Sun Belt Conference Preview
The Sun Belt Conference was one of the most exciting conferences in the country last season. It had two of the better mid-majors in South Alabama and Western Kentucky, two teams who fought for the regular-season title until the end of the season. They both finished 16-2 on the year, but USA defeated WKU twice, giving the Jaguars the No. 1 seed. Three teams finished within one game of each other in the West division, but Arkansas-Little Rock got the title via tie-breakers. In the conference tournament, Western Kentucky got its revenge by winning the automatic bid, but South Alabama also got an at-large bid. Once in the Big Dance, WKU represented for the Sun Belt by pulling off arguably the most exciting moment of the tournament, A.J. Rogers knocking down a deep three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Drake. The Hilltoppers then beat San Diego to advance to the second-round before falling to UCLA. USA lost to Butler in the first-round. Don’t expect multiple bids again this year, but there will be a great race at the top of the league.
Favorites: South Alabama is coming off of a fantastic season, capped by an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Jaguars do lose two starters, but it could have been worse. Guard Domonic Tilford was charged with possession of cocaine in August, but looks likely to start the season. Starting next to him will be either JC transfer Bryan Sherrer or freshman C.J. Garner. The frontcourt is what has people excited, though. Brandon Davis and DeAndre’ Coleman are two of the best big men in the league, while Ronald Douglas is also solid. Middle Tennessee returns all five starters from last season, and will be a threat to win the league. Leading the way will be the frontcourt duo of Player of the Year candidate Desmond Yates and center Theryn Hudson. The perimeter is also well-stocked, with double-figure scorers Kevin Kanaskie and Demetrius Green returning, as well as point guard Nigel Johnson. Calvin O’Neil is recovered from an ACL injury. Arkansas-Little Rock also returns its entire collection of starters from last season. The Trojans have plenty of options, both inside and out. It starts with combo guard Steven Moore, as well as wings Brandon Patterson and John Fowler. Matt Mouzy gets minutes. Up front, Mike Smith is the go-to-guy, but Shane Edwards and Derrrick Bails are also very solid. North Texas loses three starters from its third-place division finish last season, but two of those starters comprise possibly the best backcourt in the league. Josh White can score and shoot the ball effectively, while Collin Dennis can fill it up as well from the guard spot. Tristan Thompson and Adam McCoy return on the wing, while JC transfer Dominique Johnson will see time. The frontcourt will be carried by newcomers.
Contenders: Western Kentucky will obviously take a step back after its Sweet Sixteen run as the Hilltoppers will be without Courtney Lee and two other starters. Returning on the perimeter will be A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez, two players will play a bigger role this year. JC transfer Anthony Sally might handle the point. Jeremy Evans and D.J. Magley return up front. Louisiana-Lafayette tied for first in its division last year, and returns four starters from that group. The frontcourt has plenty of talent and depth. Chris Gradnigo and Travis Bureau return at forward, while La’Ryan Gary was also productive last year. UNLV transfer Lamar Roberson will make an impact. Junior Randell Daigle and redshirt junior Ryan McCoy should start at guard. Florida Atlantic welcomes new head coach Mike Jarvis, who inherits a talented, experienced squad. Forward Carlos Monroe might be the best player in the conference, while Paul Graham is another all-conference candidate on the wing. The third key returnee is guard Carderro Nwoii, who might move to the two to make room for freshman Alex Tucker.
Sleepers: Florida International struggled last season, finishing fifth in the division and going just 9-20 overall. However, the Golden Panthers own a dynamite duo in former Kansas transfer Alex Galindo and 7-0 center Russell Hicks – both could be all-conference performers. Nikola Gacesa and Freddy Asprilla could start up front, while Florida State transfer Josue Soto has the first shot at the point guard position. Arkansas State, who finished last in its division last year, could be much-improved. Three starters are back, including forwards Yima Chia-Kur and Shawn Morgan and point guard Ifeanyi Koggu. However, former Vanderbilt transfer JeJuan Brown and JC transfer Donald Boone could make immediate impacts. Denver improved by seven wins last season, and could be better this year. There are a lot of solid returnees, including point guard Kyle Lewis and forwards Nate Rohnert and Rob Lewis. Freshman Brian Stafford could make an impact immediately at the guard position.
Rounding out the Pack: Louisiana-Monroe could finish last in the conference, or they can easily finish in the upper half. There is a lot of talent on the roster, start with all-conference guard Tony Hooper, who can carry the Warhawks. Joining him on the perimeter will be Brandon Roberts, former Southern Miss transfer Jarvis Hill and a host of newcomers. Up front, Rudy Turner and Afam Nweke lead a deep group. New Orleans returns just one starter from last season, and the Privateers lose the all-time leading scorer in Sun Belt history, Bo McCalebb. The top returnee is all-conference candidate Kyndall Dykes, who can score and rebound well on the wing. T.J. Worley is also back, as is 6-10 Jaroslav Tyrna. Leading the newcomers will be JC transfers Ejike Hart and Darrian McKinstry. Troy also returns just one starter, and will rely heavily on newcomers. Luckily, one of those newcomers is Mississippi State transfer Richard Delk, while JC transfers Regis Huddleston and Chris Leggett could also start. Leading the returnees are guard Michael Vogler and Trayce Macon.
Prediction: The Sun Belt won’t be as good at the top as it was last season, but overall, it might be more competitive. There isn’t a definite cellar-dweller in the group, as every team has some solid talent and could make noise. For the title, though, it will likely come down to South Alabama and Middle Tennessee, both teams from the East Division. As usual, the West Division has a lot of quality teams, but they might be the lesser of the two divisions. USA has a great frontcourt, and Domonic Tilford – if eligible – is solid in the backcourt. Middle Tennessee has great inside-outside balance and has plenty of options. In the end, I’m going with Middle Tennessee to unseat the Jaguars. The Blue Raiders have the big guys to compete with Brandon Davis and co. with Desmond Yates and Theryn Hudson, and Kevin Kanaskie and Demetrius Green can score. It should be a great season in the Sun Belt, with Middle Tennessee getting the automatic bid.
Player of the Year: Carlos Monroe, F, Florida Atlantic
G- Josh White, North Texas
F- Alex Galindo, Florida International
F- Brandon Davis, South Alabama
F- Carlos Monroe, Florida Atlantic
F- Desmond Yates, Middle Tennessee
G- Collin Dennis, North Texas
G- Tony Hooper, Louisiana-Monroe
G- Paul Graham, Florida Atlantic
G- Domonic Tilford, South Alabama
C- Russell Hicks, Florida International