Sun Belt Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-Up

Posted by CNguon on March 3rd, 2012

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

Tournament Preview

Sun Belt Tourney Outlook (by seed)

  1. Middle Tennessee (25-5, 14-2): The heavy favorite to win the tournament, the Blue Raiders have a decent computer profile in case they falter. Still, Kermit Davis won’t want to leave anything to chance.
  2. UALR (15-15, 12-4): The Trojans won the tournament last year out of nowhere. This year, they can’t sneak up on anybody.
  3. Denver (21-8, 11-5): By far the scariest team in the league right now. If you watched them play back in November and December, you probably thought they’d win this league running away. Now, they’re starting to play like that again.
  4. Louisiana (16-14, 10-6): Yes, the ULM loss is ugly, but this team must simply forget about that and move on.
  5. North Texas (16-13, 9-7): The Mean Green are in a different position in the tournament this year as opposed to 2011. Back then, a senior-laden team was on a mission—a mission that fell short in the final seconds thanks to UALR. These young guys are a little more happy-go-lucky, though, which could be to their benefit.
  6. South Alabama (16-11, 8-8): The Jaguars are one of the league’s most surprising teams, finishing .500 despite bringing in an entirely new backcourt. Ronnie Arrow definitely has a major sleeper here.
  7. Western Kentucky (11-18, 7-9): UALR could have a difficult time with WKU in the quarterfinals, especially since the Hilltoppers have nothing to lose and have played well lately.
  8. Florida Atlantic (11-18, 7-9): Despite this season’s disastrous results, four wins in four days are all Mike Jarvis needs to forget all about it.
  9. Arkansas State (12-19, 6-10): The Red Wolves probably aren’t as bad as their record suggests, since they’ve lost a lot of close games and have competed somewhat against the top of the league.
  10. Florida International (8-20, 5-11): In DeJuan Wright’s last stand, maybe his teammates will rally for him.
  11. Troy (10-17, 5-11): The Trojans closed the season with two straight victories. That counts for something.

Reader’s Take

 

The Year That Was

  • After entering the season in the shadow of East favorite Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee dominated the Sun Belt Conference and ran away with the division.
  • The slumping Owls fell well short of expectations, but Kermit Davis’ team played masterful defense and pounded the ball inside to LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton. This was supposed to be a team with major offensive question marks. And this was supposed to be a program that could never get over the proverbial hump. This season, though, Davis finally elevated the Blue Raiders to the top.

    After Entering The Season In The Shadow Of East Favorite Florida Atlantic, Kermit Davis' Middle Tennessee Crew Dominated the Sun Belt Conference (Getty)

  • No team experienced more turmoil than Western Kentucky, which fired Ken McDonald after a lackluster start. Even with one of the league’s youngest squads, Ken Harper took over and immediately instilled a new confidence in his players. Apparently, he impressed somebody at the top. The school gave Harper the reigns as the full-time head coach after originally tabbing him as an interim replacement. Harper led WKU to three wins in its final four games, including an upset of Middle Tennessee in the season finale.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock lost Sun Belt Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman to graduation, and the 2011-12 season did not begin with much fanfare. UALR struggled through a difficult non-conference schedule and as Denver flew high in November and December, it appeared the reigning Sun Belt tourney champs may fall flat. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The Pioneers used a late surge to finish with 11 conference wins, but UALR edged them for the West title by playing good old-fashioned Steve Shields basketball all winter.
  • We said before the season not to anticipate immediate dominance from Tony Mitchell at North Texas. Again, we couldn’t have been more wrong (that’s a theme here, as you’ve probably noticed). Mitchell averaged a double-double in his first season of collegiate basketball to help keep the Mean Green afloat despite the ineligibility of Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. If Mitchell stays another year, look out.
  • Louisiana-Monroe will not compete in the Sun Belt tourney due to a poor academic rating, but it closed the regular season with one heck of a victory. It’s so significant and shocking, in fact, that it’s worthy of inclusion in this section as a part of the overall landscape of the Sun Belt’s 2011-12 season. It was one of those scores that simply makes you shake your head: ULM 78, Louisiana 60. That happened this weekend. In Lafayette, mind you. And remember, ULM has lost 26 games this season. This is the kind of stuff they make Hollywood movies about. Just consider the storylines: 1) it was a rivalry game 2) Louisiana is one of the league’s better squads 3) ULM’s seniors will never play again and the team cannot compete in the postseason 4) it was on UL’s home floor 5) brothers Steven (ULM) and Darshawn (UL) McClellan were playing against each other 6) ULM won by 18 points and 7) ULM has, um, 26 losses this season! By the way, Steven and Darshawn both scored in double figures. Steven may have won, but Darshawn’s team is playing this weekend, so he’s got bragging rights there.

Tony Mitchell's Outstanding Season Earned Him Player of the Year Honors (Denton Record-Chronicle)

Sun Belt Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Tony Mitchell, North Texas

In some ways, we’re almost hesitant to give this award to a freshman. But Mitchell earned this. He averages a double-double, he’s the best shot-blocker in the league and he changes the game by simply stepping on to the court. Who else in this league can grab 20 rebounds one night, block six shots the next night and then score 30 points the next night? In a league with several terrific stars, Mitchell is an incomparable talent.

Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee

Surprisingly, as much as a slam dunk as this pick may seem, it’s hard to pick against Steve Shields at UALR or Joe Scott at Denver. Still, Davis crafted a team with a lot of new parts into a big winner. He got the most out of Dendy after he transferred from Iowa State and he molded his guards into a really solid unit. In the end, this team played its tail off. It showed.

First-Team All-Conference:

  • D’Andre Williams, UALR, Guard: A quintessential leader, this man was the driving force behind the Trojans’ surprising West title this season. They don’t make them like D’Andre Williams anymore: solid, gritty, defensive-minded and able to make his teammates better in every way.
  • DeJuan Wright, FIU, Guard: The senior may actually be the league’s most underrated player, despite leading the league in scoring. How’s that for bizarre?

    D’Andre Williams (far left), DeJuan Wright, Chris Udofia and LaRon Dendy Rounded Out the Sun Belt First Team

  • Chris Udofia, Denver, Forward: Finally, we got one right—we chose Udofia to break out this season, and he certainly did. But frankly, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. As a sophomore, he simply built on his success as a reserve the year before, and with more consistent playing time he became a stud on both ends of the floor.
  • LaRon Dendy, MTSU, Forward: Chosen by the league as the Player of the Year, Dendy could put a scare into somebody in the NCAA Tournament. He matches up well with any major frontcourt.
  • Tony Mitchell, UNT, Forward: Let’s pray he comes back for another season.
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Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on February 24th, 2012

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

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Surprise, surprise: Middle Tennessee is your East Division champion. Reeling off four straight victories after that lone loss at Denver on national television earlier this month, the Blue Raiders tallied 30 assists in a 94-61 win at Louisiana-Monroe on Thursday night. That’s downright unheard of. They also made 10 three-pointers and allowed 15 players to appear in the game. Kudos to Kermit Davis for sharing the love.

    Kermit Davis and Middle Tennessee Are On The Brink Of Joining The NCAA Tourney Party (AP)

  • It’s official: Ray Harper is no longer an interim head coach at Western Kentucky– he got the full-time gig. The move adds a little stability to an increasingly unstable program in Bowling Green after the rocky tenure of previous head coach Ken McDonald. Harper, who served as an assistant on McDonald’s staff, won two national championships as a head coach in the Division II ranks. His team has responded relatively well to him, despite youth and major adversity.

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (25-4, 14-1): With a top-40 RPI and a decent computer profile, the Blue Raiders could actually sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. Kermit Davis certainly won’t want to bank on that, though especially since Middle Tennessee lacks that elusive signature victory. As a biased observer of the Sun Belt, it’s clear this team belongs in the Big Dance. Watch these guys play for 10 minutes and you’ll understand that. Unfortunately, the selection committee needs to be able to quantify success, and a few wins over Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Belmont, and Mississippi won’t get the job done. This is all a pointless debate if the Blue Raiders take care of business in Hot Springs though.
  2. South Alabama (16-10, 8-7): Here come the Jaguars: with six victories in their last seven games, they have locked up the two-seed in the East Division. South Alabama completed a sweep of Florida Atlantic by edging the preseason favorites in overtime on Thursday, a symbolic victory in more ways than one. If you are looking for a trendy upset pick in the Sun Belt Tournament, here’s your team. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking in On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on December 31st, 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

  • There’s not much excitement to report from the Sun Belt’s first night of conference play on Thursday, but UALR looks like the big winner with a road win at North Texas. The Trojans, who have struggled on the road under Steve Shields in recent years, had lost all six away contests during non-conference play, but a double-double from forward Will Neighbour and stellar guard play helped grind out the victory over the Mean Green. That will probably be a theme this year in the wide open West Division, where only Denver has established itself as a power. The Pioneers, by the way, handled Troy at home in their opener. East leader Middle Tennessee also held off a pesky Florida International team in Murfreesboro, and Western Kentucky escaped in overtime at Louisiana-Monroe.
  • With the second semester underway, the much anticipated debut of Tony Mitchell at North Texas hasn’t disappointed anybody. Although Mitchell struggled with foul trouble in the loss to UALR on Thursday, he has already showcased his freakish athleticism by throwing down dunk after dunk during his first four games. In wins over Jackson State, Grambling and New Orleans, Mitchell averaged more than 13 points per game and looked more than comfortable on the court. Even in a loss to LSU, Mitchell scored 11 points in 27 minutes after earning the start for Johnny Jones. He’s still improving at this point, but Mitchell should be a different player by early March.

Kermit Davis Has His Middle Tennessee Squad In Mid-Season Form (AP)

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (12-2, 1-0) — Congratulations, Kermit Davis: you are now the winningest coach in MTSU history. Davis won his 165th game against FIU on Thursday, but more importantly, his team looks like the runaway favorite in the East after completing an impressive non-conference run. Two months ago, suggesting another division champ besides Florida Atlantic would have seemed insane, but Davis finally may have turned the corner with this program. This team is physical, nasty and downright intimidating, especially on the defensive end with LaRon Dendy and Shawn Jones as the shot-blockers. These forwards rebound well and they don’t give an inch in the paint, and on the other end — Dendy in particular has emerged as a back-to-the-basket scorer. There was never a question that MTSU would defend this season, but Bruce Massey, Marcos Knight and the rest of the guards have also answered every offensive concern Davis had in the pre-season. Middle Tennessee looks like a machine on offense right now, and that’s because it shares the ball as well as anybody in the Sun Belt.
  2. Florida Atlantic (4-9, 0-0) — Don’t give up on the Owls. Sure, the record doesn’t look pretty, but Mike Jarvis challenged this team by taking his players to every city imaginable: Seattle, Washington D.C., Hempstead (N.Y.), Tampa, Lawrence, Starkville, Sunrise (Fla.) and Cambridge. That’s a lot of plane trips and bus rides, so it’s not surprising that the East Division favorite stumbled. It’s not encouraging that Jarvis’s squad could not pull even a single road upset over the likes of Kansas, Mississippi State, Miami or Harvard, but this team has not looked intimidated in any of those contests. It fought admirably in a double-overtime loss to the Hurricanes, using a frantic comeback late in regulation to shock UM. And the good news is, all-league point guard Ray Taylor is starting to play better after an early-season slump, and freshman Omari Grier has cracked into this loaded backcourt as the team’s best outside shooter. When FAU kicks off Sun Belt play on Saturday at Louisiana, don’t expect it to roll over and die. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 18th, 2011

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference and a Big 12 microsite staffer. You can also find his musings online at www.sunbeltbasketball.com or on Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

  • Blue Raiders > Blueblood: Middle Tennessee came to play this November. The Blue Raiders quietly earned a solid season-opening victory over Austin Peay, a favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. Two days later, it knocked off Loyola Marymountand then, the Blue Raiders earned one of the more significant victories of Kermit Davis’s tenure by blowing out UCLA 86-66 on Tuesday night. Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy dominated the Bruins, who played without star forward Reeves Nelson, and MTSU’s famous defense held UCLA in check. Most impressively, the Blue Raiders made 10-11 three-point attempts. Even Davis wasn’t quite sure how to describe the performance: “it was a perfect storm tonight,” he said.

Joshua Smith And UCLA Were No Match For The Blue Raiders, Who Notched A Huge Win Tuesday Night In Convincing Fashion. (Robert Gauthier/LA Times)

 

 

 

  • Arkansas State Sputtering: The start of the season didn’t fare so well for the Red Wolves. After losing all-conference forward Martavius Adams to dismissal earlier this fall, ASU fell by three points to Lamar and then got embarrassed by Missouri State in a home blowout. John Brady’s team didn’t start very well last year either, and it still finished with a share of the Sun Belt West title. But the Red Wolves have a long way to go at this point, but maybe they started to turn it around last night with a win over UT-Martin.
  • Owls Struggle Out Of The Gate: The consensus favorite in the Sun Belt, Florida Atlantic, may be 1-3, but it looked very competitive in those two losses to solid Portland and Washington teams. FAU even nearly completed a double-digit comeback against the Huskies, cutting the lead to four before eventually falling short. The trouble came Wednesday night, when the Owls went cold from the field in an ugly loss to American. Again, it’s early; too early to make any sweeping judgments. These are the same players that dominated the East division last year, so we’ll cut them some slack for now.

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RTC Conference Primers: #25 – Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 10th, 2011

Danny Spewak of SunBeltBasketball.com is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference and a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @dspewak.

Reader’s Take I

Top Storylines

  • Restoring the Glory: In a mere three-year span, the Sun Belt has taken a discouraging tumble. During the 2007-08 season, the league’s RPI ranked 14th among the 31 Division I conferences. It placed two teams in the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 squad in Western Kentucky (thanks in part to this shot). Now, fast forward to present day: the SBC finished 23rd in the conference RPI in 2010-11, and the auto-bid winner (Arkansas-Little Rock) lost the play-in game as a 16-seed. Hoping to curb the trend, the commissioner’s office decided to take action, forcing every team to schedule a stronger non-conference slate starting this year. That tactic should help improve the league’s overall rating, but more importantly, it actually appears the league has upgraded its talent significantly. With every head coach returning and a wave of star recruits incoming (see below), the Sun Belt looks ready for a rebound.
  • The New Guys: Tony Mitchell, the five-star North Texas forward who originally signed with Missouri, headlines a brilliant crop of newcomers across the conference. In addition to Mitchell, UNT coach Johnny Jones inked all sorts of talent out of the state of Texas, including coveted shooting guard Jordan Williams. Western Kentucky will also rely on a highly-touted recruiting class to help rebound from a disappointing season, and Middle Tennessee welcomes Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy. Florida International might have the most intriguing prospect in big man Joey De La Rosa, but his eligibility isn’t a given right now.

After Enrolling at North Texas, Tony Mitchell Is Finally Set To Take The Court. (USA Basketball)

  • Goodbye, Denver: The Pioneers will leave for the Western Athletic Conference after the season, but coach Joe Scott has a competitive roster in place to compete for the West division in DU’s final year in the Sun Belt. That’s the only realignment update to note with this league, although more moves at the top of college sports could eventually trickle down to the SBC.
  • Tough Luck, ULM: After failing to meet academic standards, the NCAA ruled the Warhawks ineligible for postseason play in 2012. Keith Richard is still in the process of rebuilding the program, so an appearance in even the CIT or CBI looked like a pipe dream. Still, the ruling also means the Warhawks cannot participate in the Sun Belt Tournament, and that’s a harsh way to end the careers of the five seniors on this squad.

Predicted Order of Finish (conference records in parentheses)

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