LSU’s Andrew Del Piero: From Tuba Player to Basketball Scholarship

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 24th, 2012

Seven-footer Andrew Del Piero was a two time All-State selection in high school, and as such, highly recruited to attend LSU. But not in basketball. The honors bestowed upon Del Piero were from his time as a standout tuba player before joining the Golden Band from Tigerland. A 7’3″ tuba player? Surely it didn’t take long for the big guy to figure out he fit in more on the basketball court than performing in the band. Can you figure out which one is Del Piero?

Del Piero walked on last season with the Tigers basketball team, playing in only four games. Despite scoring just three points and grabbing two rebounds in 12 minutes of action all season, Del Piero was offered a scholarship to play for coach Johnny Jones this season. “Andrew is on scholarship now,” Jones said. “When we came back to school, because of the work that he had put in and his commitment to what we were doing. Andrew being a senior and what he’s going through, I just thought it would be fitting if a scholarship was awarded to him.” Not only is Del Piero now on scholarship (for basketball), but because of a shortage of size and bodies in the LSU frontcourt, he is making a contribution. Sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant says Del Piero is usually assigned to guard him in practice, and it is no cakewalk.  “He helps me because he’s got that heavy body and a heavy center of gravity and I have to work when I bang inside with him,” O’Bryant said.

Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.

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SEC M5: 10.19.12 Edition

Posted by KAlmekinder on October 19th, 2012

  1. As Missouri slowly tries to find its identity in the SEC football realm, its basketball presence has already been met with much hype and high expectations heading into the season. The Tigers’ initial move from the Big 12 to the SEC was criticized regarding the status of some of their regional rivalries, most notably with its immediate neighbors, Kansas and Illinois. Yesterday the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the “Braggin’ Rights” rivalry between Missouri and Illinois will continue through the 2016-17 season. The annual Mississippi River border showdown at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis has featured an intense regional rivalry since its inception in 1980. Missouri has won the last three meetings in the series after Illinois had won nine straight from 2000-08. As for the rivalry with Kansas, no news has surfaced (and may never surface) since Missouri’s departure from the Big 12 and thus ending the century old Border War, for now.
  2.  Could Michigan’s Fab Five beat last year’s Kentucky squad? Or vice versa? Coach John Calipari defended his Wildcats in an ESPN “Numbers Never Lie” clip on Thursday. Co-host and former Fab Five member Jalen Rose, in defense of his Wolverines, jokingly stated “Kentucky cheated by not starting all five freshmen last year.” Calipari praised Rose for his vocal leadership that helped make the Fab Five a very tight-knit group and said “my team wasn’t as vocal but came together in the same way. It would’ve been a heck of a game.”
  3. With the release of the Top 25 Coaches Poll earlier this week, head coach Mike Anderson and the Arkansas Razorbacks saw the difficult road that lies ahead: Seven ranked opponents on their schedule this year, including four within three weeks of each other. The Las Vegas Classic will challenge the Hogs early with games against #15 Creighton and #21 Wisconsin on November 24. Less than a week later, Arkansas hosts #9 Syracuse on November 30. In conference play, Arkansas will play home-and-home with #10 Florida and  #17 Missouri with another home game versus #3 Kentucky on March 2. Anderson will be tested early and often this season, hoping these difficult games will improve on last year’s 18-14 record and get the Razorbacks back into the NCAA Tournament.
  4. In recruiting news, Missouri picked up a commitment on Thursday from ESPN Top 100 forward Johnathan Williams, III. Dave Telep of ESPN reported that the 6’8″ Memphis native chose the Tigers over Tennessee, Michigan State, Georgetown, and George Mason. Williams is ranked as the 38th best overall recruit in the Class of 2013 and the second Top 100 recruit Missouri has obtained for next year. Williams’ pick has immediately vaulted the Tigers to #16 in next year’s class rankings.
  5.  New LSU head coach Johnny Jones spoke out on Wednesday about the first four practices he held this year. Jones discussed the difficulty of playing with only 11 guys and the challenge of molding his squad to understand the tempo he expects to see this season. “We want to try and make sure that our level is as such the way that we play. We’re trying to implement our system in just a short time because we’ll obviously be playing here in less than a month,” Jones said. The new head coach also praised several of his players but was still grounded, knowing they must all improve individually as well as a team going forward.
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SEC M5: 10.16.12 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 16th, 2012

  1. LSU went immediately to work this week with new coach Johnny Jones, but without the aid of a cadre of experienced big men. 6’9″ forward Johnny O’Bryant, who averaged 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season, will be counted on to lead the way on the low blocks this season. Other than O’Bryant, the Tigers are fairly thin in the frontcourt. A pair of junior college transfers, Shavon Coleman and Calvin Godfrey, could be counted upon to provide quality minutes. And so far in practice reports, Coleman, who has drawn the task of defending O’Bryant, has “held up well.” Coleman stands at just 6’6″, but will likely spend a majority of minutes guarding larger opponents at the power forward slot.
  2. Tony Barbee is feeling confident with his new-look Tigers, but if he is going to get Auburn over the .500 hump he will have to do so with six new faces this season. One of the less heralded freshmen, 6’3″ guard Brian Greene, Jr., could end up being the most productive. The freshman is considered a strong candidate for the open point guard position, and he has drawn praise from returning guard Frankie Sullivan. “It is just not that he stands out, but you always see the guy,” Sullivan said. “Even in the drills, he is the one who is catching on the quickest.” Sullivan will likely start at the two guard spot. He led the Tigers in scoring last year with 12.6 points per game, but still wasn’t 100 percent because of a knee injury that sidelined him during the 2010-11 season.
  3. Want to know why Kentucky has been so good in the Calipari era? They score more points than the other team. And that is not purely because of offense, but because the Wildcats have been a lockdown defensive squad under Coach Cal. For three years running, the Cats have ranked in the top 10 in the nation in three defensive categories: effective field goal percentage, two point percentage, and blocks. According to Glenn Logan at ASoB, “Kentucky has been #1 in the nation in blocks three years running – an impressive statistic that very few people mention when analyzing the Wildcats.” But likely because of that strong protection around the rim, Kentucky has given up a higher percentage of three-point attempts and subsequently a higher percentage of three-point field goals. As Logan points out, “If you’re taking 3’s, you’re not taking 2’s closer to the basket.” With top defender and shot blocker Nerlens Noel guarding the basket, that might just be the plan.
  4. The Arkansas faithful hasn’t exactly witnessed the football success it had hoped for, but there is a certain optimism towards year two of the Mike Anderson era in Fayetteville. And according to Doc Harper of ArkansasExpats.com, the Hogs should be in the NCAA Tournament. “Bottom line, if BJ Young is deserving of all the hype he’s getting, Arkansas will be in the tournament in March,” Harper says. “Any NBA lottery pick should be able to lead a team to the NCAA Tournament on his own.” The Razorbacks should be much improved from a 6-10 SEC mark last season, but it won’t be Young alone that gets them there. Arkansas’ depth should be enough to unleash a full 40 minutes of Anderson’s fast paced system.
  5. Uni watch 2012 is in full effect. With a number of departures from a solid team last season, we are not certain what the Crimson Tide will look like on the court. But we do know that they will be doing it in style. Alabama joined the Nike Hyper Elite team with basketball stalwarts Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, and North Carolina. The current Tide players showcased the new slimmer look with the Alabama specific print on the back. Alabama lost leading scorers JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell , but return enough talent to make a splash in the SEC standings.

Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.

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SEC Transition Basketball: LSU Tigers

Posted by Brian Joyce on September 8th, 2012

Wrapping up the SEC transition basketball series with today’s update: LSU.

State of the Program

Other than a home win over Marquette in December, last season was not much to brag about for the LSU Tigers. A 10-3 start to the season had Tigers fans optimistic heading into conference play, but that feeling quickly dissipated after LSU lost six of eight games through one stretch. An 18-15 season was not enough to spark excitement for a fan base looking for any reason to hold onto hope. Coach Trent Johnson announced his departure from Baton Rouge in March. And lo and behold, a spark ignited.

Johnny Jones takes over in Baton Rouge. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Enter North Texas coach and former LSU Tiger, Johnny Jones. Jones, who was part of two LSU Final Four teams as a player and an assistant coach, was chosen to lead the Tigers out of its path of recent mediocrity. UNT won two Sun Belt championships under Jones, and LSU is hoping for similar success in the SEC. The Tigers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since the 2009 season when they won the SEC with a 13-3 conference record. For Jones to keep the flame lit, an NCAA Tournament berth has to come sooner rather than later.

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SEC Weekly Five: 06.22.12 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on June 22nd, 2012

  1. The University of Kentucky athletic department announced its decision to increase ticket prices by as much as $10 for a single game ticket next season. In addition, the K Fund donation required to buy season tickets has increased by as much as $1500. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said the jump in prices were due to several factors including: the increasing cost of tuition, additional travel costs due to SEC conference realignment, and the rising costs of paying upper echelon coaching salaries like John Calipari’s $5.2 million dollar annual salary (it is worth mentioning at least some of which is paid through annual endorsements). However, when you are coming off a 2012 National Championship and have the most passionate fan base in all of college basketball, fans in the Bluegrass State will pay whatever the asking price to watch their Cats in Rupp Arena.
  2. Talent wins championships, and while the 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats have plenty of talent, there is something missing from next year’s roster — experience, particularly in Calipari’s system. Basketball pundits clamored over UK’s one-and-done stars from last season, but it was senior Darius Miller who stepped out of the spotlight to quietly lead his team.  “He does everything the team needs him to do. He completes everybody. He’s not competing, he’s completing,” Calipari said of Miller towards the end of the 2012 season. “If he needs to rebound, defend (he will). He plays some guard, he plays some four (power forward). Whatever position we ask him, he just completes.” It is clear that Calipari’s Cats have the talent to compete for a repeat performance next year, but the question (asked by Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue) becomes, who replaces Darius Miller? And at this point, the answer is, it’s too early to tell.
  3. New LSU head coach Johnny Jones has added David Patrick to his staff to serve in the role of assistant basketball coach. Patrick has served as an assistant with Saint Mary’s and Nicholls State before his most recent stint as player personnel scout for the Houston Rockets. “We are definitely excited about the addition of David Patrick to our staff,” said Jones. “He will not only be able to help us with game planning and practice preparation, but we look forward to him helping to raise our level of recruiting at LSU, both regionally as well as nationally. With his background in both Division I and professional basketball, he brings a level of experience to our program that will help us to move forward.” Jones has built a lot of momentum since being announced as the head man for the Tigers in April. In addition to luring Patrick to Baton Rouge, he initially recruited former UNT assistants Shawn Forrest and Charlie Leonard and added former Georgetown assistant Robert Kirby over a month ago.
  4. A couple of SEC players made Eamonn Brennan’s list of 10 potential breakout players for 2012-13. Okay, so these lists aren’t exactly news, but it’s at least a conversation starter. Brennan puts Arkansas guard BJ Young, who briefly considered a jump to the NBA after his freshman year, on the list. Can a guy who averaged over 15 points per game really be a breakout player? Regardless, Young and his young teammates (see what we did there) could elevate Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks back into the Top 25 this year after a long hiatus from the national college basketball landscape.The other SEC player on Brennan’s list is Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer saw just over 11 minutes per game last year, but when he was on the floor he took the highest percentage of shots on the team. Wiltjer isn’t afraid to hoist the ball up there, and we are likely to see even more shots from him this season.
  5. Incoming Florida transfer Dorian Finney-Smith has ties to the Florida program and he wasn’t going to choose against the Gators again. Finney-Smith is close friends with former Gator center Vernon Macklin. “Vernon is like a brother to me,” Finney-Smith said. “I saw how successful he was at Florida and that played a role in my decision.” It’s a decision that Finney-Smith seems happy with. “Coach Donovan said we’re going to be going up-and-down the floor, every day,” he said. “I like that. It will be fun.” It isn’t sounding like much fun for the rest of the SEC though. Florida’s 2013-14 front line is coming together with the addition of several quality transfers. In addition to the 6’8″ Finney Smith, Billy Donovan added 6’9″ Damontre Harris earlier this summer, a transfer from South Carolina. Both big men will sit out this season, but will be able to practice with the team.
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SEC Weekly Five: 05.11.12 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on May 11th, 2012

  1. The New York Times reports that incoming Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel is being investigated by the NCAA for relationships among his inner circle. While some point fingers of allegations because of John Calipari and Kentucky’s involvement, CBSSports.com reminds us that this issue will continue to be a problem with many of the top recruits regardless of school affiliation. “Just change the name and you’ve got a new story,” a high-major assistant coach said to Jeff Borzello this week. But coaches like Bob Knight (long-time Calipari critic) and media members like Pete Thamel (author of the NYT story) continue to point to Calipari as what is wrong in college sports. “People want to say Calipari is the problem with the system,” said an SEC assistant coach. “They want to point their finger at him. But he’s no different than any of these other guys.”
  2. Despite the buzz of allegations, Noel feels very confident that he will be eligible to play for Kentucky next season. He says that at this point the NCAA has not contacted him or his immediate family, and he feels that he is in a “great position to qualify,” even though he is aware of the investigation. “I don’t want to be too specific, but I’m in a good position to qualify,” Noel said in response to the NYT story. A Kentucky spokesman declined to comment, but Noel’s confidence has to be good news for the Cats.
  3. While many of the nation’s top recruits end up in Lexington, Wright State transfer shooting guard Julius Mays may end up rejecting Cal’s Cats. Mays shot an impressive 42.4% from beyond the arc last season, but rather than use those talents for Kentucky he is looking instead at Matt Painter’s Purdue squad. “I would have a chance to score the ball and play guard with a great group of guys,” Mays said. “I feel like I could play for coach (Matt) Painter. I watch a lot of basketball, and any time Purdue is on, I watch them. You never know if this is my last visit. If I’m ready to choose, that’s what I will do.” Kentucky needs depth for next year’s team, and of course, a deadeye shooter wouldn’t hurt either.
  4. Big guard Ralston Turner is considering a transfer and has been granted a release from LSU’s new coach Johnny Jones, who was hired to replace Trent Johnson this offseason. Turner indicated that he would like to take some time to think about his decision, but his release does not necessarily mean that he is leaving the Tigers. “I have been given my release and I will be taking a visit (to another school),” Turner said. “That’s all. I didn’t say I was 100 percent leaving (LSU). It’s something I have thought about for a while and Coach Jones is allowing me to do it. I am going to take a visit and when it’s over I will weigh my options.” Turner averaged 9.1 points and 3.0 rebounds per game in his sophomore year with the Tigers, and would be a solid returning player for Jones in his first year on the bench for LSU.
  5. A lot of talk has centered around non-traditional schedules and Calipari’s desire to play at neutral sites, and now Indiana coach Tom Crean is defending his position regarding the recently dropped rivalry between the Hoosiers and the Wildcats. “First off, someone asked me do you not want to play neutral sites? We have neutral sites,” Crean told reporters. “When the Crossroads Classic came in, that became something that was going to be locked in every year. Even though it’s in Indianapolis, it’s a neutral site. It’s not a home site. You always want to have the ability to play in exempt tournaments. We’ve done that in the past. We have it this year, playing in New York. So there’s three right there.” It is a shame that Indiana and Kentucky cannot find a way to play considering the history and tradition that goes into that rivalry, but ultimately Calipari and Crean (and obviously the rest of the athletics staff involved) have to do what is perceived to be in the best interest of their program. Both head coaches have done enough recently (Cal with a National Championship and Crean with rebuilding IU from shambles) that trust in terms of whether or not each program is going in the right direction should not be an issue.
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Morning Five: 04.16.12 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on April 16th, 2012

  1. Even though there were a handful of players who could be considered potential early entry candidates after the April 10 soft deadline and before the April 29 hard deadline most of them were considered sure things to declare for the NBA Draft. Perhaps the most significant of those players who could have been realistically considered as being on the fence was Bradley Beal. On Friday, the Florida freshman ended any speculation as he announced that he would be declaring for the NBA Draft. Beal’s departure adds to the extra space in the once crowded Gator backcourt, but unlike some other individuals there really is no addition by subtraction as the Gator’s will miss Beal’s dynamic mix of talent. As for Beal, expect to see him gone in the first ten picks and more likely in the top five depending on what order teams are drafting in.
  2. The exodus from Storrs continued late last week as Alex Oriakhi announced that he would be transferring to Missouri from the imploding Connecticut program. Oriakhi, who will be able to play immediately next season for Missouri after Connecticut’s 2013 NCAA Tournament ban was upheld, will be part of an entirely different Tiger team than the one that you saw this season as a significant portion of the team graduated while they are bringing in a handful of talented newcomers. Oriakhi should be able to mitigate some of the problems that the Tigers had on the inside last season, but it will be up to Frank Haith to reinvent the team with its new pieces.
  3. With Trent Johnson headed to TCU, the administration at LSU did not waste much time finding his replacement as they hired Johnny Jones, the head coach at North Texas, to replace him. Although Jones was not LSU’s first choice he should appeal to many LSU fans as a former player and two Final Four appearances at the school (one as a player and another as an assistant under Dale Brown). Jones also lead North Texas to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances as a head coach. Jones does inherit a decent LSU team, but he also leaves behind a solid North Texas team including Tony Mitchell, who had stated his intent to come back to North Texas for his sophomore season, but that may change with a new coaching staff to play under next season.
  4. Florida International may not have had much success on the court recently, but they know how to move the needle with their coaching hires. After firing Isiah Thomas, the school has decided to name Richard Pitino as its next head coach. Richard, who is best known as the son of Rick and was acting as an assistant at Louisville, will be taking his first job as a head coach at the age of 29, which might seem young until you consider that his father got his start at the age of 26 at Boston University although that was a very different era. When Isiah left he claimed that the pieces were in place for the next coach to succeed so the onus on Richard now.
  5. It seems like every few months a rumor comes to life about Larry Brown taking over as the head coach at some destination whether it is in the NBA, college, or even high school. The latest rumor, and one that has been picking up a lot of steam, is that Brown might become the next head coach at Southern Methodist. On the surface it seems ludicrous having a Hall of Fame coach, one who has titles at both the NCAA and NBA levels and perhaps more importantly one who will be 72 before the season starts, take over at SMU, a school that lacks any recent basketball success. It is also a school that will be heading to the Big East in 2013. Given Brown’s age and his tendency to have relatively short stays, his coaching staff could be a big story and we have heard several prominent names mentioned as potential assistants. Still we are having a hard time getting our heads wrapped around Brown being the head coach at SMU and the likely media circus that would follow.
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Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on January 28th, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Now off to the best start in program history, Middle Tennessee has its sights set on more than just a Sun Belt East Division title. Instead, the Blue Raiders have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, especially if they can win at Vanderbilt in an out-of-conference tilt this weekend. At 20-2, MTSU has not lost in league play yet, and it leads preseason favorite Florida Atlantic by four games in the win column. Joe Lunardi from the vaunted four-letter network has the Blue Raiders in the NCAAs as a #12 seed, so they may actually have a little breathing room if they fail to win the SBC tourney. Of course, this is all moot if they stumble down the stretch in conference play.
  • A lot of teams have beaten Lousiana-Monroe this season — 19, to be exact. But during the Warhawks woeful 2-19 season, no team has come close to what Troy did to them last weekend. The Trojans, never shy to jack up three-pointers under coach Don Maestri, tied an NCAA record by making 11 straight three-pointers in a 91-63 victory. Overall, Troy made 15 threes, and that streak of 11 threes ties marks set by Niagara and Eastern Kentucky in 1997. The statistics get better and better, too. Troy made almost as many threes (15) as twos (15), and Justin Wright tied his career-high with four made treys. And as for the Warhawks? They made a measly six three-pointers.

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (20-2, 9-0):  Nothing has changed since our last update two weeks ago. The Blue Raiders, who entered the season as a questionable pick in the East because of offensive concerns, are far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference. It’s to the point where Middle Tennessee can no longer judge itself purely by the wins it amasses. Rather, it looks as though this team could beat just about anybody when March rolls around. That’s because the Blue Raiders hound opponents on the defensive end and have the size of a major-conference squad. Bruce Massey has also played terrific basketball on both ends of the floor, as he’s been a catalyst for this team’s 20-2 start.

    Bruce Massey (13) Has Been A Catalyst For Middle Tennessee

  2. Florida Atlantic (9-12, 5-3): With a few close victories over rival FIU and Western Kentucky, the Owls are back on track. Unlike North Texas last season, which fell from preseason consensus favorite to middle-0f-the-pack, FAU actually has a chance to turn this thing around in 2011-12. It’s not dead yet, but it may need to run the table from here on out to have any chance of catching Middle Tennessee. Point  guard Ray Taylor still doesn’t look like the Player of the Year candidate he should be, but he’s starting to play better after a tough start to the season. If he gets his game going, this team could make a late push. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking in On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on January 13th, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • It wasn’t Ken McDonald‘s fault this his team lost in overtime to Louisiana earlier this month. The Ragin’ Cajuns, after all, scored the winning bucket with six players on the floor. After more than three years of McDonald’s frustrating tenure, though, the Sixth Man loss must have been the final straw for athletic director Ross Bjork. McDonald lost his job after the game, departing with a 67-49 record. Now, interim head coach Ray Harper must mold this young team into a competitor this winter, which should be a tall task for a team mired in a 1-7 free-fall since December 7.
  • Tony Mitchell‘s debut in Sun Belt play did not exactly make any headlines, as he fought foul trouble and scored just six points in each of his first two games. The third SBC contest with South Alabama was a charm, however. Mitchell went for 34 points and 16 rebounds, scoring in every way imaginable. He attacked the glass, fired from three-point range and finished 11-14 from the field. And last night, Mitchell’s hot streak continued with a 21-point effort in front of several NBA scouts in Denton. We knew this would be the case, but it’s starting to look like Mitchell is a sure one-and-done.

The Dynamic Tony Mitchell Hasn't Disappointed So Far (North Texas)

Power Rankings
East
  1. Middle Tennessee (16-2, 5-0):  Here’s an easy formula to dominate a league: bully people on the glass and on the defensive end. That’s where MTSU makes its living. Averaging 11 offensive rebounds per game as a team, the frontcourt duo of LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton is simply unfair right now. Plus, with Bruce Massey playing well at the point and MTSU’s depth starting to round into shape, Kermit Davis doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses right now. Except, of course, for one big one: three-point shooting. Even though they do most of their damage in the paint, the Blue Raiders do not have an outside threat right now. Raymond Cintron is the only player really capable of getting hot from the perimeter, and even he shoots less than 40 percent from the field. Besides that, it’s hard to envision Davis’ team suffering a collapse after this 5-0 start. Saturday’s game at preseason favorite Florida Atlantic might be the most important game of the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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RTC Conference Primers: #25 – Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 10th, 2011

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

Top Storylines

  • 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)

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RTC Summer Updates: Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on July 26th, 2011

With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Sun Belt correspondent, Danny Spewak.

Reader’s Take

Summer Storylines

  • Staying Put: Not a single head coach in the Sun Belt changed jobs this summer. That fact is especially noteworthy in Bowling Green, a city that nearly chased Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald away during a mid-season losing streak. Athletic director Ross Bjork chose to retain McDonald, and he gave a fascinating interview to Nick Baumgardner about his decision. Down south in the state of Texas, Johnny Jones will return to North Texas after rumors linked his name to a few power-conference job openings. The folks over at ESPN Dallas saw a silver lining to UNT’s underachieving regular season and loss in the finals of the SBC Tourney. Jones interviewed at Auburn prior to last season, so although he’s in Denton for now, his name may keep popping up on the national radar.
  • They Don’t Count: Kentucky coach John Calipari made headlines this summer when NCAA officials asked him to apologize for holding a ceremony in February celebrating his 500th career victory. After all, due to vacated wins at Massachusetts and Memphis, some of Calipari’s wins don’t count in the formal record books. Turns out, Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis is getting the same message from the NCAA—just without the media coverage. Reporters at FAUOwlAccess.com did some serious investigative reporting by obtaining a letter sent to FAU, telling the school not to count Jarvis’ vacated victories at St. John’s. School officials say they have no objections to the NCAA’s request.
  • Big-Time Transfer: Games between Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe just got a little more interesting. Vanderbilt transfer Darshawn McClellan announced in May he will transfer to ULL, and that means coach Bob Marlin picks up a 6’7″ forward who averaged more than 14 minutes per game during his first two years in the SEC. But more importantly, it means he’ll play against his brother, Steven McClellan, a sophomore forward who averaged 5.1 points per game last season. Who will the family root for?

Solomon Bozeman shot the UALR Trojans into the NCAA Tournament before falling to Akron in the first round (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 4th, 2011

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.

A Look Back

  • Sun Belt Conference, look out: Tony Mitchell is here. After failing to qualify at Missouri, the five-star power forward enrolled at North Texas last month, landing the Mean Green one of the most celebrated recruits in Sun Belt history. Mitchell signed a letter of intent for Mike Anderson last fall, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible because of disputed high school credits. If he completes 24 credits at North Texas during the next two semesters, he will gain eligibility for the second semester next season. Mitchell isn’t the only highly-touted freshman forward heading to Denton next year. Texas natives Jordan Williams and Forrest Robinson, who both received scholarship offers from numerous power conference schools, will team with Mitchell next season to help replace eight graduated seniors.
  • Not even the radio crew for Arkansas-Little Rock had any idea why forward Eric Kibi played Thursday night against Denver. Although he was ruled academically ineligible last month, the junior college transfer magically reappeared to score two points in 24 minutes of action. Kibi had not played since January 2, but it seems he’s made his way back to the Trojans. That’s good news for a team in need of some size.
  • For the first time in school history, the Florida Atlantic men’s basketball program hosted a nationally televised game against UALR January 22. And the first-place Owls didn’t disappoint, pulling away for an 88-71 win in front of a frenzied crowd that seemed to really enjoy the atmosphere.The league’s next ESPN game is between North Texas and Western Kentucky February 12.

Shoutout Section: It’s hard to tell what position Travis Bureau plays for Louisiana-Lafayette. The 6’7 senior has a lot of skills, including rebounding: and boy, was that evident last weekend in a win at South Alabama. Bureau grabbed 20 rebounds to help ULL win its fourth straight game after a 3-14 start. He now leads the Rajun’ Cajuns in rebounding, even though he’s considering a guard by most. Miraculously, Bureau’s team is now just three games out of first place in the West. Three weeks ago, with coach Bob Marlin’s roster decimated due to injuries and personnel changes, that would have sounded impossible.

For the first time this season, we’ll go ahead and give a shoutout to an entire game. That’s because the Denver/UALR matchup last night, won 75-72 by the Trojans in overtime, was the Game of the Year in the Sun Belt. The Pioneers needed overtime to win at home in December in the first meeting, and although they initially led 10-0 and held a 13-point lead in the second half Thursday, UALR stormed back to open a five-point lead in the final minutes. That’s when the Hallam brothers struck. Travis Hallam banked in a three to cut the Trojans’ lead to one before Chase Hallam sank a contested three from the right corner to tie the game with 1.3 seconds remaining. It’s a good thing UALR had Matt Mouzy on its side. Mouzy didn’t attempt a shot from inside the arc all game, but he made eight of 10 three-pointers—literally from everywhere on the court, making threes with hands in his face and open treys from NBA range. It was one heck of a game, broadcast unfortunately to a miniscule audience online.

Quote of the Week:

“We can’t be the best kept secret in Boca. We should have every middle school, every elementary school, youth league and there should be groups coming here in waves coming through here every night. I wouldn’t care if we were giving the tickets away because we could make money at the concession stand.”

–Florida Atlantic coach Mike Jarvis on how to promote his program

Power Rankings

East

1. Florida Atlantic (17-7, 9-1): The East is all but over—it’s Florida Atlantic’s division in 2011. FAU leads Middle Tennessee by three games with six to play and already swept the Blue Raiders. With more wins than all of last year, the Owls continued their breakout season last night by snapping North Texas’ 17-game home winning streak at The Super Pit. Florida Atlantic roughed up the defending champs 72-55 with its lone senior, Brett Royster, on the bench for much of the game in foul trouble. Against a team that relies almost exclusively on seniors, Florida Atlantic’s underclassmen looked like the tougher and more mature players. We may be witnessing the birth of a program in Boca Raton, which begs this question: how long until the national publications decide to throw a redemption party for coach Mike Jarvis? If the Owls make the NCAA Tournament, you can bet the writers will have a field day rehashing his rocky tenure at St. John’s.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. FIU, Feb. 10 at Denver, Feb. 12 at ULL

2. Middle Tennessee State (11-12, 6-4): If only the Blue Raiders could move to the West Division. Kermit Davis’ team pulled another upset two weeks ago by ruining Denver’s undefeated conference season, and MTSU has lost just one game to a West opponent. There’s no catching Florida Atlantic in the East, but Middle Tennessee has established itself as the second-best team in this muddled division. Davis’ team has won four of five games and looks like a prime spoiler pick at the SBC tourney in Hot Springs this March.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. USA, Feb. 10 at WKU, Feb. 12 vs. FIU

3. South Alabama (10-11, 4-6): There are only five players in college basketball averaging more rebounds per game than freshman Augustine Rubit. Included in that list are Maryland’s Jordan Williams and Syracuse’s Rick Jackson, as well as freakish future pro Kenneth Faried of Morehead State.A nd Rubit’s right there with him— standing tall at 6’6. That’s right: the nation’s sixth-leading rebounder is a 6’6 freshman from South Alabama. Rubit’s the frontrunner for SBC Newcomer of the Year, and he’s a big reason why Ronnie Arrow’s team has rebounded from a poor start to win three of four games. A division title is out of the question, but with underclassmen Rubit and Martino Brock leading the way, the Jaguars have a chance to build a little momentum heading into next season.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at MTSU, Feb. 10 vs. Troy, Feb. 17 at UNT

4. Western Kentucky (9-12, 4-5): It was a glorious sight: in the midst of a nightmarish season with rumors of coach Ken McDonald’s firing, Western Kentucky rolled off four straight wins. After stunning Florida Atlantic in front of a “whiteout” crowd in Boca Raton, WKU was .500 in league play and had five straight home games looming. The Hilltoppers were back from the dead… that is, until a loss to South Alabama last night at Diddle Arena. Old habits returned for Western Kentucky. All of the positive energy had vanished, the Jaguars lit up WKU from beyond the arc and point guards Jamal Crook and Khalil McDonald regressed after playing commendably during the four-game winning streak.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. ULM, Feb. 10 vs. MTSU, Feb. 12 vs. UNT

5. Florida International (9-13, 4-6): Talk about a feel-good story gone wrong. Isiah Thomas’s fresh roster won its first three SBC games before dropping six straight games, all by 10 points or less. FIU finally broke the slump with an overtime win at Troy last night, but even that win was difficult. The Golden Panthers lost their lead in the final minute of the extra period by fouling Regis Huddleston on a three-point attempt. DeJaun Wright bailed FIU out with a layup in the final seconds, helping Florida International avoid the East cellar.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at FAU, Feb. 10 vs. ULL, Feb. 12 at MTSU

6. Troy (5-17, 3-7): It’s quite amazing that Troy has two of the league’s best guards in Vernon Taylor and Mo Weathers and still can’t climb out of the basement of the Sun Belt East. Coach Don Maestri doesn’t have the necessary depth to run his up-tempo style this season, and they’ve especially struggled on the road. Last weekend’s win at Louisiana-Monroe was the Trojans’ first road win.

Up Next: Feb. 10 at USA, Feb. 12 vs. Denver, Feb. 17 vs. MTSU

West

1. Denver (11-11, 7-2): The Pioneers can’t win when they don’t make threes. It’s that simple. When Denver runs Joe Scott’s offense to perfection, it’s a thing of beauty. All five players act as interchangeable parts, sharing the ball from side to side and taking only the most open of jumpers. When that offense isn’t running smoothly and the threes aren’t falling, though, Denver can’t win. Consider DU’s loss to Middle Tennessee two weeks ago. It made just three shots from beyond the arc in a loss to Middle Tennessee after inexplicably attempting just six threes. And when Denver went cold in the second half against UALR last night, it allowed the Trojans to grab the lead with a 16-1 run.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at ASU, Feb. 10 vs. FAU, Feb. 12 at Troy

2. North Texas (16-7, 5-5): There was talk in December that North Texas could run the table in the Sun Belt. Now, the Mean Green are simply hoping to finish above .500. They’ve lost three straight games and look nothing like a team that starts five seniors. Coach Johnny Jones is struggling to find quality depth on his bench, especially in the frontcourt. The top six scorers on this team are seniors, and all have made multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament. There’s no reason for North Texas to sit at 5-5 and lose at home by double-digits, as it did last night to FAU. In that loss, Josh White played poorly and SBC leading scorer Tristan Thompson barely played in the second half for unknown reasons. It’s panic time for North Texas, and the clock is running out on the seniors who entered the year as the league’s consensus favorite.

Up Next: Feb. 10 at UALR, Feb. 12 at WKU, Feb. 17 vs. USA

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (13-11, 5-4): Last week, an initial 11-0 deficit against Arkansas State doomed UALR at home in a 75-64 loss. Last night against DU, another poor start had coach Steve Shields’ experiencing déjà vu. Fortunately for him, his team responded by frustrating Denver’s offense in the second half and getting just enough stops in overtime to stay in the hunt in the West. Now just two games out of first place, Arkansas-Little Rock needs to steal a few games away from home.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at ULL, Feb. 10 vs. UNT, Feb. 12 at ULM

4. Arkansas State (12-13, 6-4): The league’s most inconsistent team took another weird turn this week with a loss at 4-17 Savannah State. It’s a good thing the game didn’t count toward ASU’s league record, because the loss was ugly in every sense of the word. The game wasn’t even as competitive as the 67-61 margin suggests, as Arkansas State shot 35 percent from the field and trailed the entire way. The Red Wolves can beat anyone at home in Jonesboro, but they’re an entirely different team on the road. The winner of the West will likely be the team that figures out how to play in unfamiliar environments.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. Denver, Feb. 10 at ULM, Feb. 17 at ULL

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (7-14, 4-5): Bob Marlin can rest easy. His team beat rival Louisiana-Monroe at home, it upset North Texas and now sits just a game under .500 in Sun Belt play. Point guard Josh Brown’s return from injury has been one of the catalysts in a recent four-game win streak, and freshman forward J.J. Thomas is starting to blow up. He’s scored in double-figures in five ULL’s last eight games and went for 28 in a win at South Alabama this week.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. UALR, Feb. 10 at FIU, Feb. 12 at FAU

6. Louisiana-Monroe (6-18, 1-9): There’s no question that ULM is the Sun Belt’s worst team. Playing in the more difficult West Division with a rebuilt roster, Keith Richard’s first season here wasn’t tailor made for success. The Warhawks at least fought MTSU last night to the final minute and narrowly lost to Arkansas State on a free throw by Martavius Adams with six seconds to play a few weeks ago. That’s called progress in our book.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. Denver, Feb. 10 at ULM, Feb. 17 at ULL

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