season with two straight victories. That counts for something.
The Year That Was
After entering the season in the shadow of East favorite Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee dominated the Sun Belt Conference and ran away with the division.
The slumping Owls fell well short of expectations, but Kermit Davis’ team played masterful defense and pounded the ball inside to LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton. This was supposed to be a team with major offensive question marks. And this was supposed to be a program that could never get over the proverbial hump. This season, though, Davis finally elevated the Blue Raiders to the top.
After Entering The Season In The Shadow Of East Favorite Florida Atlantic, Kermit Davis' Middle Tennessee Crew Dominated the Sun Belt Conference (Getty)
No team experienced more turmoil than Western Kentucky, which fired Ken McDonald after a lackluster start. Even with one of the league’s youngest squads, Ken Harper took over and immediately instilled a new confidence in his players. Apparently, he impressed somebody at the top. The school gave Harper the reigns as the full-time head coach after originally tabbing him as an interim replacement. Harper led WKU to three wins in its final four games, including an upset of Middle Tennessee in the season finale.
Arkansas-Little Rock lost Sun Belt Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman to graduation, and the 2011-12 season did not begin with much fanfare. UALR struggled through a difficult non-conference schedule and as Denver flew high in November and December, it appeared the reigning Sun Belt tourney champs may fall flat. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The Pioneers used a late surge to finish with 11 conference wins, but UALR edged them for the West title by playing good old-fashioned Steve Shields basketball all winter.
We said before the season not to anticipate immediate dominance from Tony Mitchell at North Texas. Again, we couldn’t have been more wrong (that’s a theme here, as you’ve probably noticed). Mitchell averaged a double-double in his first season of collegiate basketball to help keep the Mean Green afloat despite the ineligibility of Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. If Mitchell stays another year, look out.
Louisiana-Monroe will not compete in the Sun Belt tourney due to a poor academic rating, but it closed the regular season with one heck of a victory. It’s so significant and shocking, in fact, that it’s worthy of inclusion in this section as a part of the overall landscape of the Sun Belt’s 2011-12 season. It was one of those scores that simply makes you shake your head: ULM 78, Louisiana 60. That happened this weekend. In Lafayette, mind you. And remember, ULM has lost 26 games this season. This is the kind of stuff they make Hollywood movies about. Just consider the storylines: 1) it was a rivalry game 2) Louisiana is one of the league’s better squads 3) ULM’s seniors will never play again and the team cannot compete in the postseason 4) it was on UL’s home floor 5) brothers Steven (ULM) and Darshawn (UL) McClellan were playing against each other 6) ULM won by 18 points and 7) ULM has, um, 26 losses this season! By the way, Steven and Darshawn both scored in double figures. Steven may have won, but Darshawn’s team is playing this weekend, so he’s got bragging rights there.
Tony Mitchell's Outstanding Season Earned Him Player of the Year Honors (Denton Record-Chronicle)
Sun Belt Conference Awards
Player of the Year: Tony Mitchell, North Texas
In some ways, we’re almost hesitant to give this award to a freshman. But Mitchell earned this. He averages a double-double, he’s the best shot-blocker in the league and he changes the game by simply stepping on to the court. Who else in this league can grab 20 rebounds one night, block six shots the next night and then score 30 points the next night? In a league with several terrific stars, Mitchell is an incomparable talent.
Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee
Surprisingly, as much as a slam dunk as this pick may seem, it’s hard to pick against Steve Shields at UALR or Joe Scott at Denver. Still, Davis crafted a team with a lot of new parts into a big winner. He got the most out of Dendy after he transferred from Iowa State and he molded his guards into a really solid unit. In the end, this team played its tail off. It showed.
D’Andre Williams, UALR, Guard: A quintessential leader, this man was the driving force behind the Trojans’ surprising West title this season. They don’t make them like D’Andre Williams anymore: solid, gritty, defensive-minded and able to make his teammates better in every way.
DeJuan Wright, FIU, Guard: The senior may actually be the league’s most underrated player, despite leading the league in scoring. How’s that for bizarre?
D’Andre Williams (far left), DeJuan Wright, Chris Udofia and LaRon Dendy Rounded Out the Sun Belt First Team
Chris Udofia, Denver, Forward: Finally, we got one right—we chose Udofia to break out this season, and he certainly did. But frankly, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. As a sophomore, he simply built on his success as a reserve the year before, and with more consistent playing time he became a stud on both ends of the floor.
LaRon Dendy, MTSU, Forward: Chosen by the league as the Player of the Year, Dendy could put a scare into somebody in the NCAA Tournament. He matches up well with any major frontcourt.
Tony Mitchell, UNT, Forward: Let’s pray he comes back for another season.