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.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
Surprise, surprise: Middle Tennessee is your East Division champion. Reeling off four straight victories after that lone loss at Denver on national television earlier this month, the Blue Raiders tallied 30 assists in a 94-61 win at Louisiana-Monroe on Thursday night. That’s downright unheard of. They also made 10 three-pointers and allowed 15 players to appear in the game. Kudos to Kermit Davis for sharing the love.
Kermit Davis and Middle Tennessee Are On The Brink Of Joining The NCAA Tourney Party (AP)
It’s official: Ray Harper is no longer an interim head coach at Western Kentucky– he got the full-time gig. The move adds a little stability to an increasingly unstable program in Bowling Green after the rocky tenure of previous head coach Ken McDonald. Harper, who served as an assistant on McDonald’s staff, won two national championships as a head coach in the Division II ranks. His team has responded relatively well to him, despite youth and major adversity.
Middle Tennessee (25-4, 14-1): With a top-40 RPI and a decent computer profile, the Blue Raiders could actually sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. Kermit Davis certainly won’t want to bank on that, though especially since Middle Tennessee lacks that elusive signature victory. As a biased observer of the Sun Belt, it’s clear this team belongs in the Big Dance. Watch these guys play for 10 minutes and you’ll understand that. Unfortunately, the selection committee needs to be able to quantify success, and a few wins over Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Belmont, and Mississippi won’t get the job done. This is all a pointless debate if the Blue Raiders take care of business in Hot Springs though.
South Alabama (16-10, 8-7): Here come the Jaguars: with six victories in their last seven games, they have locked up the two-seed in the East Division. South Alabama completed a sweep of Florida Atlantic by edging the preseason favorites in overtime on Thursday, a symbolic victory in more ways than one. If you are looking for a trendy upset pick in the Sun Belt Tournament, here’s your team. 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
There’s not much excitement to report from the Sun Belt’s first night of conference play on Thursday, but UALR looks like the big winner with a road win at North Texas. The Trojans, who have struggled on the road under Steve Shields in recent years, had lost all six away contests during non-conference play, but a double-double from forward Will Neighbour and stellar guard play helped grind out the victory over the Mean Green. That will probably be a theme this year in the wide open West Division, where only Denver has established itself as a power. The Pioneers, by the way, handled Troy at home in their opener. East leader Middle Tennessee also held off a pesky Florida International team in Murfreesboro, and Western Kentucky escaped in overtime at Louisiana-Monroe.
With the second semester underway, the much anticipated debut of Tony Mitchell at North Texas hasn’t disappointed anybody. Although Mitchell struggled with foul trouble in the loss to UALR on Thursday, he has already showcased his freakish athleticism by throwing down dunk after dunk during his first four games. In wins over Jackson State, Grambling and New Orleans, Mitchell averaged more than 13 points per game and looked more than comfortable on the court. Even in a loss to LSU, Mitchell scored 11 points in 27 minutes after earning the start for Johnny Jones. He’s still improving at this point, but Mitchell should be a different player by early March.
Kermit Davis Has His Middle Tennessee Squad In Mid-Season Form (AP)
Middle Tennessee (12-2, 1-0) — Congratulations, Kermit Davis: you are now the winningest coach in MTSU history. Davis won his 165th game against FIU on Thursday, but more importantly, his team looks like the runaway favorite in the East after completing an impressive non-conference run. Two months ago, suggesting another division champ besides Florida Atlantic would have seemed insane, but Davis finally may have turned the corner with this program. This team is physical, nasty and downright intimidating, especially on the defensive end with LaRon Dendy and Shawn Jones as the shot-blockers. These forwards rebound well and they don’t give an inch in the paint, and on the other end — Dendy in particular has emerged as a back-to-the-basket scorer. There was never a question that MTSU would defend this season, but Bruce Massey, Marcos Knight and the rest of the guards have also answered every offensive concern Davis had in the pre-season. Middle Tennessee looks like a machine on offense right now, and that’s because it shares the ball as well as anybody in the Sun Belt.
Florida Atlantic (4-9, 0-0) — Don’t give up on the Owls. Sure, the record doesn’t look pretty, but Mike Jarvis challenged this team by taking his players to every city imaginable: Seattle, Washington D.C., Hempstead (N.Y.), Tampa, Lawrence, Starkville, Sunrise (Fla.) and Cambridge. That’s a lot of plane trips and bus rides, so it’s not surprising that the East Division favorite stumbled. It’s not encouraging that Jarvis’s squad could not pull even a single road upset over the likes of Kansas, Mississippi State, Miami or Harvard, but this team has not looked intimidated in any of those contests. It fought admirably in a double-overtime loss to the Hurricanes, using a frantic comeback late in regulation to shock UM. And the good news is, all-league point guard Ray Taylor is starting to play better after an early-season slump, and freshman Omari Grier has cracked into this loaded backcourt as the team’s best outside shooter. When FAU kicks off Sun Belt play on Saturday at Louisiana, don’t expect it to roll over and die. 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
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 and a Big 12 microsite staffer. You can also find his musings online at www.sunbeltbasketball.com or on Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
Blue Raiders > Blueblood: Middle Tennesseecame to play this November. The Blue Raiders quietly earned a solid season-opening victory over Austin Peay,a favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. Two days later, it knocked off Loyola Marymount—and then, the Blue Raiders earned one of the more significant victories of Kermit Davis’s tenure by blowing out UCLA86-66 on Tuesday night. Iowa Statetransfer LaRon Dendy dominated the Bruins, who played without star forward Reeves Nelson, and MTSU’s famous defense held UCLA in check. Most impressively, the Blue Raiders made 10-11 three-point attempts. Even Davis wasn’t quite sure how to describe the performance: “it was a perfect storm tonight,” he said.
Joshua Smith And UCLA Were No Match For The Blue Raiders, Who Notched A Huge Win Tuesday Night In Convincing Fashion. (Robert Gauthier/LA Times)
Arkansas State Sputtering: The start of the season didn’t fare so well for the Red Wolves. After losing all-conference forward Martavius Adams to dismissal earlier this fall, ASU fell by three points to Lamarand then got embarrassed by Missouri Statein a home blowout. John Brady’s team didn’t start very well last year either, and it still finished with a share of the Sun Belt West title. But the Red Wolves have a long way to go at this point, but maybe they started to turn it around last night with a win over UT-Martin.
Owls Struggle Out Of The Gate: The consensus favorite in the Sun Belt, Florida Atlantic, may be 1-3, but it looked very competitive in those two losses to solid Portland and Washingtonteams. FAU even nearly completed a double-digit comeback against the Huskies, cutting the lead to four before eventually falling short. The trouble came Wednesday night, when the Owls went cold from the field in an ugly loss to American. Again, it’s early; too early to make any sweeping judgments. These are the same players that dominated the East division last year, so we’ll cut them some slack for now.
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)