Daniel Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt conference.
A Look Back: News and Notes
- The hits keep coming for Western Kentucky. Never mind that the Hilltoppers are 5-8 and just lost at Arkansas State. Now, just a few weeks after the dismissal of point guard Ken Brown, WKU has learned that freshman guard Snap Peters is academically ineligible for the second semester. The good news for coach Ken McDonald is that Peters hasn’t left the program for good and can return next year.
- The Sun Belt’s poor performance in non-conference play has resulted in an RPI plummet for the conference. As of Thursday morning, the league ranks 25th out of the 31 D-I conferences that carry automatic NCAA Tournament bids. This fall, when the Sun Belt announced new scheduling restrictions to help bolster its overall RPI, a few coaches weren’t happy with the commissioner. With this recent slip toward the bottom of Division I Basketball, though, maybe they’ll come around.
There’s no player more deserving of a shoutout this week than Arkansas State’s Trey Finn. The sophomore is already a fan favorite because of his hard-nosed defense and all-out effort. Plus, he’s got a pretty cool first name—and he lived up to that name by making seven three-pointers in a 30-point performance against Western Kentucky last weekend. And Finn wasn’t one-dimensional, either, tallying four steals, 10 rebounds and three assists.
Alex Legion’s college career hasn’t been easy. He played six games at Kentucky as a highly-touted freshman before transferring to Illinois, where he appeared in just 33 games as a sophomore and junior. Now, Legion has landed at Florida International, and he’s putting his last stop in the Sun Belt to use. Since becoming eligible at the start of the semester, Legion has scored in double figures in all four games and had 22 points against Utah Valley.
Quote of the Week
“It’s easy to quit, but I’d rather die than quit.”
-Western Kentucky forward Sergio Kerusch on New Year’s Day, persevering through the Hilltoppers’ struggles after dropping their third straight game.
1. Florida Atlantic (9-6, 2-0): Thanks to Western Kentucky’s continued downswing, Florida Atlantic is the new East Division favorite. The Owls didn’t even need to do anything to take the top spot. Due to the apocalyptic snowstorm that cancelled a Dec. 30 date with Manhattan, they’ve played just one game during the past 15 days—and even that contest was with D-II Florida Memorial. With two SBC road wins under their belt, Florida Atlantic is sitting pretty, but the quiet few weeks may result in a little rust for Mike Jarvis’ players.
Up Next: Jan. 6 vs. South Alabama, Jan. 8 vs. Arkansas State, Jan. 11 vs. Manhattan
2. Western Kentucky (5-8, 0-1): The dismal non-conference performance was behind them; it was a new conference season and a new year on New Year’s Day, and Western Kentucky jumped out to a 17-7 lead at Arkansas State in the SBC opener. Sergio Kerusch was making everything. The threes were falling, and the Red Wolves were unable to run their offense against WKU’s chaotic defense. What a story: the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers were turning the corner on the very first day of 2011! Turns out, it was all just false hope. Slowly, Trey Finn’s hot hand brought ASU back into contention, and that double-digit lead turned into a one-point deficit at halftime. Arkansas State then scored the first six points in the second half and never looked back. After such a promising start, the Hilltoppers were back to their old ways. They’ll have to wait at least one more game to turn that corner. That is, if the fans don’t run coach Ken McDonald out of town by that point. Of 86 respondents polled on the WKU fan site Hilltopper Haven, 64 fans voted to fire the head coach immediately.
Up Next: Jan. 6 at Denver, Jan. 13 at Troy
3. South Alabama (7-6, 1-1): The Jaguars split their first two conference games, losing at Arkansas State and beating Middle Tennessee at home. It’s still hard to get a read on this team, which has won five of six games mostly against inferior competition. Freshman Augustin Rubit recorded four double-doubles in December and carried that over to the Sun Belt with 16 points and 11 rebounds against ASU. He dealt with foul trouble and scored just three points against Middle Tennessee, though. Senior Tim Williams’ 25 points carried the Jags to that victory, but although he’s one of the league’s better scorers, he needs help from players like Rubit and sophomore Martino Brock, who’s enjoying a breakout year.
Up Next: Jan. 6 at Florida Atlantic, Jan. 8 at Florida International, Jan. 15 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
4. Middle Tennessee (6-9, 1-1): Score one for coach Kermit Davis. After losing at South Alabama in the Sun Belt opener, the Blue Raiders picked up their first signature victory of the season by knocking off consensus league favorite North Texas 78-71 Wednesday night at home. Middle Tennessee beat up the Mean Green on the boards by grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and rattled them defensively with 10 steals. It’s just one win, but UNT had been so dominant in November and December that Wednesday’s upset came out of nowhere.
Up Next: Jan. 8 at LA-Lafayette, Jan. 13 vs. Florida Atlantic, Jan. 15 at Arkansas State
5. Florida International (6-7, 1-0): Coach Isiah Thomas’ recruiting prowess may pay off this winter. Alex Legion is making an immediate impact through his first four games for FIU, and freshman Dominique Ferguson scored 11 points in just 16 minutes in his first Sun Belt game against Louisiana-Monroe. Another newcomer, Central Michigan transfer Jeremy Allen, was the hero in that one-point comeback win at ULM by breaking a 67-67 tie in the final minute. It’s been trendy to question Thomas’ coaching ability because of his celebrity status and his poor performance with the New York Knicks. It’s true that he finished with just seven wins in his first year as a collegiate coach in 2009-10, but Thomas hasn’t proved hecan’t coach at this level, has he? So far in Year Two, Thomas appears to have this program on the upswing.
Up Next: Jan. 6 vs. Arkansas State, Jan. 8 vs. South Alabama, Jan. 13 at North Texas
6. Troy (2-11, 0-1): Ranking teams two through five in the East was a difficult task. Ranking last, however, wasn’t difficult at all. The Trojans have played the last two games without leading scorer Vernon Taylor, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. He may play Thursday night at Louisiana-Lafayette. Without Taylor, Troy lost 80-39 to Utah State on Christmas Eve. Two weeks of rest and Taylor’s possible return may help Troy regroup.
Up Next: Jan. 6 at ULL, Jan. 8 at Arkansas Little-Rock, Jan. 13 vs. Western Kentucky
1. North Texas (13-3, 2-1): There’s only one question to ask of Johnny Jones’ team. What happened? North Texas embarrassed LSU by 20 points and then promptly demolished Arkansas-Little Rock andLouisiana-Lafayette at home to open Sun Belt competition. Then, disaster struck Wednesday night with UNT’s road loss to Middle Tennessee. It’s not as if the Mean Green hadn’t experienced life away from Denton. North Texas went to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence in November and finished 3-2 in non-conference road games. So, again: what happened Wednesday night? For starters, North Texas hasn’t traditionally played well in Murfreesboro. More than that, though, the Mean Green were outworked by the Blue Raiders, especially up front. Middle Tennessee won the rebounding battle and pulled away late with its superior depth. Returning from a sprained ankle, George Odufuwa did his part with 10 rebounds, but his frontcourt mates didn’t lend much help. Sophomore Ben Knox, who had played so well since entering the starting lineup six games ago, had four fouls and took zero shot attempts in nine minutes of action. The loss isn’t crippling for North Texas, which should still win the West comfortably. It’s just a sign that the Mean Green aren’t so invincible after all.
Up Next: Jan. 13 vs. Florida International, Jan. 15 at Troy
2. Arkansas State (7-8, 2-0): In John Brady we trust. After a 1-6 start, is anyone surprised that Brady’s team is finally winning some basketball games? ASU defended its home court last week with wins over South Alabama and Western Kentucky and is tied for first in the West. Trey Finn’s getting all the attention for his 30-point outburst against WKU, but the win was a team effort. Arkansas State bullied Western Kentucky in the second half and recovered from a poor start to clamp down defensively. With each week, this team looks more and more like a John Brady team.
Up Next: Jan. 6 at FIU, Jan. 8 at FAU, Jan. 13 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
3. Denver (6-9, 2-0): In Joe Scott we trust, too. He’s steadily built this program from the ground—even to the point where Denver will now upgrade to the Western Athletic Conference—and his team has won four straight games. Chase Hallam’s three-point play in the final minute of overtime lifted Denver to a dramatic 72-70 win over Arkansas-Little Rock, a statement victory against one of the only Sun Belt teams that had fared well against non-league opponents. Denver has been outrebounded in its first two SBC games, but it’s made up for that with hot three-point shooting. That’s the beauty of Scott’s style of play—and his players seem to be clicking on both ends of the floor.
Up Next: Jan. 6 at Western Kentucky, Jan. 8 at ULM, Jan. 15 vs FIU
4. Arkansas-Little Rock (8-9, 0-2): UALR didn’t win a road game last year and has won only one game away from Little Rock in 2010-11. So the Trojans aren’t very good on the road in the first place, and the conference didn’t do them any favors by scheduling them to open SBC play with two road games: at league favorite North Texas, and at Denver in the altitude. Naturally, Arkansas-Little Rock lost both games. Then, adding to the slide, UALR lost Wednesday night at home to St. Bonaventure. Steve Shields’ group hung around for a while, but fell apart in the second half. That’s at least an improvement over UALR’s first meeting with the Bonnies, a 13-point road loss that was never close. Arkansas-Little Rock was tough at home in the non-con and won’t be an easy out in the Sun Belt, but this team has to win some road games to be taken seriously.
Up Next: Jan. 8 vs. Troy, Jan. 13 vs. ULM, Jan. 15 vs. ULL
5. Louisiana-Lafayette (2-11, 0-2): We’ve talked about UALR’s road problems all year long, but ULL isn’t faring any better. The Rajun Cajuns have lost 13 straight road contests dating back to last year and, like UALR, opened SBC play with road losses at Denver and North Texas. There might not be many wins for Bob Marlin in his first season, but there are small signs of progress. ULL competed until the last few minutes at Denver despite shooting 36 percent from the field. Guard Josh Brown, who missed part of December with a knee injury, took back his role as the leading scorer with 18 points at North Texas.
Up Next: Jan. 6 vs. Troy, Jan. 8 vs. Middle Tennessee, Jan. 13 at Arkansas State, Jan. 15 at UALR
6. Louisiana-Monroe (5-11, 0-2): Coach Keith Richard, the other new guy in this league alongside Marlin, is also having trouble winning games in his first season. He’ll have to settle for small, moral victories until he can build his program. ULM has lost both of its Sun Belt games in heartbreaking fashion by a combined three points (to Florida Atlantic and Florida International at home). And hey, the Warhawks just beat NAIA Union College Wednesday night. It may not count for RPI, but Richard will have to take all the wins he can get in his inaugural year.
Up Next: Jan. 8 vs. Denver, Jan. 13 at UALR, Jan. 15 at South Alabama