Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on January 28th, 2012

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

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Now off to the best start in program history, Middle Tennessee has its sights set on more than just a Sun Belt East Division title. Instead, the Blue Raiders have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, especially if they can win at Vanderbilt in an out-of-conference tilt this weekend. At 20-2, MTSU has not lost in league play yet, and it leads preseason favorite Florida Atlantic by four games in the win column. Joe Lunardi from the vaunted four-letter network has the Blue Raiders in the NCAAs as a #12 seed, so they may actually have a little breathing room if they fail to win the SBC tourney. Of course, this is all moot if they stumble down the stretch in conference play.
  • A lot of teams have beaten Lousiana-Monroe this season — 19, to be exact. But during the Warhawks woeful 2-19 season, no team has come close to what Troy did to them last weekend. The Trojans, never shy to jack up three-pointers under coach Don Maestri, tied an NCAA record by making 11 straight three-pointers in a 91-63 victory. Overall, Troy made 15 threes, and that streak of 11 threes ties marks set by Niagara and Eastern Kentucky in 1997. The statistics get better and better, too. Troy made almost as many threes (15) as twos (15), and Justin Wright tied his career-high with four made treys. And as for the Warhawks? They made a measly six three-pointers.

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (20-2, 9-0):  Nothing has changed since our last update two weeks ago. The Blue Raiders, who entered the season as a questionable pick in the East because of offensive concerns, are far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference. It’s to the point where Middle Tennessee can no longer judge itself purely by the wins it amasses. Rather, it looks as though this team could beat just about anybody when March rolls around. That’s because the Blue Raiders hound opponents on the defensive end and have the size of a major-conference squad. Bruce Massey has also played terrific basketball on both ends of the floor, as he’s been a catalyst for this team’s 20-2 start.

    Bruce Massey (13) Has Been A Catalyst For Middle Tennessee

  2. Florida Atlantic (9-12, 5-3): With a few close victories over rival FIU and Western Kentucky, the Owls are back on track. Unlike North Texas last season, which fell from preseason consensus favorite to middle-0f-the-pack, FAU actually has a chance to turn this thing around in 2011-12. It’s not dead yet, but it may need to run the table from here on out to have any chance of catching Middle Tennessee. Point  guard Ray Taylor still doesn’t look like the Player of the Year candidate he should be, but he’s starting to play better after a tough start to the season. If he gets his game going, this team could make a late push. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking in On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on January 13th, 2012

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

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • It wasn’t Ken McDonald‘s fault this his team lost in overtime to Louisiana earlier this month. The Ragin’ Cajuns, after all, scored the winning bucket with six players on the floor. After more than three years of McDonald’s frustrating tenure, though, the Sixth Man loss must have been the final straw for athletic director Ross Bjork. McDonald lost his job after the game, departing with a 67-49 record. Now, interim head coach Ray Harper must mold this young team into a competitor this winter, which should be a tall task for a team mired in a 1-7 free-fall since December 7.
  • Tony Mitchell‘s debut in Sun Belt play did not exactly make any headlines, as he fought foul trouble and scored just six points in each of his first two games. The third SBC contest with South Alabama was a charm, however. Mitchell went for 34 points and 16 rebounds, scoring in every way imaginable. He attacked the glass, fired from three-point range and finished 11-14 from the field. And last night, Mitchell’s hot streak continued with a 21-point effort in front of several NBA scouts in Denton. We knew this would be the case, but it’s starting to look like Mitchell is a sure one-and-done.

The Dynamic Tony Mitchell Hasn't Disappointed So Far (North Texas)

Power Rankings
East
  1. Middle Tennessee (16-2, 5-0):  Here’s an easy formula to dominate a league: bully people on the glass and on the defensive end. That’s where MTSU makes its living. Averaging 11 offensive rebounds per game as a team, the frontcourt duo of LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton is simply unfair right now. Plus, with Bruce Massey playing well at the point and MTSU’s depth starting to round into shape, Kermit Davis doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses right now. Except, of course, for one big one: three-point shooting. Even though they do most of their damage in the paint, the Blue Raiders do not have an outside threat right now. Raymond Cintron is the only player really capable of getting hot from the perimeter, and even he shoots less than 40 percent from the field. Besides that, it’s hard to envision Davis’ team suffering a collapse after this 5-0 start. Saturday’s game at preseason favorite Florida Atlantic might be the most important game of the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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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

East

  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 »
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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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RTC Summer Updates: Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on July 26th, 2011

With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Sun Belt correspondent, Danny Spewak.

Reader’s Take

Summer Storylines

  • Staying Put: Not a single head coach in the Sun Belt changed jobs this summer. That fact is especially noteworthy in Bowling Green, a city that nearly chased Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald away during a mid-season losing streak. Athletic director Ross Bjork chose to retain McDonald, and he gave a fascinating interview to Nick Baumgardner about his decision. Down south in the state of Texas, Johnny Jones will return to North Texas after rumors linked his name to a few power-conference job openings. The folks over at ESPN Dallas saw a silver lining to UNT’s underachieving regular season and loss in the finals of the SBC Tourney. Jones interviewed at Auburn prior to last season, so although he’s in Denton for now, his name may keep popping up on the national radar.
  • They Don’t Count: Kentucky coach John Calipari made headlines this summer when NCAA officials asked him to apologize for holding a ceremony in February celebrating his 500th career victory. After all, due to vacated wins at Massachusetts and Memphis, some of Calipari’s wins don’t count in the formal record books. Turns out, Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis is getting the same message from the NCAA—just without the media coverage. Reporters at FAUOwlAccess.com did some serious investigative reporting by obtaining a letter sent to FAU, telling the school not to count Jarvis’ vacated victories at St. John’s. School officials say they have no objections to the NCAA’s request.
  • Big-Time Transfer: Games between Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe just got a little more interesting. Vanderbilt transfer Darshawn McClellan announced in May he will transfer to ULL, and that means coach Bob Marlin picks up a 6’7″ forward who averaged more than 14 minutes per game during his first two years in the SEC. But more importantly, it means he’ll play against his brother, Steven McClellan, a sophomore forward who averaged 5.1 points per game last season. Who will the family root for?

Solomon Bozeman shot the UALR Trojans into the NCAA Tournament before falling to Akron in the first round (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

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Sun Belt Wrap & Tourney Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 5th, 2011

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

Tournament Preview

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

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

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

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 21st, 2011

 

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

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

Shout-Out Section

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

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

Quote of the Week

 

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

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

Power Rankings

East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on December 25th, 2010

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

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

Shoutout Section

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

Quote of the Week

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

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

Power Rankings

East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 29th, 2010

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

A Look Back: News and Notes

  • Ray Taylor is the speedy point guard and primary playmaker for Florida Atlantic, but he’s dealing with disciplinary issues here in November. Coach Mike Jarvis suspended him for the team’s two exhibition games—one of which FAU lost—and he missed his team’s season opener against UC-Davis. The Owls better hope the suspension keeps Taylor in line, because their high-powered offense can’t survive without him.
  • Travis Bureau sat out Louisiana-Lafayette’s 60-55 loss to Cleveland State last week due to illness. The senior guard, who rotated in and out of the starting lineup last year, opened the season with a promising 21-point performance against New Mexico State. Bureau seems to have recovered from his sickness—he scored 10 points in 22 minutes against Houston four days after the CSU game.
  • In his first game at Louisiana-Monroe, former Kansas State guard Fred Brown torched old conference foe Texas Tech for 25 points. But against Iowa the next week, coach Keith Richard kept his star guard in Louisiana because of academic problems. Predictably, the game got out of hand. That’s the only game Brown missed, and his team can’t afford to lose him again.
  • The rumors have circulated for months, but now it’s official: Denver will leave the Sun Belt for the Western Athletic Conference in 2012. As Andy Katz wrote back in September, Denver isn’t a very logical fit for the SBC anyway from a geographical standpoint.

Power Rankings

East

1. Western Kentucky (3-2): It’s clear already that there is no limit on the potential of this Western Kentucky team. That’s an odd statement to make after the team’s performance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, considering WKU finished 1-2 in the tournament and needed a frantic comeback in the final four minutes against Hofstra to avoid returning home without a victory. Just keep in mind that coach Ken McDonald is playing a combination of sophomores and newcomers at guard. Also, the Hilltoppers weren’t helped by star Sergio Kerusch’s subpar play in Puerto Rico; he looked nothing like the forward that lit up St. Joseph’s for 31 points in the season opener. McDonald is still trying to set his rotation and find a consistent point guard, and he’s not lacking for options at the point. Ken Brown looked a bit overwhelmed against Minnesota and lost his starting spot to sophomore Jamal Crook, but it was newcomer Khalil McDonald who helped orchestrate that rally against Hofstra at the point guard position. Even Snap Peters played a little lead guard—point is, McDonald was trying everything this weekend and everything should eventually work itself out. Kerusch, Steffhon Pettigrew and Juan Patillo will be fine up front, and once the guards gets on the same page, there’s no telling how good this team could eventually become. The success of this team may also depend on the defense, which has been one of the team’s downfalls the past few years. The Hilltoppers’ active, athletic guards show a ton of potential defensively and were able to force turnovers this weekend, but Minnesota shot a blistering 62.5 percent from the field.

Next Four: 11/27 vs. South Carolina, 12/1 at Vanderbilt, 12/4 at Memphis, 12/8 at Bowling Green

2. Florida Atlantic (3-3): After losing an exhibition game to an NAIA school, FAU has looked just fine through its first six games. Plagued by poor defense last season, the Owls didn’t defend well enough in losses to American or Portland, but they clamped down in a solid road victory at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Florida Atlantic even stayed close with Florida and trailed by just two points at halftime. We know FAU will score, especially when point guard Ray Taylor re-enters the starting lineup after undisclosed disciplinary problems. But can Mike Jarvis get his team to defend and rebound consistently? Depth is another issue, as only six players scored against the Gators—five of whom reached double-figures.

Next Four: 11/27 at George Mason, 11/30 at Mississippi State, 12/4 vs. South Florida, 12/11 at Hofstra

3. South Alabama (2-2): When South Alabama has lost this season, it hasn’t been pretty. At all. USA fell 93-58 to Southern Mississippi and 82-58 to UAB, and in those two games, the Jaguars averaged six assists. Stud scorer Tim Williams is doing his job and scored 33 points to lead USA to a win over Central Michigan at home, but a lack of size is killing the Jaguars so far. Against Southern Miss, the rebounding margin was atrocious, and there’s only one player on the roster taller than 6’6.

Next Four: 11/28 vs. LSU, 12/1 at Alabama, 12/4 at Louisville, 12/12 vs. Houston Baptist

4. Middle Tennessee (3-3): The Blue Raiders blew a 17-point lead at Auburn last week, but they handled a young and fairly talented Evansville team Wednesday night, blowing the game open in the second half. There will be growing pains for Kermit Davis’ rebuilding team, which lost three starters. Point guard James Washington has to be the leader this year, and he’s looked the part during the first six games. UTEP transfer Jason Jones also appears to be making an impact already.

Next Four: 11/30 at Tennessee, 12/4 at SIU-Edwardsville, 12/7 at. Belmont, 12/12 vs. Furman

5. Troy (1-4): After losing all five starters from a championship squad, we knew it wouldn’t be pretty for Troy. And it hasn’t been—the team’s only win is against Huntingdon. In losses to Alabama, Georgia State and Texas-San Antonio, the Trojans haven’t even come within single-digits. There are encouraging signs from senior Vernon Jones, who played 33 games off the bench last year. He scorched UTSA for 25 points and isn’t having much trouble adjusting to his new role.

Next Four: 11/26 at Mississippi State, 11/29 vs. UAB, 12/4 at Arkansas, 12/11 at Miami OH

6. Florida International (3-1): Maybe it’s unfair to rank a team tied for the best record in the league last in its division. Let’s take a look at Florida International’s three wins, though: Florida Memorial, Barry and Utah Valley. And FIU lost to Florida State by 23 points. Had Troy played the Golden Panthers’ schedule, it would be 3-1 as well. For now, all we can say is that Florida International has handled inferior competition as well as it can. Let’s wait to evaluate this squad in a couple of weeks.

Next Four: 11/27 vs. Chattanooga, 11/29 at Marshall, 12/1 at Louisville, 12/4 at Jackson State

West

1. North Texas (3-1): the Mean Green trailed Kansas by nine at halftime Nov. 19 and had aspirations of ending the Jayhawks’ 61-game home winning streak. But things got away from Johnny Jones’ team in the second half, losing by 33 points. At least the Mean Green have one Big 12 win under their belt—they knocked off Texas Tech in overtime three days earlier. The most impressive win during UNT’s 3-1 start, though, might be a gutty home win over Rice this weekend. North Texas trailed for much of the game but found another gear late in the second half, as senior Tristan Thompson scored 26 points to help his team seal the victory. The second half against Kansas wasn’t pretty, but the SBC favorites haven’t disappointed early on.

Next Four: 12/27 at Texas State, 12/30 vs. UT-Arlington, 12/2 vs. Grambling, 12/4 at Texas Southern

2. Arkansas State (0-5): That’s not a mistake: Arkansas State is 0-5 and still sits at number two in the West power rankings. The season couldn’t have started more disastrous. John Brady’s team has played good competition, but it’s 0-5 with an especially embarrassing loss to Belmont by a score of 93-60. Yes, Belmont is an Atlantic Sun contender and consistent program, but no team picked to finish second in its division should lose like that on a neutral floor. That loss is even more surprising considering the Red Wolves actually led Ole Miss for a good portion of the second half and hung tough with MVC contender Missouri State and Pacific, which won 23 games last year. Let’s not give up on Arkansas State just yet though. Senior guard Donald Boone, who led the team in scoring two years ago but missed 2009-10 with a knee injury, hasn’t found his stroke yet. This team is also still figuring out how to play without Brandon Reed, the SBC Freshman of the Year who transferred to Georgia Tech. Brady has more than enough to work with on this roster to turn this season around—so for now, ASU stays in the second spot in the West power rankings.

Next Four: 11/27 at SEMO, 12/1 at Memphis, 12/6 vs. Lyon, 12/11 vs. Alabama State

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (3-2): after failing to win a road game all of last season, the Trojans’ season-opening victory at SMU came out of nowhere. UALR was since been blown out in its last two road contests against St. Bonaventure and Oral Roberts, but things could be worse for Steve Shields. The Trojans also earned a home win against Illinois State, which is rebuilding in the Missouri Valley but still reached the post-season last year. Keep an eye on the point guard situation down in Little Rock. Slashing guard Solomon Bozeman can score from anywhere on the court, but he’ll need someone to get him the ball. Right now, Shields is splitting time evenly between freshman Daylon Guy and juco transfer D’Andre Williams. Williams is getting more of the minutes lately, but he turned the ball over four times Wednesday night and tallied only one assist.

12/26 vs. Louisiana Tech, 12/1 at Missouri State, 12/5 vs. Tulsa, 12/7 vs. Philander Smith

4. Louisiana-Lafayette (1-4): Don’t let the 1-4 start deceive you. Not surprisingly, coach Bob Marlin has his team playing good basketball in his first season at Louisana-Lafayette. All four losses have been to strong teams, and besides a 16-point loss to New Mexico State to open the season, the Rajun’ Cajuns have played Creighton, Cleveland State and Houston very competitively. Guard Randell Daigle looked like an All-American with seven three-pointers to keep ULL close in Omaha, and Houston needed a second-half rally just to win on its home court. Marlin has a few pieces to find success this year with his variation of the Princeton offense. Once Centenary transfer David Perez finds his groove after an inconsistent start, Marlin’s guard play with point guard Josh Brown and Daigle will be enough to stay competitive in the West.

12/1 at McNeese State, 12/4 at Tulane, 12/12 vs. Texas College, 12/15 at Central Florida

5. Denver (1-4): Without departed star Nate Rohnert, the Pioneers’ season got off to a frustrating start at a three-game tournament in the Pacific Northwest, losing games to UCSB, Oregon and North Dakota State. Denver then lost a fourth straight game– at home against Colorado State– before knocking off Alcorn State this week. It’s not panic time yet for Denver though. The rest of the squad besides Rohnert is back, and frankly NDSU is the only loss Denver should feel even the least bit embarrassed about. The other three are simply better teams.

Up Next: 11/27 at Boise State, 12/1 vs. Utah State, 12/4 vs. CSU-Northridge, 12/8 at St. Mary’s

6. Louisana-Monroe (1-3): New coach Keith Richard almost had his first D-I victory this week, but his team fell to Stephen F. Austin on a three-pointer in the final seconds Tuesday night. At least Richard did beat Southeast Oklahoma State after losing ugly at Texas Tech and Iowa. This team is riding Fred Brown, which was our pick as SBC Newcomer of the Year. He’s averaging 20 points per game and played all 40 minutes Tuesday.

11/26 vs. Jacksonville State, 11/27 vs. Illinois State, 11/28 vs. South Dakota, 12/2 at Kent State

Shoutout Section

  • Dixon’s Time: It’s time for Cliff Dixon to come alive for Western Kentucky. He’s got the 6 foot 10 frame, the soft touch and the sneaky athleticism for a big man. And he’s the half-brother of a guy named Kevin Durant. But he didn’t adjust that well in 2009-10 after transferring from junior college. The skills were there, but coach Ken McDonald couldn’t get consistent effort out of the talented big man. Dixon looks like a different player as a senior. The coaching staff has fallen in love with him, and he’d be in the starting lineup if WKU didn’t have the deepest frontcourt in the Sun Belt. He grabbed eight rebounds in just 17 minutes against Davidson and scored eight points, and in the opener against St. Joseph’s he scored 11 points off the bench. Dixon is a difficult match-up for opposing centers because of his quickness and provides a nice change of pace to the bruising Juan Pattillo.
  • Stafford steps up: Denver’s Brian Stafford has taken the reigns from Nate Rohnert. The Pioneers need the 6’4 guard to develop into a reliable scorer, and he exploded for 26 points in a loss to Colorado State. He’s always been a strong outside shooter, but he’s become a more complete offensive player this year. There’s a lot more to Stafford’s game besides shooting—so remember his name once conference play rolls around.
  • Daigle on fire: There was no reason for Louisiana-Lafayette to even stay within single-digits of Creighton earlier this month, but Randell Daigle single-handedly kept an undersized Rajun Cajuns’ team within striking distance. No matter what the Bluejays did, Daigle kept gunning from three-point land and finished with 25 points on 7-13 from three. If ULL had any answer for Doug McDermott and Kenny Lawson Jr. in the paint, Daigle would have led his team to a win at the Qwest Center.

Quote of the Week

“We had 12 minutes tonight where we don’t win and don’t score and that’s a deadly combination. To give this team 43 points in the second half is ridiculous and makes no sense to me.”

–ASU coach John Brady after a loss to Pepperdine

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RTC 2010-11 Impact Players – Deep South Region

Posted by rtmsf on October 14th, 2010

It’s October.  The leaves are starting to turn colors.  Halloween candy is already in the stores.  There have been a few nights where you may have even turned on the heat.  Midnight Madness is imminent and RTC is full bore into the 2010-11 Season Preview materials headfirst.  For the second October in a row, we’re bringing you our RTC Impact Players series.  The braintrust has gone back and forth on this and we’ve finally settled on a group of sixty players throughout ten geographic regions of the country (five starters plus a sixth man) to represent the who and where of players you should be watching this season.  Seriously, if you haven’t seen every one of these players ball at least once by the end of February, then you need to figure out a way to get a better television package.  As always in a subjective analysis such as this, some of our decisions were difficult; many others were quite easy.  What we can say without reservation is that there is great talent in every corner of this nation of ours, and we’ll do our best to excavate it over the next five weeks in this series that will publish on Mondays and Thursdays.  Each time, we’ll also provide a list of some of the near-misses as well as the players we considered in each region, but as always, we welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments.

You can find all previous RTC 2010-11 Impact Players posts here.

Deep South Region (GA, FL, AL, MS, LA)

  • Chris Warren – Sr, G – Ole Miss. Returning from a torn ACL he suffered just 12 games into his sophomore season in 2008-09, Ole Miss’ Chris Warren had some folks concerned after his first game back last season when he played only 27 minutes, scored just nine points, and struggled with a 3-11 shooting night against Arkansas-Little Rock. Six days later, though, he and his fellow Rebels cruised down to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, where Warren scored 16, 27 and 24 points, respectively, in wins against Indiana and Kansas State and a loss in the final to Villanova. He averaged just under 32 minutes over those three contests and shot a combined 23-45, and, perhaps more importantly, put to bed any remaining fears about the status of that knee. Warren would go on to start all 35 games last year, average 32.9 MPG (tops on his team) and put up only two other single-digit scoring efforts for the whole season. His 17.2 PPG from last season means he’s the second-leading returning scorer in the SEC, trailing only Georgia’s Trey Thompkins by half of a point. When you hear numbers like this, it’s easy to forget that the guy’s doing all this as a 5’10 point guard, another testament to his toughness. Despite his role at the point, ignoring his outside shot isn’t recommended, either; he finished 14th in the nation with 3.4 threes per game, and led the SEC in three-point shooting in league games at 43.8%. Warren’s achievements earned him an all-SEC second team slot last year and we’re certain to see him on the Bob Cousy Award nominee list (again), and wouldn’t be surprised to see him as a finalist. If Mississippi is to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years, head coach Andy Kennedy will need that kind of final season from his floor leader.

You May Not Yet Know Thompkins, But You Will

  • Trey Thompkins – Jr, F – Georgia. After toiling behind Florida and Kentucky for years in the SEC, Mark Fox has the Bulldogs poised for a resurgence. While many Georgia fans are focused on the recruitment of Kentavious Caldwell and Julian Royal this year, Thompkins along with Travis Leslie (below) could lead the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament. After an exceptional sophomore season where he averaged 17.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG and briefly considered leaving Athens to enter the NBA Draft, Thompkins has a legitimate chance at being a 20/10 player this year, which is something that only Artsiom Parakhouski and Omar Samhan did last year and neither Radford nor St. Mary’s play in the SEC. Most NBA Draft experts already had Thompkins pegged as a borderline first round pick after last season and he should only improve on that as he continues to refine his game. With his combination of a solid outside game to match a developing inside game Thompkins has more than made up for his primary weakness—his relative lack of explosiveness—to become one of the top power forwards in the country. Unfortunately that was hidden from most of the country as the Bulldogs were buried on regional coverage as they managed a meager five SEC wins last season. If Leslie learns to translate some of that athleticism into a more complete overall game and Fox is able to get production out of freshman Marcus Thornton and transfer Gerald Robinson, the Bulldogs could be in the second tier of SEC teams this year just being UF and UK, but still in the spotlight enough that we get to see much more of Thompkins. Although you will probably see more of Leslie on ESPN’s highlight reel-laden recaps on television, if you look at the box score you will end up seeing that it is more likely that Thompkins did the majority of the hard work. Now that Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins have left Kentucky, Thompkins should be the top inside player in the SEC (at least until the NCAA figures out what to do with Enes Kanter) and has a chance to contend for SEC Player of the Year.

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RTC Conference Primers: #21 – Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 14th, 2010

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


Predicted Order of Finish

East:­

  1. Western Kentucky (12-4)
  2. Florida Atlantic (11-5)
  3. South Alabama (11-5)
  4. Middle Tennessee State (6-10)
  5. Troy (4-12)
  6. Florida International (4-12)

West:

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

All-Conference Team (key stats from last season in parentheses)

  • G: Josh White, North Texas (14.5 PPG, 3.5 APG)
  • G: Ray Taylor, Florida Atlantic (14.2 PPG, 5.9 APG)
  • F: Sergio Kerusch, Western Kentucky (14.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG)
  • F: Steffphon Pettigrew, Western Kentucky (14.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG)
  • F: Brett Royster, Florida Atlantic (10.0 ppg, 7.4 RPG, 3.0 BPG)

6th Man

  • Tim Williams, South Alabama (15.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG)

Impact Newcomer

  • Fred Brown, Louisiana-Monroe. The transfer from Kansas State appeared in two postseasons as a Wildcat, including an NCAA Tournament in 2007-08 alongside superstar Michael Beasley. Brown’s perimeter shooting and defensive ability will earn him immediate playing time for the Warhawks, who return just five players and introduce a rookie head coach in Keith Richard. Brown edges former Oklahoma defensive standout Juan Pattillo in this category, who joins East division favorite Western Kentucky, as well as Louisiana-Lafayette’s David Perez, a streaky shooter from Centenary.

What You Need to Know

  • Tightening Up: The Sun Belt Conference may have lost New Orleans to the Division III ranks, but the rest of the league stayed intact for 2010-11. Moving to a 16-game format from an 18-game schedule with the Pioneers’ departure, the conference figures to be stronger than ever. North Texas represented the Sun Belt in the NCAA Tournament last year after winning 24 games and returns all but one starter. Western Kentucky graduated its top scorer and said goodbye to an NBA Draft pick, but coach Ken McDonald welcomes a promising class of newcomers to team with two potential All-Conference forwards. Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic and South Alabama could all be in the mix for postseason bids and will compete in their respective divisions.
  • Never a Dull Moment: Several Sun Belt teams dealt with offseason drama. Arkansas State coach John Brady saw stud guard Brandon Reed transfer to Georgia Tech after earning SBC Freshman of the Year honors—and then made harsh statements about his departure. That wasn’t the only transfer Brady dealt with. Former Nebraska and Jacksonville State guard Jay-R Strowbridge stayed in Jonesboro for two weeks before leaving, citing a possible postseason ban, which the school denies. Perhaps the most notable drama came from Florida International. Divisive head coach Isiah Thomas agreed to help the New York Knicks as a consultant, but backed down after public criticism. His top recruiting class also took a hit during the offseason, thanks to the first-semester ineligibility of elite recruits Dominique Ferguson and Phil Taylor. Their status for the second semester is unknown. South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow kicked off two newcomers before they ever played a minute of basketball, including Kentari Nettles, a forward who garnered high-major interest out of junior college.
  • Musical Chairs: The conference also introduces two new head coaches. Richard replaces Orlando Early at Louisiana-Monroe, while Louisiana-Lafayette hired the established Bob Marlin away from Sam Houston State. Interestingly, Robert Lee, the former Ragin Cajuns’ coach, now works for Richard at ULM as an assistant.

With a loaded roster, it’s time for Johnny Jones and North Texas to make some noise in March. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Predicted Champion

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