Sun Belt Conference Preview
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Wow. That’s the only way one can describe the regular season race that the Sun Belt experienced this season. Three teams tied for the league title at 13-5, while Western Kentucky finished one game back, at 12-6. Arkansas State went 11-7, and three more teams went 10-8. In the end, Troy won the tiebreaker over Middle Tennessee State and West Division champ North Texas for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. This could be one of the best league tourneys to watch during Championship Week.
Favorites and Contenders: It’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the top handful of teams, so we will group them all together. Troy, the top seed in the tournament, won its last five games and eight of its last nine to get the title. The Trojans are extremely accurate from the field and from three-point range, and they are balanced. Defensively, they struggle but don’t give up too many fouls. Troy is led by its outstanding perimeter trio of Brandon Hazzard, former Louisville transfer Richard Delk and Michael Vogler, while former Alabama transfer Yamene Coleman provides balance inside. North Texas, the champion of the West Division, has won eight in a row and 12 of its last 14. The Mean Green are an up-tempo team that loves driving to the basket and creating contact. They are one of the best teams in the country and getting to the charity stripe. Defensively, they contest outside shots and rebound. Josh White and Tristan Thompson form a solid backcourt, while George Odufuwa averages a double-double inside. Middle Tennessee is another team that finished strong, winning 11 of its last 13 overall to garner a share of first-place. The Blue Devils are a very good three-point shooting team that rebounds tremendously well on the defensive end. They have a balanced offensive trio, led by forwards Desmond Yates and Montarrio Haddock and guard James Washington III. All three are capable of big scoring outputs. Another hot team is Western Kentucky, which won its last seven league games to finish 12-6 in Sun Belt play. In non-league play, this team knocked off Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Murray State. They do not rely on the three-pointer as much as they did in the past, and the Hilltoppers are actually very effective from two-point range and on the glass. Guard A.J. Slaughter is capable of carrying them to wins, and forwards Steffphon Pettigrew and Jeremy Evans are scorers and rebounders down low. Not surprisingly, the recent surge coincided with the return of Sergio Kerusch from injury; he averaged 17.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in the last eight games.
Sleeper: Even the sleeper has double-digit conference wins. Florida Atlantic went 10-8 in Sun Belt play, although the Owls did lose their last three league games of the season. FAU takes excellent care of the ball and is very accurate from three. Those two things go hand in hand with the dynamite backcourt of Greg Gantt and freshman Raymond Taylor. Gantt is a gunner, while Taylor is an outstanding playmaker. Don't sleep on Player of the Year Tyren Johnson and Louisiana-Lafayette, either.
Prediction: It’s extremely difficult to get a handle on this conference. There are eight teams that finished with double-digit conference wins, so there are plenty of squads that have the ability to get hot and go on a run. In my opinion, whichever team wins the semifinal between Western Kentucky and Troy will win the automatic bid. Both teams have options in the post and on the perimeter, and can really light up the scoreboard. I think the difference will be WKU’s experience and its dominance on the glass. Throw in A.J. Slaughter, and the Hilltoppers seem poised for a return to the NCAA Tournament.