Morning Five: 11.13.09 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 13th, 2009

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  1. As of late Thursday night, we were expecting to have heard the results from Northwestern star Kevin Coble’s visit to a foot specialist that afternoon, but news was not forthcoming.  Instead, the school said that there would be an update on Friday morning, but NU officials are expecting that Coble will be out at least a month and possibly more with his injury.  Terrible news for a team in a loaded conference that will absolutely need every single nonconference win to have a shot at the Big Dance this year.  Assuming Coble is out until late December or early January, do you consider a redshirt to make the run next year?
  2. This Mouphtaou Yarou thing at Villanova is just getting weirder.  It all sounds very suspicious, but Villanova is claiming that they have his birth certificate which clearly shows Yarou as born in 1990, not 1985 as was alleged on the FIBA website.  If VU has any reservation whatsoever, they’d hold him out of tonight’s game against Fairleigh Dickinson – guess we’ll find out what they really think soon enough.
  3. The University of New Orleans may be moving to Division III after all, as the school continues to struggle in a post-Katrina Bourbon City.  A major drop in enrollment and state budget slashes have put the athletic department in an untenable position with respect to funding its sports programs, and this time around even Hornets owner George Shinn probably won’t be able to save them.
  4. Jeff Goodman says UNC isn’t a top five team, and hopefully he will note that RTC’s editing team voted the Heels #7 in our preseason poll, but he’s right.  We’re less concerned with the inexperience (because Roy always figures that out by the end of the season) than the personnel, and the fact of the matter is that Larry Drew II isn’t an elite point guard and the rest of the backcourt is average at best.
  5. Finally, Mike DeCourcy gives us ten things to watch for in a weekend full of games, but very few good ones.  Remember, RTC Live will be going strong all weekend long, with Wake Forest vs. Oral Roberts on Friday night, Creighton vs. Dayton AND Butler vs. Davidson on Saturday, and FIU vs. Tulsa on Sunday.  Join us!
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2009-10 Conference Primers: #20 – Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on October 17th, 2009

seasonpreview

Matt Poindexter is a regular RTC contributor.

Predicted Order of Finish:

East

  1. Western Kentucky (17-1)
  2. Troy (14-4)
  3. Middle Tennessee (11-7)
  4. Florida Atlantic (6-12)
  5. South Alabama (5-13)
  6. Florida International (2-16)

West

  1. North Texas (15-3)
  2. Denver (12-6)
  3. Arkansas-Little Rock (11-7)
  4. Louisiana-Lafayette (9-9)
  5. Louisiana-Monroe (8-10)
  6. Arkansas State (5-13)
  7. New Orleans (2-16)

All-Conference Team:

  • A.J. Slaughter (G) – Western Kentucky
  • Nate Rohnert (G) – Denver
  • Desmond Yates (F) – Middle Tennessee
  • Rudy Turner (F) – Louisiana-Monroe
  • Jeremy Evans (C) – Western Kentucky

6th Man: Brandon Hazzard (G) – Troy

Impact Newcomer: Isiah Thomas. Usually, this is where we pick out the best incoming freshman or transfer in the conference. But for the first time in a very long time, people are paying attention to a Sun Belt team in a month that is not March. One can’t be sure if Isiah’s hiring at FIU will be a huge boon for the conference in terms of exposure, or if his actions will make him a white elephant, but his impact will be unparalleled either way. As far as on the court, New Orleans guard Billy Humphrey, a transfer who averaged 12.2 PPG for Georgia before being dismissed from the team following a DUI, is the most proven and highest rated player to make a Sun Belt debut in 2009-10.

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What You Need to Know:

  • If you’re going to pick out guy to win Player of the Year, it has to be WKU’s A.J. Slaughter. He probably would have won the honors in 08-09, but his teammate Orlando Mendez-Valdez overshadowed him. Now that Mendez-Valdez has graduated, expect Slaughter to outshine everyone else in the Sun Belt.
  • For the past two years, Western Kentucky has been the team to beat in the Sun Belt. In 2008 and 2009, they won the conference tournament and went on to NCAA tournament upsets, beating a #5 seed each year in Drake and Illinois. If not for poor free throw shooting, the Hilltoppers very well could have claimed a victory over Gonzaga in last year’s tournament to go to the Sweet 16.
  • Isiah Thomas isn’t the only one who has moved out of a powerful program and into a Sun Belt coaching position.  John Brady, coach at LSU during their 2006 Final Four run, is now at Arkansas State and Mike Jarvis helmed the St. John’s program prior to his current job at Florida Atlantic. North Texas’ Johnny Jones was the last coach (for one season) at Memphis before some guy named Calipari took over.

Predicted Champion. Western Kentucky (NCAA Seed:  #11). Since North Texas made a run and won the conference tournament in 2007, it has been WKU all the way in the Sun Belt. Even though conference Player of the Year Mendez-Valdez is no longer with the Hilltoppers, the return of guard A.J. Slaughter should mean that the conference championship trophy stays in Bowling Green for another year. Couple that with the increased inside presence of WKU center Jeremy Evans and the fact that they return 4 starters from last year, and there’s no reason to bet against the Hilltoppers.

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Who Says the South Only Cares About Football?

Posted by rtmsf on September 21st, 2009

The NCAA is starting to scare us a little bit with the news today that the Final Four will be held in warm-weather venues from 2011-13.  Surely they don’t expect us to stay in our rooms during the interminable wait from F4 Saturday night to Monday night’s championship.  Don’t they know that basketball is a cold-weather sport?  That you should see your breath as you huddle outside the arena waiting to get inside, where the scents of metallic air ducts mix with wet clothing and hot dogs in an olfactory orgy of late winter sensations?    Where’s my Minneapolis, my Detroit, my St. Louis?  No, now we’ll actually be forced to enjoy some early April outdoor air in three fun cities where 70s and 80s (before the oppresssive summer humidity hits) are common that time of year.  This means that you, the readers of this site, will pay for our folly.  We’re not happy with you, NCAA. 

The 2010 Final Four is in Indianapolis, IN.  Here’s the list for the next four years…  make your travel plans now.

Which Venue Will You Attend?  (photo credit: NCAA.org)
Which Venue Will You Attend? (photo credit: NCAA.org)

2010 NCAA Tournament

  • F4 – Indianapolis, IN
  • Regionals - Syracuse, NY (East); Houston, TX (South); St. Louis, MO (Midwest); Salt Lake City, UT (West).
  • Sub-Regionals – Providence, RI; Buffalo, NY; Jacksonville, FL; New Orleans, LA; Oklahoma City, OK; Milwaukee, WI; San Jose, CA; Spokane, WA.

2011 NCAA Tournament

  • F4 – Houston, TX
  • Regionals - Newark, NJ (East); New Orleans, LA (South); San Antonio, TX (Southwest); Anaheim, CA (West).
  • Sub-Regionals – Tulsa, OK; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Tampa, FL; Tucson, AZ; Washington, DC.

2012 NCAA Tournament

  • F4 – New Orleans, LA
  • Regionals - Boston, MA (East); Atlanta, GA (South); St. Louis, MO (Midwest); Phoenix, AZ (West).
  • Sub-Regionals – Albuquerque, NM; Columbus, OH; Greensboro, NC; Louisville, KY; Nashville, TN; Omaha, NE; Pittsburgh, PA; Portland, OR.

2013 NCAA Tournament

  • F4 – Atlanta, GA
  • Regionals - TBD (East); Arlington, TX (South); Indianapolis, IN (Midwest); Los Angeles, CA (West).
  • Sub-Regionals – Dayton, OH; Auburn Hills, MI; Lexington, KY; Salt Lake City, UT; San Jose, CA; Austin, TX; Kansas City, MO; Philadelphia, PA.

A few quick reflections on the next four years of March Madness venues:

  • ACC fans who bellow from the mountaintops that Duke and UNC always “get to play at home” in the first two rounds (we’re also guilty of this) and/or the regionals won’t have much to complain about the next four Tourneys.  There are two subregional sites (Charlotte in 2011; Greensboro in 2012) within the friendly confines of North Carolina, but a grand total of zero regionals and certainly not a F4. 
  • On the flip side, the West Regional looks EXTREMELY friendly to a certain blue/gold team from SoCal, with locations in Anaheim in 2011 (34 miles), Phoenix in 2012 (368 miles) and downtown LA in 2013 (11 miles).  Egads. 
  • We can’t recall the last time an NCAA Tournament game was in Louisville, and we always wondered why Freedom Hall stopped doing it.  Good to see the River City back on the list with its planned new 22k-seat arena. 
  • What’s with the NCAA renaming a region the “Southwest” Regional for one year only (San Antonio: 2011)?  Regardless of that, you can’t tell us that Rick Barnes hasn’t already circled the Tulsa/San Antonio/Houston pathway in his Iphone calendar as something to shoot for. 
  • Newark (2011 East Regional), really?  Looks like Cory Booker’s doing better than we thought there. 
  • Other than that, mostly the usual suspects.  We all know that it doesn’t really matter where the games are played – they’ll be exciting regardless.
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Sun Belt Conference Tourney Wrapup

Posted by nvr1983 on March 13th, 2009

Toppers Return to The Dance
As we predicted last time around, Western Kentucky will represent the Sun Belt Conference in the Big dance this year. This was no surprise to avid Belt followers. However, what was a surprise was the opponent they faced in the finals – South Alabama.

South Alabama came into the tournament as the sixth seed, and slid into the finals after winning their first two games by a combined total of five points. One of their opponents was Troy, who’s magical run came to a close by just three points. Not that they didn’t have their fair share of chances to get the win themselves. Trojan guard Michael Vogler missed the front end of a one-and-one and then two 3-point tries in the final 17 seconds as Troy tried to tie the game.
Ironically, South Alabama’s last leg into the final game came with little difficulty when they knocked off  Arkansas Little-Rock, a team that also struggled to find its range, by ten points. The Trojans had no answer for the loss of Moore, their top scorer, and it showed, as they went 16-61 from the floor on the night. However, South Alabama would not be so fortunate against WKU in the finals.

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Sun Belt Wrapup & Tourney Preview

Posted by rtmsf on March 4th, 2009

Rick Henderson of The Owl’s Nest is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.

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Final Results Are In

A couple things were expected.  And a lot was not.  WKU sitting out the first round is no shocker.  UALR atop the West was expected as well.  But MTSU was expected to do a lot better.  Additionally,  who would have “thunk” that head coaches Mike Jarvis and John Brady would finish at the bottom of their respective divisions and as 12th and 13th seeds?  Wow.  Lastly, how does Troy, a team that actually was picked to finish in the basement, obtain a first round bye and sit all alone in second in the East?  Weird wild stuff!  And, of course, why we all love the sport of basketball.  Anything can happen on any given night.  And especially over the course of a season.  Troy has a decent shot at making it to the finals given they can get past UALR.  But WKU will prove a tall order.  The Trojans lost both regular season games to the Toppers.

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Checking in on the… Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on February 26th, 2009

 

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It’s Down to the Wire

Inching closer to Tournament Time!  All but two teams have just two games remaining on their SBC schedule which will conclude tonight and this weekend.  Thankfully, the West has experienced some much needed separation except for the bottom of the pack who will be in a dog fight to avoid a first round road game.  In the East, the Toppers, having won against Troy in last weeks game of the week, are now seriously poised to nab the number one overall seed and possibly the whole enchilada given the next story.  Which is…

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Checking in on the… Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on January 30th, 2009

Rick Henderson of The Owl’s Nest is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.

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Rohnert Seals Two Quality Wins  for the Pioneers

Denver’s recent streak of bad luck in close games came to an end last weekend against East with a 78-74 win at home over Western Kentucky.  The Hilltoppers pulled within two points in the final minute last Saturday, but Denver’s Brian Stafford connected on a bounce pass to cutting teammate Nate Rohnert for a backdoor layup. This put the Pioneers up by four points with 13 seconds left to finish off the Toppers.  WKU saw its four game winning streak come to an end.    On their next outing, Rohnert struck again, scored 12 points, and made the game-winning basket with five seconds left to lead the Pioneers to a 56-54 victory over South Alabama at Magness Arena.  “We’ve been playing well every game for the past three weeks, but tonight at those critical moments we made the shots and didn’t turn the ball over…I thought our big turning point could be a win on the road, but why can’t it be beating the class of our conference at home?”, said Denver Coach Joe Scott.

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Checking in on the… Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on January 16th, 2009

Rick Henderson of The Owl’s Nest is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.

sbc-standings-011609

Toppers Move into Two-way Tie for First

We pegged University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Middle Tennessee as the teams to beat this season, and thus far, that is the case.  However, Middle Tennessee was defeated last night by the Hilltoppers in a nail biter 61-63.  Steffphon Pettigrew’s offensive rebound and subsequent put back with four seconds remaining sealed it for WKU.  Unbelievably, the Blue Raiders have not won at Diddle Arena since 1977.

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Checking in on the… Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on November 21st, 2008

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Rick Henderson of The Owl’s Nest is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference.

No Sweep for Trio

The talented trio of newcomer Head Coaches John Brady, Mike Jarvis, and Ken McDonald fared differently in first contests with thier programs.  Mike Jarvis (Florida Atlantic) gained his first victory as the Owls defeated Monmouth to open the season, while John Brady (Arkansas State) and Ken McDonald (Western Kentucky) dropped contests to  Houston and Ole Miss, respectively.

UNO Happy to be Back “Home”

New Orleans will take the court this season in a quite impressive Lake Front Arena now that rennovations are complete from the heavy damage that was caused by Hurricane Katrina.  “This is something that has us up to date with the rest of the top college basketball programs,” said Head Coach Joe Pasternack.

Middle Tennessee Pegged by SI.com

Sports Illustrated has the Blue Raiders ranked amongst the Top 10 mid-major powers in a recent article, where they enjoy the company of Gonzaga, Creighton, and Davidson.  “Five returning starters have chances to make early statements with games against Vanderbilt and Tennessee,” said Bill Trocchi of The Mid Major Report.

Carlos Monroe, Steven Moore out Indefinitely

Mike Jarvis’ roster experienced a set back recently when Florida Atlantic announced that All-SBC and potential player of the year power foward Carlos Monroe would not be eligible to begin regular season play.  The ruling stems from a spring semester academic issue.  University administration is working diligently to restore his eligibility.

University of Arkansas-Little Rock sharpshooter Steven Moore has been suspended indefinitely due to conduct detrimental to the team.  This is a blow for the Trojans given the fact that Smith drained 42 three pointers; an impressive 43.3%, and third best in the Sun Belt last season.

Busy Early Signing Period for The Belt

November 12th marked the first day of the early signing period, and SBC programs wasted no time landing some talented newcomers.  Middle Tennessee inked five, Florida Atlantic three, and Western Kentucky, who is believed to have the top class, signed three as well.  “The recent success of Sun Belt teams in the postseason is certainly helping the Conference as a whole in recruiting”, said said Jerry Myer, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

Recent Results

Sun Belt Conference teams are doing fairly well (11-10, .524%) so far against non-conference competition. Teams have taken on the likes of mid-major and major powers including Pepperdine, N.C. State, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Houston, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Preaseason All-SBC North Texas point guard Josh White had an impressive 23 points in an 100-88 loss at Oklahoma State on Monday, while Florida Atlantic guard Paul Graham scored a game high 23 in the Owls’ loss to Arizona.

Upcoming Games of Note

Middle Tennessee will host the Tennessee Volunteers, currently ranked 14th nationally, this Friday, November 21st, in Murfreesboro.  The game is scheduled to air live on College Sports Southeast (CSS) beginning at 7:00 CST.

Florida Atlantic, just off two games in the desert against Arizona and Santa Clara, will take on Davidson and Stephen Curry on Monday, November 24th.

The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky will take on a very talented Louisville squad Sunday, November 30th at 2:00PM EST in Louisville.

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ATB: Only 3 More Ls for Gavin Grant

Posted by rtmsf on November 19th, 2007

ATB v.4

11.18.07

Story of the Day. New Orleans 65, NC State 63. When a bank-three from 25 feet wins a game (note: we looked all over for video evidence of this three but couldn’t find it online yet – if anyone has it, link us…) for a mid-major over a ranked team, that’s gotta be the story of the day. We’ve been vocal in our critique of whether NC State should be a ranked team this year, but we take nothing away from UNO tonight as they defeated their first ranked team in fourteen years. The Privateers scored eight straight points to take a 62-61 lead with 15 seconds remaining; after NC State’s Gavin Grant made a layup with eight seconds remaining to give the Wolfpack the lead again, a broken play ensued which ultimately led to UNO’s TJ Worley throwing up the prayer that was answered. Despite NC State converting at a higher rate (eFG% of 50% v. 38%), the Privateers took advantage of 14 NCSU turnovers and poor foul shooting (10-19) to stay in the game. Bo McCalebb, one of the best one-bid conference players in the nation, had a poor shooting night (5-19), but he still managed to hit 20 pts. NC State’s JJ Hickson (another stud frosh) went for a dub-dub (22/13) in a losing effort. The pollsters in the MSM and the blogworld all think NCSU is going to finish in the top three in the ACC this year – maybe they should start listening to us! (oh, and memo to Gavin Grant, you only get three more…)

Other Games Today. Villanova 70, Bucknell 64. We had our eyes on this one along the bottom line this afternoon, and for a while, we thought Bucknell was going to get its first win at Nova since WW2. The Bison were simply on fire from three, hitting 15 of 31 shots, which means that only 19 of their points came from elsewhere on the court. Despite leading by eight at halftime and for nearly 75% of the game, Villanova took the lead for good with 3:25 remaining on a Scottie Reynolds three. Bucknell should be a good team again this year – Villanova, we’re still unsure about. #17 Arkansas 70, VCU 60. We watched this game and we couldn’t be more disappointed in VCU so far this season. We ranked them as the top mid-major to watch this season, and they’re just not playing with the same zeal we saw from them (and Eric Maynor in particular) last season. Arkansas struggled with VCU’s pressure (17 TOs, but nowhere near the 32 v. Providence the night before), but VCU could never get a run going to really threaten the balanced Hawgs. We like John Pelphrey and his athletes, but Arkansas will be limited by its sloppiness with the ball and lack of an inside game this season.

Tough Day for the ACC. Last night we talked up the ACC for having lost only two non-conference games thus far – today the ACC lost three more. Winthrop 79, Georgia Tech 73. This was one of our upset alerts last night, and it went as predicted. Georgia Tech went ice-cold in the second half (35%) after being hot in the first (58%), and the steady Tigers took advantage to give Tech its second loss to a low major conference in the first two weeks of the season (SoCon and Big South). Winthrop will meet Baylor (who defeated Notre Dame 68-64) in the finals of the Paradise Jam tomorrow. South Florida 68, Florida St. 67. Florida St. is doing its part to qualify as the crappiest team in the ACC by losing for the second consecutive night to a questionable opponent. Jason Rich takes home our award for worst game of the night with his 2 pt performance on 1-12 shooting. USF stud Kentrell Gransberry put up 21/8. Miami (FL) 64, Providence 58. Ok, so it wasn’t all bad for the ACC tonight. In an ugly game (both teams had ppp’s under 1.0) for the title of the PR Shootout, Miami persevered and outlasted the Friars thanks to James Dews, who led the Hurricanes with 17 pts. We have trouble believing that Miami is legit this year, but this is a nice win for their resume come March.

Ranked Teams.

#2 UNC 107, Iona 72. Psycho-T with 27/9 as UNC destroyed Iona. Should 21 TOs worry Roy?
#7 Louisville 84, Jackson St. 53.
We’re starting to wonder if this is Pitino’s best team at UL.

#10 Indiana 100, Longwood 49.
E-Giddy relaxes for only 21 tonight as IU rolls.

#14 Texas 100, Ark-Monticello 52.
Ark-Monticello had 11 pts at halftime
.

On Tap Today (all times EST). The Maui gets under way along with the finals of the Paradise Jam.

  • Marquette (NL) v. Chaminade (ESPN2) 2:30pm – our first look at the Marquette guards.
  • LSU (-1.5) v. Oklahoma St. (ESPN2) 5pm - two teams that might be in the College BB Invtl. in spring 08.
  • Georgia Tech (NL) v. Notre Dame 6pm – the ‘supposed-to-be’ finals of the Paradise Jam.
  • UCLA (-10) v. Maryland (ESPN2) 7pm – more Maui – have a bad feeling for the Terps here.
  • Alabama (NL) v. Belmont (CSS) 7pm – Belmont with another shot at distinguishing itself.
  • Baylor (NL) v. Winthrop (FCSP) 8:30pm – how cool would it be if Winthrop wins this tourney?
  • Duke (-22) v. Princeton (ESPN2) 9pm – this is not Pete Carril’s Princeton.
  • Michigan St. (-4) v. Missouri (ESPNU) 9:30pm - another good Maui matchup.
  • Illinois (-2.5) v. Arizona St. (ESPN2) 11:30pm – how will Sendek’s guys look in Y2?
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Conference Primers: Single Bid Conference Recap

Posted by rtmsf on November 7th, 2007

Season Preview Banner 3

So we figure we’ll be done with these conference primers by Christmas 2008 Thanksgiving, which is about the time most people start keeping an eye on college hoops anyway.  In the meantime, we thought we’d take a moment to recap the seventeen single bid conferences we’ve already reviewed.  Keep in mind, our definition of a single bid league is a conference that does not regularly compete for multiple NCAA bids (even if they occasionally get multiple bids).

31.  SWAC
30.  MEAC
29.  Northeast
28.  Atlantic Sun
27.  Ohio Valley
26.  Southland
25.  America East
24.  Big South
23.  MAAC
22.  Ivy
21.  Patriot
20.  Sun Belt
19.  Big Sky
18.  Summit
17.  Southern
16.  Big West
15.  MAC

Some brief Single Bid Conference superlatives while we’re at this point:

  • Best Team. Davidson (#9 Seed NCAA) - this team has a shot at the Sweet 16 this year
  • Possible Spoiler. Louisiana-Monroe (Sun Belt) – everyone loves WKU in the Sun Belt, but ULM has an excellent team returning
  • Low Major All-Americans.
    • Stephen Curry (Davidson) – POY
    • Bo McCalebb (New Orleans)
    • Kyle Hines (UNC-Greensboro)
    • Jason Thompson (Rider)
    • Alex Harris (UCSB)
    • Hon. Mention – Courtney Pigram (ETSU), Arizona Reid (High Point), Courtney Lee (W. Kentucky), Tim Pollitz (Miami (OH))
  • Conference We Wish Were on TV More Often. America East. We dunno why, other than we’ve enjoyed watching teams like Albany, Vermont and BU over the past few years.  Seems like a fun conference.
  • Conference We Wish Would Re-Organize (or Implode). Sun Belt.  Despite a long and proud history, there are simply too many teams (13) located in too many places (from Denver to Miami).  This conference has lost its bearings.
  • Conference Champ You Can Count on to Cover the Spread in NCAA Tourney 08Big West.  Although Ivy league champs tend to stay close, Las Vegas knows that, so we like the Big West instead, where teams not named Long Beach St. have lost by an average of only 7 pts during the 2000s.
  • Conference Champ You Can Count on to NOT Cover the Spread in NCAA Tourney 08Summit.  In its last nine first round games, the Summit champ has lost by an average of 22 pts.

And here’s how our Consensus Conference Picks are shaping up (RTC choice in red):

Consensus Conf Picks 11.07.07

Since last time, we added the CBS Sportsline picks as well as the conference media days selections for each league.  We had three more leagues came on with a full consensus (Patriot – Holy Cross; Sun Belt – W. Kentucky; Southern – Davidson) to join the OVC (Austin Peay), while the Big Sky (Montana) was only one vote short.  The Big West (UCSB) and MAC (Kent St.) were solidly in one team’s corner, while the Summit (IUPUI) and Ivy (Cornell) weren’t far behind.   We’re still not buying that Ivy selection of Cornell, though.

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Conference Primers: #20 – Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on October 25th, 2007

Season Preview Banner 3

Predicted Order of Finish:

East

  1. Western Kentucky (20-7) (14-4)
  2. Florida Atlantic (21-10) (12-6)
  3. South Alabama (15-13) (9-9)
  4. Middle Tennessee St. (14-15) (9-9)
  5. Troy (11-18) (7-11)
  6. Florida International (11-18) (6-12)

West

  1. Louisiana-Monroe (19-9) (13-5)
  2. New Orleans (18-12) (11-7)
  3. Arkansas-Little Rock (16-13) (10-8)
  4. North Texas (14-15) (8-10)
  5. Arkansas St. (12-17) (7-11)
  6. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-18) (6-12)
  7. Denver (8-20) (4-14)

WYN2K. The Sun Belt is a league that has seen better days in the eyes of the basketball world. In the 80s and early 90s, the conference was a top ten league that regularly sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament (10 times from 1980-95), peaking at four bids in 1986. Since 1995, however, the league has been exclusively a one-bid conference, as its corresponding seed average has dropped from a #10.9 (1985 to present), to a #12.6 (1995 to present), to a #13.8 seed in the last five years. In other words, the Sun Belt is trending downward (and league officials know it). What was once a proud mid-major league is now clearly a low-major (albeit near the top of that heap), despite its relatively robust 167-208 (.445) record against OOC opponents in the last three years. Some of this may be attributable to a loss of league identity, as the conference expanded away from its mid-South roots and has swelled to thirteen schools that span three time zones in locations that often have very little in common with each other (i.e., Boca Raton, FL, Bowling Green, KY, and Denver, CO).

Predicted Champion. Western Kentucky (#13 seed NCAA). Darrin Horn’s Hilltoppers have been a bit of a hard luck team over the past few seasons, averaging 20.5 wins over his four year tenure and winning one regular season championship, but having no NCAA appearances to show for it. Guards Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers comprise a returning perimeter corps that is among the most experienced and talented in the league, and three other significant contributors return from a 22-11 (12-6) team. If WKU is to slip up, it will probably be because of its sometimes porous defense that has a tendency to give up easy baskets (allowing an eFG% of 52.6% – #272 nationally) and foul a lot (43.2 FTAs given up per game – #284 nationally). We believe this is the year that the Toppers get it done. Check the nasty follow dunk from C-Lee below.

Others Considered. Should WKU falter, the next best teams we see are Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic. Monroe returns all five starters from an 11-7 team that lost in overtime in the conference finals against North Texas last year. They were nearly unbeatable at home (14-0) and seemed to win all the close games (5-0 in games decided by <6 pts in conference) last year. Because of this, they were considered one of the “luckiest” teams in America last year (#10 via Pomeroy), earning 2.7 wins more than expected by their overall profile. Notwithstanding their luck, we’re just not comfortable picking a team that has nobody taller than 6’8 on their roster. Florida Atlantic is another team that returns substantial experience including the league’s best big man Carlos Monroe, a burly 6’8, 245 lb. beast who shot nearly 60% from the field and pulled down over a quarter (25.8%, #18 nationally) of his team’s defensive boards last year. The Owls also finished strong, winning six of their last seven games and pestering WKU in a tough quarterfinal matchup in the conference tourney before bowing out. New Orleans is also intriguing simply because the Privateers have a new coach in former Cal assistant and Bob Knight disciple Joe Pasternack, but they also have the league’s best player in Bo McCalebb, a Wooden Award candidate who averaged mind-numbing numbers last year (25 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 spg). Did we mention that he was the team’s leading rebounder as a 6’0 guard? There are three other starters returning from a 9-9 team that was #4 nationally in 3fg% (41.4%), #5 nationally in stl% (7.1%) and #11 nationally in to% (17.0%). The Privateers shoot well, take care of the ball, and have a fantastic player – if any team was going to make a huge improvement with a new coach, it would be this team. Quick note: last year’s regular season and tourney champs simply lost too much to be considered as a contender this year – South Alabama lost three starters and its head coach, John Pelphrey, while North Texas lost its top two scorers.

Games to Watch. The top of this league should be exciting to watch this year, as there are several excellent players (Courtney Lee, Bo McCalebb, Carlos Monroe) who could singlehandedly influence the conference race. With the unbalanced schedule in this league, New Orleans appears to be the most likely beneficiary (only three games against the other three, two at home).

  • Florida Atlantic @ WKU (01.16.08) & WKU & Florida Atlantic (03.01.08)
  • WKU @ UL-Monroe (01.10.08) & UL-Monroe @ WKU (02.23.08)
  • UL-Monroe @ New Orleans (02.09.08)
  • WKU @ New Orleans (01.23.08)
  • New Orleans @ Florida Atlantic (01.30.08)
  • Sun Belt Championship Game (03.11.08) ESPN2

RPI Booster Games. Given its location (spanning 2000+ miles from Denver to Miami), the Sun Belt takes on a full complement of SEC and Big 12 teams every year. Last year the league was 2-30 (.063) against BCS teams (WKU 70, Georgia 67; Ark-Little Rock 67, Minnesota 66), and there are a similar amount of games scheduled this year. Here are some highlights.

  • Louisiana-Monroe @ Kansas (11.09.07)
  • Florida Atlantic @ Boston College (11.12.07)
  • South Alabama @ Mississippi (11.13.07)
  • New Orleans @ NC State (11.18.07)
  • WKU @ Gonzaga (11.22.07)
  • Nebraska @ WKU (12.05.07)
  • Middle Tennessee St. @ Memphis (12.05.07)
  • Mississippi St. @ South Alabama (12.15.07)
  • WKU @ Southern Illinois (12.22.07)
  • Louisiana-Monroe @ Arkansas (12.29.07)

Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. We’re a long way removed from the Sun Belt’s glory years, so none this year.

Neat-o Stat. Joe Scott is returning to Colorado to take over as head coach at Denver, just a few clicks down the road from where he revitalized the Air Force program in the early 2000s. What should we make of this guy? Using the Princeton offense that he learned under Pete Carril in the 80s as a player and 90s as an assistant, he successfully built the Air Force Academy into a Mountain West champion and NCAA Tournament team in 2004. So how do we explain how he went back to Princeton in 2005 and orchestrated two (out of three) terrible seasons and an overall record of 18-24 in the Ivy League (2-12 in 2007) during his time there? He has yeoman’s work ahead of him, as Denver ranked in the bottom five teams nationally in defensive efficiency (#330) and four other defensive statistics, as well as in the bottom dozen two-point fg% (42.8%) teams in America. Work on layup drills, perhaps?

64/65-Team Era. The Sun Belt is 11-32 (.256) in the NCAA Tourney during this era, but due to the severe drop in league cachet over the last ten to fifteen years, those numbers are somewhat skewed for present consideration, especially when you consider that the league’s last NCAA victory was in 1995 (#8 WKU defeated #9 Michigan 82-76). Despite ten trips to the second round (most trips: WKU with 4), only one team has broken through to the Sweet 16, Ralph Willard’s #7 Western Kentucky squad in 1993. In fact, that Hilltopper team was an overtime loss away (Florida St. 81, WKU 78) from meeting Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team in the elite eight.

Final Thought. We’d love to be able to say that the Sun Belt contains solid mid-major material at the top, but recent history belies that position as only once in the last four years has a Sun Belt team so much as tested its first round NCAA opponent (2005: Louisville 68, Louisiana-Lafayette 62). The other three years the Sun Belt team got blitzed by an average of 16.7 pts, and we’re not sure we see a way for this league to turn things around. It’s uncertain if there’s been any talk to this effect, but perhaps going the WAC/Mountain West route and drafting a few more teams, only to split into two leagues, is the way to re-focus itself.

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