New Orleans (SBC) - Tuesday was the first day of Sun Belt Media Days. Arkansas State along with the Western Division were profiled.
UALR enters the 2010-11 season led by a group of five seniors, including its top three scorers from a year ago, looking to rebound from a disappointing 2009-10 season in which the Trojans went from a 23-8 record to an 8-22 mark.
Coach Steve Shields said his group of seniors has done an excellent job so far in the off season and he is excited to get started.
The backcourt duo of seniors Soloman Bozeman – a Preseason Third Team All-Conference selection – and Alex Garcia-Mendoza combined to score 764 of the Trojans 2,028 points scored during the 2009-10 season which is nearly 40 percent of the teams total scoring. The duo averaged a combined 25.5 points per game. In addition the Trojan team finished fourth overall in the SBC in three-point shooting.
"You're only good as your senior leadership," Shields said. "I don't know if we're going to have one guy average points for us. I think we have several guys we can go to."
The Trojans welcome seven newcomers, including four true freshmen, to their roster.
Shields said he expects junior transfer forward Eric Kibi and junior guard D'Andre Williams to also be impact players this year. In that mix is true freshman Gus Leeper. Shields said the 6'9" forward has worked hard this summer, including conditioning with the strength coach and adding 15 pounds to his stature. "Every day in practice he hangs on," Shields said. "He'll continue to get better every day."
With the league's new changes in non-conference scheduling, Shields said it will be a challenge to schedule home games, but he said UALR has done a good job of preparing a challenging schedule.
"We all want to better the league from the RPI standpoint," he said. "I don't think there's a coach that doesn't want to better the league."
Shields enters his eighth season at UALR in search of the Trojans' fifth SBC Division Championship under his watch. With the Sun Belt Tournament returning to nearby Hot Springs, Ark. for the third-straight season, UALR is in search of its first postseason appearance since 1996. Shields said with all of the talent in the league, it will be a challenge to get there.
"Our league is going to be very strong again this year," he said. "With the returning players in this league, I think it's going to be a very challenging year for each and everyone us."
Shields (113 wins) is 20 victories shy of tying Mike Newell (133) as the program's all-time winningest coach.
In just his third year at the helm, coach John Brady's Red Wolves sit at No. 2 in the Sun Belt's West Division Preseason Poll to begin the year.
Arkansas State returns four of their five starters, including Second Team All-Conference selection Martavius Adams who was the Red Wolves' top scorer and rebounder from last season. The junior ranked fourth in the league in rebounding and was one of only two players for ASU to start all 31 games last season.
Despite losing the Sun Belt's Freshman on the Year Brandon Reed due to transfer, the Red Wolves' Donald Boone was granted a sixth year of eligibility. While it may be difficult to replace Reed, Brady said Boone, another Second Team All-Conference pick, could be a more reliable player with his experience.
"From a consistency standpoint on the floor, he may be a better fit for us," Brady said.
ASU also added some significant size to their roster with junior forwards Chano Rashiduddin and Malcoln Kirkland. The Red Wolves now boast four players over 6'7" and three over 6'8".
Brady said he has a lot of good talent on his roster such as junior guard Daniel Bryant, who played sporadically due to dislocating his shoulder but still averaged 10.5 points per game. In that mix is senior guard Rashad Allison who led the team in assists (127 on the season) and freshman forward Brandon Peterson.
"Peterson could eventually be one of the best forwards in this league," Brady said. "I'm excited about all of those guys."
Besides the newcomers on the court, there are new faces on the sidelines too with associate coach Isaac Brown and assistant coach Richard Williams. Williams comes from Mississippi State where he helped the Bulldogs make a Final Four appearance. "Arkansas State has two final four coaches on its bench," Brady said. "We're on course to improve here to go from ten wins to 17 wins."
Fourth-year head coach Joe Scott and the Pioneers own the nation's eighth-longest home winning streak at 15 games and look to extend the streak into the 2010-11 season.
Denver hopes to defend its home turf with the help of the seven of eight returning top scorers, including four of five starters.
"We have a lot of experience coming back," coach Joe Scott said. "I think the experience is important because we won 19 games in our third year here."
Sophomore guard Chase Hallam started all 32 games as a freshman last season for the Pioneers and was second in the league in three-point field goal percentage (.495), seventh in field goal percentage (.528) and eleventh in steals (1.3). He averaged 10.1 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game and 30.5 minutes per game with a .733 free throw percentage.
Junior guard Brian Stafford has started all 63 games since arriving at Denver two seasons ago. In the 2009-10 campaign, Stafford was fifth in the conference in three-point field goals made (2.1), eight in three-point field goal percentage (.395), tenth in free throw percentage (.780) and 19th in scoring (12.4).
"I think our backcourt is going to be even better this year with those two guys," Scott said.
With the challenge of replacing All-Conference First Team player Nate Rohnert, Scott said he plans to fill that hole with not just one player but collectively as a team.
Of those players he expects to make an impact are redshirt sophomore Trevor Noonan and freshman forward Chris Udofia. Scott said the pair add depth to the roster by adding pieces the Pioneers haven't had in the past.
"They're bigger. We're adding athleticism we haven't had, we're adding size and bulk we haven't had," Scott said. "Its' going to take them time, but I believe both of them will be able to help us right away."
In August and September, Denver traveled to Spain for a 13-day tour of the country and went 4-2 against the country's professional teams. "We were fortunate that we were able to do a foreign tour and get those guys in and go over and play very food Spanish pro teams," Scott said.
According to ESPN.com, the Pioneers finished the 2009-10 season first in the nation in adjusted field goal percentage (.579), second in two-point field goal percentage (.568), eighth in actual field goal percentage (.490) and tied for 14th in three-point percentage (.395). Still, Denver is looking to continue improving.
"When you improve on 19 wins, you talk about really becoming a good basketball team," Scott said.
Louisiana-Lafayette hopes to turn their program around with their new coach Bob Marlin. Marlin's successful 17-year coaching career includes 348 victories, four Coach of the Year awards and 11 seasons of 20-or-more wins.
Although Marlin brings a hefty resume to ULL, he said it's still a process to transition a team to a new coach's culture. "Every program is different. You've got to get guys that work hard, successful and love the game," Marlin said. "We are excited about this year."
The Cajuns will have to replace last season's Sun Belt Player of the Year, Tyren Johnson, but
ULL will have the benefit of leadership on the Cajuns' squad with the return of the core senior leadership of Colby Batiste, Travis Bureau, Randell Daigle, La'Ryan Gary and Courtney Wallace.
Daigle and Bureau are just shy of becoming the next players in ULL history to enter the 1,000-point club. Daigle is 172 points of shy of the goal, and Bureau needs 320 to reach the milestone.
Daigle, who was named to the Third Team All-Conference squad, has 183 career triples and averaged a career-best 11.5 points per game last season. "We're proud of Randell," Marlin said. "He's really improved his game. We're looking forward to a good year from him."
Marlin said he's impressed with the continued improvement around the league and is looking forward to the challenge of rebuilding ULL's program.
"We're excited about the opportunity that's in front of us, and doing it in a league that's getting better and that's going to have a good year," Marlin said.
Also beginning his first year in the Sun Belt is Keith Richard who returns to his alma mater as head coach. Richard was a player at ULM (1979-82), a graduate assistant at ULM (1984-86) and an assistant coach at ULM (1989-94). He was also the head coach at Louisiana Tech from 1998-2007 and has the 10th best winning percentage in the Sun Belt in conference games (.696) from his time at Louisiana Tech.
Richard said while it will be a challenge to begin from the bottom, he's looking forward to the opportunity to return to the Warhawks. "Having graduated from here and being a former player here and assistant here, I have a lot of good memories here and in this town," Richard said. "I want things to be better for this university and this program. It's been great so far. Now the hard stuff starts but we're excited about it."
Picked to finish last in the West Division, Richard and the Warhawks have their work cut out for them. ULM only returns five players from last year's team, and only two of them who played any minutes for the team last season.
Lawrence Gilbert (31 games played, 26 starts) and Tommie Sykes (31 games played, six starts) are the only two letterwinners returning for the Warhawks from the 2009-10 season. Gilbert averaged 9.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while Sykes averaged 10.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. Fabio Ribeiro also returns after playing in six games last season before taking a medical redshirt.
"Obviously, we have a long way to go in this program," Richard said. "As long as no one gets hurt, we have a few pieces here and there that maybe we can make this thing interesting."
Richard said he is encouraged by the team's chemistry despite having to transition to a new coach. "What stuck out at me is the five returning players in our program; they look to me like Sun Belt conference level players," he said. "I believe they can play in this league. As far as the newcomers, two or three of those guys need to develop quickly by conference play so we can have seven or eight guys that can compete in this league."
Six new faces join the ULM roster. Richard brought in six newcomers this season, including four freshmen, a junior college transfer and a four-year school transfer. Freshmen Ifeanyi Eke (Jackson, Miss.), Marcelis Hansberry (Jackson, Miss.), Steven McClellan (Fresno, Calif.) and R.J. McCray (Arlington, Texas) join the program along with Christian Bibi Ndongo from John Wood CC and Charles Winborne (Shreveport, La.) from Loyola University-Chicago.
There are also two new faces on the sidelines with new assistant coaches Robert Lee and Cord Wright. Lee joins the ULM coaching staff as a former head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette. Lee spent the last six seasons as the head coach of the Ragin' Cajuns and spent 14 seasons overall at ULL. Last season Lee coached the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, Tyren Johnson.
Kansas State transfer Fred Brown becomes eligible. After sitting out last season, 6-2 junior guard Fred Brown begins his first season of eligibility at ULM. Brown averaged 8.1 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 34 games for the Wildcats in 2008-09. Brown has been named the Top Newcomer in the Sun Belt by The Sporting News.
North Texas punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years with a 66-63 win over Troy in the Sun Belt Tournament title game last season. The Mean Green was riding the nation's third longest win streak (11 games) before falling to No. 15 seed Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament. NT is one of just 36 teams in the nation to win at least 20 games in each of the last four years.
"We're extremely excited with the way we finished the season last year on a strong note," coach Johnny Jones said. "We're very fortunate to have a lot of those guys back"
The Mean Green returns three of its school and Sun Belt record four all-conference players from 2010. NT brings back George Odufuwa (second team, All-Sun Belt Tournament team), Josh White (third team) and Tristan Thompson (third team), but loses the services of Eric Tramiel (third team, Sun Belt Tournament MVP). Only two other teams in the history of the Sun Belt have had four players selected all-conference - VCU in 1981 and South Alabama in 2008.
North Texas was picked a preseason No. 1 in the West Division and has three Preseason All-Conference Players. Odufuwa and White are First Team selections and Thompson was picked for the Second Team.
"I'm excited for them," Jones said. "With they're hard work and energy and time they've put in over the years, they've been great for us. They've done an incredible job with their program and helped put us in the position we've been in now at the top of our league to win championships. When you see them awarded and respected, I think it's great."
North Texas set a new school record with 24 wins in 2010 the victory over Troy in the Sun Belt championship game. The victory was also Jones' 150th at North Texas. Jones ranks second in program history in wins.
North Texas was the overwhelming favorite to win the Sun Belt West Division in the 2010 Preseason Poll, and followed through with its first division crown since joining the league in 2000. NT finished tied for the best record in the Sun Belt (13-5) and entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed before cutting down the nets in Hot Springs.
For a second straight year, NT led the NCAA in free throws made per game. NT averaged 20.06 makes per game, which represents 27 percent of the Mean Green's 73.8 points per game. Odufuwa ranked 13th in the NCAA in rebounding with 10.7 per game, and was one of just 20 players in the country to average a double-double in 2010.
Coming off a successful season, the Mean Green will have a target on their backs while defending their conference title, and Jones said he prefers being at the top position.
"I thought our guys really responded well to the challenge [last season]," Jones said. "I'm hoping we have that type of success this year. We've put in a lot of hard work and really worked our butts off to get in this position. We'd much rather be picked in this position than to be at the bottom and claw our way to the top."