Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on December 16th, 2011

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can also find his musings online at Sun Belt Basketball or on Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take


The Week That Was

  • Middle Tennessee continues to roll. Despite a slip-up at UAB, the Blue Raiders got revenge on Belmont with a narrow three-point victory, offsetting a double-overtime loss earlier in the season to the Bruins. Behind a spirited home crowd at the Murphy Center, MTSU’s physicality and strength eventually wore down Belmont, who could not hold its own on the boards. With the victory, the Blue Raiders improved to 10-2, and they picked up what could prove to be the most important win of the season for coach Kermit Davis. 
  • Speaking of important wins, Florida Atlantic has wasted several opportunities to claim them recently. Mike Jarvis scheduled a difficult slate to test his defending Sun Belt champion squad, but so far, the Owls have fallen flat against the likes of Washington, Kansas, South Florida and Mississippi State. But don’t give up hope for an upset just yet: FAU travels to Miami and Harvard during the next week.
  • A week after shocking the nation with a road win at Utah State, the Denver Pioneers dropped an overtime heartbreaker to MAAC favorites Iona. There’s no shame in losing to a team that has the talent to win 25 games this year, and the Gaels might be an at-large contender if they do not win their conference tournament. Still, in the end, it was Iona’s up-tempo style that sped up DU and forced it into 20 turnovers. The Pioneers actually held their own on the boards and shot reasonably well from beyond the arc, and had they held on to the ball, they could have picked up another quality victory in the non-conference.

Mike Jarvis and Floirda Atlantic Have Faced a Rugged Non-Conference Schedule (AP)

Power Rankings


  1. Middle Tennessee (10-2, 0-0): Kermit Davis may finally have the team his fan base has been waiting for all these years. Gone are the days that MTSU finished with a middling .500 record — these Blue Raiders look like NCAA Tournament contenders. With LaRon Dendy (14.4 PPG/6.7 RPG) leading the way, Middle Tennessee has the sort of size you might find in a power conference. Davis’s team rebounds with authority and dominates its opponents in the paint. The Blue Raiders are the best defensive team in the conference, and though they won’t wow you with perimeter shooting and an explosive offense, this team plays as hard as anybody around. Florida Atlantic has the guards we all love to talk about, but you won’t find any team with more intimidating size than MTSU.
  2. Florida Atlantic (4-6, 0-0): It’s not time to panic yet, but we’re finding out early in this 2011-12 campaign that FAU is human. The consensus pick to repeat as East champs, the Owls’ undersized forwards have struggled against bigger post players. What’s more concerning, though, is the way FAU’s experienced guards have struggled. In particular, Ray Taylor (8.3 PPG/5.1 APG) hasn’t quite found his groove yet, and he’s even started coming off the bench. We’re talking about one of the league’s best players here, people — playing off the bench. He scored 20 points in a loss to Mississippi State, but coach Mike Jarvis even said he can still play better. He has to, or Florida Atlantic won’t go anywhere this season. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

Night Line: Another Blemish Jeopardizes Belmont’s At-Large Chances

Posted by EJacoby on December 14th, 2011

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

Coming off a 30-win season and returning nine players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game, Belmont was expected to be the next mid-major to make its way on to the national scene this year. After a tremendous season-opening game in Cameron Indoor Stadium in which they nearly took down Duke, the Bruins left a great first impression on the nation. But fast-forward to Tuesday night when the Atlantic Sun darlings lost another close road game (at Middle Tennessee State), and this team still has yet to produce a signature non-conference win on its resume. While Belmont consistently has the look of an NCAA Tournament team, it seems that they’ll have to earn their invitation to the Big Dance the traditional way, by winning the conference tournament.

Belmont Hasn't Held on For Any Signature Wins (AP/G. Broome)

Rick Byrd’s team has now squandered three excellent chances for quality wins, and an at-large bid seems nearly out of the question, regardless of how the Bruins play the rest of the season. Belmont played Duke to a classic season-opening one-point loss, but followed up that game with a poor effort at Memphis in which they allowed 97 points to a team now falling fast. The Bruins held on to beat this same Middle Tennessee State team after two overtimes on November 20, but Tuesday’s rematch saw their opponent come out victorious, 65-62. MTSU  at 10-2 is a  solid team and likely the class of the Sun Belt Conference, so a road sweep of the Blue Raiders would have looked impressive on their resume. Instead, Belmont now can only boast of a split against MTSU and a close loss at Duke as their non-conference highlights thus far.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Set Your TiVo: 12.13.11

Posted by bmulvihill on December 13th, 2011

Brendon Mulvihill is an RTC contributor. You can find him @themulv on Twitter.  See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

After a flurry of games to start the season, most teams slow things down a bit as students head into finals and winter break.  There are still some intriguing matches during the week, particularly a mid-major rematch that thrilled fans just three weeks ago.  Let’s get to the action.

#14 Wisconsin at Milwaukee – 8:00 PM EST on ESPN3 (***)

  • After back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Marquette, Wisconsin has bounced back with wins against Wisconsin-Green Bay and UNLV. The Badgers continue to play the slowest basketball in the country at 59 possessions per game. Their style isn’t for everybody, but it certainly creates problems for opposing teams, particularly on the offensive end. Bo Ryan’s club leads the nation in defensive efficiency and is currently only allowing teams to shoot 36.1% from two and 24.6% from three. With very little in the way of offensive firepower, Milwaukee’s biggest issue during the game will be finding a way to score on the rock solid UW defense.
  • Milwaukee possess its own solid defense as well. They rank 14th in the nation in three-point defense, allowing teams to shoot only 25% from downtown. Three-pointers are a significant part of the Badger offense, so it will be interesting to see if Milwaukee can continue to defend the perimeter against a team that shoots a hefty amount of three’s at a 40% conversion rate. It will be imperative for the Panther’s to limit second chance points for the Badgers, as well. Wisconsin had its lowest offensive rebounding rates of the season in its two losses.
  • Milwaukee needs to find offense quickly or this game will turn into a blow-out. The Badgers do not make mistakes, they defend the ball extremely well, and they hit the defensive boards really hard. The Panthers will have to stay patient and take smart shots near the basket.  If you see the Panthers getting frustrated on offense and taking ill-advised shots, they are in for a long night.

Belmont and Middle Tennessee Match Up for a Second Time in Three Weeks (Belmont Sports)

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Checking In On… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 1st, 2011

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can also find his musings online at Sun Belt Basketball or on Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 


The Week That Was:

  • Pioneers Rolling: Denver looks like the best team in the Sun Belt Conference having knocked off both St. Mary’s and Utah State in the span of a week. And did we mention Denver is the first team since 2009 to beat the Aggies on their home floor? Nobody wins road games at Utah State—except for Denver, apparently. Joe Scott’s team played flawlessly leading from start to finish. At one point, Denver led by 20 points eventually routing USU 67-54. And the game wasn’t even as close as that score would suggest.
  • Jags Pick Up Pace: South Alabama has quietly pieced together a couple of quality wins. Widely considered a bottom-feeder in the East Division, the Jaguars are now riding a two-game winning streak with wins against LSU and UAB. Not bad, huh?
  • Arkansas State In Neutral: The Red Wolves got a bit of national attention for their bizarre 54-27 loss at Louisville, simply because of the horrid offensive output. ASU rebounded with a blowout over Southeast Missouri Statehowever, but a 2-4 start isn’t what John Brady probably had in mind.

Denver's Chris Udofia Has The Denver Pioneers On The Rise After Quieting One Of College Basketball's Loudest Road Environments In Utah State. (AP/Tony Avelar)

Power Rankings


1.    Florida Atlantic (3-5, 0-0): Kansas was too much for FAU as the Owls fell by 23 points in Lawrence on Wednesday. Mike Jarvis probably hoped his team could compete a little better, but it simply did not have the size to slow down either Thomas Robinson or Jeff WitheyFlorida Atlantic lost the rebounding battle by 20, and it missed an opportunity to gain a signature upset. It will have plenty of chances for that, though, later in the month: Jarvis brings his team to Mississippi State, Miami, and Harvard.

2.     Middle Tennessee (6-1, 0-0): The only thing keeping MTSU from an undefeated record right now is a double-overtime slip-up against a good Belmont team a few weeks ago. That’s how well Kermit Davis has his team playing right now. LaRon Dendy has been a major factor in his first season in Murfreesboro after transferring from Iowa State, and the Blue Raiders have been stellar both defensively and on the boards. If this team can keep flexing its strength in those areas, the offense will come, especially now that Jason Jones is healthy.

3.     South Alabama (3-2, 0-0): Something has clicked with this USA team, and a lot of that can be attributed to freshman guard Xavier Roberson’s play. Ronnie Arrow has zero returning guards from last year’s team so he needed somebody to step up quickly. Roberson has seized that role, and he scored 19 points in that overtime win at LSU. With Augustine Rubit doing his thing, Roberson’s emergence is great news for the Jaguars.

4.     Florida International (2-3, 0-0): After a three-game losing streak, FIU salvaged the month of November with a victory over a solid Coastal Carolina team this weekend. The Golden Panthers have struggled to defend the three-point line at times this season, and they fell into old habits by dropping another nailbiter to Arkansas Pine Bluff.  Last season, close losses killed Isiah Thomas’s squad. He’ll need to fix that as the year goes on.

5.     Troy (3-3, 0-0): These sneaky Trojans may not be so bad after all. In coach Don Maestri’s 30th season at the helm, Troy is now at .500 after a victory over East Tennessee State. Mo Weathers continued his spectacular point guard play with seven assists and 14 points, and he’s picked up right where he left off last season. Weathers is a special player—the kind of guy who should make an All-Conference team at the end of the season—and he’s getting a lot of help from his teammates these days.

6.     Western Kentucky (2-5, 0-0): They are young, inexperienced, playing under pressure, may have lost veteran guard Caden Dickerson for the rest of the year due to injury. We understand why WKU isn’t playing well right now, but those excuses won’t sit well with the demanding fan base. The Hilltoppers fell apart at home against VCU last week, just days after playing the Final Four participants to the wire in the Charleston Classic. WKU did finally get a victory over Southeast Lousiana, but this team has a long way to go.


1.    Denver (5-1, 0-0): Hello, Pioneers. In typical Joe Scott fashion, Denver made Utah State look silly on Wednesday night by boring it with a well-oiled offensive machine. Denver coasted against the Aggies, snapping a 33-game home winning streak and stunning the nation. It’s not often you hear a buzz like this about a Sun Belt team, but you better believe Denver will get some national press for this victory. Chris Udofia is offering a new look at forward for this team, and the guards are shooting the ball well from beyond the arc. The most important thing, however, is that Denver isn’t relying on the three-point shot. It has offensive options in the frontcourt now—like Udofia—and it’s much less one-dimensional than a year ago.

2.    Louisiana (3-5, 0-0): They haven’t played murderer’s row, but a decently competitive non-conference slate is wearing the Ragin’ Cajuns down. They battled MAC favorite Kent State for 40 minutes but ultimately lost this week without J.J. Thomas, and they also dropped a road contest at DuquenseThomas, the star of the UL and a Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate, dealt with a knee injury during that Kent State game.

3.    Arkansas State (2-4, 0-0): Although the West appeared to be the more competitive division in the pre-season, only Denver has overachieved to this point. ASU’s play has been disappointing after losing Martavius Adams, and it hit rock bottom when it scored 27 points in a loss to Louisville. The Cardinals are a terrific team. But 27 points? It’s tough to swallow at the Division I level. Rick Pitino’s pressure turned ASU over 23 times, and it made just 10 field goals on the night.

4.    North Texas (1-4, 0-0): After a dominating victory over a Division II opponent, UNT has fallen flat lately. In four road losses—three to BCS-conference teams—the Mean Green have struggled to acclimate the large cast of newcomers. Freshman Jordan Williams, a heralded recruit, can’t find his shot right now, but it’ll come around. When Tony Mitchell joins this team in the second semester, things may turn around.

5.    Arkansas Little Rock (2-5, 0-0): The defending Sun Belt tourney champs aren’t defending their title well so far, and like ASU, they also may have hit “rock bottom” in a blowout to Northwestern State. When UALR develops its primary scorers, it will be fine. Right now, though, the loss of reigning SBC Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman is evident.

6.    ULM (1-6, 0-0): Keith Richard is in the W column. He’s battling through a difficult year with this team, considering it is not eligible for post-season play and a few key players have redshirted. Surprisingly, despite the 0-6 start, the Warhawks earned an easy road victory at Nicholls State this week by dominating the second half of play. Loyola transfer Charles Windborne came to play this year, as he’s scored in double figures four times already. That will help take the pressure off leading scorer Fred Brown, who took an absurd amount of shots for this team last year.

Looking Ahead

Denver vs. Iona, Dec. 7: The Pioneers have already defeated two mid-major powers in St. Mary’s and Utah State. Can they beat a third in Iona? Tim Cluess has a heck of a team here, complete with Arizona transfer Momo Jones, stud point guard Scott Machado, and Mike Glover, the man so ferocious they call him Optimus Prime. Iona loves to run, and it has athletes all over the floor. If Denver can slow the pace, it can control this game.

Florida Atlantic at Mississippi State, Dec. 13: It’d be nice for Jarvis’s program to at least notch one of these upset road wins. The Owls’ problem isn’t quickness or athleticism—it’s sheer size. They don’t have the bigs to play with teams like Mississippi State, who throw out the towering Arnette Moultrie and Renardo Sidney.

Middle Tennessee vs. Belmont, Dec. 13: It’s revenge time for MTSU, which lost the first meeting in double-overtime. That’s the only thing standing in the way of a 7-0 start for the Blue Raiders, and that’s got to weigh heavily on Kermit Davis’s mind. With a second chance at a victory, Middle Tennessee has a chance to pick up a quality non-conference win to add to its post-season resume.

Caught On Film

John Brady has had a difficult start to this season. After kicking off his best player, his Arkansas State squad has struggled to find a new scorer. You can see that frustration and hear it in his voice in the press conference below, which followed a blowout loss to Missouri State.


Share this story

Pac-12 ATB: Cal Exposed, USC Hangs On

Posted by Connor Pelton on November 23rd, 2011

The Lede.  After winning its first four games by an average of 22 points, people expected California to not only compete with Missouri, but beat them on Tuesday night. However, that was far from the case, as the Tigers never let up in the CBE Classic championship,winning 92-53. Like California, Missouri was relatively unknown coming into this game due to their lack of quality opponents. However, a 14-5 run midway through the first half gave the Tigers some initial seperation, and they would just keep building and building that lead as the night wore on.

California guard Jorge Gutierrez led the Bears with 11 points against Missouri (credit: Ray Carlin).

Even though the final result was awful, in the end it is just one game amounting to one loss. Cal fans should be thankful that it was against a Top 25 team like Missouri instead of Loyola Marymount. The Tigers’ mix of an explosive four-guard offense and tenacious half-court trapping on the defensive side is something that the Bears won’t see in Pac-12 play, luckily. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

And You Wonder Why the Pac-12 Gets No Respect…

Posted by Connor Pelton on November 21st, 2011

Adams State, Seattle Pacific, and Loyola Marymount. Oh yeah, don’t forget about Cal Poly, Pepperdine, and Middle Tennessee. What do all of these teams have in common, you might be wondering? They have all posted early season wins over Pac-12 teams, causing much of the nation to already write off the conference as an elite power. People over here on the left coast love to point out “East Coast bias,” referring to the lack of love that the Pac-12 gets in terms of both rankings, publicity, and respect. But can you blame them after some of these losses? As it stands today, the league is 24-15, with an astonishing 11 of those losses coming against teams from outside the six power conferences.

You could make a good argument that Arizona is the best team in the Pac-12, yet they lost to Division II Seattle Pacific in an exhibition game earlier in the season. Behind the Wildcats is California, who has not yet been tested this season. But after those two, what does the Pac-12 have to offer? Washington lost by 13 against Saint Louis and only defeated Florida Atlantic by six. Surely not UCLA, who in the midst of chemistry issues has fallen to LMU by 11 and MTSU by 20. God knows what will happen when they play at Chaminade tonight and against Pepperdine (who beat Arizona State) a week from today. It’s reasons like these that people around the country stop paying attention to the Pac-12 in December, something that hurts the conference considerably on Selection Sunday.

Missed rebounds like this one by Arizona forward Angelo Chol led to a Seattle Pacific upset of the Wildcats. The game started a chain reaction of early season losses for Pac-12 teams (credit: Arizona Star)

Bad non-conference losses are nothing new to the Pac-12. Last year featured upsets like San Jose State and Idaho over Oregon, and Seattle University, Texas Southern, Utah Valley, and George Washington over Oregon State. In 2009-10 there were losses by the Beavers against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Sacramento State, Illinois-Chicago, Seattle (again, this time a 51-point defeat), and Boston U, while UCLA lost to teams like Cal State Fullerton, Portland (by 27), and Long Beach State. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

20 Questions: What is the Best November Tournament This Season?

Posted by dnspewak on October 24th, 2011

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference and a Big 12 microsite writer.

Question: What is the Best November Tournament This Season?

The pick: Maui Invitational

Participants (with preseason rank): Island: Duke (#6), Memphis (#9), Kansas (#13), Michigan (#18), UCLA (#20), Tennessee, Georgetown, Chaminade; Regional: Belmont, Middle Tennessee, UNC Greensboro, Towson

The theme at the Maui Invitational this fall is history. Sure, it’s impressive that the field includes five teams ranked in the preseason Top 20 in the Coaches’ Poll, but the bracket will also provide us with all kinds of wonderful nostalgia. On one side of the bracket, Duke and Michigan might play a rematch of the 1992 National Championship in the semifinals; or, Memphis and Tennessee could battle for in-state supremacy once again (except the game is, you know, in Hawaii). The possibilities are endless — and that’s the case on the other side too. The winner of Georgetown/Kansas will likely face UCLA, and those three programs have 15 combined NCAA titles. And hey, if Memphis and Kansas keep winning, they could meet in a rematch of the 2008 title game. Mario Chalmers won’t be allowed in the building this time.

John Wooden is Just One Legend This Historic Tournament Will Remind Us Of

At this point, you may be physically shaking at some of these matchups. We don’t blame you. That’s how enticing these games are: they’ve got historical value, star power, legendary coaches and terrific fan bases. And you think that’s all the 2011 Maui Invitational has to offer? Take a look at the regional rounds, which also includes Belmont, widely considered one of the top non-BCS programs this season with the majority of an NCAA Tournament team returning. The Bruins dominated the Atlantic Sun in 2010-11, and it’ll face Duke in the regional round of this tournament at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The result of the game won’t determine who flies to Hawaii — Duke will automatically advance — but the Bruins are likely to put a scare into the Blue Devils (2008 NCAA tourney, anybody?).

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

RTC Conference Primers: #25 – Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 10th, 2011

Danny Spewak of 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)

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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


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


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

Share this story

Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 10th, 2010

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

A Look Back

  • According to the beat writer for Western Kentucky’s hometown newspaper, star forward Sergio Kerusch was benched for much of Wednesday night’s 59-52 victory at Bowling Green. Coach Ken McDonald played the Sun Belt pre-season Player of the Year for only six minutes, citing a general lack of focus. In a similar move, McDonald also benched guard Khalil McDonald in a December 4 loss to Memphis because of on-court issues. The personnel changes opened an opportunity for freshman forward Stephon Drane the past two games, who has finally cracked the rotation.
  • Bob Marlin’s first season at Louisiana-Lafayette hasn’t started so smoothly with a 1-6 record. Clearly frustrated with his new team, Marlin called out his squad for a lack of competitiveness and even a subpar performance in the classroom. He’s got even bigger problems, though, after learning in late November that guard Josh Brown may miss three or four weeks after injuring his knee in practice. He’s expected to return for conference play. Brown led the team in scoring before his injury, and ULL has lost both contests without him.
  • Brandon Peterson, who started at forward for Arkansas State’s first six games, did not dress against Memphis last Wednesday because of an illness—and his team still battled the #14 Tigers to overtime without him. He returned to the court five days later in a win over Lyon College, scoring seven points in 20 minutes off the bench.

Shoutout Section

  • Tristan Thompson had a masterful four-game stretch for North Texas recently, averaging 26.5 points per game against Rice, Texas State, Texas Arlington and Grambling. Although Josh White and George Odufuwa are also All-Conference performers, nobody’s been better than Thompson. The senior is averaging 20 points per game and has taken the reigns offensively for the Mean Green. It should be noted that Thompson’s past two outings have been a bit rough—he shot 3-11 from the field at Texas Southern and scored only seven points against Sam Houston State. But don’t expect that to continue very long.
  • Tim Williams led South Alabama in scoring last year, but Martino Brock has that title right now as a sophomore. Brock doesn’t appear intimidated by USA’s big-time competition. He looked perfectly comfortable scoring 27 points against Louisville and also scored 15 against LSU. If the Jaguars want to rebound from last year’s injury-riddled nightmare, Brock will need to be a big part of it.

Quote of the Week

“We didn’t expect to wear red, so it was a surprise…that just set it off; we knew we had to perform.”

FAU forward Kore White, after his team beat South Florida wearing new red uniforms

Power Rankings

East Division

1. Western Kentucky (4-5): After ending a four-game losing streak with Wednesday’s ugly road win at Bowling Green, WKU still holds the top spot in the East—just barely. The Hilltoppers’ record is deceiving because of the murderer’s row schedule they’ve played, which has included games against Minnesota, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Memphis. Still, Western Kentucky is having a serious identity crisis early in the season, no matter the competition. Even in Wednesday’s victory, WKU turned the ball over 29 times while at the same time had its best defensive effort of the season. Ken Brown, who’s battling for minutes at the point guard position, committed seven of the turnovers, and sophomore Jamal Crook played only seven minutes at the point. Coach Ken McDonald has said he’s looking for more consistency out of his inexperienced point guards, and the growth of Brown, Crook, Snap Peters and Khalil McDonald could shape the rest of the season for Western Kentucky.

Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Southern Illinois, Dec. 18 at Murray State, Dec. 24 vs. Louisville

2. Florida Atlantic (5-4): The Owls are living up to the pre-season hype. In the span of five days last week, FAU won at Mississippi State and beat South Florida at home, bringing its record to 5-4, tops in the East. Interestingly, the high-octane Owls slowed the tempo and ground out their last two wins, even playing a zone against South Florida to combat the Bulls’ size and athletic advantage. Florida Atlantic’s defensive struggles hurt it last season, but Mike Jarvis has to be pleased with his team’s progress on that end of the floor after holding USF to 32 percent shooting. The most astonishing part about FAU’s marquee wins is that point guard Ray Taylor has largely been a non-factor. After dealing with disciplinary issues early in the season, Jarvis is still bringing Taylor off the bench. He scored just seven points against Mississippi State and did not score against South Florida. After averaging more than 32 minutes per game last season, Taylor has logged more than 30 minutes just once. Thanks to Alex Tucker, who exploded for 18 points against USF, Taylor’s struggles haven’t made a difference. The emergence of forward Kore White, a transfer from Marshall, has also helped. There are still questions about consistency with this group—it lost to American and George Mason by double-digits in November—and center Brett Royster can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. If the young Owls continue to grow, however, Western Kentucky will be in for a fight this winter.

Up Next: Dec. 11 at Hofstra, Dec. 13 at Siena, Dec. 16 at Troy

3. South Alabama (2-5): Much like WKU, it’s hard to get a gauge on this team right now because of its schedule. South Alabama has lost four straight to UAB, LSU, Alabama and Louisville—and it has looked downright bad throughout that stretch. The Jaguars’ opponents get a bit easier in the next few weeks, so we’ll see if they can hang with teams of similar caliber. With as well as sophomore Martino Brock has played lately and the established scoring of guard Tim Williams, this team appears to have enough talent to at least stay competitive with Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic.

Up Next: Dec. 12 vs. Houston Baptist, Dec. 18 at Georgia Southern, Dec. 21. vs. Alcorn State

4. Middle Tennessee (4-5): 95 minutes. That’s how many minutes of basketball the Blue Raiders played in a December 4 overtime win against SIU-Edwardsville and a double-overtime loss at Belmont Dec. 7. Belmont, an Atlantic Sun favorite that beat Arkansas State by 33 points, needed eight three-pointers from senior Jordan Campbell to edge Middle Tennessee at home. After losing three starters from last year’s 20-win team, this is an encouraging December loss.

Up Next: Dec. 12 vs. Furman, Dec. 18 at Evansville, Dec. 21 vs. Vanderbilt

5. Florida International (4-4): Two weeks ago, we urged you to hold off on evaluating FIU, despite a 3-1 record. Two of those wins came against non-Division-I schools, while the other was Utah Valley. Well, the Golden Panthers responded by blasting Chattanooga 80-59. Since then, Florida International has lost at Marshall, Louisville and Jackson State, so there’s nothing to suggest that this team will make much noise in the East Division right now. However, the win over Chattanooga, a team that currently owns a 2-0 record in the Southern Conference and has a recent NCAA Tournament appearance to its name, boosts it ahead of Troy. But that’s not saying much. If high-profile freshman Dominique Ferguson gains eligibility for the second semester, coach Isiah Thomas might have something to work with, especially since he’s already getting Illinois transfer Alex Legion in a few weeks. For now, it’s juco transfer Eric Frederick doing the scoring. Although he hasn’t started a game in a month, he’s averaged around 30 minutes per game during the past three contests and went for 26 against Marshall. With a combination of its famous head coach and the possible arrival of Ferguson, Florida International may have the most compelling team in the Sun Belt.

Up Next: Dec. 12 at Bowling Green, Dec. 18 vs. Sam Houston State, Dec. 22 vs. Florida A&M

6. Troy (1-6): The Trojans may be replacing five starters, but they’re not giving up. Despite a 1-6 record, there are positives for legendary coach Don Maestri’s squad. Troy took Mississippi State to overtime Nov. 26, trailed by just two at halftime against UAB and scared Arkansas by getting within seven points late in the second half. Nobody’s going to hang a banner for any of those “accomplishments.” But it’s a sign that Troy won’t roll over in Sun Belt play. Maestri still has an experienced core of three seniors in the starting lineup in Vernon Taylor, Levan Patsatsia and Bernard Toombs, all of whom came off the bench for a team that won 20 games and reached the SBC title game last season.

Up Next: Dec. 11 at Miami OH, Dec. 16 vs. Florida Atlantic, Dec. 18 vs. Belmont

West Division

1. North Texas (7-2): The first eight games—besides a loss at Kansas—were mostly a breeze for the senior-laden Mean Green. At 7-1, North Texas looked primed for another Sun Belt title and NCAA Tournament appearance. And then came Sam Houston State, which exposed every flaw of Johnny Jones’ team Wednesday night in a 92-74 win. First, there are issues of depth with this team right now. After the first six or seven in the rotation, there’s an obvious drop-off. This team looks like it could use Eric Tramiel, the graduated forward who received looks from NBA squads. Although Kendrick Hogans appears to be an adequate replacement for him, neither Jacob Holmen nor Nebraska transfer Alonzo Edwards have shown too much in backup roles. It’s only December, though, and Holmen and Edwards aren’t logging serious minutes yet. The other issue for North Texas is the defensive end. UNT hid this deficiency against inferior opponents, but Sam Houston State torched it from the field and seemed to have little trouble with North Texas’ athletic defenders. One road loss at SHS doesn’t change a thing for this team’s expectations, however. North Texas is still the clear front-runner in the conference.

Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Jackson State, Dec. 19 vs. Texas State, Dec. 22 at LSU

2. Arkansas State (2-6): In our last SBC check-in, we didn’t panic at Arkansas State’s winless record. Luckily, the Red Wolves made us look smart by winning two games and taking Memphis to overtime during the past two weeks, which keeps them slotted at number two in the West. Sure, the two wins were at Southeast Missouri State and against Lyon at home. That Memphis game should be enough to convince you of the talent level on this team, though. ASU fell behind 23-5 but slowly chipped away, trailing throughout the entire game before tying it in the final minute of regulation. Arkansas State had no business hanging that close with Memphis, but it even held a four-point lead in overtime. The Tigers didn’t play especially well, but John Brady’s guys clearly outplayed them. Even more impressively, the Red Wolves played harder than Memphis, staying in contention with second-chance points and a strong effort on the offensive glass. Consider this: Arkansas State shot about 39 percent from the floor, missed 13 of 18 three-point attempts and didn’t get a stellar performance from any of its scorers (leading scorer Daniel Bryant finished with 16 on just 5-17 from the field). Somehow, it took the 14th-ranked team in America to overtime on its home floor.

Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Alabama State, Dec. 18 at Georgia, Dec. 20 vs. Savannah State

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (6-3): So the team that won zero road games in 2009-10 still can’t win on the road. Big deal. Arkansas-Little Rock is at least playing well at home, having knocked off both Louisiana Tech and Tulsa in recent weeks. The latter is an especially impressive win over a team that’s already beaten Oral Roberts, Missouri State and Stanford. UALR’s 34-point road loss to Missouri State looks ugly, especially since it has also lost by 26 to Oral Roberts and 13 to Saint Bonaventure. But coach Steve Shields appears to have found a starting point guard in D’Andre Williams, who got the majority of the minutes over freshman Daylon Guy against Tulsa and dished out six assists. And Shields also has a road win under his belt—a season-opening win at SMU—so he’s got to be thrilled with his team’s 6-3 start.

Up Next: Dec. 11 vs. Mississippi, Dec. 16 at Rice, Dec. 21 at Akron

4. Denver (2-6): The Pioneers haven’t played the kind of schedule Western Kentucky has, but they’ve still challenged themselves outside of the conference here in the first two months. That has resulted in an ugly loss to St. Mary’s this week, as well as a competitive loss at home to Utah State. Sandwiched in between those losses was a home win against CSU-Northridge, in which budding star Brian Stafford scored 18 points. Denver is trying to find other options outside of Stafford and forward Chase Hallam. Case in point: those two combined for 12 points against St. Mary’s, and their team lost by 30 points.

Up next: Dec. 11 vs. Portland, Dec. 14 at Wyoming, Dec. 18 vs. Northern Colorado

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (1-6): ULL got off to a blazing start at McNeese State Dec. 1 but couldn’t finish the game, falling by three points. And three days later, the Rajun Cajuns were deadlocked with Tulane in the second half… and couldn’t finish the game, falling 63-52. It’s a work in progress for Bob Marlin, who has lost guard Josh Brown until conference play due to a knee injury. All kinds of injuries and sicknesses have affected Louisiana-Lafayette during this discouraging 1-6 start. The squad hasn’t been horrendously bad in any of the losses, so there’s hope for conference play if Brown returns fully healthy.

Up Next: Dec. 12 vs. Texas College, Dec. 15 at UCF, Dec. 19 vs. Lamar

6. Louisiana-Monroe (2-7): Fred Brown scored 18 points in a loss to Louisiana Tech. That doesn’t seem too peculiar, until you read the rest of his stat line: Brown took 28 shots and missed 11 three-point attempts. He did tally seven assists, but the point is clear: he’s relied upon to do everything for this team. He’s averaging about 17 shot attempts per game, but the pressure might be getting to Brown, whose assist-to-turnover ratio is less than 1:1. It’s been a rough start to the season for ULM, which also lost by double-digits to South Dakota and Kent State the past month.

Share this story