Checking In On… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 1st, 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:

  • 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. Joe Scott’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 Statehowever, 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)

Power Rankings

East

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 WitheyFlorida 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.

West

1.    Denver (5-1, 0-0): Hello, Pioneers. In typical Joe Scott fashion, Denver made Utah State look 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 State for 40 minutes but ultimately lost this week without J.J. Thomas, and they also dropped a road contest at DuquenseThomas, 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.

Looking Ahead

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.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxE50sZxH_w]

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Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 18th, 2011

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

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

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

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

 

 

 

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

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RTC Conference Primers: #25 – Sun Belt Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 10th, 2011

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

Reader’s Take I

Top Storylines

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

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

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

Predicted Order of Finish (conference records in parentheses)

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Who’s Got Next? Purvis Picks Pack; Stars Talk Midnight Madness, Visits

Posted by Josh Paunil on October 5th, 2011

 

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Josh Paunil, the RTC recruiting guru. We encourage you to check out his website dedicated solely to college basketball recruiting, National Recruiting Spotlight, for more detailed recruiting information. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to who the hot prospects are at the lower levels of the sport. If you have any suggestions as to areas we’re missing or different things you’d like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Lead Story: Purvis Picks In-State Wolfpack

North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried has to be happy about Purvis' commitment.

Things Looking Good For N.C. State Head Coach Mark Gottfried. Class of 2012 shooting guard Rodney Purvis committed to North Carolina State Friday giving the Wolfpack one of the best guard combinations in any recruiting class thus far between him and point guard Tyler Lewis (to see why Purvis committed check out the “What They’re Saying” section). Purvis ended one of the more interesting recruitments in the class after he committed to Louisville last December, de-committed from the Cardinals in May, made it look like it was a three-horse race between Duke, N.C. State and Missouri, and expanded his list to eight schools that included North Carolina Central and Virginia Commonwealth. His commitment comes just a month after Class of 2012 shooting guard Torian Graham de-committed from the Wolfpack and after Lewis predicted Purvis would be N.C. State’s next commit. This year’s senior class is looking like it could shape into a top ten recruiting class for N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried. Although Graham de-committed, the Wolfpack made small forward T.J. Warren‘s final four list of schools along with Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Gottfried also still has a shot at small forward Devonta Pollard and power forward Amile Jefferson among many others in the Class of 2012.

What They’re Saying

  • Senior Rodney Purvis on committing to North Carolina State: “After many conversations and prayers with the Lord, and visits, I came to a conclusion. There is no place like home.”
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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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Circle of March VI

Posted by rtmsf on March 8th, 2011

Say goodbye to six more schools after Monday night…  Western Kentucky, Iona, South Dakota State, Charleston, IUPUI and Middle Tennessee State.

Coming Next:   At least sixteen more knockouts on Tuesday…

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O26 Primers: Big Sky, Summit League and Sun Belt Tourneys

Posted by KDoyle on March 6th, 2011

RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.

Three more conferences begin things tonight. The Big Sky and Sun Belt look to be very competitive with multiple teams capable of getting hot at the right time and running away with the title, while the Summit League features the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the head of the pack and everyone else trying to keep up. All three conferences are definite single-bid leagues meaning all games will be played with a great sense of urgency; the agony of defeat and glory of victory becomes that much more apparent as well.

Big Sky

The Favorite: Northern Colorado has played the best ball in the Big Sky over the course of the past month and they also have arguably the league’s best player in Devon Beitzel on their side. Montana will have their chance to prove me wrong, but right now it is the Bears who are the favorite.

Dark Horse: Any team that is proficient at shooting the three ball cannot be discounted in a game. Despite having a middle of the road 9-7 record within the conference, Northern Arizona can stroke it with anyone. Cameron Jones, Gabe Rogers, and Eric Platt all shoot well over 40% from downtown.

Who’s Hot: Northern Colorado has won eight of their last nine games and 15 of 18 to enter the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team.

Player to Watch: Cameron Jones has had his way with Big Sky teams this year as he is averaging just shy over 20 points on the year and has scored in double figures in every game save one. He’s got Northern Arizona playing well entering the tournament as the Lumberjacks have won four of five games with the lone loss coming to Northern Colorado by a point.

First-Round UpsetEastern Washington over Weber State. Although they have struggled for most of the season, Eastern Washington is riding a modest two game winning streak entering the Big Sky tournament with their last win coming against the team they will do battle with in the tournament’s first round: Weber State.

How’d They Fare? It was one of the most heroic performances that you have never heard of in college basketball. Anthony Johnson’s performance in the second half of the Big Sky Championship game against Weber State propelled Montana to the NCAA Tournament where they narrowly lost to #3 seed New Mexico. Montana was trailing 40-20 at the intermission, but Johnson scored 34 of his 42 points in the decisive half to defeat the Wildcats. If Johnson’s unbelievable performance carried over to the New Mexico game, Montana advances to the second round. Instead, they were defeated by the Lobos 62-57.

Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simple one of the greatest moments—if not the very greatest—in Big Sky history came in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina fans, close your eyes:

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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 February 18th, 2011

 

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

A Look Back

  • At least it’s not a guard this time, we suppose. Senior center Cliff Dixon is the latest victim in the Western Kentucky saga, as coach Ken McDonald dismissed him from the team last weekend for violating team rules. Brown already dismissed point guard Ken Brown for academic violations, while freshman guard Snap Peters is academically ineligible. That’s left WKU with a thin backcourt and only two players capable of running the point, and now the team will have to deal with the departure of a frustrating but still potentially useful big man.
  • Breast cancer is a disease we can all get behind—and that includes Louisiana-Monroe coach Keith Richard. The school held “Pack The Place Pink Night” during a men’s and women’s double-header against Arkansas State February 10. For every student that attended, Richard and his wife, a cancer survivor, donated one dollar to research. ULM’s men’s team lost by 19 points, but more than 2,500 fans showed up, meaning breast cancer research just received a nice boost. No matter a person’s income, it’s impressive for Richard’s family to take on a task like this.
  • It’s just one day, but the league moved North Texas and Arkansas-Little Rock’s make-up contest to March 1 from February 28, according to ArkansasSports360.com. The two teams had a game postponed two weeks ago due to a snowstorm, and the rescheduled game falls just four days before the start of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

Shout-Out Section

  • Solomon Bozeman has always been a scorer, but he’s never been a shooter. Until this season. The UALR two-guard is the most efficient three-point shooter in the conference with a 47.8 percent mark from behind the arc. That’s amazing considering he’d never shot better than 33.3 percent during his first three seasons. The improved point guard play of D’Andre Williams and Chuck Guy has helped ease the pressure off Bozeman, and that’s reflected in the statistics.
  • We’ll reveal our award-winners from the SBC later this season, but here’s an early hint: Jason Jones is an obvious candidate for Newcomer of the Year. The UTEP transfer has added a new element to Middle Tennessee State in the frontcourt, and he’s played a factor in MTSU’s surge toward the top of the East standings. Even better for the Blue Raiders is that he’s got two more years of eligibility.

Quote of the Week

“Fifty-seven percent, case closed… We just don’t guard and it is disappointing. Our guys just don’t accept the challenge to guard for 40 minutes.”

 

South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow, expressing his frustrations with his team’s shooting defense (via Yahoo! Sports)

Power Rankings

1. Florida Atlantic (18-9, 10-3): Two weeks ago, we said the East was “all but over.” With a month left in the season and teams crumbling around the conference, Florida Atlantic looked immune to struggle. The Owls were perfect: efficient offensively, dominant defensively and playing as one cohesive unit. So much for all that stuff. FAU has lost two straight games and three of five, which included an ugly 69-42 loss at Denver February 10. Gregg Gantt scored two, yes, two points against DU in that defeat. And that’s your leading scorer for the league’s top team, ladies and gentleman. Florida Atlantic still leads Middle Tennessee State by two games with three remaining and already swept that series, so it’d take a collapse of epic proportions for FAU to lose its division title. Still, the Owls aren’t invincible anymore, which means we’re heading toward a wide-open conference tournament next month in Hot Springs.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at FIU, Feb. 24 vs. Troy, Feb. 27 at USA

2. Middle Tennessee State (14-13, 9-5): This conference is officially insane. Middle Tennessee State, which appeared dead two weeks ago, suddenly had life with FAU’s stumble… before promptly losing at Troy last night in overtime, meaning it will need a miracle to take the East crown. Losing at Troy isn’t the worst offense a team can commit. After all, Troy beat Denver at home last weekend and has lost just two conference home games this season. It’s simply maddening, though, for coach Kermit Davis’s team to win five straight games, get back into contention and then shoot 0-9 in the overtime period against a beatable team with just eight overall wins this year.

Feb. 19 at UALR, Feb. 22 at Houston Baptist, Feb. 26 at WKU

3. Western Kentucky (13-13, 7-6): Would you look at that! A .500 record for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers! It took until February for WKU to reach even again after a 2-5 start in November, but Ken McDonald’s squad has finally figured out how to play basketball—together, you know, as a team. Point guard Jamal Crook, one of the catalysts of this modest turn-around, made the game-winning shot last night to lift WKU to an important win at Arkansas-Little Rock. Star forward Sergio Kerusch only scored three points, but frontcourt mate Steffphon Pettigrew helped him out with 18 points and 10 boards. They’ve both been inconsistent this season, along with newcomer Juan Patillo, but lately at least one of these forwards seems to emerge in each game.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at ULL, Feb. 24 vs. FIU, Feb. 26 at MTSU

4. Troy (8-17, 6-7): Don Maestri’s guys have been quite the pests this season. Although Troy played like one of the Sun Belt’s worst teams in November and December, the Trojans are just one game under .500 in conference play and, like we stated earlier, has lost just two league games at home. Will Weathers may turn the ball over too much, but he makes plays for star Vernon Taylor and controls his team’s up-tempo pace. Troy can score—we know that—and when it defends, it can win. Heading into the SBC tourney, this is a typical “sleeper.” Troy has no expectations after losing five starters and nothing to lose, so there’s no reason it can’t make a run in March.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. ASU, Feb. 24at FAU, Feb. 26 at FIU

5. Florida International (9-16, 4-9): The swagger the Golden Panthers had early in January has vanished. The team started 3-0 but has won just one game since—a one-point victory at Troy in early February. There is obvious talent on this team, but it hasn’t quite come together. Poor free throw shooting has doomed FIU in particular. One positive from this recent slide: freshman point guard Phil Taylor, who missed most of the season due to eligibility issues, is logging a ton of minutes in the backcourt. Better yet, he’s producing—he scored 21 points in a loss at Middle Tennessee State last weekend.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. FAU, Feb. 24 at WKU, Feb. 26 vs. Troy

6. South Alabama (10-14, 4-9): You heard it from coach Ronnie Arrow above. USA’s not defending well enough to win right now, and it’s not getting enough from Tim Williams, last year’s leading scorer. He’s shooting less than 40 percent from the field and has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. After a mid-season revitalization, South Alabama has lost three straight and doesn’t look like a team able to compete in the league tourney.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at Denver, Feb. 24 vs. UALR, Feb. 27 vs. FAU

West

1. Louisiana-Lafayette (11-14, 8-5): It’s the most improbable climb imaginable. Louisiana-Lafayette is atop the West Rankings after sitting one spot from the cellar two weeks ago. The team that started 3-14 has now won eight straight games, and it’s one of only two SBC teams to win at Florida Atlantic in league play. Just a game out of first place, the Rajun’ Cajuns are our pick to stun the conference and earn the number one seed in the West Division. It’s difficult to explain just how surprising this winning streak is. Until the past few weeks, we’ve treated this as a “throw-away” season of sorts for coach Bob Marlin in his first year. His track record at Sam Houston State speaks for itself, but he dealt with too many injuries and lack of personnel to win this year, right? Apparently, that’s not the case. ULL’s playing physical basketball and has a tall, tough starting lineup, and Marlin has his players defending—they held FAU without a basket for the final 11 minutes of the game. There aren’t many offensive stars on this team, but that’s the beauty of Louisiana-Lafayette. With Travis Bureau and J.J. Thomas playing hard-nosed basketball on the boards, this is an efficient squad on both sides of the floor. For what it’s worth, we did say in November that Marlin would at least keep this team competitive in the West. But there’s no way anyone could have predicted this.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. WKU, Feb. 24 vs. Denver, Feb. 26 at ULM

2. Denver (13-13, 9-4): It’s hard to slide the team with the best record in its division to the second spot in the power rankings, especially since Denver did beat ULL on its home court. That game happened back in December, though, and it’s obvious that the Rajun’ Cajuns have changed, both in terms of momentum and just sheer roster moves. The two teams play each other Feb. 24 to possibly decide the West title, so we’ll see then which team deserves the championship. Denver has been difficult to figure out lately. The Pioneers embarrassed Arkansas State 74-36 at home in January, leaving fans shaking their heads at the putrid offensive output of ASU. Less than a month later, the two teams met again in Jonesboro, and Denver was the team that finished with 35 points in a 25-point blowout. Yet DU found a way to limit the league’s best team in a 69-42 win over FAU Feb. 10. The real problem with this conference is that nobody can win on the road.

Up Next: Feb. 20 vs. USA, Feb. 24 at ULL, Feb. 26 at UNT

3. Arkansas State (14-14, 8-5): Speaking of road woes, Arkansas State’s got them too. It has won only one league road game this season and even lost at Savannah State Feb. 1. It’s a good thing, then, that Arkansas State is perhaps the Sun Belt’s most dominant home team. With an undefeated record at home, ASU could realistically win this division if it can win at Troy tomorrow, considering its final two games are at the Convocation Center. Maybe senior D-Ray Boone can lead his team to a title in his last hurrah. We’ve been waiting for Boone, who led the team in scoring two years ago but missed the 2009-10 season, all year. He may have finally emerged, as he’s scored in double figures in five straight games.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at Troy, Feb. 24 vs. North Texas, Feb. 26 vs. UALR

4. North Texas (17-8, 6-6): UNT’s season isn’t over yet by any means. Mathematically, the Mean Green are still in the West race with four games remaining. More importantly, this season can still be a success with a conference tournament title, and this senior-laden squad is more than capable of pulling that off, especially considering how wide open the field appears. If the Mean Green don’t act fast, though, there’s no chance they’ll improve enough to get on a roll. Frankly, they’d been putrid the past few weeks before knocking off South Alabama yesterday. Point guard Josh White is the key to a potential turn-around. He’s the Sun Belt’s leading active scorer, but he’s not making plays with the same frequency as a senior. North Texas doesn’t have a whole lot of offensive punch on the bench, and it needs White to find another gear before time runs out.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. ULM, Feb. 24 at ASU, Feb. 26 vs. Denver, March 1 at UALR

5. Arkansas-Little Rock (14-13, 6-6): The team that didn’t win a road game last year finally got it done away from home, winning at ULM February 12 for its third road win of the season. And then, UALR suffered the most heartbreaking loss of the season when WKU’s Jamal Crook secured the ball in a scramble situation and made a game-winner with less than a second to play at the Jack Stephens Center last night. The Trojans had played so well at home throughout the 2010-11 campaign, and after securing a rare road victory, the loss makes a West title nearly impossible.

Up Next: Feb. 19 vs. MTSU, Feb. 24 at USA, Feb. 26 at ASU, March 1 vs. UNT

6. Louisiana-Monroe (6-22, 1-13): This season was lost from the day it started for the Warhawks, so disregard the record and all the bad losses and remember this: ULM still hosts Louisiana-Lafayette one more time in the season finale Feb. 26. This season is still meaningful for coach Keith Richard. He’ll be a god if he can find a way to knock his archrival out of first place in the West division on the final day of the season, no matter how many losses his team has already suffered.

Up Next: Feb. 19 at UNT, Feb. 26 vs. ULL

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Checking in on… the Sun Belt

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 4th, 2011

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

A Look Back

  • Sun Belt Conference, look out: Tony Mitchell is here. After failing to qualify at Missouri, the five-star power forward enrolled at North Texas last month, landing the Mean Green one of the most celebrated recruits in Sun Belt history. Mitchell signed a letter of intent for Mike Anderson last fall, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible because of disputed high school credits. If he completes 24 credits at North Texas during the next two semesters, he will gain eligibility for the second semester next season. Mitchell isn’t the only highly-touted freshman forward heading to Denton next year. Texas natives Jordan Williams and Forrest Robinson, who both received scholarship offers from numerous power conference schools, will team with Mitchell next season to help replace eight graduated seniors.
  • Not even the radio crew for Arkansas-Little Rock had any idea why forward Eric Kibi played Thursday night against Denver. Although he was ruled academically ineligible last month, the junior college transfer magically reappeared to score two points in 24 minutes of action. Kibi had not played since January 2, but it seems he’s made his way back to the Trojans. That’s good news for a team in need of some size.
  • For the first time in school history, the Florida Atlantic men’s basketball program hosted a nationally televised game against UALR January 22. And the first-place Owls didn’t disappoint, pulling away for an 88-71 win in front of a frenzied crowd that seemed to really enjoy the atmosphere.The league’s next ESPN game is between North Texas and Western Kentucky February 12.

Shoutout Section: It’s hard to tell what position Travis Bureau plays for Louisiana-Lafayette. The 6’7 senior has a lot of skills, including rebounding: and boy, was that evident last weekend in a win at South Alabama. Bureau grabbed 20 rebounds to help ULL win its fourth straight game after a 3-14 start. He now leads the Rajun’ Cajuns in rebounding, even though he’s considering a guard by most. Miraculously, Bureau’s team is now just three games out of first place in the West. Three weeks ago, with coach Bob Marlin’s roster decimated due to injuries and personnel changes, that would have sounded impossible.

For the first time this season, we’ll go ahead and give a shoutout to an entire game. That’s because the Denver/UALR matchup last night, won 75-72 by the Trojans in overtime, was the Game of the Year in the Sun Belt. The Pioneers needed overtime to win at home in December in the first meeting, and although they initially led 10-0 and held a 13-point lead in the second half Thursday, UALR stormed back to open a five-point lead in the final minutes. That’s when the Hallam brothers struck. Travis Hallam banked in a three to cut the Trojans’ lead to one before Chase Hallam sank a contested three from the right corner to tie the game with 1.3 seconds remaining. It’s a good thing UALR had Matt Mouzy on its side. Mouzy didn’t attempt a shot from inside the arc all game, but he made eight of 10 three-pointers—literally from everywhere on the court, making threes with hands in his face and open treys from NBA range. It was one heck of a game, broadcast unfortunately to a miniscule audience online.

Quote of the Week:

“We can’t be the best kept secret in Boca. We should have every middle school, every elementary school, youth league and there should be groups coming here in waves coming through here every night. I wouldn’t care if we were giving the tickets away because we could make money at the concession stand.”

–Florida Atlantic coach Mike Jarvis on how to promote his program

Power Rankings

East

1. Florida Atlantic (17-7, 9-1): The East is all but over—it’s Florida Atlantic’s division in 2011. FAU leads Middle Tennessee by three games with six to play and already swept the Blue Raiders. With more wins than all of last year, the Owls continued their breakout season last night by snapping North Texas’ 17-game home winning streak at The Super Pit. Florida Atlantic roughed up the defending champs 72-55 with its lone senior, Brett Royster, on the bench for much of the game in foul trouble. Against a team that relies almost exclusively on seniors, Florida Atlantic’s underclassmen looked like the tougher and more mature players. We may be witnessing the birth of a program in Boca Raton, which begs this question: how long until the national publications decide to throw a redemption party for coach Mike Jarvis? If the Owls make the NCAA Tournament, you can bet the writers will have a field day rehashing his rocky tenure at St. John’s.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. FIU, Feb. 10 at Denver, Feb. 12 at ULL

2. Middle Tennessee State (11-12, 6-4): If only the Blue Raiders could move to the West Division. Kermit Davis’ team pulled another upset two weeks ago by ruining Denver’s undefeated conference season, and MTSU has lost just one game to a West opponent. There’s no catching Florida Atlantic in the East, but Middle Tennessee has established itself as the second-best team in this muddled division. Davis’ team has won four of five games and looks like a prime spoiler pick at the SBC tourney in Hot Springs this March.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. USA, Feb. 10 at WKU, Feb. 12 vs. FIU

3. South Alabama (10-11, 4-6): There are only five players in college basketball averaging more rebounds per game than freshman Augustine Rubit. Included in that list are Maryland’s Jordan Williams and Syracuse’s Rick Jackson, as well as freakish future pro Kenneth Faried of Morehead State.A nd Rubit’s right there with him— standing tall at 6’6. That’s right: the nation’s sixth-leading rebounder is a 6’6 freshman from South Alabama. Rubit’s the frontrunner for SBC Newcomer of the Year, and he’s a big reason why Ronnie Arrow’s team has rebounded from a poor start to win three of four games. A division title is out of the question, but with underclassmen Rubit and Martino Brock leading the way, the Jaguars have a chance to build a little momentum heading into next season.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at MTSU, Feb. 10 vs. Troy, Feb. 17 at UNT

4. Western Kentucky (9-12, 4-5): It was a glorious sight: in the midst of a nightmarish season with rumors of coach Ken McDonald’s firing, Western Kentucky rolled off four straight wins. After stunning Florida Atlantic in front of a “whiteout” crowd in Boca Raton, WKU was .500 in league play and had five straight home games looming. The Hilltoppers were back from the dead… that is, until a loss to South Alabama last night at Diddle Arena. Old habits returned for Western Kentucky. All of the positive energy had vanished, the Jaguars lit up WKU from beyond the arc and point guards Jamal Crook and Khalil McDonald regressed after playing commendably during the four-game winning streak.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. ULM, Feb. 10 vs. MTSU, Feb. 12 vs. UNT

5. Florida International (9-13, 4-6): Talk about a feel-good story gone wrong. Isiah Thomas’s fresh roster won its first three SBC games before dropping six straight games, all by 10 points or less. FIU finally broke the slump with an overtime win at Troy last night, but even that win was difficult. The Golden Panthers lost their lead in the final minute of the extra period by fouling Regis Huddleston on a three-point attempt. DeJaun Wright bailed FIU out with a layup in the final seconds, helping Florida International avoid the East cellar.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at FAU, Feb. 10 vs. ULL, Feb. 12 at MTSU

6. Troy (5-17, 3-7): It’s quite amazing that Troy has two of the league’s best guards in Vernon Taylor and Mo Weathers and still can’t climb out of the basement of the Sun Belt East. Coach Don Maestri doesn’t have the necessary depth to run his up-tempo style this season, and they’ve especially struggled on the road. Last weekend’s win at Louisiana-Monroe was the Trojans’ first road win.

Up Next: Feb. 10 at USA, Feb. 12 vs. Denver, Feb. 17 vs. MTSU

West

1. Denver (11-11, 7-2): The Pioneers can’t win when they don’t make threes. It’s that simple. When Denver runs Joe Scott’s offense to perfection, it’s a thing of beauty. All five players act as interchangeable parts, sharing the ball from side to side and taking only the most open of jumpers. When that offense isn’t running smoothly and the threes aren’t falling, though, Denver can’t win. Consider DU’s loss to Middle Tennessee two weeks ago. It made just three shots from beyond the arc in a loss to Middle Tennessee after inexplicably attempting just six threes. And when Denver went cold in the second half against UALR last night, it allowed the Trojans to grab the lead with a 16-1 run.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at ASU, Feb. 10 vs. FAU, Feb. 12 at Troy

2. North Texas (16-7, 5-5): There was talk in December that North Texas could run the table in the Sun Belt. Now, the Mean Green are simply hoping to finish above .500. They’ve lost three straight games and look nothing like a team that starts five seniors. Coach Johnny Jones is struggling to find quality depth on his bench, especially in the frontcourt. The top six scorers on this team are seniors, and all have made multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament. There’s no reason for North Texas to sit at 5-5 and lose at home by double-digits, as it did last night to FAU. In that loss, Josh White played poorly and SBC leading scorer Tristan Thompson barely played in the second half for unknown reasons. It’s panic time for North Texas, and the clock is running out on the seniors who entered the year as the league’s consensus favorite.

Up Next: Feb. 10 at UALR, Feb. 12 at WKU, Feb. 17 vs. USA

3. Arkansas-Little Rock (13-11, 5-4): Last week, an initial 11-0 deficit against Arkansas State doomed UALR at home in a 75-64 loss. Last night against DU, another poor start had coach Steve Shields’ experiencing déjà vu. Fortunately for him, his team responded by frustrating Denver’s offense in the second half and getting just enough stops in overtime to stay in the hunt in the West. Now just two games out of first place, Arkansas-Little Rock needs to steal a few games away from home.

Up Next: Feb. 5 at ULL, Feb. 10 vs. UNT, Feb. 12 at ULM

4. Arkansas State (12-13, 6-4): The league’s most inconsistent team took another weird turn this week with a loss at 4-17 Savannah State. It’s a good thing the game didn’t count toward ASU’s league record, because the loss was ugly in every sense of the word. The game wasn’t even as competitive as the 67-61 margin suggests, as Arkansas State shot 35 percent from the field and trailed the entire way. The Red Wolves can beat anyone at home in Jonesboro, but they’re an entirely different team on the road. The winner of the West will likely be the team that figures out how to play in unfamiliar environments.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. Denver, Feb. 10 at ULM, Feb. 17 at ULL

5. Louisiana-Lafayette (7-14, 4-5): Bob Marlin can rest easy. His team beat rival Louisiana-Monroe at home, it upset North Texas and now sits just a game under .500 in Sun Belt play. Point guard Josh Brown’s return from injury has been one of the catalysts in a recent four-game win streak, and freshman forward J.J. Thomas is starting to blow up. He’s scored in double-figures in five ULL’s last eight games and went for 28 in a win at South Alabama this week.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. UALR, Feb. 10 at FIU, Feb. 12 at FAU

6. Louisiana-Monroe (6-18, 1-9): There’s no question that ULM is the Sun Belt’s worst team. Playing in the more difficult West Division with a rebuilt roster, Keith Richard’s first season here wasn’t tailor made for success. The Warhawks at least fought MTSU last night to the final minute and narrowly lost to Arkansas State on a free throw by Martavius Adams with six seconds to play a few weeks ago. That’s called progress in our book.

Up Next: Feb. 5 vs. Denver, Feb. 10 at ULM, Feb. 17 at ULL

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on January 25th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

- The last second Cory Joseph-led triumph over North Carolina in Greensboro opened some eyes to the legitimacy of the Texas Longhorns, but it was directly following their evisceration of Michigan State at the Breslin Center when I pegged Rick Barnes’ squad as my official Final Four sleeper. Following a dismantling of Texas A&M on their home floor and a stunning come-from-behind win in Allen Fieldhouse against previously unbeaten Kansas—for my money the single most impressive win of the season to date – I think it’s time we elevate the Longhorns from Final Four contender to justifiable national champion candidate. It’s difficult to believe that this same program is just eight months removed from a historic and embarrassing collapse that saw a #1 Texas team in the nation in mid-January fall out of the rankings to a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round flameout, but the infusion of heady, intelligent and talented freshmen, the maturation of Jordan Hamilton, the cleansing of players with varying agendas and a severe rotation trimming has convinced most followers of the sport that last season’s disintegration is no longer relevant to discuss. Trying to discover a weakness on this Texas squad is a challenging task; even the free throw headaches that plagued last year’s team have improved from the depths of Division I to the point where it in all likelihood won’t single-handedly cost them a game. Their team defense is tenacious and hounding, ranking second in the nation in efficiency and in the top ten in both two-point and three-point field goal defense with stoppers in the paint (see: Tristan Thompson’s length and athleticism forcing Marcus Morris to become a three-point chucker) and on the perimeter (Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph are two of the best). With capable scorers that line the roster and a scoring extraordinaire that will take and make any shot in the gym, the Longhorns have jumped from the unranked to the second best team in the nation in many evaluators’ eyes, the polar opposite of a downfall last season that’s long in the past.

Barnes and Johnson are leading Texas up the rankings

- The biggest basketball game in the history of the Mountain West conference will take place Wednesday night when top-ten foes BYU and San Diego State clash at the Marriott Center in Provo. Even though ESPN isn’t broadcasting the game, the hype surrounding this showdown will build considerably in the hours ahead until Wednesday night’s late tip off. The atmosphere should be absolutely electric and the stakes are considerably high: a win over an RPI top ten foe, a leg up in the race to win the fourth ranked RPI conference in the nation, a number one seed and potential undefeated campaign for the Aztecs and a jump to the second seed line for the home Cougars, to name a few. What’s so fascinating about this matchup is the contrast in styles. BYU, led by the captivating Jimmer Fredette and his capable sidekick Jackson Emery, is more backcourt-focused, a team whose guards generate steals and fast break opportunities, shoot 37% from deep, rank third in the nation in turnover percentage and has a member of their backcourt (Fredette) that uses 33% of his teams’ possessions. San Diego State, meanwhile, features an abundance of depth in their frontcourt, led by the explosive trio of Kawhi Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas. The physical and bruising San Diego State frontline boosts the Aztecs to first in block percentage, eighth in two-point field goal percentage and 23rd in offensive rebounding percentage in the nation. BYU has crumbled in the past when facing superior athleticism and it’s a legitimate concern as to whether the Cougars have the horses up front to match Leonard, White and Thomas. Playing in front of their raucous home fans in an arena where BYU rarely falters should help tremendously.

– So, raise your hand if you had Kansas and Pittsburgh both losing at home in a span of three days. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention/discuss Notre Dame’s jaw-dropping win last night at a place where Pittsburgh is normally invincible just two days following Kansas surrendering their nation-pacing 69-game home winning streak. It’s especially remarkable when you consider that in Notre Dame’s previous two Big East road games at St. John’s and Marquette, two teams that may not make the NCAA Tournament, the Irish lost by a combined 40 points. Give Mike Brey and his team tons and tons of credit for executing and believing in a “burn” gameplan that exhausted the shot clock continuously, limited possessions (ND totaled 37 of 56 points with 11 seconds or fewer on the shot clock) and trusted Ben Hansbrough to create his own shot under enormous pressure. Pittsburgh insisted on switching ball screens and pick-and-roll situations which left Nasir Robinson and the less-than-agile Gary McGhee trying to front Hansbrough in space. The progress that Hansbrough has made improving his conditioning and all-around repertoire from perimeter gunner to capable penetrator, floor general and three-point marksman since his Mississippi State days has been staggering. Although Hansbrough donned the Superman cape late, it was matchup nightmare Carleton Scott that kept the Irish within striking distance by knocking down critical shots all night long. Scott is truly an X-factor and difference maker for Brey, a weapon the Irish didn’t have during those two blowout losses to St. John’s and Marquette.

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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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