Sun Belt Conference Tournament: Preview & Prediction

    
March 4th, 2009

This is one in a series of conference tournament previews, in which I run down all the teams involved, give a brief statistical review and present the log5 projections, using in-conference offensive and defensive efficiency. The basic log5 methodology comes from Bill James, and this is an area Ken Pomeroy has looked at in the past as well. I claim nothing new in the application, but obviously with slightly different methodologies, these numbers may differ from others you find.  I don’t claim to be an expert on any particular conference, and I’m sure there are some mis-characterizations on some players I’ve seen sparingly at best, so please add your thoughts in the comments. Anyway, with no further ado, the preview follows below:

 

Sun Belt Conference Tournament

The Sun Belt is a bit odd with it’s 13 team setup, with the first three seeds getting a bye from the first round, which is played at campus sites, then the remainder of the games played in Hot Springs, AR, which, as far as I know, is a relatively neutral site.

 

Tournament Odds

#

Team

QF

SF

F

W

1

Western Kentucky

100.00%

90.49%

75.07%

55.40%

2

Arkansas Little Rock

100.00%

65.40%

41.27%

17.21%

3

Troy

100.00%

61.10%

27.52%

9.23%

4

North Texas

93.35%

58.60%

14.54%

6.11%

5

Middle Tennessee

71.43%

29.94%

5.46%

1.74%

6

South Alabama

90.37%

37.68%

13.99%

3.83%

7

Denver

91.25%

33.76%

16.96%

5.25%

8

Louisiana Lafayette

73.45%

7.57%

2.78%

0.70%

9

Florida International

26.55%

1.94%

0.56%

0.11%

10

Louisiana Monroe

8.75%

0.85%

0.13%

0.01%

11

New Orleans

9.63%

1.22%

0.13%

0.01%

12

Arkansas St.

28.57%

10.22%

1.52%

0.40%

13

Florida Atlantic

6.65%

1.24%

0.07%

0.01%

 

The Hilltoppers are pretty clear favorites, but beyond that there’s a lot of parity, with several teams having a solid chance of advancing. Arkansas St. look like the main lower ranked team that could cause some trouble.

 

#1 – Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (21-8, 15-3) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.169

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2008 (Sweet Sixteen)

 

After making a great run in the NCAA tournament last season, the Hilltoppers seemed poised to give it a another shot, after an excellent season that including beating a highly-ranked Louisville team. WKU features the Sun Belt’s best offense; a group that makes a pretty good percentage of its shots, but really shines on the offensive glass, where it pulls down a lot of misses and generates a lot of extra opportunities. It also has a pretty solid defense, again predicated on rebounds and defending the inside.

 

Players to watch:

6-1 SR Orlando Mendez-Valdez, 14.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 58.6 eFG% - Mendez-Valdez became the first Hilltopper to record a triple double earlier this season, and while that was clearly a career game, he’s definitely capable of filling up those columns in the boxscore. His real strength, though, is his three-point shot, the best on the team, and when he gets it going he can put up a lot of points quickly.

 

6-3 JR A.J. Slaughter, 15.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 51.2 eFG% - Slaughter leads the Hilltoppers in scoring, and while his percentages aren’t as good as Mendez-Valdez’s, he’s a good player who shoots effectively and doesn’t make many mistakes.

 

 

#2 – Arkansas Little Rock Trojans (22-7, 15-3) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.094

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1990 (1st Round)

 

The Trojans had a very solid non-conference season, including beating Creighton and Oral Roberts, and keeping it reasonably close with Memphis. Little Rock has the strongest defense in the conference, holding opponents to under 40% from the field. It’s equally good inside and outside, and does enough in the other areas to keep its opponents’ offense under wraps. With the ball, the Trojans are only average, a good inside scoring team that gets to the free throw line a lot, but really struggles with turnovers.

 

Players to watch:

6-4 SR John Fowler, 10.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG,50.0 eFG% - Fowler is notable because he is one of the nation’s best players at getting to the free-throw line, putting up a FTA/FGA ratio of nearly 80%. He leads the team in rebounding, but isn’t really a force on the inside.

 

6-7 SR Shane Edwards, 11.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 51.2 eFG% - Edwards is second in scoring and rebounding for the Trojans, and is an effective forward, shooting over 50% from two, but really doing poorly with his three-point shots.

 

 

#3 – Troy Trojans (19-11, 14-4) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.066

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2003 (1st Round)

 

Troy had a bad start to the season, but turned it around in 2009, going 14-3 since January 1st. It’s managed this with a smart perimeter game, shooting over 40% from behind the arc, and rarely turning the ball over. The Trojans have cost themselves a lot of this success with some weak defensive play,  forcing a lot of turnovers, but allowing opponents to make shots pretty easily, especially from three, and doing a poor job on the defensive glass.

 

Players to watch:

6-1 JR Michael Vogler, 10.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 51.7 eFG% - Vogler leads the Sun Belt in steals and assists, and when you consider that he holds onto the ball well, and is a pretty good shooter, he’s the kind of guy who can generate a lot of useful possessions.

 

6-4 JR Richard Delk, 13.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 54.6 eFG% - Most of Delk’s value comes from his scoring; he’s not a major contributor in other parts of the boxscore, but he can have some big scoring games and is one of the team’s more effective two-point shooters.

 

 

#4 – North Texas Mean Green (18-11, 11-7) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.043

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2007 (1st Round)

 

The Mean Green run one of the faster paces in the Sun Belt, but manage to maintain a pretty efficient offense, despite not making a lot of shots. The reason they can do this is free throws: North Texas gets to the line as often as any team in the nation, and a pretty good 73% mark from the stripe earns them a lot of points. A problem is that they send opponents to the line pretty often themselves, being the worst team in the league at fouling. Opponents take very few threes against the Mean Green, but with given that they make 50% of twos, there’s not much reason to be tempted into the outside shot.

 

Players to watch:

6-7 JR Eric Tramiel, 12.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 59.9 eFG% - Tramiel’s raw numbers don’t really strike you that strongly, but he’s a very interesting player, leading the team in rebounding and shooting 59% from the floor. He also doesn’t turn the ball over much, and gets to the free throw line quite often. If he could get his free throw percentage up from 62%, he’d be that much more of an offensive threat.

 

5-10 JR Dominique Johnson, 10.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 50.0 eFG% - Johnson is a really effective guard, not a primary scoring option, but a good ball distributor who leads the team in steals, and shoots 39% from behind the arc and 86% from the free throw line.

 

 

#5 – Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (17-13, 10-8) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.003

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1989 (2nd Round)

 

After a 5-0 start to the Sun Belt season, Middle Tennessee fell off somewhat, ending up in 5th place, and getting the toughest draw of the opening round in Arkansas St. I’ll credit the Raiders with managing to de-emphasize their weaknesses: they are the conference’s worst three-point shooters, but tend to focus on getting the ball inside a lot. When you combine good inside shooting with great ball control, they are actually a decently efficient team, but not posing a serious danger from long distance somewhat limits them. Defensively, they depend on holding opponents to just one shot a possession, a plan that doesn’t really work out when you let them make as high a percentage as MTSU does.

 

Players to watch:

6-7 JR Desmond Yates, 17.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 61.9 eFG% - Desmond Yates is a really solid inside scorer, and the primary offensive focal point for Middle Tennessee. He’s shot nearly 60% from the field on more than 350 attempts, and his three-point shooting, while modest for most teams, is among the best on the Raiders.

 

6-4 SR Kevin Kanaskie, 12.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 48.7 eFG% - Kanaskie enters the tournament on a major roll, averaging more than 16 points in his last five games, and he’ll need to keep that up for MTSU to make a run. Interestingly, his assists have gradually decreased since the start of the season, and he hasn’t reached his average of four in more than a month.

 

 

#6 – South Alabama Jaguars (17-12, 10-8) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.034

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2008 (1st Round)

 

After winning the tournament last season as the #1 seed, the Jaguars will be hard-pressed to repeat, though their average level offense and defense mean they don’t have a glaring weakness to cover. They tend to pound the ball inside, good offensive rebounders who get to the free throw line often, but a 65% rate once they get there results in a lot of wasted shots. South Alabama plays at a slow pace, which lets it defend well, especially from inside the arc, but results in one of the nation’s worst turnover rates. It also is vulnerable to teams that take a lot of long-distance shots, and can potentially find itself shot out of the game.

 

Players to watch:

6-6 SR Brandon Davis, 13.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 60.8 eFG% - Davis doesn’t lead the team in points or rebounds, but that’s more about the size of his role than the quality of his play. He’s a 61% shooter from the floor who can crash the boards effectively on both ends, and is a big double-double threat. His main problem is staying out of foul trouble; when he does, he’s easily the most efficient offensive player on the floor.

 

6-7 SR DeAndre Colman, 11.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 55.6 eFG% - Colman is second in the conference in rebounding, and has one of the best defensive rebounding rates in the country. He’s somewhat inconsistent as a scorer, but his play on the glass should not be underestimated in its importance to the Jaguars.

 

 

#7 – Denver Pioneers (14-15, 9-9) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.052

Last NCAA Tournament bid: None

 

Denver is a team I’ve followed in boxscores on and off all season, thanks to its incredibly striking statistical profile. The Pioneers play the slowest brand of basketball in the nation, and it pays off, as they are the country’s most efficient shooting team. They take most of their shots from three, where they hit  a solid 38%, but their 58% on shots from two is what’s really eye-catching. There’s a price to their speed, however, as they are a relatively poor team with turnovers and are country’s worst rebounders. Defensively, the Denver system isn’t as effective; it struggles to defend the interior, and commits a lot of fouls. Still, this is a team that’s somewhat better than its record might suggest, and can cause some difficult matchups. With the Pioneers having one of the nation’s least experienced rosters, this year should be a good learning experience for a team that should improve in seasons to come.

 

 Players to watch:

6-5 JR Nate Rohnert, 15.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.4 SPG, 55.1 eFG% - Rohnert leads the Pioneers in points, rebounds, assists and steals, and plays more minutes than anyone in the Sun Belt. As one of the more interior oriented Pioneers, his 58% shooting percentage from inside is one of the main reasons Denver leads the nation from two-point range.

 

6-7, SO Rob Lewis, 12.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 56.7 eFG% - Lewis is the second half of Denver’s interior duo, and has the team’s best rebounding rate. He takes too many threes, where his percentage is not very good, but like Rohnert is a high percentage player inside the arc.

 

 

#8 – Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (10-19, 7-11) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.026

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2005 (1st Round)

 

There’s an interesting shift now that we’ve reached the #8 seed: all of the top 7 teams average more than a point per possession offensively, and all the teams from 8 and below, including Louisiana-Lafayette, average less. The bright spot for the Cajuns is a league average defense that protects the inside really well, but gets torched from behind the arc. An interesting tidbit about the Cajun offense is that it has one of the lowest blocked shot rates in the country, but doesn’t shoot particularly well inside.

 

Players to watch:

6-7 SO Travis Bureau, 12.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 53.4 eFG% - Bureau is an outside-oriented 6-7 player, taking the majority of his shots from behind the arc. His scoring has tailed off precipitously in recent weeks, and he will need to reverse that trend for the Cajuns to succeed.

 

6-8 JR Tyren Johnson, 6.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 43.8 eFG% - Johnson is the team’s best rebounder and shot-blocker, but should be discouraged from shooting, especially from behind the arc.

 

 

 

#9 – Florida International Golden Panthers (12-19, 7-11) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.060

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1995 (1st Round)

 

The Panthers will likely rue the fact that they missed out on hosting a first round game, as they have won just two road games all season, both against teams ranked below them in conference. FIU’s offense is decent, with good long-distance shooting covering for some big problems with turnovers and free throws. The defense is a major problem, though, not getting many stops or getting opponents to give up the ball.

 

Players to watch:

6-3, SR Alex Galindo, 15.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 53.2 eFG% - Galindo missed a lot of time with an ankle injury, but showed few signs of rust on his return, leading the team in scoring. He’s a prolific three-point shooter who really added another dimension to the team when he was re-inserted in the line-up.

 

6-10, FR Freddy Asprilla, 14.0 PPG, 9.3 RPG,  53.7 eFG% - Asprilla is the kind of freshman that you should keep your eye on, as he’s become a critical player for the Panthers early in his college career. He’s the Sun Belt’s leading rebounder, despite missing a month in the middle of the conference season, and starting just 12 games on the year. He’s raw, there can’t be any doubt of that, just a 45% free-throw shooter who doesn’t assert himself defensively with shot-blocks, but there are few players in the country as dominant on the glass as Asprilla has been.

 

 

#10 – Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (10-19, 6-12) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.099

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1996 (1st Round)

 

The Warhawks had tough season, going through a few bad losing spells and having a lot of trouble on both ends of the floor. They are pretty good three-point shooters, but their abysmal 41% shooting from two basically sinks their offensive hopes. Defensively, there’s not much they do particularly well, with opponents scoring seemingly at will inside, and Monroe not being able to get back the ball often enough when its opponents do miss.

 

Players to watch:

6-8 SO Rudy Turner, 10.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 51.4 eFG% - Rudy Turner does a lot of good work inside, an effective shot blocker and an excellent offensive rebounder. His 51% from the field is easily the team’s highest, but his foul trouble limits his minutes.

 

6-6 JR Malcolm Thomas, 12.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 46.9 eFG% -  Thomas has had a sort-of ebb-and-flow approach to his season, putting up some big performances at the start of the conference schedule, then going through a lean stretch before building back up in his last few games. He shoots about the same percentage from two and from three, but takes most of his shots inside, which results in a lot of misses.

 

 

#11 – New Orleans Privateers (11-18, 6-12) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.100

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1996 (1st Round)

 

It’s pretty tough to find a team that’s as bad a group of shooters as the Privateers: they’ve shot just 27% from behind the arc and 64% from the free throw line. They do better inside the arc, and most of their shots come from there, but they also place near the bottom of the league in turnovers and offensive rebounding.  New Orleans’ defense is better than a lot of teams in the league, but it can’t make up for the offensive problems, despite leading the conference in forcing turnovers.

 

Players to watch:

6-3 SR Kyndall Dykes, 17.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 49.4 eFG% - The 3rd leading scorer in the conference, Dykes has been on fire of late, averaging well over 20 points in his last four games, and shooting 55% from the field, though with just a handful of three attempts.

 

6-4 SR T.J. Worley, 16.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 50.1 eFG% -  Worley is the only player on the Privateers to shoot higher than 50%  eFG, which is mostly powered by solid two-point shooting, as his long distance shot is somewhat spotty. Most of his contribution comes in points, and he’s a good outside option when compared with the more inside-oriented Dykes.

 

 

#12 – Arkansas St. Red Wolves (13-16, 5-13) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.020

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1999 (1st Round)

 

Arkansas St. is one of the most interesting teams I’ve profiled, entering the tournament on a nine-game losing streak, but actually ranked seventh by efficiency margin, and one of the least lucky teams in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Red Wolves boast one of the conference’s better defenses, with good offensive rebounding and strong interior defense being the keys. Their offense is the conference’s second worst, and is particularly bad inside, where most of its shots come from, but they’ve more often then not been able to keep opponents close. From a pure points margin stand, Arkansas St. is eight games below .500, while scoring just two less points per game than they allow, a surprising statistic. The numbers say that this team is the best chance for a surprise semi-finalist, but it’s hard to see them snapping their losing streak with a long tournament run.

 

Players to watch:

6-8 JR Eric McKinney, 8.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 54.9 eFG% - McKinney is a solid player, and while he doesn’t often explode for a big point total, when he does get offensive chances he takes them pretty effectively. He’s the team’s best rebounder and a very good shot-blocker, and an efficient offensive option inside.

 

6-5 JR Donald Boone, 13.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 49.5 eFG% -  The Wolves’ leading scorer, Boone is also second in the Sun Belt in steals, and is one of the best three-point shooters on the team. He’s a decent inside shooter as well, and while his percentages aren’t spectacular, they’re just good enough for him to be efficient.

 

 

#13 – Florida Atlantic Owls (6-25, 2-16) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.137

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2002 (1st Round)

 

Florida Atlantic is by a wide margin the worst defensive team in the conference, allowing opponents to score pretty easily. The Owls do defend the outside shot well, but the fact that they still put up such a poor defensive record is a testament to their inability to force turnovers and their trouble stopping opponents inside.  Their offense doesn’t really cover for the defense much, as you’d expect from a cellar-dwelling team.

 

Players to watch:

6-5 SR Paul Graham, 18.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 45.4 eFG% - It takes the conference’s worst team to produce the conference’s top scorer, but unlike what you sometimes see with bad teams, Graham is both the centerpiece of the offense and an effective player. His shooting from the field isn’t particularly good, but he’s an excellent free throw shooter, and rarely turns the ball over, considering how often he touches it.

 

6-8 SO Brett Royster, 7.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 56.5 eFG% -  The Sun Belt’s top shot-blocker also plys his trade for the conference’s punching bag, and is a pretty effective player, shooting well over 50%, getting to the line a lot, and being a solid rebounder. He’s not utilized much in the offense, but he’s been a better option than a lot of players who have taken more shots.

 

 

My statistical all-Sun Belt team:

Denver JR G/F Nate Rohnert, 15.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.4 SPG, 55.1 eFG%

Western Kentucky SR G Orlando Mendez-Valdez, 14.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 58.6 eFG%

Western Kentucky JR G A.J. Slaughter, 15.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 51.2 eFG%

South Alabama SR F Brandon Davis, 13.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 60.8 eFG%

Middle Tennessee JR F Desmond Yates, 17.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 61.9 eFG%