R.J. Hunter and the Panthers look dangerous in the early going. (Photo Courtesy of Michael Wade)
After suffering a couple heart-breaking losses and beginning the season with a disappointing 3-6 record, Ron Hunter’s team has won seven straight games, at times playing stretches of dominant basketball. Along with the one-sided showing against WKU, the Panthers also beat East Carolina on the road and pounded South Alabama on its home floor in recent weeks. The key for Georgia State is (and will continue to be) its offense, which features multiple scoring options who each have the ability to erupt for huge nights. Point guard Devonta White and off-guard Ryan Harrow — a Kentucky Wildcat a year ago, if you remember — are quick, skilled ball-handlers capable of beating defenders off the dribble and penetrating the lane with regularity. Once there, Harrow can finish or draw fouls like few other guards in the Sun Belt, while both he and White are excellent distributors: Each maintains a sparkling 28.2 percent assist rate, good enough to be ranked in the top 125 nationally. A main contributor to that rate is the fact that they often kick the ball out to two of the best wings in the conference, coach’s son R.J. Hunter and former Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins. R.J. — a highly recruited player who received offers from Cincinnati and Iowa, among others — is a dynamic scorer, expert from the outside and able to use his size and fluidity to shoot over smaller guards, while Atkins plays a bit more physically but is equally well-equipped from behind the arc.
After a run of three straight trips to the Final Four UCLA has floundered despite its rich tradition and fertile recruiting base, which led to the eventual firing of Ben Howland. Many writers have tried to pinpoint the reason that Howland was unable to reach the same level of success he had early in his run at UCLA, but perhaps the most interesting theory we have heard comes from George Dohrmann (you may remember him for being rather unpopular around UCLA) who traces Howland’s downfall to an incident in 2009 where Howland turned his back on a recruit who Howland had offered a scholarship too then waited just long enough where the recruit was unable to secure another equally coveted scholarship offer. We are not quite sure that we put as much weight on that incident as Dohrmann appears to, but it certainly didn’t help. The question is whether UCLA can get a coach who is able to lift them back into contention for national titles. There are some pundits who question whether UCLA can become a national power again (we think it can although obviously never at the level of the Wooden dynasty), but Bill Plaschke is not among them and feels that the firing of Howland was a step in the right direction. If the Bruins are to become a national power again, Plaschke is probably right, but we will need to see who the UCLA administration can bring in to take back the local recruiting scene and make UCLA a premier destination for recruits again.
Apparently beating a coach who was about to be fired (Howland) was not enough for Tubby Smith as he was fired by Minnesota yesterday. In the end, the NCAA Tournament and the season overall was a fairly accurate reflection of Smith’s time at Minnesota–full of ups and downs, which led the team to seemingly surprise and disappoint its fans at the same time. After leaving Kentucky following the decline of the program from a title in his first year (aka Pitino’s leftovers) to one that led it to the hands of Billy Clyde, Smith came to Minnesota with the expectation that he could help turn around a program that had shown great potential at times, but always remained a middle-tier Big Ten program at best. In the end Smith left the program roughly where he found it–the middle to bottom of the conference–after making the NCAA Tournament three times in six years (advancing past their first game only once, which was this year) and never finishing better than sixth in the conference as he finished with a 124-81 record overall and 46-62 in the Big Ten. Those clearly are not stellar numbers, but the question is whether Minnesota can land a bigger name than Smith (certainly nobody with a more impressive mustache than the one Smith sported this season). We have heard Shaka Smart‘s name thrown around online, but we can’t imagine that he would even bother talking to Minnesota when more enticing jobs are available (see above). The one name that would be interesting is former NBA coach Flip Saunders, who coached the Timberwolves and was offered up by his colleague Andy Katz (clearly trying to kill off the competition at ESPN).
If you are looking for your buzzkill story line of the Sweet 16, Tim Layden has you covered as he digs into the resume of Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield. Coming into the NCAA Tournament, Enfield was primarily known for various blogs talking about his wife’s modeling career, but with each win there has been increasing scrutiny on his past including his involvement in a software company TractManager that Layden claims Enfield’s involvement is not as deep as Enfield has previously claimed. Honestly, we think this is basically a non-story and are surprised that SI decided to run with it, but we would not be surprised to see somebody try to make this into a media question on the days leading up to the Sweet 16.
The season just ended, but teams have already started raiding other school’s coaching staffs and Brad Stevens’ Butler program is not immune to it as South Alabamahired Matthew Graves, Butler’s associate head coach. The hiring is not particularly surprising as the Jaguars were looking to replace Ronnie Arrow, who left after just 10 games this past season, but it is somewhat surprising that they would hire somebody who admitted that he “didn’t know a lot about South Alabama except for that moment before I looked into it” (last paragraph). Still the Stevens’ bloodline was probably good enough for a Sun Belt school, but it will be interesting to see if a Stevens disciple can carry on the tradition away from Butler (plenty of coaching trees have shown that results tend to be quite variable).
There have been plenty of sportswriters who say college basketball is dying and have pointed to a few atrocious games this season as evidence, but don’t tell that to the American public at least according to a press release from Turner, which claims that NCAA ratings were the highest they have been for the opening weekend in 23 years. We would like to believe the headline number, but we get the feeling that these are probably more reflective of good numbers relative to the past few years that have been largely aided for the period preceding that in which there was only one channel for the NCAA Tournament to gather its cumulative rating from rather than the four channels viewers currently have to choose from during the opening weekend.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
After a 17-point win at St. Mary’s on Thursday night pushed Gonzaga’s record to 24-2 and cleared its biggest hurdle to a regular season record tainted with just two losses, some are wondering whether this is the best team that Mark Few has put together in his 14 years at the helm. It’s a fair question, given the way they’re playing. But the best ever? Sure, not since Adam Morrison was dragged off the court after a heartbreaking loss to UCLA ended his college career, have the Zags had a player with the combination of star power, All-American credentials, and curious hairstyle that Kelly Olynyk has brought this year. And, true, moreso than the Morrison-led team of 2006, this squad is a well-balanced offensive machine, with a multitude of frontcourt and backcourt options. They proved that on Thursday, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have deferred most of the scoring load this year to Olynyk and Elias Harris, dropped a combined 38 points on St. Mary’s.
This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)
But Few’s best team ever? They have a ways to go before they can claim such an honor. Take, for example, the 2004 team, which also dropped just two contests heading into the NCAA Tournament. That squad was led by All-American senior guard Blake Stepp, and like Olynyk, he had lots of help. Junior Ronny Turiaf, sophomore Morrison, and senior Cory Violette shared the scoring load, with all four players averaging in double-digits. They coasted through league play undefeated, never winning a game by less than double digits, and ended the season on a 20-game win streak en route to a 2 seed in the Tournament, Gonzaga’s best ever. Their two pre-Tournament losses were to St. Joe’s and Stanford, both of which went on to earn 1 seeds that year. By contrast, this year’s Gonzaga team lost to Illinois, a bubble team, at home by 11 points.
Of course, this year’s squad could prove itself a superior to the 2004 team — or any team that Few has coached — if it can get past the Sweet Sixteen. Since Gonzaga burst onto the college hoops scene 14 years ago with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’ve yet to get reach the brink of a Final Four, much less a Final Four itself. The ballyhooed ’04 squad was upset by 10th-seeded Nevada in the second round, the ’05 team squandered a 3 seed with a second round loss to Texas Tech, and the ’06 Zags memorably collapsed against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen (a game to which one cannot refer without remarking that it was perhaps the finest moment of Gus Johnson’s illustrious career). This Gonzaga team stacks up well with those predecessors, but unless it breaks through to the second game of the second weekend, it won’t prove to be their clear superior.
What’s undisputed, however, is that the Zags have been dominant enough to remain at the top of this year’s Top 10. On to that, our Honor Roll, and this week’s games to watch . . .
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
Sun Belt Tourney Outlook (by seed)
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.
UALR (15-15, 12-4): The Trojans won the tournament last year out of nowhere. This year, they can’t sneak up on anybody.
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.
Louisiana (16-14, 10-6): Yes, the ULM loss is ugly, but this team must simply forget about that and move on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Florida International (8-20, 5-11): In DeJuan Wright’s last stand, maybe his teammates will rally for him.
Troy (10-17, 5-11): The Trojans closed the season with two straight victories. That counts for something.
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.
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.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
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.
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.
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 »
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.
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)
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.
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 »
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.
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)
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.
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 »
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.
The Week That Was:
Pioneers Rolling:Denver looks like the best team in the Sun Belt Conference having knocked off both St. Mary’s and Utah State in the span of a week. And did we mention Denver is the first team since 2009 to beat the Aggies on their home floor? Nobody wins road games at Utah State—except for Denver, apparently. JoeScott’s team played flawlessly leading from start to finish. At one point, Denver led by 20 points eventually routing USU 67-54. And the game wasn’t even as close as that score would suggest.
Jags Pick Up Pace: South Alabama has quietly pieced together a couple of quality wins. Widely considered a bottom-feeder in the East Division, the Jaguars are now riding a two-game winning streak with wins against LSU and UAB. Not bad, huh?
Arkansas State In Neutral: The Red Wolves got a bit of national attention for their bizarre 54-27 loss at Louisville, simply because of the horrid offensive output. ASU rebounded with a blowout over Southeast Missouri State, however, but a 2-4 start isn’t what John Brady probably had in mind.
Denver's Chris Udofia Has The Denver Pioneers On The Rise After Quieting One Of College Basketball's Loudest Road Environments In Utah State. (AP/Tony Avelar)
1.Florida Atlantic (3-5, 0-0): Kansas was too much for FAU as the Owls fell by 23 points in Lawrence on Wednesday. Mike Jarvis probably hoped his team could compete a little better, but it simply did not have the size to slow down either Thomas Robinson or Jeff Withey. Florida Atlantic lost the rebounding battle by 20, and it missed an opportunity to gain a signature upset. It will have plenty of chances for that, though, later in the month: Jarvis brings his team to Mississippi State, Miami, and Harvard.
2. Middle Tennessee (6-1, 0-0): The only thing keeping MTSU from an undefeated record right now is a double-overtime slip-up against a good Belmont team a few weeks ago. That’s how well Kermit Davis has his team playing right now. LaRon Dendy has been a major factor in his first season in Murfreesboro after transferring from Iowa State, and the Blue Raiders have been stellar both defensively and on the boards. If this team can keep flexing its strength in those areas, the offense will come, especially now that Jason Jones is healthy.
3. South Alabama (3-2, 0-0): Something has clicked with this USA team, and a lot of that can be attributed to freshman guard Xavier Roberson’s play. Ronnie Arrow has zero returning guards from last year’s team so he needed somebody to step up quickly. Roberson has seized that role, and he scored 19 points in that overtime win at LSU. With Augustine Rubit doing his thing, Roberson’s emergence is great news for the Jaguars.
4. Florida International (2-3, 0-0): After a three-game losing streak, FIU salvaged the month of November with a victory over a solid Coastal Carolina team this weekend. The Golden Panthers have struggled to defend the three-point line at times this season, and they fell into old habits by dropping another nailbiter to Arkansas Pine Bluff. Last season, close losses killed Isiah Thomas’s squad. He’ll need to fix that as the year goes on.
5. Troy (3-3, 0-0): These sneaky Trojans may not be so bad after all. In coach Don Maestri’s 30th season at the helm, Troy is now at .500 after a victory over East Tennessee State. Mo Weathers continued his spectacular point guard play with seven assists and 14 points, and he’s picked up right where he left off last season. Weathers is a special player—the kind of guy who should make an All-Conference team at the end of the season—and he’s getting a lot of help from his teammates these days.
6. Western Kentucky (2-5, 0-0): They are young, inexperienced, playing under pressure, may have lost veteran guard Caden Dickerson for the rest of the year due to injury. We understand why WKU isn’t playing well right now, but those excuses won’t sit well with the demanding fan base. The Hilltoppers fell apart at home against VCU last week, just days after playing the Final Four participants to the wire in the Charleston Classic. WKU did finally get a victory over Southeast Lousiana, but this team has a long way to go.
1.Denver (5-1, 0-0): Hello, Pioneers. In typical Joe Scott fashion, Denver made Utah Statelook silly on Wednesday night by boring it with a well-oiled offensive machine. Denver coasted against the Aggies, snapping a 33-game home winning streak and stunning the nation. It’s not often you hear a buzz like this about a Sun Belt team, but you better believe Denver will get some national press for this victory. Chris Udofia is offering a new look at forward for this team, and the guards are shooting the ball well from beyond the arc. The most important thing, however, is that Denver isn’t relying on the three-point shot. It has offensive options in the frontcourt now—like Udofia—and it’s much less one-dimensional than a year ago.
2.Louisiana (3-5, 0-0): They haven’t played murderer’s row, but a decently competitive non-conference slate is wearing the Ragin’ Cajuns down. They battled MAC favorite Kent Statefor 40 minutes but ultimately lost this week without J.J. Thomas, and they also dropped a road contest at Duquense. Thomas, the star of the UL and a Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate, dealt with a knee injury during that Kent State game.
3.Arkansas State (2-4, 0-0): Although the West appeared to be the more competitive division in the pre-season, only Denver has overachieved to this point. ASU’s play has been disappointing after losing Martavius Adams, and it hit rock bottom when it scored 27 points in a loss to Louisville. The Cardinals are a terrific team. But 27 points? It’s tough to swallow at the Division I level. Rick Pitino’s pressure turned ASU over 23 times, and it made just 10 field goals on the night.
4.North Texas (1-4, 0-0): After a dominating victory over a Division II opponent, UNT has fallen flat lately. In four road losses—three to BCS-conference teams—the Mean Green have struggled to acclimate the large cast of newcomers. Freshman Jordan Williams, a heralded recruit, can’t find his shot right now, but it’ll come around. When Tony Mitchell joins this team in the second semester, things may turn around.
5.Arkansas Little Rock (2-5, 0-0): The defending Sun Belt tourney champs aren’t defending their title well so far, and like ASU, they also may have hit “rock bottom” in a blowout to Northwestern State. When UALR develops its primary scorers, it will be fine. Right now, though, the loss of reigning SBC Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman is evident.
6.ULM (1-6, 0-0): Keith Richard is in the W column. He’s battling through a difficult year with this team, considering it is not eligible for post-season play and a few key players have redshirted. Surprisingly, despite the 0-6 start, the Warhawks earned an easy road victory at Nicholls State this week by dominating the second half of play. Loyola transfer Charles Windborne came to play this year, as he’s scored in double figures four times already. That will help take the pressure off leading scorer Fred Brown, who took an absurd amount of shots for this team last year.
Denver vs. Iona, Dec. 7: The Pioneers have already defeated two mid-major powers in St. Mary’s and Utah State. Can they beat a third in Iona? Tim Cluess has a heck of a team here, complete with Arizona transfer Momo Jones, stud point guard Scott Machado, and Mike Glover, the man so ferocious they call him Optimus Prime. Iona loves to run, and it has athletes all over the floor. If Denver can slow the pace, it can control this game.
Florida Atlantic at Mississippi State, Dec. 13: It’d be nice for Jarvis’s program to at least notch one of these upset road wins. The Owls’ problem isn’t quickness or athleticism—it’s sheer size. They don’t have the bigs to play with teams like Mississippi State, who throw out the towering Arnette Moultrie and Renardo Sidney.
Middle Tennessee vs. Belmont, Dec. 13: It’s revenge time for MTSU, which lost the first meeting in double-overtime. That’s the only thing standing in the way of a 7-0 start for the Blue Raiders, and that’s got to weigh heavily on Kermit Davis’s mind. With a second chance at a victory, Middle Tennessee has a chance to pick up a quality non-conference win to add to its post-season resume.
Caught On Film
John Brady has had a difficult start to this season. After kicking off his best player, his Arkansas State squad has struggled to find a new scorer. You can see that frustration and hear it in his voice in the press conference below, which followed a blowout loss to Missouri State.
The Seminoles had a tough weekend, taking a pair of losses to Harvard and Connecticut. With their already marginal status in the polls, Florida State looks poised to slip from the public consciousness, which is a shame, because despite their offensive deficiencies, the defense is as nasty as ever and close losses at neutral sites against talented teams is hardly a severe indictment. Still, polls tend to punish losses regardless of context, Leonard Hamilton‘s crew is just going to have to play the same way they have played for the past two years: outside the limelight. The Seminoles are used to it, but nonetheless, it’s a shame, because the team has strung together a series of ridiculous defensive stands.
Bernard James Leads A Truly Impressive Florida State Defense
There are two things that this team does ridiculously well: force missed jumpers and get their hands on the ball. On the season, FSU has held opponents to 22.8% from beyond the arc, blocked nearly 20% of opponents shots, and stolen the ball on nearly 15% of opponent’s possessions. Over one third of opponent’s offensive possessions ends with a block or a steal. That’s staggering. Connecticut’s starting back court of Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb turned the ball over ten times against this defense. In the three games prior to the Connecticut game, the Seminoles held Harvard, Massachusetts, and South Alabama to a combined seven of sixty-six from beyond the arc. That’s 10.6% from three over the a three=game span. Is there any other team in the country capable of that kind of lock-down? The defense is just nasty.
Of course, the offense is nasty as well, but in the traditional sense. If missed shots and turnovers are the hallmarks of Florida State’s defense, I’d have to also characterize those two elements as the hallmarks of Florida State’s offense. Any game that the Seminoles play in is going to be ugly if you like sweet-shooting guard play or effortless offense. Nothing comes easy against the Florida State defense, and the team’s collective ability to frustrate opponents is one of the most compelling sights in college basketball. Florida State is out of the spotlight for now, but you should make an effort to keep track of them anyway. A defense this good will always be a factor come March.
ACC Game On will periodically review recent games involving ACC teams and take a look forward to key upcoming matchups.
This weekend, the top of the conference rolled while the bottom of the conference struggled and we got a clearer picture of the abilities and limitations of a number of the teams in the ACC. Thursday morning, every team in the conference was undefeated, but by Sunday night, half of the conference had already dropped games. For the most part, this divide clarifies the current haves and have-nots. North Carolina, Duke, Florida State, and Miami all held steady, handily winning their games. Joining the undefeated teams are Virginia Tech, who has an extended hiatus until taking on Syracuse, and somewhat surprisingly, Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons have so far had an admittedly easy schedule, but making it through an easy schedule without an upset is something that has challenged Wake’s ACC brethren.
On Friday, Boston College lost to Holy Cross in what wasn’t even really an upset, but is certainly disappointing nonetheless for Eagles fans. Playing without Patrick Heckmann (tweaked ankle), the leading scorer against New Hampshire, BC’s offense faltered while the defense remained as porous as ever. Holy Cross shot over 50% from the field and from beyond the arc. As it stands, Boston College looks like it will have serious trouble stopping any team from scoring.
Florida State Looked Great This Weekend, While Boston College Looked Terrible
Maryland played twice this weekend, winning the game they should have won, against Colorado, but losing to an Iona team that had already come pretty close to upsetting Purdue. For the Terrapins, turnovers look to be a real problem going forward. Against Iona, Maryland committed twenty-six miscues compared to Iona’s ten. Combine the poor offensive execution with allowing the Gael’s to shoot 55.2% from the field and it’s a recipe for disaster.
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.
The Week That Was
Blue Raiders > Blueblood: Middle Tennesseecame 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 Marymount—and then, the Blue Raiders earned one of the more significant victories of Kermit Davis’s tenure by blowing out UCLA86-66 on Tuesday night. Iowa Statetransfer 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 Lamarand then got embarrassed by Missouri Statein 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 Washingtonteams. 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.
The ESPN 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon starts at midnight tonight. If you are a bored college student, a chronic insomniac, or a college basketball blogger, you may be planning on making a run at the ridiculous, meaning staying up for the entire event. While we can’t officially tell you that this is a good idea and recommend that you go ahead and do it, we don’t blame you, either. It’s a great event. We wish all the decision-makers could organize it so that this “Tip-Off Marathon” actually was a tip-off to the season, but even though it doesn’t really tip anything off, it’s still a blast. You’ll get an early edge on your hoops-loving friends and sound ever-so-insightful as you talk intelligently in late November about mid-majors your buddies and bud-ettes won’t even plan on watching until Championship Week. Of course, even if you don’t remember, say, that power forward from Northern Iowa who really caught fire, or why Rider’s man-to-man defense impressed you, you’ll still have the memory of watching as these teams and their fans all got together and did something…well, really bizarre. And you never know; someday ESPN might decide to feature your school for the 4 AM ET game, and you’d want people to watch, too, right?
Most importantly, though, once you’ve made it through an entire 24-hour marathon, nobody can take it away from you. ESPN has held the event three times, now, and RTC’s John Stevens has stayed up for all three and live-blogged each of them. He rides around town like some college basketball version of General Patton, with his front license plate bearing three gold stars on a red background, one for each marathon he’s survived. And we won’t even get into the matter of those ivory-handled revolvers; that’s another story altogether. Eccentricities aside, John has a few useful tips for you if you’re headsworn on showing you’re at least as much of a man as Andy Katz by going the distance.
#1: KNOW THYSELF, AND KNOW THINE ENEMY
I used to have a job that, once or twice a week, required me to stay up for anywhere from 24 to 35 consecutive hours. Because I knew when those were coming, I could plan accordingly. I knew what to bring with me to the job to help pass the time, and my family and friends knew not to expect me to answer the phone (or my door, after it was over and I was sleeping) or meet them for a night out, or whatever. In other words, the earlier you can get all your preparations done and get into the spirit of this thing, the better it will go for you. You need to get your supermarket trip done immediately — seriously, as in right after you’re done reading this — if you haven’t already. Don’t get into a spot where you’re watching Drexel at Rider(6 AM ET) or Morehead State at College of Charleston(8 AM) and you suddenly find that you’ve run out of Sun Chips or Chee-tos or whatever your bagged fuel of choice is. Now you’re screwed, unless you have friends who will bail you out by bringing you provisions. Play it safe, here. Always get a little more at the supermarket than you think you’ll need.