Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2010 Sun Belt Conference Tournament will be held entirely at neutral sites, as Convention Center Court and Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Arkansas will serve as the venues for the event. All 13 teams are set to take part in the tourney, making this one of the more challenging conference championships to win.
Troy, Middle Tennessee and North Texas all tied for the best record in conference at 13-5 and after the tie-breaker scenarios were worked out, the Trojans landed the top seed. The Mean Green took the second seed and the Raiders the third. The top three spots in this event receive a bye directly into the quarterfinals. The rest of the field is forced to play a first-round bout. The winner of this tournament gets the right to represent the Sun Belt in the NCAA Tournament.
The Sun Belt Tournament kicks off on Saturday, as the eighth-seeded Florida Atlantic Owls meet up with the ninth-seeded South Alabama Jaguars. FAU finished fourth in the East Division standings at 10-8, while USA was fifth at 8-10 in the same division. The Owls, who have 14 wins overall, have improved greatly from last season, when they finished just 6-26 and 2-16 in league play. The Jaguars meanwhile, have taken a step back from a 20-win campaign in 2008-09, as they are 16-14 at the moment. USA though, has had good success in this event, winning it five times.
The second game of the opening round features the fourth-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers against the 13th-seeded New Orleans Privateers. The Toppers came on strong down the stretch, winning six straight games to finish third in the East Division at 12-6. The recent run also pushed the team within a victory of its sixth straight 20-win campaign. WKU is the most decorated team in this event, owning seven titles, including the last two. As for UNO, this will be its last run with the Sun Belt, as the program is expected to drop to the Division III level. The Privateers stumbled to a 3-15 finish, owning the worst record in the conference. UNO, which is 0-3 against WKU in this event, last took home the tourney title in 1996.
First-round action continues with the fifth-seeded Arkansas State Red Wolves taking on the 12th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans. The Red Wolves placed second in the West Division at 11-7, marking their best league record since the 2006-07 season. ASU, which split a pair of meetings with UALR during the regular season, is out for its first tourney title since 1999. The Trojans, meanwhile, have never won this event despite capturing 16 victories. UALR won the West Division last season at 15-3, but stumbled to a sixth place finish this year at 4-14.
In yet another first round bout, the sixth-seeded Denver Pioneers lock horns with the 11th-seeded FIU Golden Panthers. Denver finished in a three-way tie with UL-Lafayette and FAU, but was awarded the highest seed after the tie- breaker scenario played out. The Pioneers' 17 overall wins are their most since the 2004-05 campaign, and they are 6-9 in the SBC Tournament since joining the league during the 1999-00 campaign. For FIU, it made headlines by hiring Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas to be the head coach. The move certainly brought publicity to the program, but not much else. The Panthers placed last in the East Division at 4-14 and carry an eight-game losing streak into this event.
The first round will wrap up with the seventh-seeded UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns battling the 10th-seeded UL-Monroe Warhawks. The Cajuns went from 7-11 last season to 10-8 in the conference this year. ULL is 18-13 all-time in the Sun Belt Tournament, including three championships. On the opposite side, ULM dropped its final four games of the regular season and finished fifth in the West Division at 6-12. The Warhawks lost both meetings with ULL during the season, but by a total of just seven points. ULM is just 1-3 in this event, losing in the first round each of the past two seasons.
The quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt Tournament begins on Sunday and top- seeded Troy will make its first appearance against the winner of the FAU/USA matchup. The Trojans won their final five games of the regular season to earn a share of the conference title and East Division crown. It is the program's first title since winning the Atlantic Sun regular season crown in 2004. Troy, which is 2-4 all-time in this event, earned a bye for the second straight year.
The second game for the quarterfinals will feature the winners of the WKU/UNO and ASU/UALR pairings.
The second-seeded North Texas Mean Green will take the court for the first time in the quarterfinals against either ULL or ULM. The Mean Green won eight straight down the stretch to win its first-ever West Division title at 13-5. The team's No.2 seed is the highest since joining the league in 2000. At 21-8 overall, North Texas has now posted at least 20 wins in four straight seasons for the first time in school history. The Mean Green is 8-8 all-time in this tourney, winning its lone title in 2007.
The quarterfinals conclude with the third-seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders facing the survivor of the Denver/FIU pairing. Winners of their last three games, the Blue Raiders grabbed a share of the East Division title along with Troy. It marks the first time the program has won a share of any league title since 1988-89. The team's 19 wins are also the most since the 2004-05 campaign. Middle Tennessee owns a winning record in this event at 11-9, but has yet to take home the hardware.