Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview
The Sun Belt Conference was not as good as it was a year ago, when South Alabama received an at-large bid and Western Kentucky reached the Sweet Sixteen. Still, it featured an outstanding race for the conference title, as Western Kentucky and Arkansas Little-Rock won their respective divisions, both with 15-3 records. WKU beat out Troy by just one game, while UALR was four games clear of its nearest contender. Seven teams finished at least .500 in conference play.
Favorite: We all know about Western Kentucky from last year’s NCAA Tournament, when they reached the Sweet Sixteen after beating Drake and San Diego. This season, they are still one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, making them a huge threat if they are hitting their shots. A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez form an outstanding backcourt tandem that stroke it and dish it, while Steffphon Pettigrew can also shoot the ball from deep. Sergio Kerusch and Jeremy Evans are underrated down low.
Contenders: Arkansas-Little Rock coasted to a division title, winning 13 of its last 15 games and nine of its last 10. They did lose to WKU twice by a combined 41 points, though. They are led by the forward tandem of Shane Edwards and John Fowler, who can both score in double-figures and rebound the ball. However, the dismissal of leading scorer Steven Moore on Feb. 23 could be key. Troy really likes to push the ball and get baskets in transition. They are efficient and very effective offensively, but the Trojans struggle defensively. They have won 12 of their last 13 contests. They are carried by their perimeter trio of Brandon Hazzard, an excellent shooter; Richard Delk, a former Mississippi State transfer; and Michael Vogler, an excellent distributor and all-around producer.
Sleeper: South Alabama is obviously not as good as it was last season, when the Jaguars received an at-large bid before getting knocked out by Butler in the first round. However, they have won six of their last eight games, and their last five league losses were by a combined 19 points. Guard Dominic Tilford can really score, shooting the ball very well from deep. Up front, USA has an excellent forward duo in Brandon Davis and DeAndre Coleman.
Prediction: Even though the Sun Belt Conference was wide-open all season long and featured an excellent race for the title, it is going to be tough to beat Western Kentucky in a do-or-die situation. The Hilltoppers are very experienced and have offensive options inside and out. Plus, they lost their three league games by a combined 11 points and also own a win over Louisville. This team has been there before, and their ability to shoot the three effectively will be the difference.