From the Sun Belt Conference
2011-12 Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Preview
By Dan McDonald, Contributing to the Sun Belt Conference
Head coach Mike Jarvis knows that his Florida Atlantic basketball team doesn't have to prove itself to anyone. But after nearly a quarter-century of coaching on the highest collegiate levels, he also knows that expectations can be a dangerous thing.
"If expectations are high, that's usually good," Jarvis said. "I'm glad expectations are high for us, but I've also been around long enough to know the old set-up game."
The Sun Belt Conference coaches have indeed set up the Owls as the favorite to win the East Division, and they also received more points in the preseason coaches' poll than any West Division team. That shouldn't come as a surprise after a 2010-11 season in which FAU posted the league's best record (13-3) and a 22-11 overall mark.
"Our guys know they can compete with anybody in the league now," said Jarvis, whose team got 11 of the 12 available first-place votes in the East Division's preseason poll. "But from top to bottom, this league is hugely competitive."
He could well be right in the East race. Middle Tennessee will mix a solid returnee corps with a stellar newcomer class, and the Blue Raiders have the advantage of playing a summer international tour with this year's team. Western Kentucky, despite being shut out on the first through third teams on the preseason all-conference team, will always be a force to be reckoned with. And South Alabama features the returning Freshman of the Year in powerhouse sophomore forward Augustine Rubit.
It adds up to a heck of a race in the East, but right now it's FAU's division to win behind the guard combo of shot-maker Greg Gantt and cat-quick point guard Raymond Taylor. And that crew may be more motivated this year after having their stellar season come to a screeching stop in a 78-64 loss to North Texas in last year's Sun Belt Tournament opener.
The Owls also fell at Miami (Fla.) 85-62 in the first round of the NIT.
"We're hoping the experience in the tournaments won't be a negative," Jarvis said. "Every team I've ever coached that's been expected to win has won."
FAU could do that again, if the league's best guard tandem and two other returning starters can mesh with some talented newcomers – and, if the Owls can find someone to replace the defensive presence of departed shot-blocker extraordinare Brett Royster.
"He was one of the best shot blockers I've ever seen," Jarvis said, "and you don't make up for that. What has to happen is his teammates have to do a better job of keeping their guys in front of them defensively than they did last year."
The 5-foot-6 Taylor averaged 11.6 points and almost four assists per game, but it was his driving ability and ball-hawking defense that made him a first-team all-league pick as a sophomore. Gantt, meanwhile, led FAU in scoring (14.0 points) in taking second-team honors, and Jarvis is also expecting big things from 6-foot-8 junior Kore White (8.2 points, 5.0 rebounds).
"I thought Kore was going to be one of the best players in the league last year," Jarvis said. "He's capable of averaging a double-double."
Middle Tennessee doesn't have that type of returning experience, but the Blue Raiders will have more experience with this year's team than anyone in the league when the season begins. That's because of a Canadian tour the Raiders took in mid-August.
"We got in 18 practices and four games," said head coach Kermit Davis, "so we're much further along than we normally would be. It was especially good for the two guys that sat out last year [LaRon Dendy, Torin Walker] and our newcomers."
The Blue Raiders have seven new faces, but they also have three starters and 57.4 percent of their offense back from a squad that finished second in the East. Six returnees combined for 91 starts, making MT likely the deepest team in the division.
The Blue Raiders do have to replace leading scorer James Washington (14.0 points) and top rebounder Trevor Ottley (5.2 rebounds), but Jason Jones averaged 13.1 points and James Gallman averaged 7.5 points in the backcourt. JT Sulton (9.3 points, 5.0 rebounds) is the top frontcourt returnee, but the biggest talk near the basket revolves around Dendy. The senior and Iowa State transfer averaged 14.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in Canada.
"He [Dendy] may be the best talent I've ever had," Davis said. "He could be the best player in the league this year."
The preseason Player of the Year honors went to USA's Rubit, the league's Freshman of the Year last year after the sophomore led Division I first-year players and ranked sixth nationally in rebounding (11.0). The 6-foot-6 strongman was one of two Sun Belt players to average a double-double with his 13.1 point production.
"I think he was one of the most surprised at what he did last year," said veteran Jaguar coach Ronnie Arrow. "He's got the experience now … he's played against big-time players and he still wants the ball at crunch time."
Arrow, though, must replace the rest of his starting lineup from a team that had USA's first losing season in six years. The frontcourt is devoid of experience – no returnee other than Javier Carter started more than three games last year – so Arrow signed six guards including four junior college transfers.
WKU also had a atypical season in 2010-11 and finished 16-16 overall and 8-8 in league play, and the Hilltoppers have huge holes to fill with the departure of two all-league first-team picks and 1,000-point scorers (Steffphon Pettigrew, Sergio Kerusch). Coach Ken McDonald hopes that a highly-regarded seven-man freshman class can fill those gaps.
"We have a lot of rookies," McDonald said. "A lot of them can potentially be there and I'm excited about their prospects, but we have to get back to being a team that goes out and defends and plays hard every night."
Junior guard Jamal Crook (3.6 points) started the final 12 games last year and finished fifth in the league in assists, and shooting guard Caden Dickerson (6.0 points) also returns. Swingman George Fant and guard T. J. Price are the lead candidates among the frosh class.
FIU coach Isiah Thomas also has some replacing to do, but the Golden Panthers do have two solid building blocks in senior guard DeJuan Wright and sophomore forward Dominique Ferguson. Wright (14.5 points, 6.7 rebounds), a preseason second-team all-league pick, averaged in the league's top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.
The 6-foot-9 Ferguson, named on CBSSports.com's Top 25 Breakout Players list, averaged 7.1 points and 4.8 boards in just 20 games.
"DeJuan has the energy and work ethic," Thomas said, "and some of the things he brings you can't teach. Dominique can do a lot of things, and we were successful scoring the ball last year. We gave up a lot of points, a lot from the foul line, and this year we're going to try to be the ones getting to the foul line."
Veteran coach Don Maestri needs only 15 wins to reach the 500-victory mark at Troy, and he'll be counting on third-team all-league pick Will Weathers and fellow returnee Steve Cunningham in the backcourt. Weathers led the league and was sixth nationally in assists for the sharpshooting Trojans, while Cunningham (4.4 points, 3.7 rebounds) started last year's final 14 games.
The rest of the Trojans are unproven, but Maestri said this group has the potential to match Troy's 2010 league-champion team.
"This is one of our most versatile teams ever, and that's with just two seniors," he said. "But for the most part, they're totally inexperienced, so everybody's going to have to play a big role early and we'll hope that some of the young kids can step up."
Arkansas State's John Brady had some notable successes as basketball coach in his previous stop at LSU, taking the Tigers to the Final Four in 2006.
This year's ASU team may not be quite at that level, but when Brady says he thinks he's got a good team, people tend to listen – especially when the Sun Belt Conference coaches are in agreement.
"If we play unselfish, and we defend and rebound, we can have a good team," Brady said.
The league coaches established the Red Wolves as the team to beat in the West Division, getting eight of the 11 first-place votes in what sets up as a Wild West chase. That pick wasn't a surprise, since ASU tied with Louisiana-Lafayette for last year's West Division title with an 11-5 record, along with winning seven of its last nine regular-season games.
But reaching those marks won't be easy, even for a Red Wolves squad that returns three key starters and several contributing reserves to blend with some highly-touted newcomers.
After all, they'll confront a Ragin' Cajun team that started out 1-5 in league play last season and then won 10 straight conference games – 11 in-a-row, overall – to come from nowhere to claim a share of the division crown. They'll also go up against a North Texas team that won the league tourney and went to the NCAA Tournament two years ago, reached the Sun Belt finals again last year, and may be even more talented this year.
There's also a hot-shooting Denver team that has won 16 of its last 17 conference home games (a two-point loss to South Alabama at the end of last season breaking a 16-game streak) and that has in essence six returning starters. And defending league tournament champion UALR also rests in the West, but is only picked fifth out of the six West squads in the coaches' preseason poll.
"I'm not surprised by that at all," said UALR coach Steve Shields, whose team reached a pinnacle with its first-ever Sun Belt Tournament title last March. "The competition is going to be really, really tough in this division, especially for us since we have a lot of new guys. But I'm really excited about them."
Brady, whose team was upset by UALR in last year's tournament quarterfinal round when the two top seeds and one two-seed were sent packing, also has high hopes for an ASU squad that was perfect at home for the first time in two decades.
Junior returnees Trey Finn and Brandon Peterson, had solid numbers last year (8.7 and 5.5 RB, 7.9 and 5.6 RB respectively) and were big parts of ASU's rebound-and-defend philosophy that helped the Wolves lead the league in field-goal defense (.419). Finn's knee injury just before the league tournament was a factor in ASU's early exit.
"If he's [Finn] healthy, it'll be a big plus for us," Brady said. "With Brandon and Malcoln (Kirkland) they give us an opportunity to be good across the front. We just have to take care of the ball and get good quality shots."
The newcomer group should help there, with junior college signees Marcus Hooten at guard and swingman Bryce Clark expected to provide scoring punch.
Louisiana-Lafayette's Ragin' Cajuns did its own heavy punching at the end of the 2010-11 Sun Belt season, their first under coach Bob Marlin, and fans noticed in doubling attendance averages to 6,126 in the season's final month. The Cajuns may have finished at 14-15 and lost in the league tournament quarterfinals to Western Kentucky, but the 11-game, five-week winning streak showed Marlin something.
"We learned that if we persevere and we work hard, we can compete," said Marlin, last season's winner of the national coaching Skip Prosser Man of the Year award. "Sometimes we didn't play particularly well, but because we kept working hard we were still able to win."
The Cajuns lost three key cogs from that unit, but still have their top two scorers returning as well as starting point guard and defensive specialist Raymone Andrews (5.9). Cat-quick senior Josh Brown (11.0, 5.5 RB) became a much more consistent performer as the season progressed.
But the unquestioned Cajun leader is sophomore J. J. Thomas (11.7, 6.4 RB), who was a second-team all-league pick as a freshman. Thomas averaged 16.1 and 7.5 rebounds during the late win streak.
"He's a known player now," Marlin said. "He missed last fall with mono and he was pretty much unknown, but he's really gotten stronger in the last year and getting all that experience last year was a big plus for us."
The Cajuns also figure to get a boost from a newcomer class that includes guard Alan-Michael Thompson, a 1,000-point scorer in junior college, and transfer Darshawn McClellan, who is eligible after graduating from Vanderbilt last spring.
The biggest incoming-prospect splash in the conference, though, will likely come out of Texas, as coach Johnny Jones has had to replace most of the notables from a North Texas unit that won 46 games in the last two years – extending a streak of five straight 20-win seasons.
The only returning starter is senior forward Kedrick Hogans (8.5, 3.7 RB), and Jones is counting on his stable presence. "He's had the experience and he's had success … he wears a championship ring and he's played in the NCAA," Jones said. "But I think our new guys have caught on to what we're doing, a lot quicker than you might expect."
The talent runs deep in the newcomer group, with 6-6 freshman swingman Jordan Williams expected to contribute immediately and 6-8 freshman and Missouri transfer Tony Mitchell coming off a summer in which he played with the USA Under-19 national team.
Denver's Pioneers are hoping to leave the Sun Belt with good memories, and that could happen since coach Joe Scott's team has five season-ending starters back – and that doesn't include 2009-10 starter Rob Lewis (8.0, 3.4 RB) who missed all of last season with a back injury.
Sharpshooters Brian Stafford (12.9) and brothers Chase (12.5, 4.5 RB) and Travis Hallam (8.6, 3.5 RB) give the Pioneers plenty of offensive options along with rangy sophomore Chris Udofia (8.3, 4.4 RB). Freshman Brett Olson, though, figures to run the show from the point guard slot.
"We've got a lot of experience … we'll start five guys that have all started as freshmen," said Scott, whose team started 2-9 last year but led the conference race much of the season after an eight-game win streak. "We just have to identify roles. We have to become a team with more specific roles, and Brett will be a key part of that."
UALR's Shields, whose team has won more Sun Belt division titles (four) than anyone else in the last eight years, also returns six major contributors to a team that got hot at the right time and won four league tournament games to claim that title and advance to the NCAA's. But the loss of Solomon Bozeman, who swept the league's regular-season and tournament MVP honors, leaves a big hole off a roster that included five seniors.
"We'd won 23 and 20 in the last couple of years but we weren't able to get through the tournament," Shields said. "I was happier for those five guys than anyone. This year we've got a lot of new guys, but everybody's got new guys and they're going to get better when they go against the competition we have in this league."
Shields, who is two wins short of UALR's all-time coaching win mark, does have a solid point guard in returning senior D'Andre Williams (6.7, 3.0 assists), and Chuck Guy (7.6) ranked fourth on the team in scoring off the bench in his freshman season.
The only West team picked to be a non-factor in the race is Louisiana-Monroe, and Keith Richard knew the task was a tough one when he returned to his alma mater as head coach last year. ULM finished 7-24, went 2-14 in league play and didn't win a conference home game. But road wins over league contenders South Alabama and North Texas showed Richard something.
"We have a lot of room for improvement, both in wins and in player development," said Richard, who won 150 games at nearby La. Tech but whose team is hit hard by APR-penalty scholarship limits this season. "We know we've been dealt a bad hand, but we haven't even mentioned all that since our first team meeting. I know we're going to play hard, we just have to learn to play better."
Senior guard Fred Brown (13.8) made the preseason all-league team and is one of the league's top three-point threats, and improved swingman Hugh Mingo (9.5, 4.7) had 13 straight double-figure games last season. They head a unit that has nine returning lettermen, tied for the league's high mark.
TAKING CARE OF THE BALL
FAU finished the 2010-11 season 29th in the nation in turnovers per game at 11.3 per game. @e point guard tandem of Alex Tucker and Raymond Taylor were 1st and 6th in the conference, respectively in assist/turnover ratio last season. Tucker and Taylor are 1st and 2nd in school history in career assist turnover ratio and 2nd and 3rd in career assists. In the Owls' 61-59 win over Mississippi State, FAU had just four turnovers which set a school record for fewest turnovers in a game. @e Owls had just five turnovers in two other games last season.
WITH THE ASSIST...
FAU's guard tandem of Raymond Taylor and Alex Tucker have combined for 714 assists. Tucker is currently 23rd on the SBC all-time assists list while Taylor is just 109 assists short of No. 24 on the SBC all-time list.
1,000 POINT CLUB
Three Owls have a chance to join the 1,000 point club. Greg Gantt (916), Shavar Richardson (796) and Raymond Taylor (787) all have an opportunity to score their 1,000 career point this season.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
FAU's 35 wins over the past two seasons is the school's most successful two-year stretch at the Division I level. The Owls won 36 games over two years while playing at the D-II level.
KERMIT DAVIS NEARING RECORD
Head coach Kermit Davis is on track to become the winningest coach in MT history. Davis is just 11 wins shy of matching former coach Jimmy Earle's 164 all-time coaching victories. He is also one season away from matching Earle, who spent a decade guiding the Blue Raiders, as the longest tenured coaches in program history. Davis is also just ten wins away from totaling 300 career wins.
MORE THAN HALF OF BLUE RAIDERS OFFENSE RETURNS
More than half of offense returns The Blue Raiders return 57.4 percent of the offense this season. Junior guard Jason Jones was the team's second-leading scorer last year with 13.1 ppg and accounted for nearly 20 percent of the scoring last season.
ARROW, DAVIS AMONG SUN BELT'S ALL-TIME WINNINGEST
South Alabama's Ronnie Arrow and Middle Tennessee's Kermit Davis are first and second in all-time victories among active Sun Belt coaches. Arrow has 103 career SBC wins and Davis has 84 career SBC wins. Overall, Arrow and Davis rank third and fourth among the league's all-time winningest coaches in Sun Belt play behind UAB's Gene Bartow and ASU's Dickey Nutt. The all-time Sun Belt wins leader Gene Bartow, won 111 games during his 12 seasons at former conference member UAB. These totals only include regular-season conference wins.
STARTING OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT
USA head coach Ronnie Arrow has won his last 15 season openers. The streak dates back to the 1992-93 campaign and spans his eight-year stint at Texas A&M-Corpus ChristI. The last time Arrow started 0-1 on the year was 1991 when the Jags lost 81-75 to Southern Miss.
ARROW NEARS ANOTHER LANDMARK WIN
South Alabama head coach Ronnie Arrow, who last year became the third coach in Sun Belt history to record 100 league wins, needs two wins to move into second place on the conference's all-time list and 10 to move past Gene Bartow of UAB (1979-91), who is the conference's all-time leader with 111. Arrow's second SBC win will move him past Dickey Nutt of Arkansas State (1996-08) who has 103 victories. In 2009-10, Arrow earned his 300th Division I win and 600th overall win (junior college and four-year schools), and became the school's all-time leader in victories.
In what is becoming a tradition in Denton, North Texas has won at least 20 games in each of the last five seasons, including a school-record 24-win campaign in 2009-10. Prior to this stretch the program had seen a total of four 20-win seasons in its 94-year history - last in 1977-78.
GIVING THE CHAMPIONSHIP EFFORT
North Texas has appeared in three of the last five Sun Belt Conference Tournament title games, including each of the last two. As a matter of fact, North Texas is one of just 32 teams nationwide that has played in at least three of its last five conference tournament finals. The Mean Green represented the SBC in the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and 2010, and won the Sun Belt regular season title in 2010 as well.
HOME SWEET HOME AT THE SUPER PIT
North Texas has been nearly unbeatable at home under Johnny Jones. NT is 65-13 (.833) at the Super Pit since the 2006-07 season, including a 17-game winning streak in 2010-11 that qualified as the nation's fifth longest at the time. In the last five years NT is 7-0 at home against teams from the Big 12, Conference USA, MAC, WAC and America East - including wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
ABOVE THE RIM
Johnny Jones will be taking the court with his tallest team ever this year, with an average height of 6' 5.50". That average height is taller than every Sun Belt roster, and would be topped in the Big 12 by only Baylor (6' 5.79"). As a matter of fact, only LSU and Mississippi State have taller rosters on the NT schedule, and the Mean Green is taller than the average Big 12 and SEC teams.
WKU welcomes nine newcomers to the 2011-12 roster and will be looking to replace 66.0 percent of its scoring and 64.8 percent of its rebounding from last year's squad.
WELCOME TO THE SHOW
The Hilltoppers brought in a recruiting class for 2011-12 that is recognized as one of the nation's best. The group includes two members of Rivals.com's list of the top 150 high school seniors in the country (Derrick Gordon, 105th; George Fant, 150th), a Rivals four-star recruit (Gordon), three three-star recruits (Fant, Nigel Snipes, Vinny Zollo) and a two-star recruit (Kevin Kaspar).
THE "THREE" IS KEY
WKU has made at least one three-pointer in 737 consecutive games dating back to March 15, 1987. The three-point shot was instituted prior to the 1986-87 season, and only four teams have a longer streak of consecutive games with at least one three-pointer than the Hilltoppers:
Current consecutive games scoring a three-point fi eld goal (entering 2011-12):
1. 805 - UNLV (11/26/86 - present) *
2. 796 - Vanderbilt (11/28/86 - present) *
3. 787 - Kentucky (11/28/88 - present)
4. 739 - Arkansas (01/11/89 - present)
5. 737 - WKU (03/15/87 - present)
(*) UNLV and Vanderbilt have made at least one three-point fi eld goal in every game since the shot was instituted.
LEADER OF THE TROJANS
UALR head coach Steve Shields enters his ninth season as head coach of the Trojans with 132 career victories, leaving him two shy of surpassing Mike Newell (1984-90) as the program's all-time winningest coach.
RETURN OF THE PIONEERS
Denver returns 11 letterwinners from last year's third place finishing SBC West team and 83% of its scoring offense. The Pioneers essentially return six starters - Rob Lewis returns after sitting out last season with a back injury. Lewis was a starter during the 2009-10 season.
MADNESS AT MAGNESS
The Denver Pioneers are 47-11 at its home arena, Magness Arena, during head coach Joe Scott's tenure.
The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajun basketball team is currently riding an 11-game regular season winning streak. The streak began with a home win over Centenary on Jan. 9. The ten consecutive conference wins is also the fifth longest streak in SBC history.
THE BENCH LOOKS FAMILIAR
Troy head coach Don Maestri and assistant coach David Felix have been with the Trojan program for over 30 years. Maestri is entering his 30th year at the helm, while Felix is with the program 31 years. Only three other Division I head coaches (Dave Bike - Sacred Heart, Mike Krzyzewski - Duke, Jim Boeheim - Syracuse) and one assistant coach (Bernie Fine - Syracuse) can lay claim to those dubious numbers. In fact, the Maestri-Felix combo is one of two in the country - Boeheim-Fine of Syracuse.