Sun Belt attracts nation's top talent

From the Sun Belt Conference

Heading into the 2011-12 season, noted Sun Belt Conference men's basketball teams have attracted some of the best talent in the nation.

Three SBC teams -- Middle Tennessee, North Texas and Western Kentucky – find their 2011 recruiting classes in the top 40 among Division I schools and boast multiple players ranked by Rivals in the top 150.

Sun Belt men's basketball coaches combine for a .574 career winning percentage, higher than the SEC, indicating a history of quality coaching that makes programs in the league attractive to some of the best recruits in the country.

"I think the combination of the returning players and the top caliber recruiting that the Sun Belt schools have done will make our league a very challenging one for years to come," said North Texas head coach Johnny Jones.

Fresh off a return trip to the Sun Belt Conference Championship final in 2011, Jones' Mean Green has an incoming class ranked 36th nationally by Although North Texas will be replacing six seniors, Jones is confidant in his young team's ability to compete.

"We are extremely excited about our incoming class. Signing four of the top 30 players in the state of Texas – including two in the top 10 – along with the addition of Tony Mitchell, will help the transition of losing six very talented seniors."

Mitchell, a Dallas Pinkston star forward, is the first Mean Green basketball player to represent his country on the international stage as he was named to the final USA Basketball 12-man roster that began its title defense in June at the FIBA U19 World Championships in Latvia.

"We are excited about Tony having the opportunity to represent our country at the U19 World Championships," Jones said. "I think it speaks volumes to his abilities that he was chosen among the select few."

A veteran of the U18 Team USA squad that won gold at the FIBA Americas Championships last summer, Mitchell is one of five players selected with previous Team USA experience. The No. 12 ranked high school player in the nation in 2010 averaged 8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game at the FIBA Americas Championship.

North Texas will take the court in 2011-12 with four other players ranked inside the state's top 70 according to - Jordan Williams (7), Chris Jones (24), Forrest Robinson (32) and Trey Norris (70). Casper College guard Brandan Walton, a Region IX All-Tournament selection, also joins North Texas in the fall. Williams, a 6-6 forward from Dallas, is also ranked nationally with his name on Rivals' top 150 list.

Former Duncanville standout and Oklahoma State forward Roger Franklin also signed with North Texas, adding to what is already regarded as the best incoming class in school history.

Coming out of high school, listed Franklin as the No. 9 small forward and the No. 43 rated player overall in the country, and he was the catalyst for Duncanville's 39-0 state title run as a sophomore. Franklin appeared in 56 games over the last two seasons for Oklahoma State. He shot 55.2 percent from the floor while averaging 2.6 points per game as a freshman, and upped his rebounding average to 2.3 per game as a sophomore. A defensive stalwart, Franklin tallied 25 steals and 14 blocks in his time with the Cowboys.

Middle Tennessee is another top Sun Belt squad with a highly-touted recruiting class that has been ranked as high as 19th nationally by and currently ranks 27.

"Our recruiting class will be ranked extremely high at season's end, but what excites me the most about this group is their passion for basketball, and the toughness I think they will bring to our team," said Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis. "Obviously all recruiting classes will be evaluated by the impact they have on your program this time next year."

Included in MT's class are talented junior guards Raymond Cintron, Marcos Knight, and Bruce Massey.

Cintron, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, played for the Puerto Rican National U-19 team in 2008-09. The junior transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast junior college – where he averaged 20.0 points per game and 4.7 assists per game as a freshman – led all scorers at the Nike Global Games and was named to the international all-tournament team.

"He averaged about 20 points per game last year in junior college and is a terrific shooter," Davis said. "He is just tough and understands how to play."

Another junior college transfer, Knight played his freshman season at Middle Georgia where he was named the GJCAA Player of the Year and received player of the week honors three times. Davis described the Dublin, Ga., native as "one of best junior college guards in the country" after leading Middle Georgia to the national junior college tournament.

Massey comes to the Blue Raiders from Dodge City Community College where he led the team in assists (195) and steals (122) as a freshman and earned honorable mention honors in the KJCCC Western Conference. "We feel Bruce is one of the very best defenders in junior college basketball," Davis said.

One of the most successful teams in league history, WKU, has received national recognition for its signing class for the 2011-12 season by various recruiting outlets. After the early signing period in November, ESPN listed WKU's class as being "on the cusp" of its ranking of the nation's top 25 classes, and various other national outlets recognized WKU's recruiting efforts for the Class of 2011.

Four of WKU's signees are listed by as being at least three-star recruits. The only other Sun Belt Conference schools with any three-star signees are North Texas (3), FIU (2), UALR (1) and South Alabama (1). Leading the class are Derrick Gordon and George Fant who are both listed as top 150 recruits by Rivals.'s senior basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep said building the program around Gordon and Fant "will be exciting for WKU."

"Gordon's that guy who wants and is good enough to be the face of a program, and he'll be a kid who helps the staff attract talent," Telep said. "It's a deep group and the hope is once they get used to the rhythm of a college program, they compete against each other for minutes and strengthen the depth of the team."

Gordan was named the Union County Player of the Year in his native New Jersey. The 6-3 guard competed on the 2009 NJSIAA State Tournament championship team, which was St. Patrick's third title in four seasons. "He has been rock-solid from day one and is a Hilltopper at heart," WKU head coach Ken McDonald said. "He's a tough kid, a great kid who is serious about the game of basketball and serious about being a student. I think he's going to be a favorite of Hilltopper nation."

Fant, a 6-6 forward from nearby Warren Central High School in Bowling Green, is already a 1,000-point scorer for the Dragons after starting nearly his entire high school career. He earned second-team all-state honors as a junior in 2009-10 after averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game. For two-straight years Fant has been an All-4th Region player, with his junior season bringing first-team honors after earning second-team acclaim as a sophomore.

"George is a talented, mismatch kind of guy who is a great kid. We've known him since the day we took the job," McDonald said. "We love him and his family, and I think he has a ton of potential to really do whatever he wants on the Hill. He could have a great career here, and I know he's excited that his family has the chance to see him play here."

Also a three-time All-14th District performer, Fant has strong ties to WKU. His cousin, Jim McDaniels, is the school's co-career scoring champion and a three-time All-American, and his number 44 hangs from the rafters at E.A. Diddle Arena. Fant's mother, Kim (Norman) Fant played basketball at WKU under Coach Paul Sanderford, and his father, George, was a manager on men's basketball teams coached by Clem Haskins and Murray Arnold.

Other noted Hilltopper recruits include 7-0 center Deng Leek, 6-4 forward Nigel Snipes and 6-9 power forward Vinny Zollo.