Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 31st, 2013
After their 92-57 win over Florida International on Saturday afternoon, Georgetown’s non-conference portion of the season has come to an end. After 11 games, this is what we know about this year’s Hoyas: their record of 8-3 has failed to impress voters enough to break into the Top 25 in either national poll; they have one bad loss against Northeastern in the Puerto Rico Tip-off; their best win is against VCU in the same tournament; and they are ranked #53 in Yahoo’s RPI rankings and 1-2 against RPI top 50.
The Hoyas’ defense is a major reason why they’re not as hyped as last year.
What we don’t know, as the Hoyas will tip off in Big East play this evening, is how to interpret this as it relates to determining the Hoyas’ full potential. Due to a weaker-than-expected Big East this season, it is safe to assume that they’ll be in the upper tier of the final league standings and, therefore, most likely will find themselves on the right side of the bubble. In this analysis, we take a deeper look into Georgetown’s performance thus far and compare it with last year’s highly successful team –which ended up with a share of the Big East regular season championship and as a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament — to find out what is preventing these Hoyas from reaching the next level.
Here’s to hoping that this week brought you plenty of holiday cheer, because it surely did not supply you (or anyone else!) with much quality college basketball. Entertaining Diamond Head Classic final aside, this week was as slow as the college basketball season gets. Don’t despair, however, because Santa has delivered a Saturday chalk-full of college hoops. Two big-time rivalry games occupy the prime real estate on this weekend’s marquee, but there’s plenty of substance, albeit understated, sprinkled throughout Saturday’s docket of action. Here’s a quick primer on the big games in Syracuse and Lexington, plus a few other worthwhile narratives to monitor on this busy Saturday.
For The First Time In Over Three Decades, Syracuse And Villanova Will Meet As Non-Conference Opponents
A Couple Of Old Big East Friends
In the world of college basketball, eleven months is far from an eternity, but my, oh my; how things have changed since the last time Villanova and Syracuse locked horns! What was a Big East conference game last January will be an ACC versus (new) Big East affair today (2PM EST, CBS), and with both teams set to embark on their maiden voyages in the new leagues next week, the Carrier Dome will serve as the clinic for anyone needing one final dose of Big East nostalgia. Subplots abound in this game, but I’ll be especially interested to see how Villanova attacks the Syracuse zone. The Wildcats haven’t been a bad offensive team to this point in the season, but the Cats’ statistical breakdown on the offensive end puzzles. Villanova is 18th best in the country in two-point field goal percentage (55.1%), also shoots the ball pretty well from the stripe (72.2%), but struggles from beyond the arc (204th nationally in 3P% at 32.7%). With those splits, you’d expect Jay Wright’s team to focus their efforts inside the three-point line. So far, however, they’ve done the exact opposite – the Wildcats are 7th in the country when it comes to percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range (45.7%). Will the chucking continue against an Orange zone that begs opponents to settle for deep shots (43.1% of Syracuse opponent’s field goal attempts are threes), or can the Wildcats throw aside this bit of statistical dissonance and find a way to get quality interior looks against the zone? Remains to be seen, but expect 30,000+ to get a first-hand view of the answer.
Tonight’s Lede. Finals Week Is Nearly Gone. On a night dominated by talks of revolutionary conference transformation and the impending destruction of one of the sport’s proudest and most successful leagues in the past quarter century, paying any real attention to games – outside of a few noteworthy outcomes – was hardly anyone’s first priority. The good news is, thanks to the college hoops fan nightmare we like to call finals week, there weren’t many games worth watching in the first place. If you’re looking for big storylines or massive statement-making wins, Thursday night’s slate provided none of the sort. Instead, we witnessed the denouement of finals week torpor, and can now officially start looking ahead towards the biggest non-conference game of the season: Saturday’s Florida-Arizona showdown in Tucson. Tonight’s recap will underscore the recent scheduling lull, which only means you’ll feel doubly excited for Saturday’s big-time sampling. So here’s to the final remnants of college hoops’ weakest offering of games. May you rest in peace… at least until next season.
Your Watercooler Moment. Tennessee’s Offense Has Sparked To Life.
The Volunteers showed signs they’re moving out of their offensive slump (photo credit: AP photo).
The only thing more impressive than Tennessee scoring 69 points at home to knock off undefeated Wichita State is that the Volunteers did it despite star big man Jarnell Stokes logging just 18 minutes. Even if Stokes hadn’t gotten wrapped up in foul trouble, the Volunteers’ 69-point output is encouraging for several reasons. For one, Wichita State has put to rest any notion that losing four starters from last season’s five-seed would prevent another MVC title challenge. The Shockers have quality wins over VCU and Iowa, and are defending like a top-30 team, to the point where last season’s 18th-ranked defensive efficiency is within one percentage point of this year’s mark (89.8) to date. For another, Tennessee had failed to break the 50-point threshold in its past two games, consecutive losses to Georgetown and Virginia. Granted, both teams rank among the nation’s top 10 teams in per-possession defense, but when you boast one of the top five-or-so centers in the country, along with a bevy of talented guards to provide a capable perimeter scoring complement, there’s no excuse for getting held under 50 points. It’s really that simple. The Volunteers were a trendy pick to broach the SEC power triumvirate – Florida, Kentucky, Missouri – but had failed to substantiate that praise with anything resembling a quality win thus far. Knocking off Wichita State, a Top 25 team in its own right, is a good sign, but I’m loath to acknowledge the Volunteers have officially put their scoring woes in the rearview mirror. Upcoming tests against Xavier and Memphis before entering SEC play will serve as a barometer of whether Tennessee has finally unlocked its offensive quagmire or whether tonight’s performance was a minor positive blip that can’t be sustained over the long term.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
Anthony Bennett: Best Freshman In the Country? The silver lining in Mike Moser’s month-long injury-related absence is that UNLV’s frontcourt rotation will benefit from more minutes and greater opportunities to carve out bigger roles over the long run. Most importantly, we’ll see even more Anthony Bennett, who Thursday night lead the Rebels with 27 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in a comfortable win over La Verne, and who thus far is making as strong a case as any for Freshman of the Year. The vast majority of preseason freshman big man hype was directed towards Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Baylor’s Isaiah Austin. Neither player has underperformed expectations – Noel’s offensive game needs work, but we knew as much coming in; Austin has been as lanky, stretchy, and, at times, flimsy as advertised – but there’s no disputing Bennett has been the best of the three. When Pitt big man Khem Birch becomes eligible on December 17, he’ll slide in alongside Bennett to form one of the nation’s most talented frontcourt duos. That’s a ridiculously long, athletic, rangy interior. And we’re not even considering what Moser brings to the court; talent-wise, no team in America matches that vaunted trio. Read the rest of this entry »
While most relish the onset of Summer, college basketball junkies do not. Most of the news surrounding the sport is recruiting rumors and commitments or injuries and transfer news. In order to help keep folks up-to-date on what their teams are doing during the summer, we put together these summer capsules for each team in the conference. Next up is Louisville.
1. The rotating door was busy this summer, and some folks don’t like it.
Is Pitino Running Lesser Players Out Of Town To Make Room For New Ones?
Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is no stranger to controversy and criticism, and this summer was no different as a multitude of injury-laden reserves left the program raising concerns about Pitino’s roster management strategy and questions about whether he is cutting ties with less important players to make room for new ones. Before the end of last season news broke that reserve forward Jared Swopshire would transfer so he could play right away in his final collegiate season. Then, just two days after highly touted recruit Montrezl Harrell signed with the Cardinals and people began to wonder where the extra scholarship would come from, backup and injury-prone big man Stephan Van Treese announced he was leaving also only to reverse course later that month. That reversal came just a week after another injury-prone reserve, Rakeem Buckles, announced he would transfer to Florida International, once again freeing up a scholarship that Van Treese happily took back. There is absolutely no evidence that Pitino forced any of these players out and it’s entirely possible these players saw the writing on the wall and transferred to a place where they could find more playing time. But perception is also a big deal, and if recruits perceive that Pitino is jettisoning lesser talents to make room for younger players, it will certainly make them think twice before they sign on with Louisville.
2. Just how good can Louisville’s frontcourt become?
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
Florida International has never made any meaningful noise on the basketball court (one NCAA Tournament appearance in school history), yet the Golden Panthers continue to create plenty of buzz off of it. Over the weekend it was announced that Richard Pitino, the 29-year-old son of famed Louisville coach Rick Pitino, would be taking over as head coach at FIU. Richard Pitino was a Louisville assistant and replaces the recently fired Isiah Thomas, who of course is one of the NBA’s all-time great players as well as a former head coach and executive at the highest level in the NBA. Thomas’ buzzworthy hire did not equate to any success in three years with the program (26-65 record) so FIU will now give it a second shot with another big name. Pitino immediately becomes one of the youngest head coaches in Division I, taking up after his legendary father who got his start at Boston University at just 26 years old. Richard is just one of many Pitino assistants that have moved on to become head coaches, as we take a look at how widespread and successful the Rick Pitino coaching tree has become over the years.
Richard Pitino (Left) Looks to Continue Blossoming His Father's Enormous Coaching Tree (USA Today)
We start all the way back in 1985 with Pitino’s head coaching gig at Providence, the first of three schools he would eventually take to a Final Four. The 1987 Friars that advanced to the Final Four included three young assistants by the names of Stu Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, and Herb Sendek. Jackson went on to become a head coach at Wisconsin and later for the New York Knicks, and he is now the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the NBA, one of the highest executive positions in the sport. Van Gundy, of course, also went on to become an NBA guy, coaching both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. Sendek, meanwhile, has become a longtime college coach with NC State and Arizona State, where he remains today. Sendek himself has helped groom some tremendous head coaches like Thad Matta, John Groce, Chris Mack, and Sean Miller. In addition to all of the coaches that sprung from the Providence years, Pitino also coached Billy Donovan, the starting point guard for the Friars at the time. Donovan has since gone on to win two National Championships for Florida with assistants-turned-coaches Anthony Grant and Shaka Smart, among others. Pitino’s three years at Providence produced an extensive history of coaching talent, and we are just getting started.
Sometimes the coaching carousel is a strange creature. Later today, Trent Johnson will be announced as the next head coach at TCU. This would not be that notable except that Johnson is leaving LSU to take the job. Johnson has compiled a respectable 226-184 record in stops at Nevada, Stanford, and LSU, but that number is slightly inflated by three exceptional seasons at each stop where his team went 25-9, 28-8, and 27-8. Outside of those three seasons his record is 146-159. Now it may not be fair to exclude those three seasons because we could just as easily exclude his 9-20, 11-20, and 11-20 seasons, but it does point out some degree of inconsistency within his programs. Although Johnson still had a job at LSU perhaps he feared for his long-term security or had some issues with the administration there. In any event it does make an interesting situation when a coach left LSU to take over at TCU for a coach who went to Ohio, which is just about the exact opposite of what you would expect for most sports.
After coaching at Florida International for three seasons Isiah Thomas was fired by the school on Friday. Thomas, who was a NBA legend as a player, but much less successful in his career afterwards, went 26-65. The initial thought that was perhaps with his name recognition and ties to Chicago he could bring in the type of players that would turn the school’s basketball program around. Unfortunately that was not the case and the team stumbled to a 8-21 record this season. Thomas appeared to be disappointed with the school’s decision and stated that he had been told he would get five years to turn the program around instead of the three years that he was given. Thomas like most coaches who are fired claims that he was on the verge of turning the program around with several key incoming recruits. It will be interesting to see if the incoming coach will be able to keep those recruits and how Thomas will be viewed if those recruits can live up to his claims.
After being led by Charlie Coles for sixteen seasons before he stepped down one month ago, Miami (Ohio) is set to introduce John Cooper as its next head coach. After being turned down by Arizona assistant coach James Whitford, the Red Hawks elected to pursue the Tennessee State coach, who led his team to the OVC championship game just three years after taking over a team that went 14-16 his first season. Perhaps, the most memorable moment of Cooper’s brief tenure at Tennessee State was their win over Murray State earlier this year giving the Racers their only loss of the regular season. Cooper will have a difficult task of following Coles, who was an icon within the program and the MAC. Fortunately for Cooper and the Red Hawks, we do not expect them to play Michigan any time soon.
Later today, Eastern Illinois will introduce Jay Spoonhour as its next coach. Jay is the son of the well-known and well-liked late Charlie Spoonhour, who died of complications related to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis earlier this year. Spoonhour’s coaching experience has been limited to time as an assistant at several programs and some time as a head coach at the junior college level including a national championship in 2001. His only head coaching experience came in 2004 when he acted as an interim coach for his father while at UNLV and went 6-3 during his brief run.
Outside of the transfer of Trey Zeigler to Pittsburgh there was some significant player movement as a few players announced that their plans for the NBA Draft. In one of the more surprising decisions we have seen, Khris Middleton has decided to leave Texas A&M forgoing his final year of eligibility. Based on what we have seen on mock drafts/draft boards Middleton is probably a late first/early second round pick. Given his injury issues this season, we figure it would have been better for Middleton to spend another year in college showcasing his skills while he is healthy, but perhaps Middleton thought it would be better to get a contract before another injury occurs. The people of Columbus have reason to celebrate as sophomore Deshaun Thomas has decided to return to Ohio State. Thomas, who had a huge NCAA Tournament, was projected as a borderline first round pick. Now with Jared Sullinger out of the picture perhaps Thomas can showcase his skills on a more regular basis. With Thomas returning expect to see the Buckeyes in the top 10 next season as they return most of their offense outside of Sullinger and have the potential to replace some of his productivity with one of their two primary recruiting targets–Amile Jefferson or Tony Parker. The last piece of news comes from Alabama where Tony Mitchell and Charles Hankerson Jr were granted releases by the school. While we expect Hankerson to transfer we are uncertain on Mitchell, who could consider entering the NBA Draft although we would advise against it. The more likely scenario is that Mitchell, who had discipline issues at Alabama, could be headed to another school.
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
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 »
First, it’s not really ACC-related, but this is a fantastic article on former Washington star Brandon Roy.
Fox Sports Carolinas: Starting next season the ACC is going to 18-game conference schedule in men’s and women’s basketball. Andrew Jones takes a look at the positive and negative effects of the change. I agree that it’s a positive that two conference games will replace two garbage “guarantee” games (hopefully). I don’t agree that the 12 extra losses will hurt the ACC. Obviously, each one of those losses is also a conference win. The key for ACC teams is getting prepared for conference season a little earlier than usual to take advantage of the game. One negative is the new schedule will almost certainly reduce the number of non-conference home-and-home series coaches are willing to schedule (specifically, keep an eye on Kentucky and Texas with North Carolina).
Tobacco Road Blues: Here’s a pretty fascinating interview with Steve Kirschner. Kirschner is the head of North Carolina’s basketball public relations. He’s got a pretty interesting perspective on current and past players, as well as the Duke-North Carolina rivalry and everything in-between. Specifically, his analysis of Kendall Marshall is very good. Kirshner described Marshall’s ACC Tournament championship game perfectly by saying the Nolan Smith made Marshall speed his game up and forced him to make mistakes.
Duke Basketball Report: Speaking of the sophomore Tar Heel point guard, Marshall looks ready to break the single-season assist record for the ACC. He’s on pace to average over ten dimes a game, and the Tar Heels are likely to play well over thirty games. It’s also impressive to look at the class years on the list of top assist totals. Seven of the top ten assist totals are from juniors and seniors. Marshall is on pace to pass all of them in another 20 games. If he plays four years, Bobby Hurley‘s ACC assist record could be blown out of the water (and imagine what Marshall could have done if he started from the beginning last season).
Baltimore Sun: Don Markus takes a look at five questions facing Maryland for when the Terrapins return from winter break. He sounds cautiously optimistic, especially with Pe’Shon Howard and Alex Len in the fold, that the Terrapins could be better than advertised. Len could be the real deal. If he is, there will be major changes in Mark Turgeon’s strategy (i.e., the ability to play inside-out, having to change the starting line-up, less of a height deficit, etc.). Basically, the point is that Maryland may look like a totally different team come conference play.
Winston-Salem Journal Now: Jason Capel was an all-conference player when he played for North Carolina. Now he’s coming back to coach Appalachian State in the Dean Dome, his first time in the arena since 2005. Capel doesn’t have any misconceptions about the juggernaut his Mountaineers are about to face: “I say it’s going to be fun now […] but if they go on a 20-0 run, it’s not going to be very darn fun.”
It’s a slow basketball week in the Atlantic Coast Conference as students presumably take exams and wrap up their semester by focusing on their academics. Or play a lot of video games. Something like that. In any case, there is only one interesting matchup the entire week and thank your lucky stars — it’s going down tonight.
The Only ACC Game Between Sunday and Saturday
Florida International at Maryland at 7:30 PM on ESPN
Okay, so maybe this isn’t exactly a great game, but it’s all we have until Saturday so let’s try to look at the interesting parts about it. Isiah Thomas‘s team is not a good one. Despite a season-opening overtime win over George Mason, the team has only managed to win two more times. Two-point wins against the likes of Coastal Carolina and Stephen F. Austin aren’t impressive, but at least they are wins. FIU also has more than a couple of bad losses on the books including losses to Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and NAIA school Texas Wesleyan, a school best known in athletics for it’s dominance/scholarships in table tennis. Maryland should win this game to get its third win in a row. The reasons why the Terrapins don’t take this in a walk? The few strengths of the Panthers align well with Maryland’s weaknesses. The Panthers are a good offensive rebounding team while Maryland struggles on the defensive glass. Likewise, outside of the remarkable Terrell Stoglin, the Terrapins guards have had trouble maintaining control of the ball while the Panthers have been fairly effective at forcing turnovers. It’s a long shot, but if FIU gets easy buckets off turnovers, a good number of second chance shots, and gets hot against Maryland’s indifferent defense, they have a reasonable shot at the win. Otherwise, the Terrapins should dominate every other facet of the game, and, provided they take the game seriously, should win easily.
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 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.