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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Morning Five: 05.13.11 Edition

Posted by jstevrtc on May 13th, 2011

  1. Upon hearing that Tubby Smith had been dealing with prostate cancer and is now cancer-free, we were reminded of Steve Lavin’s announcement back in early April that he had the disease, and that he had received an OK from his doctors that it was cool to delay his treatment until the season had concluded. Well, here we are — the off-season. Lavin is collaborating with his docs on what form(s) his treatment will take, but when you read this article by Kieran Darcy from ESPNNewYork.com, you’ll note two important points: first, Lavin’s done his homework, which should surprise nobody; he talks about PSAs and Gleason scores, so he’s going into this very familiar with his enemy, and that bodes well. Second, and more importantly, he remarks that he has a father who had prostate cancer at age 61…who is now 80.
  2. Continuing on that theme, we think you should know that back in November a kid named Taylor Statham, who plays for a prep school called Westwind Academy in Phoenix, was guarding his man during a game and got kneed in the testicles. Good thing. If he hadn’t been, doctors wouldn’t have found Statham’s testicular cancer. Just like his hair during his three rounds of chemotherapy (and surgery), the basketball scholarship offers he was receiving just vanished. As of three weeks ago, Statham is cancer-free. Offers are returning. We suggest his eventual college coach use Statham for all last-second shots and game-winning free throws. After what this young man’s endured, we doubt he’ll be too intimidated by much at all.
  3. Seth Davis’ summary of his attendance at the NCAA Enforcement Experience — LOVE that name, by the way — is a must-read. The event, put on in the same spirit of glasnost as the mock NCAA Tournament selection media gathering every February, was constructed to give the media a little insight as to how the NCAA investigates and adjudicates the many incidences of naughty business that happen in the world of college athletics. They started the thing with a video of an investigator mock-interviewing someone in a bathroom stall. Seriously, check it out.
  4. We’re still sitting in the dark listening to The Cure songs following the announcement that Gus Johnson was not returning to CBS and therefore wouldn’t be calling NCAA Tournament games for a looooong time. At least — sigh — we’ll be able to see/hear him on Fox. And, according to the New York Daily News, you may have heard of the guy who CBS might have in line to take Gus’ place — Marv Albert. Fine. For that, we’ll at least open the blinds.
  5. Sporting News reports that Murray State’s Billy Kennedy has emerged as a leading candidate for the vacant head coaching spot at Texas A&M. He was an assistant under Kermit Davis (yes, A&M fans, that happened) for the 1990-91 season, but obviously he’s more than made his own mark since then. He’s taken both Southeast Louisiana and Murray State to the Tournament, his Racers have averaged 27 wins over the past two seasons, and he’s 107-53 overall there. It might not be as sexy a hire as Buzz or Pastner (two names mentioned in the linked article), but something about this possible union feels right.
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Sun Belt Wrap & Tourney Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 5th, 2011

Daniel Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference. With SBC tournament action set to tip on Saturday, get up to speed with RTC’s preview and regular season wrap-up.

Tournament Preview

The Favorite: The Sun Belt Conference tournament is what ESPN’s Championship Week is all about. There is no talk of “bubble” in the Sun Belt. The only team in the league with a chance at avoiding a 16-seed is Florida Atlantic, a team with a strong overall record and several quality wins. And even that’s a long shot. The Owls are the easy favorite to cut down the nets next Tuesday, but they’re not invincible. Just two weeks ago, they scored 42 points in a loss at Denver and fell at home to Louisiana-Lafayette.

On Fire: The last time Louisiana-Lafayette lost, Egypt was still an authoritarian country, the NFL was still playing and Michigan State was actuall yranked! The Rajun’ Cajuns don’t at all resemble the team that started 3-14, which is why the 11-game winning streak isn’t necessarily a fluke. They’re only one of two teams to win at FAU in league play this year, and a rematch may await next week.

The Sleeper: Sure, there’s an argument to be made that North Texas and Western Kentucky are strong “sleeper” picks, because underachievers often feel like they have new life once the conference tournament starts. We’re going to stray away from those teams, though, and pick Denver as the SBC sleeper. Of course, DU’s been an underachiever since that undefeated start in league play, but the Pioneers are in a different situation. After losing star Nate Rohnert, Joe Scott’s team wasn’t expected to compete in the West this year. Denver has exceeded expectations, in spite of the poor finish, and it has the pieces to win four games in a row. As we said earlier, Denver plays one of the nation’s slowest tempos and thrives when its methodical, Princeton offense can create open threes and layups. As long as the shots are falling and DU’s offense is executing, this team has a shot to pull a shocker.

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 18th, 2011

 

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

A Look Back

  • At least it’s not a guard this time, we suppose. Senior center Cliff Dixon is the latest victim in the Western Kentucky saga, as coach Ken McDonald dismissed him from the team last weekend for violating team rules. Brown already dismissed point guard Ken Brown for academic violations, while freshman guard Snap Peters is academically ineligible. That’s left WKU with a thin backcourt and only two players capable of running the point, and now the team will have to deal with the departure of a frustrating but still potentially useful big man.
  • Breast cancer is a disease we can all get behind—and that includes Louisiana-Monroe coach Keith Richard. The school held “Pack The Place Pink Night” during a men’s and women’s double-header against Arkansas State February 10. For every student that attended, Richard and his wife, a cancer survivor, donated one dollar to research. ULM’s men’s team lost by 19 points, but more than 2,500 fans showed up, meaning breast cancer research just received a nice boost. No matter a person’s income, it’s impressive for Richard’s family to take on a task like this.
  • It’s just one day, but the league moved North Texas and Arkansas-Little Rock’s make-up contest to March 1 from February 28, according to ArkansasSports360.com. The two teams had a game postponed two weeks ago due to a snowstorm, and the rescheduled game falls just four days before the start of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

Shout-Out Section

  • Solomon Bozeman has always been a scorer, but he’s never been a shooter. Until this season. The UALR two-guard is the most efficient three-point shooter in the conference with a 47.8 percent mark from behind the arc. That’s amazing considering he’d never shot better than 33.3 percent during his first three seasons. The improved point guard play of D’Andre Williams and Chuck Guy has helped ease the pressure off Bozeman, and that’s reflected in the statistics.
  • We’ll reveal our award-winners from the SBC later this season, but here’s an early hint: Jason Jones is an obvious candidate for Newcomer of the Year. The UTEP transfer has added a new element to Middle Tennessee State in the frontcourt, and he’s played a factor in MTSU’s surge toward the top of the East standings. Even better for the Blue Raiders is that he’s got two more years of eligibility.

Quote of the Week

“Fifty-seven percent, case closed… We just don’t guard and it is disappointing. Our guys just don’t accept the challenge to guard for 40 minutes.”

 

South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow, expressing his frustrations with his team’s shooting defense (via Yahoo! Sports)

Power Rankings

1. Florida Atlantic (18-9, 10-3): Two weeks ago, we said the East was “all but over.” With a month left in the season and teams crumbling around the conference, Florida Atlantic looked immune to struggle. The Owls were perfect: efficient offensively, dominant defensively and playing as one cohesive unit. So much for all that stuff. FAU has lost two straight games and three of five, which included an ugly 69-42 loss at Denver February 10. Gregg Gantt scored two, yes, two points against DU in that defeat. And that’s your leading scorer for the league’s top team, ladies and gentleman. Florida Atlantic still leads Middle Tennessee State by two games with three remaining and already swept that series, so it’d take a collapse of epic proportions for FAU to lose its division title. Still, the Owls aren’t invincible anymore, which means we’re heading toward a wide-open conference tournament next month in Hot Springs.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at FIU, Feb. 24 vs. Troy, Feb. 27 at USA

2. Middle Tennessee State (14-13, 9-5): This conference is officially insane. Middle Tennessee State, which appeared dead two weeks ago, suddenly had life with FAU’s stumble… before promptly losing at Troy last night in overtime, meaning it will need a miracle to take the East crown. Losing at Troy isn’t the worst offense a team can commit. After all, Troy beat Denver at home last weekend and has lost just two conference home games this season. It’s simply maddening, though, for coach Kermit Davis’s team to win five straight games, get back into contention and then shoot 0-9 in the overtime period against a beatable team with just eight overall wins this year.

Feb. 19 at UALR, Feb. 22 at Houston Baptist, Feb. 26 at WKU

3. Western Kentucky (13-13, 7-6): Would you look at that! A .500 record for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers! It took until February for WKU to reach even again after a 2-5 start in November, but Ken McDonald’s squad has finally figured out how to play basketball—together, you know, as a team. Point guard Jamal Crook, one of the catalysts of this modest turn-around, made the game-winning shot last night to lift WKU to an important win at Arkansas-Little Rock. Star forward Sergio Kerusch only scored three points, but frontcourt mate Steffphon Pettigrew helped him out with 18 points and 10 boards. They’ve both been inconsistent this season, along with newcomer Juan Patillo, but lately at least one of these forwards seems to emerge in each game.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at ULL, Feb. 24 vs. FIU, Feb. 26 at MTSU

4. Troy (8-17, 6-7): Don Maestri’s guys have been quite the pests this season. Although Troy played like one of the Sun Belt’s worst teams in November and December, the Trojans are just one game under .500 in conference play and, like we stated earlier, has lost just two league games at home. Will Weathers may turn the ball over too much, but he makes plays for star Vernon Taylor and controls his team’s up-tempo pace. Troy can score—we know that—and when it defends, it can win. Heading into the SBC tourney, this is a typical “sleeper.” Troy has no expectations after losing five starters and nothing to lose, so there’s no reason it can’t make a run in March.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. ASU, Feb. 24at FAU, Feb. 26 at FIU

5. Florida International (9-16, 4-9): The swagger the Golden Panthers had early in January has vanished. The team started 3-0 but has won just one game since—a one-point victory at Troy in early February. There is obvious talent on this team, but it hasn’t quite come together. Poor free throw shooting has doomed FIU in particular. One positive from this recent slide: freshman point guard Phil Taylor, who missed most of the season due to eligibility issues, is logging a ton of minutes in the backcourt. Better yet, he’s producing—he scored 21 points in a loss at Middle Tennessee State last weekend.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. FAU, Feb. 24 at WKU, Feb. 26 vs. Troy

6. South Alabama (10-14, 4-9): You heard it from coach Ronnie Arrow above. USA’s not defending well enough to win right now, and it’s not getting enough from Tim Williams, last year’s leading scorer. He’s shooting less than 40 percent from the field and has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. After a mid-season revitalization, South Alabama has lost three straight and doesn’t look like a team able to compete in the league tourney.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at Denver, Feb. 24 vs. UALR, Feb. 27 vs. FAU

West

1. Louisiana-Lafayette (11-14, 8-5): It’s the most improbable climb imaginable. Louisiana-Lafayette is atop the West Rankings after sitting one spot from the cellar two weeks ago. The team that started 3-14 has now won eight straight games, and it’s one of only two SBC teams to win at Florida Atlantic in league play. Just a game out of first place, the Rajun’ Cajuns are our pick to stun the conference and earn the number one seed in the West Division. It’s difficult to explain just how surprising this winning streak is. Until the past few weeks, we’ve treated this as a “throw-away” season of sorts for coach Bob Marlin in his first year. His track record at Sam Houston State speaks for itself, but he dealt with too many injuries and lack of personnel to win this year, right? Apparently, that’s not the case. ULL’s playing physical basketball and has a tall, tough starting lineup, and Marlin has his players defending—they held FAU without a basket for the final 11 minutes of the game. There aren’t many offensive stars on this team, but that’s the beauty of Louisiana-Lafayette. With Travis Bureau and J.J. Thomas playing hard-nosed basketball on the boards, this is an efficient squad on both sides of the floor. For what it’s worth, we did say in November that Marlin would at least keep this team competitive in the West. But there’s no way anyone could have predicted this.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. WKU, Feb. 24 vs. Denver, Feb. 26 at ULM

2. Denver (13-13, 9-4): It’s hard to slide the team with the best record in its division to the second spot in the power rankings, especially since Denver did beat ULL on its home court. That game happened back in December, though, and it’s obvious that the Rajun’ Cajuns have changed, both in terms of momentum and just sheer roster moves. The two teams play each other Feb. 24 to possibly decide the West title, so we’ll see then which team deserves the championship. Denver has been difficult to figure out lately. The Pioneers embarrassed Arkansas State 74-36 at home in January, leaving fans shaking their heads at the putrid offensive output of ASU. Less than a month later, the two teams met again in Jonesboro, and Denver was the team that finished with 35 points in a 25-point blowout. Yet DU found a way to limit the league’s best team in a 69-42 win over FAU Feb. 10. The real problem with this conference is that nobody can win on the road.

Up Next: Feb. 20 vs. USA, Feb. 24 at ULL, Feb. 26 at UNT

3. Arkansas State (14-14, 8-5): Speaking of road woes, Arkansas State’s got them too. It has won only one league road game this season and even lost at Savannah State Feb. 1. It’s a good thing, then, that Arkansas State is perhaps the Sun Belt’s most dominant home team. With an undefeated record at home, ASU could realistically win this division if it can win at Troy tomorrow, considering its final two games are at the Convocation Center. Maybe senior D-Ray Boone can lead his team to a title in his last hurrah. We’ve been waiting for Boone, who led the team in scoring two years ago but missed the 2009-10 season, all year. He may have finally emerged, as he’s scored in double figures in five straight games.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at Troy, Feb. 24 vs. North Texas, Feb. 26 vs. UALR

4. North Texas (17-8, 6-6): UNT’s season isn’t over yet by any means. Mathematically, the Mean Green are still in the West race with four games remaining. More importantly, this season can still be a success with a conference tournament title, and this senior-laden squad is more than capable of pulling that off, especially considering how wide open the field appears. If the Mean Green don’t act fast, though, there’s no chance they’ll improve enough to get on a roll. Frankly, they’d been putrid the past few weeks before knocking off South Alabama yesterday. Point guard Josh White is the key to a potential turn-around. He’s the Sun Belt’s leading active scorer, but he’s not making plays with the same frequency as a senior. North Texas doesn’t have a whole lot of offensive punch on the bench, and it needs White to find another gear before time runs out.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. ULM, Feb. 24 at ASU, Feb. 26 vs. Denver, March 1 at UALR

5. Arkansas-Little Rock (14-13, 6-6): The team that didn’t win a road game last year finally got it done away from home, winning at ULM February 12 for its third road win of the season. And then, UALR suffered the most heartbreaking loss of the season when WKU’s Jamal Crook secured the ball in a scramble situation and made a game-winner with less than a second to play at the Jack Stephens Center last night. The Trojans had played so well at home throughout the 2010-11 campaign, and after securing a rare road victory, the loss makes a West title nearly impossible.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. MTSU, Feb. 24 at USA, Feb. 26 at ASU, March 1 vs. UNT

6. Louisiana-Monroe (6-22, 1-13): This season was lost from the day it started for the Warhawks, so disregard the record and all the bad losses and remember this: ULM still hosts Louisiana-Lafayette one more time in the season finale Feb. 26. This season is still meaningful for coach Keith Richard. He’ll be a god if he can find a way to knock his archrival out of first place in the West division on the final day of the season, no matter how many losses his team has already suffered.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at UNT, Feb. 26 vs. ULL

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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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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 21st, 2011

 

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

  • Dennis Harris wants a reunion with John Brady. Harris, who signed with Brady at LSU and remained at the school when Trent Johnson took over in 2008, announced his decision to transfer to Arkansas State earlier this month. He appeared in only four games this season, but saw significant minutes as a role player last year. His 6’11 frame and long wingspan has to frighten opponents in his new league, especially since Harris will play alongside Martavius Adams when he becomes eligible in the spring of 2011.
  • It’s not often we get to relay a human interest story to our Sun Belt fans, so let’s take this opportunity to recognize Denver guard Kyle Lewis for his heroic actions this month. According to Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, Lewis encountered a man in need of medical attention while walking on campus and called 911. Lewis told a sideline reporter for the television network that he actually kicked the man in the chest to resuscitate him. Lewis, named a team captain this year, had started for three seasons before taking on a bench role this year as a senior. So he’s an unselfish guy in more ways than one.
  • The exact reason for Arkansas-Little Rock coach Steve Shields’ suspension for a home game against Louisiana-Monroe January 12 hasn’t been released by either the Sun Belt Conference nor the athletic department itself. All we know is that the league wasn’t too happy with Shields’ antics after a heartbreaking overtime loss at Denver in early January, won on a late three-point play by Chase Hallam. Shields only missed one game, and his team shook off the suspension with an easy 81-50 win at home.

Shout-Out Section

Where in the world did Troy come from? After losing five starters from a division championship team, the Trojans stumbled to a 2-13 start. That’s when Mo Weathers and Vernon Taylor decided they’d had enough. The two guards fueled a home win against Western Kentucky January 13 and made it two straight by shocking North Texas 89-81 two days later. The whole team deserves a shout-out, but we’ll focus on Weathers and Taylor in particular, who are thriving in coach Don Maestri’s up-tempo style. Taylor, who’s becoming a league favorite thanks to his creative Fresh Prince-like hairstyle, scored 20 against WKU and 22 against the Mean Green. Weathers didn’t make that much noise in non-conference play, but since the middle of December, he’s been unstoppable. Weathers has dished out more than 10 assists on three different occasions and shot 60 percent from three-point land in those two SBC wins. Sun Belt Network commentator Dave Odom, an accomplished college coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina, said he hasn’t seen a single guard in this league better than Weathers yet.

We’ve followed UALR’s point guard situation throughout the season, and it’s safe to say now that Shields has two fine options in D’Andre Williams and Chuck Guy. And although Williams deserves a shout-out for leading the team in assists, it’s Guy who’s added a new element to the team in his freshman season. He’s scored in double-figures in each of his past five outings, and he’s lighting it up from beyond the arc—during those contests, he’s shooting almost 52 percent from three.

Quote of the Week

 

“Players win the games. And they did just that in overtime.”

–Denver coach Joe Scott after an overtime win at home against Florida International kept the Pioneers undefeated in league play

Power Rankings

East

1. Florida Atlantic (14-6, 6-0): These Owls are for real. Of course, we’ve known this for weeks now. But we really know it now, especially now that FAU hasn’t lost since before Christmas. Most recently, Florida Atlantic dismantled Western Kentucky team at Diddle Arena by jumping on the reeling Hilltoppers immediately and never looking back. The most impressive thing about this team is how well it’s defending and how patient it’s been on offense. One of the youngest teams in college basketball last season, the Owls are growing more mature by the day. That’s due in large part to the consistency of point guards Ray Taylor and Alex Tucker, who are helping leading-scorer Greg Gantt get shots. Mike Jarvis has taken this group of youngsters and coached them into a disciplined team, both offensively and defensively. Now, FAU can show this improvement to a national audience Saturday against Arkansas-Little Rock, televised on ESPN2.

Up Next: Jan. 22 vs. UALR, Jan. 27 vs. MTSU, Jan. 29 vs. WKU

2. Florida International (8-10, 3-3): After racing to a 3-0 start with wins against the bottom of the league, FIU is back to earth after facing the Sun Belt’s top competition from the West. The Golden Panthers have dropped three straight games to North Texas, Denver and Arkansas-Little Rock, all of whom are in the mix in the West Division. FIU hung with UNT and UALR for the most part and fell to overtime against the Pioneers with DeJuan Wright sidelined, so it’s not as if this team was overwhelmed against the other division. There’s still work to do, most notably on the defensive end.

Up Next: Jan. 22 at USA, Jan. 27 vs. WKU, Jan. 29 vs. MTSU

3. Middle Tennessee State (8-11, 3-3): It’s another typical Kermit Davis team in Murfreesboro this season. Although the coach is often criticized being for unable to take Middle Tennessee State to an elite level, there’s no denying his consistency. In 2010-11, he’s got another scrappy team with the ability to compete with anyone. MTSU already knocked off North Texas, and the Blue Raiders evened their league record to 3-3 by cooling off Troy Thursday night with a 63-51 win at home. If James Washington continues to lead, this team won’t go away.

Up Next: Jan. 22 vs. Denver, Jan. 27 at FAU, Jan. 29 at FIU

4. Troy (4-14, 2-4): The Shout-Out section covered most of Troy’s emergence, but we can’t understate how surprising the Trojans’ two wins against WKU and North Texas were. The first was understandable—after a slow start, Troy slowly crept back into the game and demoralized an emotionally crippled Western Kentucky squad. The win against UNT came out of nowhere. Don Maestri has this team playing with a new kind of energy, and offensively the Trojans couldn’t be stopped against the Mean Green. Troy suffered a setback last night in a road loss at MTSU, but after a 2-13 start, a two-game winning streak in conference and a convincing win against the defending champs is a miracle.

Up Next: Jan. 22 at WKU, Jan. 27 vs. USA, Jan. 29 at ULM

5. Western Kentucky (6-11, 1-4): It’s finally happened: Western Kentucky has won a Sun Belt Conference game. It only took about a month, right? With rumors swirling about coach Ken McDonald’s job status, WKU found a way to win at South Alabama last night by nine points, but it wasn’t easy (what else is new?). The Hilltoppers nearly blew a 24-point second-half lead during a second half collapse. If there’s one thing WKU has done well consistently this year, it’s been offensive rebounding—and the Toppers dominated that statistic Thursday night. The victory is at least a start for this squad during this nightmare of a season. At the very least, it’s never seemed as if WKU has just plain quit at any point this year. Even among all the losses, Western Kentucky has always shown small spurts of greatness. A full 40 minutes just hasn’t materialized yet.

Up Next: Jan. 22 vs. Troy, Jan. 27 at FIU, Jan. 28 at FAU

6. South Alabama (7-10, 1-5): Hopes of a bounce-back season have all but faded for Ronnie Arrow’s team. Since a home win against Middle Tennessee State, USA has lost four straight Sun Belt games. It’s now hit rock bottom, with two consecutive home losses to winless teams (UL-Monroe and Western Kentucky). So what does Arrow do from here? He’s got a good group of guards and an emerging post presence in Augustin Rubit, but South Alabama isn’t guarding well enough to win games.

Up Next: Jan. 22 vs. FIU, Jan. 27 at Troy, Jan. 29 vs. ULL

West

1. North Texas (15-4, 4-2): One glance at the West Division standings shows North Texas two games out of first place. We’re not telling you to ignore the results on the court, but try to consider UNT’s body of work this season. Road losses at Middle Tennessee State and especially Troy are red flags, but the Mean Green’s work in the non-conference is proof that the two losses are an anomaly, not a growing trend. North Texas has serious issues defensively and got lit up by a red-hot Troy team that made everything it threw up, and this isn’t a perfect squad. But this same team beat LSU by 20 points on the road, beat Texas Tech at home, hung with Kansas for one half and has a roster full of NCAA Tournament experience. Don’t jump off the bandwagon because of two losses—and mark your calendars for a Jan. 29 showdown between Denver and North Texas.

Up Next: Jan. 22 vs. Arkansas State, Jan. 27 at ULL, Jan. 29 at Denver

2. Denver (10-9, 6-0): Denver is certainly not a pretender in this conference, not with a 6-0 record and a 74-36 beat-down of Arkansas State last night. The Pioneers are playing better than anyone in the league, and it’s not even close. Just how good were they last night in that victory? DU made 13 of 19 threes, forced ASU into 21 turnovers and held it to 17 points in the first half. And Denver even out-rebounded the Red Wolves, which is surprising because that’s not the strongest part of this team’s game. Denver still has to beat North Texas next week to prove it’s the outright best team in the West, but Joe Scott has this team rolling. It’s hardly the same team that limped to a 2-9 start and looked lost offensively. Scott’s offense, a Princeton-style system predicated on layups and threes, is a perfect fit for his personnel, and individually nearly every player is playing at a higher level. That’s true for freshman Chris Udofia in particular, who recorded a double-double against FIU and has established himself as a primary contributor on this team. Do note that Denver hasn’t yet been tested on the road; its only road contests in league play came at bottom-feeders WKU and ULM.

Up Next: Jan. 22 at MTSU, Jan. 29 vs. UNT

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (12-9, 4-2): After losing at UNT and Denver to start SBC play, Arkansas-Little Rock has done everything necessary to stay in contention in this division. The Trojans defended their home court—like they usually do—against three inferior opponents in Troy, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette. UALR then notched an important road win last night at Florida International (remember, this team didn’t win a road game last season). It’s easy to forget about the Trojans this season. After all, they weren’t very good last year, and Denver, FAU and North Texas get most of the attention in this league. Plus, Shields is known for his methodical, grinding style of play, and that’s not of interest to any fans. But Arkansas-Little Rock has quietly pieced together a solid campaign and has a senior-laden backcourt. The Trojans don’t have much size, but they’re scrappy and will put up a fight in this division.

Up Next: Jan. 22 at FAU, Jan. 29 vs. Arkansas State

4. Arkansas State (10-11, 4-3): It’s the kind of score that causes a double-take: Denver 74, Arkansas State 36. After a three-game winning streak, it looked like the Red Wolves were turning the corner. Last week, ASU dug a hole against Lamar in a non-conference match-up but rallied for a home win. Two months ago, it wouldn’t have completed that comeback—but Arkansas State was a new team. Right? After scoring 17 points in the first half against Denver, maybe this is the same ASU team after all. No players scored in double figures last night and John Brady’s normally stout defense allowed the Pioneers to shoot nearly 58 percent from the field. The good news is, ASU has a chance to correct things when it travels to North Texas Saturday.

Up Next: Jan. 22 at North Texas, Jan. 27 vs. ULM, Jan. 29 at UALR

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (4-14, 1-5): Centenary was just what ULL needed. Bob Marlin is having a rough first season: point guard Josh Brown is injured again, center Colby Batiste is off the team and the Rajun’ Cajuns have lost five of six Sun Belt games. That’s why a game against Centenary, which is in the process of moving to Division III, came at the perfect time. Louisiana-Lafayette played the Gentleman on Wednesday night and won by 32 points. Former Centenary guard David Perez, playing immediately this season because of that reclassification, scored zero points against his former team and missed all six shots he took.

Up Next: Jan. 22 vs. ULM, Jan. 27 vs. UNT, Jan. 30 at South Alabama

6. Louisiana-Monroe (6-14, 1-5): The Warhawks lost at UALR by 31, at UTEP by 30 and at Stephen F. Austin by 24. So ULM’s 67-65 win at South Alabama was a bit surprising last week. Star guard Fred Brown scored 25 points in that victory. He’s playing more efficiently lately and has benefited from the development Tommy Sykes beside him. With a league win under his belt, coach Keith Richard can now focus his attention on a rivalry game this weekend. Louisiana-Lafayette and ULM will battle for second-to-last-place tomorrow, so throw out the records! In all seriousness, the winner will have a little momentum for the rest of the year, and the loser may be destined for dead last.

Up Next: Jan 22. at ULL, Jan. 27 at ASU, Jan. 29 vs. Troy

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 6th, 2011


Daniel Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt conference.

A Look Back: News and Notes

  • The hits keep coming for Western Kentucky. Never mind that the Hilltoppers are 5-8 and just lost at Arkansas State. Now, just a few weeks after the dismissal of point guard Ken Brown, WKU has learned that freshman guard Snap Peters is academically ineligible for the second semester. The good news for coach Ken McDonald is that Peters hasn’t left the program for good and can return next year.
  • The Sun Belt’s poor performance in non-conference play has resulted in an RPI plummet for the conference. As of Thursday morning, the league ranks 25th out of the 31 D-I conferences that carry automatic NCAA Tournament bids. This fall, when the Sun Belt announced new scheduling restrictions to help bolster its overall RPI, a few coaches weren’t happy with the commissioner. With this recent slip toward the bottom of Division I Basketball, though, maybe they’ll come around.

Shoutout Section

There’s no player more deserving of a shoutout this week than Arkansas State’s Trey Finn. The sophomore is already a fan favorite because of his hard-nosed defense and all-out effort. Plus, he’s got a pretty cool first name—and he lived up to that name by making seven three-pointers in a 30-point performance against Western Kentucky last weekend. And Finn wasn’t one-dimensional, either, tallying four steals, 10 rebounds and three assists.

Alex Legion’s college career hasn’t been easy. He played six games at Kentucky as a highly-touted freshman before transferring to Illinois, where he appeared in just 33 games as a sophomore and junior. Now, Legion has landed at Florida International, and he’s putting his last stop in the Sun Belt to use. Since becoming eligible at the start of the semester, Legion has scored in double figures in all four games and had 22 points against Utah Valley.

Quote of the Week

“It’s easy to quit, but I’d rather die than quit.”

-Western Kentucky forward Sergio Kerusch on New Year’s Day, persevering through the Hilltoppers’ struggles after dropping their third straight game.

Power Rankings

East

1. Florida Atlantic (9-6, 2-0): Thanks to Western Kentucky’s continued downswing, Florida Atlantic is the new East Division favorite. The Owls didn’t even need to do anything to take the top spot. Due to the apocalyptic snowstorm that cancelled a Dec. 30 date with Manhattan, they’ve played just one game during the past 15 days—and even that contest was with D-II Florida Memorial. With two SBC road wins under their belt, Florida Atlantic is sitting pretty, but the quiet few weeks may result in a little rust for Mike Jarvis’ players.

Up Next: Jan. 6 vs. South Alabama, Jan. 8 vs. Arkansas State, Jan. 11 vs. Manhattan

2. Western Kentucky (5-8, 0-1): The dismal non-conference performance was behind them; it was a new conference season and a new year on New Year’s Day, and Western Kentucky jumped out to a 17-7 lead at Arkansas State in the SBC opener. Sergio Kerusch was making everything. The threes were falling, and the Red Wolves were unable to run their offense against WKU’s chaotic defense. What a story: the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers were turning the corner on the very first day of 2011! Turns out, it was all just false hope. Slowly, Trey Finn’s hot hand brought ASU back into contention, and that double-digit lead turned into a one-point deficit at halftime. Arkansas State then scored the first six points in the second half and never looked back. After such a promising start, the Hilltoppers were back to their old ways. They’ll have to wait at least one more game to turn that corner. That is, if the fans don’t run coach Ken McDonald out of town by that point. Of 86 respondents polled on the WKU fan site Hilltopper Haven, 64 fans voted to fire the head coach immediately.

Up Next: Jan. 6 at Denver, Jan. 13 at Troy

3. South Alabama (7-6, 1-1): The Jaguars split their first two conference games, losing at Arkansas State and beating Middle Tennessee at home. It’s still hard to get a read on this team, which has won five of six games mostly against inferior competition. Freshman Augustin Rubit recorded four double-doubles in December and carried that over to the Sun Belt with 16 points and 11 rebounds against ASU. He dealt with foul trouble and scored just three points against Middle Tennessee, though. Senior Tim Williams’ 25 points carried the Jags to that victory, but although he’s one of the league’s better scorers, he needs help from players like Rubit and sophomore Martino Brock, who’s enjoying a breakout year.

Up Next: Jan. 6 at Florida Atlantic, Jan. 8 at Florida International, Jan. 15 vs. Louisiana-Monroe

4. Middle Tennessee (6-9, 1-1): Score one for coach Kermit Davis. After losing at South Alabama in the Sun Belt opener, the Blue Raiders picked up their first signature victory of the season by knocking off consensus league favorite North Texas 78-71 Wednesday night at home. Middle Tennessee beat up the Mean Green on the boards by grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and rattled them defensively with 10 steals. It’s just one win, but UNT had been so dominant in November and December that Wednesday’s upset came out of nowhere.

Up Next: Jan. 8 at LA-Lafayette, Jan. 13 vs. Florida Atlantic, Jan. 15 at Arkansas State

5. Florida International (6-7, 1-0): Coach Isiah Thomas’ recruiting prowess may pay off this winter. Alex Legion is making an immediate impact through his first four games for FIU, and freshman Dominique Ferguson scored 11 points in just 16 minutes in his first Sun Belt game against Louisiana-Monroe. Another newcomer, Central Michigan transfer Jeremy Allen, was the hero in that one-point comeback win at ULM by breaking a 67-67 tie in the final minute. It’s been trendy to question Thomas’ coaching ability because of his celebrity status and his poor performance with the New York Knicks. It’s true that he finished with just seven wins in his first year as a collegiate coach in 2009-10, but Thomas hasn’t proved hecan’t coach at this level, has he? So far in Year Two, Thomas appears to have this program on the upswing.

Up Next: Jan. 6 vs. Arkansas State, Jan. 8 vs. South Alabama, Jan. 13 at North Texas

6. Troy (2-11, 0-1): Ranking teams two through five in the East was a difficult task. Ranking last, however, wasn’t difficult at all. The Trojans have played the last two games without leading scorer Vernon Taylor, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. He may play Thursday night at Louisiana-Lafayette. Without Taylor, Troy lost 80-39 to Utah State on Christmas Eve. Two weeks of rest and Taylor’s possible return may help Troy regroup.

Up Next: Jan. 6 at ULL, Jan. 8 at Arkansas Little-Rock, Jan. 13 vs. Western Kentucky

West

1. North Texas (13-3, 2-1): There’s only one question to ask of Johnny Jones’ team. What happened? North Texas embarrassed LSU by 20 points and then promptly demolished Arkansas-Little Rock andLouisiana-Lafayette at home to open Sun Belt competition. Then, disaster struck Wednesday night with UNT’s road loss to Middle Tennessee. It’s not as if the Mean Green hadn’t experienced life away from Denton. North Texas went to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence in November and finished 3-2 in non-conference road games. So, again: what happened Wednesday night? For starters, North Texas hasn’t traditionally played well in Murfreesboro. More than that, though, the Mean Green were outworked by the Blue Raiders, especially up front. Middle Tennessee won the rebounding battle and pulled away late with its superior depth. Returning from a sprained ankle, George Odufuwa did his part with 10 rebounds, but his frontcourt mates didn’t lend much help. Sophomore Ben Knox, who had played so well since entering the starting lineup six games ago, had four fouls and took zero shot attempts in nine minutes of action. The loss isn’t crippling for North Texas, which should still win the West comfortably. It’s just a sign that the Mean Green aren’t so invincible after all.

Up Next: Jan. 13 vs. Florida International, Jan. 15 at Troy

2. Arkansas State (7-8, 2-0): In John Brady we trust. After a 1-6 start, is anyone surprised that Brady’s team is finally winning some basketball games? ASU defended its home court last week with wins over South Alabama and Western Kentucky and is tied for first in the West. Trey Finn’s getting all the attention for his 30-point outburst against WKU, but the win was a team effort. Arkansas State bullied Western Kentucky in the second half and recovered from a poor start to clamp down defensively. With each week, this team looks more and more like a John Brady team.

Up Next: Jan. 6 at FIU, Jan. 8 at FAU, Jan. 13 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

3. Denver (6-9, 2-0): In Joe Scott we trust, too. He’s steadily built this program from the ground—even to the point where Denver will now upgrade to the Western Athletic Conference—and his team has won four straight games. Chase Hallam’s three-point play in the final minute of overtime lifted Denver to a dramatic 72-70 win over Arkansas-Little Rock, a statement victory against one of the only Sun Belt teams that had fared well against non-league opponents. Denver has been outrebounded in its first two SBC games, but it’s made up for that with hot three-point shooting. That’s the beauty of Scott’s style of play—and his players seem to be clicking on both ends of the floor.

Up Next: Jan. 6 at Western Kentucky, Jan. 8 at ULM, Jan. 15 vs FIU

4. Arkansas-Little Rock (8-9, 0-2): UALR didn’t win a road game last year and has won only one game away from Little Rock in 2010-11. So the Trojans aren’t very good on the road in the first place, and the conference didn’t do them any favors by scheduling them to open SBC play with two road games: at league favorite North Texas, and at Denver in the altitude. Naturally, Arkansas-Little Rock lost both games. Then, adding to the slide, UALR lost Wednesday night at home to St. Bonaventure. Steve Shields’ group hung around for a while, but fell apart in the second half. That’s at least an improvement over UALR’s first meeting with the Bonnies, a 13-point road loss that was never close. Arkansas-Little Rock was tough at home in the non-con and won’t be an easy out in the Sun Belt, but this team has to win some road games to be taken seriously.

Up Next: Jan. 8 vs. Troy, Jan. 13 vs. ULM, Jan. 15 vs. ULL

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (2-11, 0-2): We’ve talked about UALR’s road problems all year long, but ULL isn’t faring any better. The Rajun Cajuns have lost 13 straight road contests dating back to last year and, like UALR, opened SBC play with road losses at Denver and North Texas. There might not be many wins for Bob Marlin in his first season, but there are small signs of progress. ULL competed until the last few minutes at Denver despite shooting 36 percent from the field. Guard Josh Brown, who missed part of December with a knee injury, took back his role as the leading scorer with 18 points at North Texas.

Up Next: Jan. 6 vs. Troy, Jan. 8 vs. Middle Tennessee, Jan. 13 at Arkansas State, Jan. 15 at UALR

6. Louisiana-Monroe (5-11, 0-2): Coach Keith Richard, the other new guy in this league alongside Marlin, is also having trouble winning games in his first season. He’ll have to settle for small, moral victories until he can build his program. ULM has lost both of its Sun Belt games in heartbreaking fashion by a combined three points (to Florida Atlantic and Florida International at home). And hey, the Warhawks just beat NAIA Union College Wednesday night. It may not count for RPI, but Richard will have to take all the wins he can get in his inaugural year.

Up Next: Jan. 8 vs. Denver, Jan. 13 at UALR, Jan. 15 at South Alabama

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2010

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

  • The wait is over for Florida International. Jeff Goodman of FoxSports reported Tuesday that freshman forward Dominique Ferguson, a consensus top-100 recruit, is eligible for the second semester. Earning a start in his debut against Florida A&M Wednesday night, Ferguson missed nine of 12 shots from the field. Coach Isiah Thomas’ other high-profile freshman, point guard Phil Taylor, likely will not join the squad this season after also sitting out the first semester. But after adding Ferguson to the mix with six new transfers from the Division I and juco ranks, Thomas should have more than enough to work with in the East division.
  • Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald dismissed point guard Ken Brown after nine games because of a “violation of a team academic policy.” Brown led the team in turnovers and hadn’t been the answer to WKU’s point guard problems, but he also led the team in assists and may have been the Hilltoppers’ quickest guard.  He appeared to have a bright future with the program, but his departure will now mean more minutes for sophomore Jamal Crook. Freshman Snap Peters, who’s played the point sparingly early in the season, will also see time at the position.
  • Troy’s leading scorer, Vernon Taylor, went down with an injury in a win over Western Michigan Tuesday. He missed Troy’s loss to Idaho State Thursday night, but he’s not expected to miss extended time.
  • The SBC must have ACC-syndrome. That’s the only explanation for why Florida Atlantic began conference play Dec. 16 with an 82-77 overtime win at Troy, two weeks before the rest of the Sun Belt kicks off. FAU won at Louisiana-Monroe three days later and now sits at 2-0 in the league. League competition begins for everyone else next week.

Shoutout Section

  • Ray Taylor is his old self again. Suspended for the season opener because of disciplinary problems, the FAU point guard did not start his first game until the SBC opener at Troy. He’s made the most of his return to the starting lineup, averaging 18.3 points per game during the past three contests. Considering he’s barely left the floor in those games, it’s obvious that he’s back on coach Mike Jarvis’ good side.
  • Taylor’s teammate, Brett Royster, isn’t scoring very much this season. At 7.6 points per game, he’s hardly worthy of our pre-season First-Team All-Conference selection, right? Not exactly. The reigning SBC Defensive Player of the Year has actually elevated his game defensively and has blocked an astonishing 26 shots in his past five games. Excluding Dominique Ferguson, who’s only played one game, Rosyter leads the Sun Belt in blocks by nearly two per game. And among players who have appeared in at least 10 games, Royster is fourth nationally in blocked shots.
  • Denver freshman Chris Udofia scored a career-high 14 points in a win over Northern Colorado Dec. 18. He followed up that performance in another victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff with 10 points in 22 minutes. Teammate Travis Hallam, a former high school rival of Udofia’s, had high praise for the freshman’s freakish athleticism in a television interview with Fox Sports Net after the UNC victory. Udofia’s minutes should continue to increase into league play.
  • Augustine Rubit is on fire. He’s recorded a double-double in three of South Alabama’s past four games and has grabbed at least 12 rebounds in each of those contests. Rubit tallied 18 rebounds against Georgia Southern and 17 against Alcorn State. And he’s only a freshman, too.

Quote of the Week

“That sad thing is that it was two of our, supposedly, better shooters in Regis (Huddleston) and Travis (Lee). They were just terrible from the 3-point line. They couldn’t hit a shot. I don’t know what the reason was, but if they hit any shots at all, we win the game. I’m not putting the blame on them, I don’t think any one person loses a game, but they could have won it for us.”

–Troy coach Don Maestri after a 77-73 loss to Idaho State

Power Rankings

East

1. Western Kentucky (5-7): Louisville just put up 114 points on WKU—at home. Ken Brown’s off the team. And the Hilltoppers are two games under .500 and blew every opportunity to bolster their resume against top competition by losing games to Minnesota, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Memphis and Murray State. It may be overkill to use the word “disastrous,” but that’s the term frustrated WKU fans may use to describe the non-conference season. In fact, Hilltopper Haven, one of the main message boards for Western Kentucky, polled its users about the fate of coach Ken McDonald—and 24 of 32 respondents want to “fire him immediately.” The 5-7 start hasn’t been pretty, and watching Louisville make 16 three-pointers had to have been discouraging. The fans are frustrated with a perceived lack of effort, but we’ve got a message for them: stay patient. WKU has one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the nation, and the only thing we’ve learned from these first 12 games is that Western Kentucky won’t be making the top-25 any time soon. If the shaky play continues next week, it’ll be time to be worried.

Up Next: Jan. 1 at Arkansas State, Jan. 6 vs. Denver, Jan. 13 at Troy

2. Florida Atlantic (8-6, 2-0): It wasn’t easy, but Florida Atlantic found a way to open the Sun Belt season with two road victories. After outlasting Troy in overtime Dec. 16, FAU escaped Louisiana-Monroe three days later with a 60-58 win after Tommy Sykes missed two free throws with 0.2 seconds on the clock. Known for its high-flying offensive attack, Florida Atlantic is showing the ability to win games at slower tempos this season. This is a different team defensively than last season, which has helped FAU grind out wins even when it hasn’t done the job offensively.

Up Next: Dec. 30 vs. Manhattan, Jan. 3 vs. Florida Memorial, Jan. 6 vs. South Alabama

3. South Alabama (5-5): The Jaguars didn’t fare very well against SEC and Big East schools early in the month, but they’ve responded with a three-game winning streak by defeating Houston Baptist, Georgia Southern and Alcorn State. Those three teams have a combined five victories, but USA will at least enter conference play with a little momentum. Augustine Rubit’s mini-tear has helped, but we’ll see if the freshman’s 6 foot 6 frame holds up in conference play. He did have 15 points and 14 rebounds against Louisville from the big, bad Big East.

Dec. 27 vs. Mobile, Dec. 30 at Arkansas State, Jan. 2 vs. Middle Tennessee

4. Florida International (5-6): Former Kentucky and Illinois guard Alex Legion has joined the team for the second semester, and freshman stud Dominique Ferguson is now academically eligible. So how can we rank the Golden Eagles fourth in their own division? There are still question marks for Isiah Thomas’ team. It has beat only three Division I schools this season and most of its roster is either a junior college or D-I transfer. Legion signed with Kentucky out of high school as a big-time recruit, but he’s never caught fire during his career, and Ferguson had never played a game until Wednesday night. Thomas, who finished 7-25 in his first season, is another unknown as a college coach. Still, if all the pieces come together for FIU, there’s no telling how good this squad could be.

Up Next: Dec. 28 at Utah Valley, Jan. 2 at Louisiana-Monroe, Jan. 6 vs. Arkansas State

5. Middle Tennessee (4-8): Kermit Davis’ team took a bit of a tumble during the past two weeks, losing four straight games. Middle Tennessee fell apart in a 15-point loss to Furman Dec. 12 and then lost at Evansville by two points– after beating the Aces at home earlier in the season. The Blue Raiders have struggled to find consistent scoring, but their 4-8 record is a little deceiving. They’ve lost in overtime twice, lost to Evansville on a buzzer-beater and have been blown out in only three losses.

Up Next: Dec. 29 vs. Tennessee State, Kan. 2 at South Alabama, Jan. 5 vs. North Texas

6. Troy (2-10, 0-1): The Trojans can’t play without leading scorer Vernon Taylor much longer. If he’s back for the start of Sun Belt play, his team can’t be taken lightly on any night. Despite the horrid record, Troy hasn’t been a pushover for anyone. Florida Atlantic knows that as well as anyone after the Trojans forced overtime. Coach Don Maestri’s track record can’t be questioned, and this team showed signs of life in an overtime win at Western Michigan Tuesday. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of firepower on this team at the moment, especially without Taylor.

Up Next: Dec. 23 at Utah State, Jan. 6 at Louisiana-Lafayette, Jan. 8 at Arkansas-Little Rock

West

1. North Texas (10-2): LSU doesn’t have Shaquille O’Neal, Pistol Pete or Tyrus Thomas on its roster anymore, and the Tigers will probably slide to the bottom of the SEC West this winter. But that doesn’t make North Texas’ 75-55 win in Baton Rouge Wednesday night any less satisfying for anyone involved. Against the inexperienced Tigers, the grizzled Mean Green veterans dominated from start to finish and won the game with stifling defense and efficient offense. North Texas missed just one free throw and held LSU to less than 37 percent from the field. That has to please coach Johnny Jones, a former LSU point guard. North Texas has now ripped off three straight wins after a humbling loss at Sam Houston State by recommitting itself to the defensive end.

Up Next: Dec. 28 vs. Panhandle State, Dec. 30 vs. Arkansas-Little Rock, Jan. 1 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

2. Arkansas State (4-8): The record hasn’t exactly reflected it yet, but Arkansas State is improving with each week. After starting 1-6—a stretch that included a 33 point loss to Belmont—ASU has won three of five games, with two respectable losses at Georgia and Missouri State. This team still has issues. Most notably, Donald Boone hasn’t been the scorer we all expected him to be. And this team still can’t quite put everything together. In stretches, Arkansas State has played very well: in second-half rallies against UGA and Missouri State, in an overtime loss to Memphis, and in the first half of the season opener against Mississippi.

Up Next: Dec. 28 vs. Central Baptist, Dec. 30 vs. South Alabama, Jan. 1 vs. Western Kentucky

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (7-6): Steve Shields has won four division titles at UALR, so last season’s 8-22 record was an anomaly. That’s evident here in 2010-11, as the Trojans are one of the league’s more improved squads. After losing at Oral Roberts by 26 in November, Arkansas-Little Rock got revenge with a three-point win in Las Vegas Wednesday night. At 7-6, UALR has overachieved with solid point guard play, leadership from its four seniors and an improved defensive effort. The Trojans have lost only once at home, to Mississippi.

Up Next: Dec. 23 vs. Stetson, Dec. 30 at North Texas, Jan. 2 at Denver

4. Denver (4-9): The team that donned the Denver uniforms in November is not the same team that’s playing now. The Pioneers have won two straight games and cannot be taken lightly in SBC play. Joe Scott’s teams normally run the Princeton offense as effectively as anyone, but early in the season it hadn’t been crisp enough for his liking. In two home wins over Northern Colorado and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the entire offense has improved. Chris Udofia’s giving Denver a lift off the bench, and the three-pointers are starting to fall—DU made 10 against UNC and nine against Pine Bluff. Travis Hallam, who’s scored at least 17 points in the past three contests, also seems to be developing into a go-to scorer.

Up Next: Dec. 30 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, Jan. 2 vs. Arkansas-Little Rock, Jan. 6 at Western Kentucky

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (2-9): Bob Marlin finally has a full team. With Josh Brown and Travis Bureau back in the lineup, ULL beat Lamar and lost by just six points to a New Mexico State team that beat the Rajun Cajuns by 16 on their home floor in November. Thanks to a rash of personnel issues, Louisiana-Lafayette suffered through a seven-game losing streak before beating Lamar, but Marlin’s squad may have seen the worst of its season. Much like Don Maestri’s Troy squad, it’s hard to bet against the proven success of Marlin. As his players continue to get acclimated to him—and as they get healthier– there’s a chance for ULL to move up the standings.

Up Next: Dec. 30 at Denver, Jan. 1 at North Texas, Jan. 6 vs. Troy

6. Louisiana-Monroe (4-9, 0-1): After letting the game get out of hand early against UTEP in a blowout loss, the Warhawks responded with two encouraging performances last week. First, they nearly knocked off East contender Florida Atlantic in its SBC opener. Then, they edged Northern Colorado at home, holding one of the nation’s better three-point shooting teams to just 33 percent from beyond the arc. ULM was even able to win the game with do-it-all guard Fred Brown on the bench for much of the game due to foul trouble. He took only six shots and scored 10 points, allowing for forward Lawrence Gilbert to explode for 28 points. That’s great news for a team that must find other options besides Brown.

Up Next: Dec. 29 at Stephen F. Austin, Jan. 2 vs. Florida International, Jan. 4 vs. Union

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