Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - OUTLOOK: Western Kentucky continues to solidify its standing as the class of the Sun Belt Conference. Playing under first-year coach Ken McDonald last year, the Hilltoppers won yet another league title and advanced in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. Over the years, WKU has amassed 41 conference titles -- which ranks third in NCAA history -- in addition to 38 seasons of 20-plus wins and 21 NCAA Tournament berths. Troy is coming off a school-record 14 wins in conference play and should give WKU a run in the East Division. Questions abound in the East where South Alabama must replace four starters and Florida International welcomes mercurial coach Isiah Thomas. Middle Tennessee has been consistent but not spectacular, while the rebuilding process continues at Florida Atlantic. In the West Division, North Texas, Arkansas-Little Rock and Denver are the favorites, while the rest of the division is trying to rebound from disappointing campaigns.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Western Kentucky
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: EAST: 1. Western Kentucky, 2. Troy, 3. South Alabama, 4. Florida International, 5. Middle Tennessee, 6. Florida Atlantic; WEST: 1. North Texas, 2. Arkansas-Little Rock, 3. Denver, 4. UL-Monroe, 5. UL- Lafayette, 6. Arkansas State, 7. New Orleans
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WESTERN KENTUCKY - The Hilltoppers lost the 2008-09 Sun Belt Player of the Year, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, but they've still got this year's preseason Player of the Year in A.J. Slaughter. Slaughter led the team with 16.0 ppg last season, and he headlines a roster that returns four starters and five of the top six scorers from a year ago. And with coach McDonald's reputation as an excellent recruiter, the Hilltoppers won't be going away any time soon. Keep in mind, they went a perfect 13-0 last year at Diddle Arena. Also back in the mix are juniors Steffphon Pettigrew (12.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Sergio Kerusch (11.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg). Pettigrew is widely considered one of the league's top defenders, while Kerusch is the SBC's top returning rebounder. Also back is 6-9 senior Jeremy Evans, who averaged 8.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and two blocks per game.
TROY - The Trojans are coming off a 19-win season in which they posted a program-best 14-4 mark in league play. They were the only team last year to beat every squad in the SBC, which helped garner the seventh Coach of the Year award for head coach Don Maestri, who is entering his 28th year at Troy. Richard Delk enters his senior season after being voted the league's Newcomer of the Year last year. A transfer from Mississippi State, Delk started every game and posted 13.9 ppg and 4.8 rpg after sitting out the 2007-08 season due to NCAA rules. Also back is leading scorer and First Team All-SBC pick Brandon Hazzard (16.2 ppg), who scored 20 or more points in 11 games. He led the conference and ranked seventh nationally in three-point shooting percentage (.449). The team also welcomes back Michael Vogler, who grabbed Third Team All-SBC honors after averaging 10.4 ppg and 4.0 rpg. Alabama transfer Yamene Coleman (6-9, 230) provides some beef down low.
SOUTH ALABAMA - The Jaguars must replace four starters and a total of 10 letterwinners from last year's squad. In all, only four players return from last year's 20-win team that earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament. However, they've got a fine coach in Ronnie Arrow, who has made three NCAA Tournament appearances and won three SBC Coach of the Year awards in his 11-year tenure. They've also got LaShun Watson, the team's top returning scorer (7.0 ppg) and rebounder (4.2 rpg), and one of only two current players who started a game last year. The other is senior Bryan Sherrer (11 starts, 5.3 ppg), who provides some much needed leadership at the point and is also an 89-percent free-throw shooter. Gone are the top three scorers from a year ago, though coach Arrow is expecting bigger contributions from forwards Philip Tabet (2.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Charles Tabet (1.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg).
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL - Without question, the biggest offseason story in the conference was FIU's decision to hire NBA legend and former New York Knicks president and coach Isiah Thomas, who was fired after four subpar seasons and a sexual harassment suit. Thomas faces a huge rebuilding task with a team that hasn't posted a winning season since 1999-2000 and returns only five letterwinners. But he is up to the challenge of trying to bring a winning pedigree to the FIU program. Forward Nicola Gacsesa headlines the returning players after averaging 10.0 ppg and 4.6 rpg last year. But there isn't much experience beyond Gacsesa. SBC Freshman of the Year Freddy Asprilla (13.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg) left the program when former coach Sergio Ruoco was fired after the season. To try and stay competitive, Thomas wants to establish an aggressive defensive identity. He also scoured the junior college ranks and landed 6-5 forward Marvin Roberts, who was the nation's leading juco scorer with an average of 29.6 ppg last year.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE - The Blue Raiders have been a model of consistency under eighth-year coach Kermit Davis. They've won at least 15 games in every year of Davis' tenure, and the team enters this season eyeing a third straight campaign of 10 or more wins in league play. As long as senior forward Desmond Yates is around, that goal is certainly reachable. Yates is the league's top returning scorer (17.2 ppg) and has been a First Team All-SBC selection for the past two years. He shot a blistering 57.9 percent from the floor last year and also connected on 78.7 percent of his free throws. He'll be joined in the frontcourt by senior center Theryn Hudson (6-10, 250), who returns after taking a medical redshirt. Look out for senior forward Montarrio Haddock, who averaged 9.9 points and a team-best 5.2 rebounds despite playing only 19 minutes per game in 2008-09. He averaged 15.3 ppg over the final seven games. The team lacks experience in the backcourt, though juco transfers Rod Emmanuel and James Washington could make an immediate impact.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC - Don't expect a major turnaround at FAU in its second year of the Mike Jarvis-era. The Owls are coming off a 2-16 season in the Sun Belt and welcome 10 newcomers. They also must replace leading scorer Paul Graham (18.5 ppg). Jarvis is high on this year's recruiting class, but he knows the rebuilding process will take some time. Sophomore guard Shavar Richardson headlines a slim returning cast. Richardson knocked down 57 three- pointers and led all SBC freshmen with an average of 11.8 points per game. Also back is junior forward Brett Royster, who established an FAU single- season record last year with 73 blocked shots, which also led the conference. While he is no doubt a solid post presence (5.3 rpg), Royster will need to improve upon his 7.1 ppg if the Owls are to compete down low. Forward Demonte Simpson (6-9, 270) and guard Darren Stewart (6-4, 210) could play right away as freshmen.
NORTH TEXAS - The Mean Green are seeking a fourth straight 20-win season under ninth-year coach Johnny Jones. And with all five starters back from last year's squad, they've got a pretty good chance to do just that. But more than anything, this team has its sights set on getting back to the NCAA Tournament. The roster is locked and loaded. Josh White averaged 11.3 ppg and 2.9 rpg despite a wrist injury that limited him for much of the season. Now healthy, he is poised to improve those numbers and remains a deadly free-throw shooter (90.6 percent). Forward Eric Tramiel enters his senior season and is a preseason all-conference pick, having averaged 12.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg while shooting 58 percent from the field. Junior Tristan Thompson (11.4 ppg) is a dangerous wingman who hit 37.4 percent of his threes last year. Juco transfer Shannon Shorter (6-4, 200) and freshman Jacob Holmen (6-8, 215) highlight the newcomers. If the Mean Green can improve their scoring defense (74.7), they'll have a very good chance to win the West.
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK - The Trojans are coming off a year in which they won 23 games and set a school record for conference victories by going 15-3 en route to the West Division title. They've put together back-to-back 20-win seasons under seventh-year coach Steve Shields but will return just two starters from last year's squad. That means Shields will likely put even more emphasis on a defense that held opponents to just 63.4 ppg and 40.2 percent shooting from the floor. Senior Wayne Burton (3.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) returns to the starting front court and must elevate his production, while Matt Mouzy (10.1 ppg) is back for his junior season in the UALR backcourt. Mouzy shot a team-high 38.2 percent from beyond the arc and also had 36 steals. The big addition to the team is junior point guard Solomon Bozeman, who started 24 games as a freshman at South Florida, but then saw his minutes decrease dramatically in his sophomore year. The team is also counting on contributions from juco transfer Alex Garcia-Mendoza at guard.
DENVER - The Pioneers' 15 victories marked a jump of four wins from the previous season, and that steady improvement should continue with all five starters back for third-year coach Joe Scott. Forward Nate Rohnert was named to the All-SBC First Team and is poised for big things in his senior season. Rohnert ranked in the top-10 in the conference in scoring (15.3 ppg), field goal percentage (.493), assists (4.7 apg) and steals (1.3 spg). Also returning to the frontcourt is junior Rob Lewis (12.9 ppg), who started all 31 games and led the team with 5.5 boards per game. Lewis ranked sixth in the conference in field goal percentage (.552) and also shot 80 percent from the foul line. Sophomore guard Brian Stafford is back after scoring 11.4 ppg as a freshman, while bench player Andrew Hooper (9.2 ppg) also returns after shooting a team- best 46.6 percent from beyond the arc. That Pioneers have been a top-25 scoring defenses in the two years under coach Scott, and that philosophy won't change this season.
UL-MONROE - The Warhawks lost their starting backcourt combination early in the 2008-09 season and were never able to recover, as they managed just 10 wins for a second straight year. But now the team returns all five starters in addition to its sixth man. Former All-Sun Belt guard Tony Hooper broke his foot after just four games, though he now returns after being granted a fifth year of eligibility. Also back is Dynile Forbes, who was slowed by a badly sprained ankle early in the season but came on strong late, averaging a team- best 14.5 ppg over the final 10 games. ULM also welcomes back senior guard Malcolm Thomas, the team's leading scorer (12.3 ppg) and three-point shooter (.400). Down low is Rudy Turner, who averaged 9.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a year ago.
UL-LAFAYETTE - After winning the West two years ago, the Ragin' Cajuns took a step backward and finished in fourth place last season, as a total of 61 games were lost to injuries and illness. Excuses aside, of all the coaches in the Sun Belt, Robert Lee is the one who can least afford to come up short of expectations. That's because the team returns nine different players who started last year, including the top three scorers. Topping that list is junior forward Chris Gradnigo (13.3 ppg), who has led the team in scoring in each of the last two seasons. In addition to Gradnigo, Travis Bureau (12.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Randell Daigle (11.3 ppg) provide plenty of scoring punch. Daigle is able to stretch the floor thanks to his average of nearly three three-pointers per game.
ARKANSAS STATE - After a 13-7 start, the wheels came off for the Red Wolves during a 10-game skid that ultimately ended their season in the opening round of the conference tournament. If ULL coach Lee is No. 1 on the SBC's coaching hot seat, Arkansas State head coach John Brady might be a close second. Granted, he is only in his second year with the program, but another collapse down the stretch will not bode well for his future. Only two starters return, but one is leading scorer Donald Boone (13.6 ppg). The senior guard grabbed team-high scoring honors 16 times on the season and also ranked second in the conference with 54 steals. The top returning rebounder is senior forward JeJuan Brown, who averaged 7.4 ppg to go along with his 4.8 rebounds.
NEW ORLEANS - Three starters and eight letterwinners return from last year's 11-win team, but the road ahead remains daunting for a New Orleans program that has seen its budget cut dramatically over the years. Third-year coach Joe Pasternack helped in getting $1 million from two local supporters, which marked the athletic department's largest gift in school history. However, of those three returning starters, none averaged better than seven points per game. Center Jaroslav Tyrna heads that list and is the top returning scorer (6.5 ppg) and rebounder (4.9 rpg). Georgia transfer Billy Humphrey, a 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc who averaged 12.2 ppg for the Bulldogs, should make an immediate impact, as should prized recruit Jacolby Pittman.