2008-09 Season Primers: #18 – Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on October 24th, 2008

 

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

Predicted Order of Finish:

East

  1. Middle Tennessee  (19-11, 13-5)
  2. Western Kentucky  (18-11, 12-6)
  3. South Alabama  (18-11, 11-7)
  4. Florida Atlantic  (17-14, 10-8)
  5. Florida International  (15 -16, 8-10)
  6. Troy  (12-20, 5-13)

West

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

WYN2K.  The Belt took a step forward last season with the NCAA Tourney appearance of South Alabama, and the deep run of Western Kentucky into the Sweet 16, jumping from 17 to 14 in the RPI rankings.  Accordingly, recruiting is on the way up all around.  However, this year the final league standings should look different as both teams lose key contributors from last year’s roster (we’ll get to that later).  You can expect a couple games difference in parity within the final standings at season’s end.  Here are our preseason SBC All First Teamers and Player of the Year picks:

  • Desmond Yates – MTSU
  • Carlos Monroe – FAU  (Player of the Year)
  • Josh White – NT
  • Russell Hicks – FIU
  • Brandon Davis – USA

Trio of new Head Coaches a big plus for the League.  The SBC welcomes the return of Mike Jarvis to the coaching ranks as the new Head Coach for the Fighting Owls of Florida Atlantic.  Jarvis boasts a conference best resume with 350 career wins and a myriad of post season tournament appearances – 9 NCAA and 5 NIT.  He is confident the Owls are a stock on the rise, having all but promised that they will make a return trip to The Big Dance in the very near future.  Jarvis is known for the development of NBA Hall of Fame player Patrick Ewing, and also coached a talented Ron Artest while at St John’s University. He has added a pair of nationally recognized prep guards to the already solid nucleus he inherits at FAU. PF Carlos Monroe (15.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg) will get some much needed double team help from this duo.  A little further north and west, John Brady joins The Sun Belt assuming the reins of the recently rebranded Arkansas State Redwolves program.  Brady enjoyed very successful tutelages with Samford (89 wins), and LSU (192 wins), where he led the Tigers all the way to The Final Four in 2006.  A heralded recruiter, Brady has coached an impressive 25 All TAAC (now The Atlantic Sun) and Southeastern Conference selections.  He hit the JUCO recruiting trail hard in the off-season, with four transfer signees heading to Jonesboro for the upcoming season.  Rounding out the trio of newcomers, Ken McDonald returns to Bowling Green to take over for the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky.  McDonald previously served as an Assistant Coach at WKU and most recently as the top assistant under Rick Barnes at the University of Texas.  He is a talented recruiter and was instrumental in the Longhorns signing of NBA draftees Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin.  McDonald will have his hands full though, as this year’s team will be without the services of Courtney Lee, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic in the first round of the NBA draft (22nd).
 
Predicted Champion
Arkansas-Little Rock (#13 Seed NCAA).  Bold pick?  Absolutely.  Realistic?  Definitely. Destiny?  Perhaps.  Here’s why:  The Trojans have finished atop the West Division in three of the last five years, but have never won the crown.  Unlike all other West Division teams (and even the East minus MTSU), all five starters return for UALR.  Couple this with a weaker East Division, and a potential homecourt advantage for the SBC Tournament and you have the makings of a championship.  Rest assured that someone will knock out one of the higher eastern seeds given its parity this season – paving the way for UALR.  The Sun Belt has gained much needed size all around this year, but UALR will display the truest balanced attack.  They will feature the league’s lone true big man down low in Ole Miss transfer Mike Smith 6-7, 295Lbs (52.9 FG%).  And that will be a big advantage (pun intended) along the way.  Joining him will be SG Steven Moore who should emerge even more this season after shooting a staggering 42-97 (43.3%) from downtown last season.  The clincher:  come March they can both click their heels like Dorothy, and say “there’s no place like home.”  Despite the fact that the SBC front office claims the tournament site is neutral this season, the championship will be played in Hot Springs, AR, which is 52 miles from UALR.  This virtually ensures them home court advantage during the SBC Tournament.
 
Others Considered.  They will be formidable opponents on a number of nights this season, but Western Kentucky has flat out lost too much: a whopping 60.3% of total offense, 59.2% of total assists, 50.3%  of total steals, and 39.6% of total rebounds.  A lot of this can be attributed to the departure of both SG Courtney Lee (20.4 ppg), and PG Tyrone Brazelton (14.4 ppg).  The same goes for South Alabama who must find backcourt answers for the losses of 1st Team All SBC guard Demetric Bennett (19.7 ppg), and 2nd Team All SBC guard Daon Merritt (11.5 ppg, 5.5 apg).  North Texas could be in the race for the West Division with the return of PG Josh White (13.9 ppg), but like the others considered, they face key losses with only two starters returning.  MTSU should be atop the East Division as season’s end, and does have talented returnees in both Desmond Yates (16.0 ppg) and Demetrius Green (12.5 ppg), but it’s a long drive to Hot Springs come tournament time. 
 
Games to Watch.  Traditional powers South Alabama and Western Kentucky will face off in a nationally televised contest that is sure to be entertaining.  The Deuce will also air the SBC Championship live:

  • South Alabama @ Western Kentucky (02.07.09) 1:00PM ESPN2
  • Sun Belt Conference Championship Game (03.10.09) 9:00PM ESPN2

RPI Booster Games.  Quite a few non-conference games could help elevate the SBC in the RPI standings this season.  SEC opponents are strewn throughout league schedules, as well as a few quality west coast opponents.  Winning these contests would certainly offer nudges here and there.  And some are winnable.  But upsetting the bad boys below would do some serious damage.  Are they winnable?  Probably not.  Cliché alert: That is why they play the game. Well, that and some guarantee money.  Without any further ado, please cue: “Facing the Giants.” 

  • Florida Atlantic @ Arizona (11.17.08) 10:00PM
  • Tennessee @ Middle Tennessee (11.21.08) 7:00PM
  • Western Kentucky @ Louisville (11.30.08) 2:00PM

Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids.  Last year was a pleasant surprise, with both WKU and USA making the tourney.  If the West Division represents the SBC in The Big Dance, there is a long shot that an East Division top finisher could get in.  But it is highly unlikely and would take some serious non-conference results to convince the committee.

65 Team Era.  During the era, the Sun Belt is 13-34 (.277), but with WKU’s two additional wins last year, the Hilltoppers are responsible for seven of those wins and both of the conferences trips to the Sweet 16.  In fact, WKU is the only Sun Belt team to win an NCAA game in the past sixteen seasons (Louisiana-Lafayette won a game in 1992).  Seven times during this era has the Sun Belt gotten more than one team into the Dance, including last year’s duo of S. Alabama and W. Kentucky.  Speaking of which, who can forget what was arguably the (second) most exciting moment of the 2008 Tournament?


 
Final thought.  The SBC is one to two years away from making the climb back to where it was prior to adding football as a sponsored collegiate sport.  Serious recruiting classes have come in during the off-season.  It will be fun to watch some of the young talent begin to develop and blossom on the hardwood this upcoming season.

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6.11.08 Fast Breaks

Posted by nvr1983 on June 10th, 2008

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Elite 8 Preview: UCLA-Xavier & UNC-Louisville

Posted by nvr1983 on March 28th, 2008

- #1 UCLA vs. #3 Xavier (6:40 PM): Both teams are coming off hard-fought victories in the Sweet 16. Xavier obviously was challenged by West Virginia, who took them into OT and may very well have won if Joe Alexander had been able to hit a FT at the end of regulation (81% FT) or not foul out early in OT. The Bruins were challenged by Western Kentucky, who came back from 21 down at half as Tyrone Brazelton scored 31 pts abusing Darren Collison (before Collison fouled out with 5:39 to play). The Bruins held strong at the end and won with big efforts from Kevin Love (29 and 14–no surprise) and James Keefe (18 and 12–huge surprise).

The Bruins can count on a big game from Love who finds a way to get his numbers because he knows where he needs to be. What the Bruins can’t count on is Keefe coming anywhere near those numbers. They need Collison, Russell Westbrook, and Josh Shipp to really step up their games this round. If they can get this inside/outside balance, they should control this game, but they haven’t looked that good since their opening round game against Mississippi Valley State. However, I’m not sure if that was more UCLA or their opponent. In either case, the Bruins haven’t looked like the team that most analysts predicted would cut down the nets in San Antonio.

As noted earlier, Xavier escaped with a win in their Sweet 16 game with Joe Alexander’s mistakes and some clutch 3 point shooting from B.J. Raymond. Even though Josh Duncan dominated the scoring last round, the Muskeeters are usually pretty good at spreading the ball around leading to their extremely balanced scoring averages. It will be interesting to see how they try to match up against Love, Collison, and Westbrook as that may be the key to the game.

Opening Line: UCLA -6.
Prediction: As Kevin Love said after their last game, the Bruins play has been “unacceptable”. I think that on paper (and when they are on) UCLA has all the makings of a championship team with a nice mix of experience, talent, and an inside/outside game. If they’re firing on all cylinders, the Bruins could blow this game wide open like they did in the early part of their Sweet 16 game. Unfortunately for Ben Howland, they have not been able to do that consistently. I think UCLA has have played with fire one too many times and tonight it will catch up with them. I’m going with Xavier in a hard-fought game earning a trip to the Final 4.

- #1 UNC vs. #3 Louisville (9:05 PM): This is probably the best match-up of the weekend on paper. Both teams are absolutely loaded and appear to be playing at their peak. The Tar Heels have been the most dominant team in the tournament so far while the Cardinals have matched them in dominance the past 2 rounds. Both teams absolutely crushed their very capable opponents (Washington State and Tennessee, respectively) on Thursday night.

The Tar Heels’ calling card this season has been their phenomenal offense, but in the last round they showed Tony Bennett’s Cougars that they know how to play a little D too. Offensively, Tyler Hansbrough has been solid if not spectacular although he hasn’t needed to be so far in the tournament. One of the major drivers of the Tar Heels dominance in the tournament has been Ty Lawson who appears to be back near 100%. When he gets in the open court, I’m not sure if anybody can keep up with Lawson. Although those two get all the hype, I think the key to the game for UNC will be if Wayne Ellington can hit from outside. He’s the only great outside shooter that Roy Williams has and his ability to hit from 3 will be very important against Rick Pitino’s 2-3 zone. If he is hitting, Pitino will have a decision to make: let him bomb away or go man-to-man and risk having Psycho T go off.

Louisville is peaking at the perfect time. They made a very good Tennessee team look very bad on Thursday night although the Vols PG issues certainly contributed. They don’t have quite the star power that UNC has, but Pitino’s boys (David Padgett & company) are no slouches. Padgett has a lot of help offensively as the Cardinals have another half dozen guys who can get in double figures on the right night. The key for the Cardinals will be how their defense controls UNC. It will be interesting to see how their press is able to handle Lawson and how their zone matches up against Ellington’s outside shooting.

Opening Line: UNC -5.5.
Prediction: I’m going with the Tar Heels tonight. They’ve been the best team in the country in the first 3 rounds and they weren’t even clicking offensively against Washington State. Louisville has a great team and that line is ridiculously high, but I don’t think Hansbrough will let the Tar Heels lose. He’s had a very good college career so far, but he hasn’t been able to get his team over the hump. This will be a tight game, but I think that Hansbrough will come up big down the stretch giving the Heels the slight edge. The Tar Heels were on the verge of going to the Final 4 before collapsing against Georgetown and I can’t see them letting it happen again. As an added bonus, this sets up a potential national semifinal of Roy Williams versus Kansas. . .(more on that set of Elite 8 games later)

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Sweet 16 Preview: West Region

Posted by nvr1983 on March 27th, 2008

- #1 UCLA vs. #12 Western Kentucky (9:40 PM): Already more than one analyst has declared that WKU is going to pull off the monumental upset in this game. And one UCLA blog is seriously tempting the Weauxfgods with its rather brazen mocking of the Hilltoppers’ chances in tonight’s game. (Retracted strikethrough: rtmsf thinks he is the Dennis Miller of the college basketball blog world). So we ask ourselves – is this possible? Could UCLA lose to a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16?

One thing we know for certain is that the Bruins will not score enough points to obliterate the Hilltoppers. The question is whether the Toppers will be able to score enough points to put enough pressure on the Bruins to make something interesting happen. The answer lies in WKU’s backcourt of Courtney Lee (20/5/2) and Tyrone Brazelton (14/3/4), who have collectively averaged 44 PPG in the NCAAs thus far. UCLA’s perimeter defense is notoriously good at shutting players down, but will have their hands full with this pair.

On the other side of the ball, the Bruins have talented guys at every position. While uber-frosh Kevin Love has taken most of the headlines, Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, and Russell Westbrook have provided solid perimeter play to compliment the Pac-10 POY along with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on the inside. The Bruins cruised in their first round game, but ran into a stiff challenge in the 2nd round against Texas A&M. In the end, they survived with some timely shooting from Love and a little help from the stripes. One of the concerns for the Bruins is that while their Ben Howland-designed defense has been as good as advertised, they have struggled offensively in the tournament outside of Love and Collison, who combined for 40 of the team’s 51 points versus the Aggies. UCLA is talented enough and this region is weak enough that they probably can get to San Antonio without bringing their “A” game, but eventually they will need more from Shipp and Mbah a Moute, who is still recovering from a sprained ankle.

Opening Line: UCLA -13
Prediction: I think that UCLA will eventually get pissed off at all the press they have gotten for getting away with calls (looking around . . .). This is a really big spread for a Sweet 16 game, but I guess it is a 1 vs. 12 so maybe it isn’t that big of a spread. Maybe Vegas Watch knows what a typical 1-12 spread is although I don’t think it happens that often. Anyways, the Bruins should be too much for the Hilltoppers and advance by double digits pulling away at the end after a hard-fought game. Even if their offense isn’t clicking, their intensity and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball will rattle Western Kentucky.

- #3 Xavier vs. #7 West Virginia (7:10 PM): The Musketeers may be the least heralded #3 seed of all-time and could be considered a mid-major of Cinderella of sorts, but after West Virginia knocked out Duke I’m pretty sure the Mountaineers have enough national goodwill that the crowd won’t be rooting that hard against them.

As I noted in an earlier preview, Xavier throws out a deep lineup with 5 players now averaging between 10.1 and 12.1 PPG to go along with a solid defense. For those that still doubt they are a legit team, I would suggest that you look at their wins over teams from power conferences in the first 2 rounds. Yes, Georgia’s record was mediocre at best, but they were hot coming off their SEC tournament run while Purdue had been a solid team the entire season in the Big 10, which admittedly isn’t having a great year.

West Virginia will counter with Joe Alexander, a rtmsf favorite, and a set of players who have adjusted well to the contrast in styles between current coach Bob Huggins and former coach John Beilein. As anyone who watched this team come from behind to beat #2 seed Duke in the 2nd round knows, Huggins has a nice stable of guys who can really play as they controlled the 2nd half of that game.

Opening Line: Pick ‘em
Prediction: I’m going with the A-10 champs. These two teams are pretty evenly matched. Xavier doesn’t have a “star player” like Alexander, but they probably have a little more depth and experience and I’m going with that for the win.

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Conference Primers: #20 – Sun Belt

Posted by rtmsf on October 25th, 2007

Season Preview Banner 3

Predicted Order of Finish:

East

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

West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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