Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball news and notes

From the Sun Belt Conference

Around the Sun Belt Conference

Defending Sun Belt Conference regular-season champion Middle Tennessee returns 10 of its top 12 scorers and was picked to win the SBC East Division by the league's head coaches.

North Texas welcomes back all five starters, including the SBC preseason player of the year in sophomore forward Tony Mitchell, and is the West Division favorite.

Western Kentucky has four returning starters after making a surprising run to win the Sun Belt tourney for the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

Add in an experienced South Alabama team with talent at Arkansas State and Florida Atlantic and this could be a special season for the Sun Belt, which has had multiple postseason teams in each of the past three years.

"It's just a tough league," said Troy coach Don Maestri. "The other side (West Division) has North Texas with an NBA draft choice. The league has always had outstanding teams."

FAU coach Mike Jarvis agrees.

"All the teams (in this league) can play," Jarvis said. "I think this might be the best the Sun Belt has been, top to bottom, since I've been in the league."

With that, Sun Belt Conference men's basketball begins this weekend with each team in action.

Among the highlights of this week will be Troy debuting its brand new arena against Middle Tennessee on Friday. The new Trojan Arena is a newly constructed $40-million, state-of-the-art complex.

Upcoming Games


South Alabama at Florida St. - 6:00 PM (ESPN3)

Mississippi State at Troy - 7:00 PM

UT Martin at UALR - 7:00 PM

North Texas at Creighton - 7:05 PM

Alabama State at Middle Tennessee - 7:45 PM


Arkansas State at Dayton - 6:00 PM

WKU at Southern Miss - 7:30 PM


FIU at Boston College - 1:00 PM (ESPN3)

Florida Atlantic at North Carolina - 1:30 PM (ESPNU)

UL-Monroe at Oklahoma - 2:00 PM (Fox Sports Southwest)

Oakland at UL-Lafayette - 4:00 PM


Troy at Texas A&M - 7:00 PM

North Texas vs. Alabama-Huntsville - 9:30 PM


Austin Peay at WKU - 7:00 PM

Florida Atlantic at Mississippi St. - 7:00 PM

Ark.-Monticello at Arkansas State - 7:05 PM

Middle Tennessee at Savannah State - 6:00 PM

North Texas vs. TBD - TBA


UALR at Louisiana Tech - 7:00 PM

William Carey at South Alabama - 7:05 PM


Arkansas State at UT Martin - 7:00 PM

UALR at Ole Miss - 7:00 PM

UL-Lafayette at Texas Southern - 7 :00 PM


Stephen F. Austin at FIU - 2:00 PM

Coppin State at Florida Atlantic - 3:30 PM

W. Carolina at WKU - 7:30 PM

Team News and Notes

UALR Trojans

The UALR men's basketball team returns five lettermen and three redshirt players from its 2011-12 team that went 15-16 overall, but finished 12-4 in Sun Belt Conference play and finished first in the West Division … The division title was head coach Steve Shields' fifth in the last nine seasons, the most amongst all SBC coaches over that span … Included in the Trojans' list of returners in junior Will Neighbour, who was a Second Team All-Sun Belt selection in 2011-12 and is a First Team Preseason All-SBC selection this year … The 6-10 forward played in 29 games with 18 starts during the 2011-12 season, ranking second on the team in scoring (10.5 ppg) and rebounding (5.3 rpg), while leading the Trojans in three-point shooting (.413) and made three pointers (43) … Also returning for the Trojans is sophomore Michael Javes, who played in 30 games and made 23 starts as a freshman in 2011-12 … The Cali, Colombia-native blocked a team-best 44 shots while averaging 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman … Sophomores Taggart Lockhart and Ben Dillard both saw plenty of action as freshmen and will provide the Trojans with depth and experience on the wings … Lockhart played in 29 games and made 14 starts as a freshman, while Dillard started six games and appeared in 31 … UALR will also be getting sophomore Gus Leeper back after a knee injury forced him to use a medical redshirt in 2011-12 … The 6-10 forward played in 29 games with eight starts and averaged 10.0 minutes as a freshman in 2010-11 … UALR begins its season on Friday when it hosts UT Martin at the Jack Stephens Center at 7 p.m.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

ASU sports a 5-5 record in its last 10 regular-season openers dating back to the 2002-03 season. The Red Wolves have dropped their last two encounters to date, which includes a 65-62 setback at Lamar last season (11/11). A-State started the 10-year span by winning its first four season-opening contests before dropping three straight. This Saturday's (11/10) opener at Dayton will represent the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

The Red Wolves return five of their top six scoring leaders from the 2011-12 squad, including senior guard Marcus Hooten (12.5 ppg.). The five, which features four starters, accounted for 68.7% (1,510- 2,198 pts.) of A-State's scoring production a season ago.

Trey Finn (61), Ed Townsel (46), and Marcus Hooten (42), ASU's top 2011-12 three-point field goal goal shooters, combined to register 84.7% (149-176) of the Red Wolves' points output from beyond the arc last season. The backcourt trio remains intact for the upcoming 2012-13 campaign.

ASU improved to 16-1 in exhibition games since 2004-05 after posting an 83-67 home victory over Southern Arkansas last Thursday (11/1) in Jonesboro, Ark. as junior guard Ed Townsel's game-high 22 points led four A-State players in double-figure scoring. The Red Wolves have tallied double-figure victories in 14 of their last 15 exhibitions to date, which includes the past seven contests. A-State entertains Henderson State this Tuesday (11/6) in its final exhibition tilt of this season.

A-State registered an 11-5 record last season in contests which the Red Wolves scored 65 points or more. Conversely, ASU notched a 4-14 ledger in games which the opposition netted at least 65 points.

A new integrated video display system was installed at the ASU Convocation Center in early October. The display system, produced by Daktronics, consists of four identical LED video displays measuring 12 feet high by 26 feet wide with each mounted in one of the arena's four corners. The video display boards have many features with a primary one being real-time in-game team and individual player statistics.

Florida Atlantic Owls

The Owls defeated crosstown rival Lynn 87-80 in an exhibition on Monday night. Dragan Sekelja had 21 points and 12 rebounds in the win to lead all players in both categories. He was one of six Owls in double figures in the game. Jordan McCoy narrowly missed a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds. FAU will open the regular season on Sunday afternoon at #11 North Carolina as part of the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The game will be televised on ESPNU at 2:30 p.m. eastern. It is the first of seven televised games for the Owls this season. 10 players saw action in the exhibition win. FAU will not play its regular season home opener until Nov. 24 against American.

FIU Panthers

The FIU men's basketball begins a new era on Sunday, Nov. 11 as the Panthers take on Boston College in Chestnutt Hill, Mass., in the debut of Head Coach Richard Pitino. Game time is set for 2:00 p.m. as the contest will be broadcast on ESPN3. FIU returns just five letterwinners from the 2011-12 team as Coach Pitino and his staff have brought in eight newcomers.

Senior Tola Akomolafe and sophomores Deric Hill and Joey De La Rosa are among the returning players from last year's squad. Akomolafe played in just 14 games last season, starting in eight, and averaged3.2 points-per-game and 3.6 rebounds-per-contest. De La Rosa also saw action in 14 games, averaging1.4 points-per-game and 1.6 boards-per-contest. Hill saw action in 23 games in 2011-12, averaging 1.8 points-per-game while recorded 33 assists.

Of the eight newcomers, four are junior college transfers (Tymell Murphy, Malik Smith and Ivan Jurkovic), two are Division I transfers (Gaby Belardo and Marco Porcher Jimenez), two are true freshmen (Jerome Frink and Dee Lewis) and one walk-on (Juan Ferrales).

Head Coach Richard Pitino became the seventh coach in the history of the FIU men's basketball program on Monday, April 16, 2012. The first-year head coach comes to FIU after working with two Hall of Fame coaches in Rick Pitino (Louisville) and Billy Donovan (Florida), appearing in three Elite Eights and one Final Four in the past five seasons.

Head Coach Richard Pitino became the youngest head coach in the FIU basketball programs history on April 16, 2012. The then-29-year-old also became the third-youngest coach in nation (Bashir Mason 28 years, 1 month – Wagner; Wes Miller 29 years, 2 months – UNC-Greensboro & Pitino 29 years 6 months – FIU).

With just five returning players to the 2012-13 FIU roster, there are not a lot of returning minutes on this year's squad. The five returners recorded a combined total of 1,184 minutes (12.4 minutes-per-game) with senior Cameron Bell leading those Panthers with 379 minutes in 27 games played.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

The Ragin' Cajuns begin their 100th season of basketball when the Cajuns host Oakland on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 4:00 p.m. in the Cajundome. This game comes on the heels of the lone exhibition game, a Tuesday (Nov. 6) meeting with Loyola-New Orleans.

The Oakland contest not only starts the 2012-13 regular season, but is the first of four games in the Spartan Showcase presented by Auto-Owners Insurance that wraps up Sunday, Nov. 25 at Michigan State.

Marlin, who enters his third season in Cajun Country and 20th as a collegiate head coach, has had three full weeks since the start of practice on Oct. 12 to begin fusing together four returners with a group of eight newcomers.

The Cajuns have a young lineup that features 10 players that will make their UL debut. The roster includes six freshmen and four sophomores. As the new faces get acclimated to the collegiate game in 2012-13, the Cajuns will lean heavily on junior Bryant Mbamalu and sophomore sensation Elfrid Payton.

Mbamalu started double figure games for the second consecutive season, getting the nod a career-best 25 times in 2011-12. Known largely for his defensive play as a freshman in 2010-11, the Houston native began to blossom as an outside threat as a sophomore in 2011-12. This season, he's the veteran of the squad in terms of years of experience at the Division I level.

Payton led the Ragin' Cajuns in assists (97) and averaged 7.2 points in an average of 22.7 minutes per game during his rookie campaign a year ago. The Gretna, La., native played all but one regular season game as a 17-year old (turned 18 on Feb. 22). He ranked Top 10 in the Sun Belt Conference in assists (3.0 apg) and delivered the game-winning play vs. Western Kentucky and Denver.

With the entrance of newcomers Elridge Moore, who played at Nicholls State as a freshman, and Mississippi State transfer Shawn Long at center the Cajuns are confident they can navigate through the 2012-13 schedule.

Another newcomer to watch is guard Steven Wronkoski, a freshman out of St. Thomas Aquinas High in Hammond, La. Wronkoski has a great feel for the game, which has helped him make the adjustment to the speed and power of the college game. Capable of playing several positions, he will most likely see time at both wing guard and small forward.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

ULM begins its 62nd season of men's basketball and third under head coach Keith Richard … The Warhawks return one starter and five letterwinners from last year's team that finished 3-26 overall, 2-14 in the Sun Belt … Junior guard Charles Winborne is the Warhawks' leading returning scorer as he averaged 11.2 points per game a year ago. ULM returns two players that shot over 43 percent from 3-point range – Winborne (.435) and sophomore guard Trent Mackey (.433) … The two ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Sun Belt in 3-point percentage … ULM has added six newcomers this season, including junior college transfers Jayon James and Amos Olatayo … James (Iona) and Olatayo (Stephen F. Austin) both began their careers at Division I schools and should provide the Warhawks with immediate experience.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Middle Tennessee put on a show from beyond the arc in the 107-65 exhibition win over Auburn-Montgomery Monday. The Blue Raiders knocked down 17 treys, what would be a school record for a regular season contest. Senior guard James Gallman led the onslaught with seven 3-pointers, while senior guard Raymond Cintron added four. MT shot 53.1 percent from 3-point land in the contest.

MT was picked unanimously to win the Sun Belt's East Division according to the preseason coaches' poll released by the league on Oct. 24.

Four Blue Raiders were selected to the preseason all-conference teams, the most of any school. Senior guard Marcos Knight earned a first-team nod, senior forward JT Sulton and senior guard Bruce Massey were voted to the second team, and senior guard Raymond Cintron was named to the third team.

On the heels a record-breaking season, the 2012-13 Blue Raider men's basketball team is already receiving recognition in the USA Today coaches' preseason poll. MT, the Sun Belt's only representative in the poll, received three votes after winning the league's regular season title and finishing 27-7 last season.

Raymond Cintron was listed at No. 39 on's Top 50 shooters for the upcoming season after hitting 43.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last season. The San Juan, Puerto Rico, native ranked sixth in the Sun Belt in 3-point shooting and was ninth with 2.0 treys per game. Overall, Cintron shot 45 percent from the field and averaged 8.4 points per game. Middle Tennessee will also face four shooters on the list throughout the 2012-13 season. Florida's Erik Murphy, Texas Southern's Omar Strong, Belmont's Ian Clark and Tennessee State's Robert Covington were listed among the top 50.

The regular season is underway for former Blue Raider LaRon Dendy. The 2012 Sun Belt Player of the Year has started all four games for Kolossos this year and has helped the Greek team to a 3-1 record. The Greenville, S.C., native is currently the team's leading scorer, averaging 19.0 points per game.

North Texas Mean Green

Tony Benford, a collegiate coaching veteran of 21 years, took the reigns of the North Texas basketball program for 2012-13. Benford spent the last three years at Marquette, including the 2011-12 season as Buzz Williams' Associate Head Coach. Aside from helping the Golden Eagles reach the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in each of the last two years, Benford has coached in 14 total postseason appearances and has recruited and coached five NBA first-round draft picks in his career, which has also included stops at New Mexico, Arizona State and Nebraska.

Tony Benford brought a first-class coaching staff with him to NT. The staff, which collectively owns over 100 years of collegiate coaching experience, features Associate Head Coach Rob Evans, who has 205 head coaching wins and 14 postseason appearances at Arizona State and Ole' Miss. Bart Lundy, a veteran of 211 head coaching victories at High Point and Queens, came from Marquette to join Benford's staff as an assistant. David Anwar spent the last six seasons at Nebraska, and is a 12-year collegiate coaching veteran.

Freshman phenom Tony Mitchell was named a Preseason All-American by several national publications, including CBS Sports, Athlon, Basketball Times and Blue Ribbon Report. He was also named the Sun Belt's Preseason Player of the Year after bringing home Freshman of the Year and All-SBC Tourney honors in '11-12. In SBC play Mitchell led the league in scoring, rebounding, 3-point field goal percentage and blocks, and finished second in field goal percentage. At 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds, Mitchell joined Kentucky's Anthony Davis as the only freshmen in the country to average a double-double.

Benford & Co. will be taking over a North Texas program that knows how to win. NT has averaged 21 wins per year over the last six seasons, including five straight 20-win seasons from 2007-11. NT won the 2007 and 2010 Sun Belt titles, and played in the NCAA Tournament in both of those seasons.

South Alabama Jaguars

South Alabama had three players named to the Preseason All-Sun Belt team: junior Augustine Rubit and seniors Javier Carter and Freddie Goldstein. Rubit was tabbed to the first team while Goldstein and Carter were placed on the third team. The Jags' three honorees are tied for second most—Middle Tennessee had four and Arkansas State also had three.

Goldstein returns as the reigning 3-point champion in the Sun Belt. He led the league with 2.5 treys per contest and twice hit nine in a game, to break the school record of eight. In league games, he converted a conference-best 2.8 per contest, thanks to his nine triples in road games at Troy and Louisiana at Monroe. Goldstein's 72 makes are eighth in school history and his 194 attempts are seventh.

Mychal Ammons finished the 2012-13 season with his first career double-double, scoring 15 points with a game-high 12 rebounds in the season finale vs. Denver. Over the final month of last season, he averaged 15.6 points and 7.8 rebounds—both second on the team—and had two 20-point performances. He posted a then-career-high 25 points in a win over Arkansas State, then bested that with 26 in an overtime victory at Florida Atlantic. In the team's three games in Canada in August, he made all five 3-point attempts.

With just two rebounds, Rubit can move into second place on South Alabama's all-time rebounding list. He enters the season with 576 boards, one behind Brandon Davis (2006-09). Rubit has led the SBC in rebounding in each of the last two seasons and could become the first player in conference history to rank first in rebounding average three consecutive years. He helped the Jaguars rank sixth in the nation in rebounding margin (+7.6).

Another Jaguar making his way up the USA career leaderboards is Carter. The defending blocks champion in the Sun Belt, Carter rejected 2.7 shots per contest, to lead the league and rank 16th in Division I. His 72 blocks in 2011-12 are third-most in USA's single-season history. Carter finished last year with a six-game blocks streak and had another run of 16 games with at least one rejection. He needs 82 blocks to become the school's all-time leader.

Troy Trojans

Head coach Don Maestri is entering his 31st season at Troy, the fourth longest tenured coach in Division I. Over his time in Troy, he has amassed 488 career victories, the most ever in the state of Alabama. In the 30 years since taking over, Maestri turned the program into a perennial Division II national contender, then won four conference championships in a five-year span at the Division I level.

Joining Maestri will be long time assistant coach David Felix. Felix has been with the program for 31 seasons, one year longer than Maestri. Michael Curry will return for his eighth season in Troy, while Ben Fletcher will be back for his ninth.

Coming back in 2012 are three starters from a season ago, in Justin Wright, Emil Jones and R.J. Scott. The trio finished third, fourth and fifth on the team last year in scoring, with Wright averaging 10.3 points per contest. Jones led the squad with 5.9 rebounds per game, while Scott shot 37.3 percent from behind the arc, second best on the team. Ray Chambers returns for his senior season as well, after finishing last year with 4.9 points per game.

Four redshirts will also be back. Deonata Jethroe, Breon Dixon, Westley Hinton and Sidki Muwallif will all by vying for time in 2012.

Troy will play 13 games against teams that finished last season at .500 or better, including six opponents that advanced to post-season play. The Trojans will also play 20 Sun Belt Conference games this season, facing each opponent at home and on the road. The Trojans will play a tough non-conference schedule as well, facing nine different opponents from eight different conferences.

Troy opens up a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in 2012, the Trojan Arena. The Trojan Arena holds 5,200 fans and hosts coaching staffs for eight varsity sports at Troy. The first game at the new Trojan Arena will host Mississippi State, the first SEC school to play in Troy.

WKU Hilltoppers

WKU begins its 94th season of basketball Saturday at Southern Miss, taking the floor for the first time since a remarkable run through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament last March. WKU returns nine letterwinners and four starters from last year's team, and the Hilltoppers were picked to finish third in the Sun Belt Conference East Division in the preseason coaches' poll. WKU will be led in 2012-13 by seniors Jamal Crook and Teeng Akol, as well as sophomores George Fant and T.J. Price. This season will be the first full campaign under head coach Ray Harper, who took over the squad midway through the 2011-12 season and helped the team win seven of its last eight games to end the season, with the only loss to top-seeded and eventual national champion Kentucky.