O26 Top Five (and More), Because It’s Never Too Early

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 7th, 2014

Don’t look now, but college basketball season is only seven months away! Sure, this one hasn’t technically ended yet, but with Dayton respectably bowing out in the Elite Eight and only one game left to play between two power conference teams, O26 folks need something to look forward to. So let’s examine a few teams sure to make some noise in 2014-15.

Top Five

Players like Mo Alie-Cox will have increased roles for VCU in 2014-2015. (vcuramnation.com)

Players like Mo Alie-Cox will have increased roles for VCU in 2014-2015. (vcuramnation.com)

  1. VCU. The Rams lose Juvonte Reddic – the team’s leading rebounder, second-leading scorer and an unquestioned leader – along with Rob Brandenberg, who’s been a reliable offensive weapon for the past four years. Still, contrary to what folks in Milwaukee had us recently believing, it does not appear they will lose Shaka Smart to another program. And that’s a victory in itself. The coveted head coach will remain in Richmond to lead a group that could be even better than this year’s unit, which grabbed a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ranked sixth overall in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dynamic weapon Treveon Graham returns along with quick-handed guard Briante Weber and a cast of other players capable of wreaking HAVOC in 2014-15. To boot, Smart welcomes his best recruiting class yet, led by top-50 forward Terry Larrier, who should see significant playing time right away.
  2. Wichita State. Star forward Cleanthony Early graduates along with role player Nick Wiggins and forwards Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby, so Wichita State will miss some big-time pieces next year. But the Shockers still return a solid core from this season’s 35-1 squad, including point guard and Missouri Valley Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter. The frontcourt might be a bit thin – redshirt freshman Shaq Morris and incoming seven-foot transfer Bush Wamukota need to contribute alongside Carter – and Early (a likely NBA first-rounder) is probably irreplaceable, but Gregg Marshall has always relied more on balance and depth than he has on individual talent. Another conference title and single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament should be doable for next season’s bunch.
  3. San Diego State. Can the Aztecs contend for the Mountain West title next year without Xavier Thames? Why yes, yes they can. Sure, the conference Player of the Year was their only reliable offensive threat for much of this past season, and yeah, rebounding maven Josh Davis also graduates. But Steve Fisher welcomes back a core of long-armed athletes, including NCAA Tournament stud Dwayne Polee and 6’10’’ shot-blocker Skylar Spencer, along with a top-notch recruiting class. Among the incoming freshmen are five-star forward Malik Pope, four-star forward Zylan Cheatham and four-star point guard Trey Kell, each good enough to find minutes right away. Oh, and Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, an athletic 6’9’’ power forward, will also be eligible after sitting out this season. Read the rest of this entry »
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NCAA Game Analysis: Second Round, Friday Afternoon

Posted by Brian Otskey, Andrew Murawa, Walker Carey & Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2014

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Half the day is in the books, and eight teams are headed home. We may not know what the Thursday evening sessions might have in store for us, but we can be confident in thinking there will be lots of excitement. Let’s continue our analysis of all of today’s games with the evening slate of eight contests.

#3 Duke vs. #14 Mercer – Midwest Region Round of 64 (from Raleigh, NC) – at 12:15 PM EST on CBS

Parker and Duke Face Mercer Today

Parker and Duke Face Mercer Today

Last season, the Atlantic Sun Tournament champions advanced to the Sweet 16. Mercer will try to repeat that accomplishment this season, but winning Friday’s game against Duke will be a very tall task. Duke forwards Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood lead a very talented Blue Devils squad that is an elite scoring team. There are no teams with close to Duke’s talent in the Atlantic Sun so Mercer has no basis for comparison leading into Friday afternoon’s action. Another thing that is working against Mercer is its lack of NCAA Tournament experience. The Bears have not been to the tournament since 1985. On the other hand, Duke has played in every NCAA Tournament since 1995. If Mercer is able to keep it close Friday, it will be because of its strong offense going up against an iffy Duke defense. Mercer averages an impressive 79.5 points per game and is shooting 47.5% from the field. Bears senior guard Langston Hall has been an impressive player throughout his collegiate career and his ability to make plays will be paramount to the team’s fortunes Friday. Mercer is a scrappy bunch that can keep it close in the first half, but expect Duke’s talent to take over in the second half and lead the Blue Devils to a comfortable victory.

The RTC Certified Pick: Duke

#6 Baylor vs #11 Nebraska – West Regional Second Round (at San Antonio, TX) – 12:40 PM ET on truTV

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O26 Bracketbusting: East and West Regions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 19th, 2014

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The most joyous time of the year is finally upon us, and I’m not talking about tax season. I’m talking about buzzer-beating threes and scoring sprees, nickel-dimers and Nantz one-liners, back-door cuts and Farokhmanesh guts. I’m talking about the NCAA Tournament. And since O26 squads often make the most magic in March, let’s examine the prospects of each non-power conference unit in the upcoming Dance. Yesterday, Adam Stillman reviewed the South and Midwest Regions. Here, Tommy Lemoine looks at the East and West regions.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a legitimate chance to reach the second weekend, and perhaps even the Final Four.

Can San Diego State generate enough offense to make a deep run? (AP Photo)

Can San Diego State generate enough offense to make a deep run? (AP Photo)

  • San Diego State (#4, West) – This is the fifth straight season San Diego State has reached the NCAA Tournament, but only once in that span has it advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The good news for Aztec fans is that this is the best overall defensive unit – not to mention highest-seeded outfit – since 2011, the year Kawhi Leonard and company made that run to the second weekend. Steve Fisher’s club ranks seventh nationally in defensive efficiency thanks to long-armed perimeter defenders like Winston Shepard (he’s a 6’8’’ two-guard) and interior stalwarts like Skylar Spencer. The Aztecs are aggressive, confusing and energetic on that side of the ball. They draw New Mexico State on Thursday, a sizable and athletic #13 seed that’s both offensively proficient and does a good job defending the paint. But they turn the ball over quite a bit, and there’s a good chance SDSU will seize on that sloppiness, even if they have trouble scoring. In the following round, they would meet either Oklahoma or North Dakota State – two really efficient offensive squads that have both shown weaknesses this season against athletic, pressure defense. Both are beatable for the Aztecs. Finding success in Anaheim, though, might be a different story. The offense will need to be more consistent than it’s been up to this point, especially against a team like Arizona – the nation’s best defensive unit (and most likely Sweet Sixteen opponent). If Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames can play like he did in January and early March – when he put up numerous 20-plus point performances – and complementary pieces like athletic wing Dwayne Polee can make solid contributions, SDSU would have a shot. But if they can’t find buckets with regularity, the Aztecs won’t last long.
  • Gonzaga (#8, West) – It seems like everybody is sleeping on the Zags in favor of the ‘Marcus-Smart-can-make-a-run’ narrative, which is fine, and may very well happen. But do people realize that Mark Few’s bunch is ranked 20th overall in KenPom, with a top-15 defensive efficiency rating and a stellar effective field goal percentage? They might not be vintage Gonzaga, but these Bulldogs can still play. Their opening bout with Oklahoma State will probably be a good one – in fact, it has the highest ‘Thrill Score’ according to KenPom’s FanMatch – and  should be winnable if they can contain Smart and limit turnovers. The experienced backcourt of Kevin Pangos, David Stockton and Gary Bell will help in the latter department. If they manage to get past the Pokes, a match-up with Arizona in the round of 32 would be daunting, of course, but not necessarily insurmountable. Consider this: Three of the Wildcats’ four losses this season came against opponents ranked in the top-30 in effective height. Gonzaga, with 7’1’’ Przemek Karnowski and 6’9’’ Sam Dower in tow, ranks 25th. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon will not be able to simply bully Few’s frontcourt into oblivion. If the big men hold their own and Pangos (41 percent) and Bell (42 percent) get hot from behind the arc, watch out. Admittedly, a deep run into the second weekend or the Final Four seems a bit farfetched for the WCC champions – especially considering their lack of quality wins in 2013-14 – but I’m not willing to completely push aside the possibility of a Sweet Sixteen run.

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Circle of March: Field of 68 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on March 17th, 2014

And just like that, it’s settled. Other than Louisiana-Lafayette‘s thrilling overtime victory over Georgia State in the Sun Belt championship game Sunday afternoon, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee made its executive decision on the 36 at-large teams that will remain on this year’s Circle of March. Just two short weeks ago, we started with 340 eligible teams; now, we’re down to a mere 68, and it will be among that group from which we’ll crown this season’s national champion in a mere 21 more days. Can we get to Thursday afternoon already?

circlemarch_3_16

Teams Eliminated From National Title Contention (03.16.14)

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Clemson
  • Florida State
  • Georgia State
  • Green Bay
  • Indiana State
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • SMU
  • Southern Miss
  • St. John’s
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Bracket Prep: Saint Joseph’s, Louisiana-Lafayette

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 17th, 2014

With Championship Week officially over and a fresh bracket ready for filling, here’s what you need to know about the most recent automatic bid winners. 

Saint Joseph’s

Saint Joseph's returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. (Associated Press)

Saint Joseph’s returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. (AP)

  • Atlantic 10 Champion (24-9, 14-5)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #37/#49/#56
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +6.3
  • NCAA Seed: #10

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Saint Joseph’s started the week on the bubble and ended it with an Atlantic 10 tournament championship. The Hawks now head to the Dance with lots of confidence – having just beaten VCU and its vaunted defense for the second time this season – and lots of experience: three of the team’s most prominent players are seniors. Still, this is just the second time Phil Martelli has taken his program to the NCAA Tournament since it entered as a one-seed in 2004, and the first appearance since 2008. It was an important, much needed accomplishment for the veteran head coach. And perhaps he couldn’t have done it without the help of his pint-sized assistant coach on Sunday.
  2. This is probably Martelli’s most balanced team in several years, ranking 68th and 55th overall in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. The Hawks take a lot of threes – often kick-outs or dribble-screen hand-offs – and make a high percentage of them. Especially senior shooting guard and leading scorer Langston Galloway, who knocks down 44 percent of his triples and is capable of taking games over. The team is also efficient in the paint, thanks to a versatile front court featuring 6’8’’ Ronald Roberts, Jr., a superior athlete with the ability to make game-changing (and momentum changing) plays on both ends of the court, and Halil Kanacevic, who provides a tough, workman-like interior presence on defense and a surprisingly multi-skilled offensive game. They are the team’s top two rebounders and shot-blockers, and Kanacevic actually leads the way in assists due to his Arvydas Sabonis-like passing skills. The Hawks do have a pair of glaring weaknesses on each end, however: they are awful from the free throw line, and they rarely force turnovers. At 64.4 percent, only a handful of schools are worse from the stripe, and Saint Joe’s turnover rate was dead last in the conference. Read the rest of this entry »
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Conference Tournament Primer: Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with the last five conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the final push of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the O26 tourneys starting are the Big Sky, Big West, Sun Belt and WAC.

Dates: March 13-16
Site: New Orleans Lakefront Arena (New Orleans, LA)

SunBelt

What to expect: Georgia State won the regular season Sun Belt title by five games and will be the clear-cut favorite in New Orleans. The Panthers are lethal on the offensive end, led by a pair of guards – coach’s son R.J. Hunter and Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow – who average more than 17 points per night and rarely turn the ball over. They rank among the 25 most efficient offenses in the country, a scoring prowess that enabled them to win 14 straight games earlier this year (school record) and finish 17-1 in the conference. However, the top seed has not won this tournament since 2009, including a recent stretch of three-straight champions seeded fifth or worse, and talent does exist elsewhere — Louisiana-Lafayette guard Elfrid Payton is a legitimate NBA prospect, while his frontcourt teammate Shawn Long averages 19 points and 10 boards a night. Arkansas State and the Ragin’ Cajuns both gave Georgia State trouble in the regular season. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, has a chance to win this tournament for the third straight year. Any one of those three could spoil the Panthers’ outstanding run.

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Can Georgia State Separate From Muddled Sun Belt Pack?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 16th, 2014

Preseason expectations for the Sun Belt ranged anywhere from Western Kentucky winning the league and Georgia State tying Louisiana-Lafayette for fourth to Georgia State grabbing the top spot just ahead of the Ragin’ Cajuns. And while there wasn’t much agreement on the order of finish, almost all pundits and prognosticators acknowledged that several teams had enough talent to make it a hotly contested conference race. It’s played out that way in the early going — six teams are .500 or better and even some in the bottom half of the league have beaten contenders. Only one squad stands undefeated, though, and if its 23-point road thrashing of Western Kentucky last week is any indication, Georgia State might be poised to emerge as the Sun Belt’s clear-cut best.

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers have looked dangerous in the early going. (Photo Courtesy of Michael Wade)

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers look dangerous in the early going. (Photo Courtesy of Michael Wade)

After suffering a couple heart-breaking losses and beginning the season with a disappointing 3-6 record, Ron Hunter’s team has won seven straight games, at times playing stretches of dominant basketball. Along with the one-sided showing against WKU, the Panthers also beat East Carolina on the road and pounded South Alabama on its home floor in recent weeks. The key for Georgia State is (and will continue to be) its offense, which features multiple scoring options who each have the ability to erupt for huge nights. Point guard Devonta White and off-guard Ryan Harrow — a Kentucky Wildcat a year ago, if you remember — are quick, skilled ball-handlers capable of beating defenders off the dribble and penetrating the lane with regularity. Once there, Harrow can finish or draw fouls like few other guards in the Sun Belt, while both he and White are excellent distributors: Each maintains a sparkling 28.2 percent assist rate, good enough to be ranked in the top 125 nationally. A main contributor to that rate is the fact that they often kick the ball out to two of the best wings in the conference, coach’s son R.J. Hunter and former Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins. R.J. — a highly recruited player who received offers from Cincinnati and Iowa, among others — is a dynamic scorer, expert from the outside and able to use his size and fluidity to shoot over smaller guards, while Atkins plays a bit more physically but is equally well-equipped from behind the arc.

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Morning Five: 06.19.13 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on June 19th, 2013

morning5

  1. You may just be wiping the epic Game 6 of the Spurs-Heat out of your blurry eyes this morning, but it turns out that all the stars and incredible plays by the professionals making plays in The Finals doesn’t represent the only wow-factor surrounding the basketball world this week. As CBSSports.com‘s Gary Parrish reported yesterday, Canadian wunderkind Andrew Wiggins showed up in Lawrence, Kansas, for the his year-in-residence earlier this week, and already the reviews of the superstar recruit’s work ethic and talent are off the charts. Good news for Jayhawks fans: According to this KUSports.com report, the school also announced on Tuesday that its new contract with Time Warner to broadcast its third-tier television rights will ensure that Kansas fans around the country (and general college basketball fans wanting to see Wiggins) have more access than ever before (you have to read through the comments to understand it, but it’s there).
  2. Georgetown basketball hasn’t had the best 2013 thus far, given the embarrassing defeat to Florida Gulf Coast in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, the subsequent loss of superstar Otto Porter to the NBA, and Tuesday’s devastating news that rising star Greg Whittington — who was academically ineligible for the spring semester, missing the FCGU debacle — has torn the ACL in his left knee and could be out for all of next season. In 13 games last season, the lithe Whittington averaged 12/7 along the front line as he and Porter shored up John Thompson III’s lockdown defense. Even without the return of Porter, good things were predicted for next year’s Hoyas with Whittington joining returnees Markel Starks, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and Nate Lubick as a talented and experienced core to compete in the new Big East. Without Whittington available, Georgetown appears to be a bit light on offensive ability unless someone unforeseen steps up.
  3. A couple of years ago, we wrote this piece about an “all-world junior” at UNC-Asheville who happened to be the high-rising son of Grammy-winning rock legend Bruce Hornsby. Keith Hornsby enjoyed a pedestrian but solid freshman campaign before exploding to become a second team all-Big South selection as a sophomore, where he averaged 15/4/3 APG while shooting 38 percent from deep and a ridiculous 92.5 percent (second nationally) from the foul line. With the resignation of his head coach Eddie Biedenbach after the season, Hornsby decided it was time to move on. He announced on Tuesday that he will transfer to LSU, choosing the Tigers over NC State and St. Mary’s. Although he must sit out the required transfer year, this is potentially a very nice transfer pickup for Tigers’ head coach Johnny Jones, who is accumulating a good amount of talent down in Baton Rouge.
  4. Stories like these are part of the reason we love college basketball. Meet Elfrid Payton, one of the 12 players to make the U-19 USA Basketball team. The rising junior at Louisiana-Lafayette had absurd all-around numbers last season — 16/6/6 APG/2 SPG as an all-Sun Belt second team selection — but it was his play in the Team USA tryouts that has been turning people’s heads. As Mike DeCourcy reports, Payton’s exceptional athletic ability on the defensive end allows him to guard three positions along the perimeter, and his offensive talents have ensured that he will find playing time on a group that includes Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon, and Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss in the backcourt. We’re definitely excited to see this kid’s progression after this summer’s experience.
  5. Not everybody in this business was busy watching the the NBA last night, as Michigan head coach John Beilein made some time to visit Detroit’s Comerica Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the start of the Tigers-Orioles game. Wearing his college number (#35), he said that former Detroit great Al Kaline gave him a sage piece of advice to avoid embarrassing himself: “Throw it high.” His toss found the catcher’s mitt without issue, and he used the opportunity to share some of the thoughts he had on the Wolverines’ scintillating run to the national title game in April. His key takeaway: Enjoy it more. Wisdom, Beilein-style.
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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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O26 Primers: Big Sky, Summit League and Sun Belt Tourneys

Posted by KDoyle on March 6th, 2011

RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.

Three more conferences begin things tonight. The Big Sky and Sun Belt look to be very competitive with multiple teams capable of getting hot at the right time and running away with the title, while the Summit League features the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the head of the pack and everyone else trying to keep up. All three conferences are definite single-bid leagues meaning all games will be played with a great sense of urgency; the agony of defeat and glory of victory becomes that much more apparent as well.

Big Sky

The Favorite: Northern Colorado has played the best ball in the Big Sky over the course of the past month and they also have arguably the league’s best player in Devon Beitzel on their side. Montana will have their chance to prove me wrong, but right now it is the Bears who are the favorite.

Dark Horse: Any team that is proficient at shooting the three ball cannot be discounted in a game. Despite having a middle of the road 9-7 record within the conference, Northern Arizona can stroke it with anyone. Cameron Jones, Gabe Rogers, and Eric Platt all shoot well over 40% from downtown.

Who’s Hot: Northern Colorado has won eight of their last nine games and 15 of 18 to enter the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team.

Player to Watch: Cameron Jones has had his way with Big Sky teams this year as he is averaging just shy over 20 points on the year and has scored in double figures in every game save one. He’s got Northern Arizona playing well entering the tournament as the Lumberjacks have won four of five games with the lone loss coming to Northern Colorado by a point.

First-Round UpsetEastern Washington over Weber State. Although they have struggled for most of the season, Eastern Washington is riding a modest two game winning streak entering the Big Sky tournament with their last win coming against the team they will do battle with in the tournament’s first round: Weber State.

How’d They Fare? It was one of the most heroic performances that you have never heard of in college basketball. Anthony Johnson’s performance in the second half of the Big Sky Championship game against Weber State propelled Montana to the NCAA Tournament where they narrowly lost to #3 seed New Mexico. Montana was trailing 40-20 at the intermission, but Johnson scored 34 of his 42 points in the decisive half to defeat the Wildcats. If Johnson’s unbelievable performance carried over to the New Mexico game, Montana advances to the second round. Instead, they were defeated by the Lobos 62-57.

Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simple one of the greatest moments—if not the very greatest—in Big Sky history came in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina fans, close your eyes:

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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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