Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball news and notes

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As the 2013 Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Championship draws near, the regular season standings have settled some of the debate on who the best teams in the conference are this year.

With an outstanding 17-1 conference record, Middle Tennessee has already clinched the outright Sun Belt Conference regular season championship and the East Division title. The Blue Raiders are continuing to make their case for a strong position in the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship with a 25-4 overall record and a RPI of 27.

MT has the second-most wins in the country, behind Gonzaga with 27 and is currently riding a 14 game winning streak.

Arkansas State claimed its second Sun Belt Conference West Division title in the last three seasons with a 58-50 league home win over Troy Saturday and a UALR conference setback at Florida Atlantic. A-State locked up the second seed and a first-round bye in the upcoming 2013 Sun Belt Conference Championship.

The Red Wolves' 18 victories this season represents the program's most since 1998-99 when ASU compiled an 18-12 overall mark. The 18 wins are also the most during head coach John Brady's tenure at A-State, surpassing the 17 victories set twice – 17-14 in 2009-10 and 17-15 in 2010-11.

South Alabama has already clinched the Sun Belt Championship No. 3 seed. USA's 13-5 Sun Belt record is the program's best after 18 games since starting 16-2 in 2007-08. The Jaguars' 13 conference wins are also the most since the 2007-08 campaign. has announced the finalists for the Lou Henson Award and University of South Alabama junior Augustine Rubit is among the 25 named for the award given to the top mid-major player in the country. The 2013 Award will be presented at the awards banquet in Atlanta, site of the men's NCAA Basketball Championship. For the second straight year is working with Point3 Basketball to promote the Lou Henson award "fan vote," which will constitute 33% of the final vote.

Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Player of the Week – As selected by the Sun Belt member institutions

Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette, So., G)

Payton celebrated his 19th birthday in fine fashion, averaging 27.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.5 steals in the two games, shooting .615 from the field (16-26) and .786 from the line (22-28). He scored a game-high 23 point, going 7-13 from the field and 9-9 from the line, with nine rebounds in win over Troy. Came back against WKU to lead Cajuns with a career-high 31 points, the most by a UL player since the 2007-08 season. He was nine-for-13 from the field and set career highs for free throws made (13) and attempted (19) with the 19 attempts being the most by a Cajuns player in a Sun Belt game. Payton's 54 points allowed him to take over the team scoring lead this year, averaging 16.4 ppg (3rd in SBC). He also went over the 1,000 minute played mark for the year, playing all but the last 11 seconds against Troy. He has played 1,028 minutes this year.

Upcoming Games


* South Alabama at WKU - 7:00 PM (HSSN/ESPN3)

* Arkansas State at North Texas - 7:00 PM

* FIU at UL-Monroe - 7:30 PM

* UL-Lafayette at UALR - 7:30 PM

* Middle Tennessee at Troy - 7:30 PM


* UL-Lafayette at UL-Monroe - 4:00 PM

* Middle Tennessee at WKU - 5:30 PM (Sun Belt Network)

* FIU at Florida Atlantic - 6:00 PM

* Arkansas State at UALR - 7:00 PM

* South Alabama at Troy - 7:30 PM


Sun Belt Conference Championship

Recent Results


* FIU 65, UALR 52

* WKU 75, Louisiana-Monroe 57 (HSSN/ESPN3)

* Middle Tennessee 85, South Alabama 50 (ESPN3)

* Louisiana-Lafayette 76, Troy 66

* North Texas 66, Florida Atlantic 57 (OT)


* Middle Tennessee 87, Louisiana-Monroe 46

* Florida Atlantic 73, UALR 59

* Arkansas State 58, Troy 50

* South Alabama 69, North Texas 57

* WKU 88, Louisiana-Lafayette 77 (Sun Belt Network)

Team News and Notes

UALR Trojans

UALR's losses at FIU and Florida Atlantic this week dropped its overall record to 15-14 and 9-9 in Sun Belt Conference play. The losses also dropped the Trojans into a four-game losing skid, the team's longest of the season, and brought their record to 1-5 in the month of February.

The Trojans are shooting just 37.3 percent while allowing their opponents to shoot 46.7 percent over their four-game losing streak. UALR's shooting woes extend to the three-point line and free throw line, where it shot just 25.4 percent and 58.8 percent, respectively, over the last four games. The Trojans rank third in the SBC in assists on the season (11.7 apg), but are dishing out just 9.0 per contest over the four-game slide.

Sophomore Michael Javes has averaged 9.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks on 51.9 percent shooting over UALR's last four games. Javes, who recently moved into sole possession of sixth place on UALR's all-time blocks list (79), is a big reason why the Trojans rank fourth in the Sun Belt with 3.8 blocks per game.

Freshman John Gillon has led the Trojans in scoring over the last four games, averaging 9.8 ppg on 41.9 percent shooting from the floor and 40.0 percent shooting from deep.

On the season, junior Will Neighbour continues to lead UALR in scoring (10.8 ppg) and rebounding (6.9 rpg). Neighbour is shooting 45.5 percent from the floor this season, and his 27 blocks and 37 steals both surpass his respective season totals from a season ago.

UALR closes its 2012-13 season with a pair of home games at the Jack Stephens Center. First, UALR hosts Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. In their first meeting, the Ragin' Cajuns topped UALR 79-70 in Lafayette on Dec. 29. UALR will be looking to avenge its Valentine's Day loss to Arkansas State when they host the Red Wolves in the regular season finale on Saturday, March 2. ASU topped UALR 86-62 on Feb. 14 in Jonesboro.

The Trojans will honor their lone senior in their March 2 matchup with Arkansas State. Ted Crass, who joined UALR's MBB roster midseason in 2011-12 after spending the previous three years as the team's manager, is the only senior on one of the youngest rosters in the country. Crass has played in 14 games in his career, including 13 in 2012-13, and played a total of 27 minutes.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

Arkansas State claimed its second Sun Belt Conference West Division title in the last three seasons with a 58-50 league home win over Troy Saturday (2/23) and a UALR conference setback at Florida Atlantic. The 2010-11 Red Wolves captured the West Division crown in ASU head coach John Brady's third season and registered an 11-5 mark (.643) in league play. A-State locked up the second seed and a first-round bye in the upcoming 2013 Sun Belt Conference Championship Tournament (March 8-11).

The Red Wolves' 18 victories this season (18-9 record) represents the program's most since 1998-99 when ASU compiled an 18-12 overall mark. The 18 wins are also the most during head coach John Brady's tenure at A-State, surpassing the 17 victories set twice – 17-14 in 2009-10 and 17-15 in 2010-11.

Arkansas State has won seven of its last eight contests and is riding a current four-game winning streak (2/9-23). In the last eight games (5-0 at home), the Red Wolves have outscored the opposition by a +14.5 points a game margin (71.2 ppg. to 56.8 ppg.) while forcing their opponent into averaging 14.4 turnovers per outing.

A-State registered a 13-2 record in home regular-season outings for 2012-13 to equal its most home victories since 2010-11 (13-0 record). The Red Wolves have now chalked up double-digit home wins in each of their last four seasons (2009-13) while posting a combined 46-12 home record (.793) since 2009-10. The nine conference wins (9-1 record) at home this season are the most at least since the 2007-08 campaign. ASU has a 29-6 mark (.829) in conference home matchups dating back to 2009-10.

The Red Wolves, who posted a 13-2 home ledger this 2012-13 regular season, averaged 71.7 points a game (1,076 pts.) to their opponent's 57.5 points per contest (862 pts.) for a +14.3 points an outing margin. ASU's top three scorers at home this season – junior guard Ed Townsel (228 pts.), senior forward Brandon Peterson (173 pts.), and senior guard Trey Finn (154 pts.) combined to generate 51.6% (555-1,076) of the team's points production in those home encounters.

ASU has held its opponent to 60 points or less on 10 occasions this season and sports a 10-0 record in those contests. The Red Wolves are 7-0 at home and 3-0 on the road when limiting their opponent to 60 points or under. The 50 points scored by Troy (2/23) represented the fifth lowest total allowed by A-State this season with 38 points in a 63-38 conference home triumph over Florida Atlantic (1/26) ranking the best.

Brandon Peterson produced 18 double-figure scoring game of this season with 15 points against Troy (2/23). Peterson, who has totaled 15 points or more in a game on seven occasions this campaign, has tallied double-digit points in each of his last three outings and is averaging 15.3 points a contest (46 pts.) during that span. Peterson has presently amassed 47 double-figure scoring contests in 123 outings.

Florida Atlantic Owls

On Saturday night against UALR, Greg Gantt and Stefan Moody combined for 51 points. They are the highest scoring tandem in the conference at a combined 36.1 points per game. Gantt is now just two made three-pointers away from passing Earnest Crumbley for most career three-pointers in school history. Gantt currently has 285. Jordan McCoy has pulled down 60 rebounds in his last six games and is 4th all-time in school history with 564 career rebounds. Kelvin Penn is now third in FAU history in career blocked shots with 109. The Owls are still alive for the bye in their seventh and final Sun Belt tournament, but will need UALR and WKU both to lose and FAU will have to defeat rival FIU in the annual "Bury the Burrow in Red" game. The game will be Senior Night and Gantt, McCoy and Andre Mattison will be honored pregame as the winningest class since FAU moved to Division I.

FIU Panthers

The FIU men's basketball team (15-12, 10-8 SBC) will close out the 2012-2013 regular season with a pair of road games, beginning with a trip to Monroe, La., to take on the ULM Warhawks this Thursday. Game time is set for 8:30 p.m. ET.

The Panthers are coming off a 65-52 win over UALR on Thursday, Feb. 21. The win closed out the 2012-2013 home schedule for FIU, in which the Panthers finished 10-3 at U.S. Century Bank Arena. Senior Cameron Bell posted a career-high 17 points and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds versus the Trojans in his final home game as a Panther. Four seniors, who played in their final home game at FIU, were honored before the contest. Versus UALR, FIU held the Trojans to 9.1 percent shooting from 3-point range (2-of-22) while the Panthers converted a season-high 16-of-18 (88.9 percent) from the charity stripe.

With the win, FIU recorded its highest number of conference victories (10) since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 1998-1999. It also marked the 15th victory of the season for the Panthers, giving FIU its most wins since the 1999-2000 season and securing the program's first .500-or-better record in 13 years.

The Panthers enter this week's action averaging 70.0 points-per-game (No. 3 in the conference) on 43.1 percent shooting (No. 2) in the conference). FIU is allowing 70.3 points-per-game (No. 9 in the conference) as the opposition is shooting 45.7 percent from the floor. The Panthers lead the Sun Belt Conference in steals, averaging 9.6 per game.

Leading FIU in scoring is junior Tymell Murphy, who comes into this week's action averaging 15.3 points-per-game (No. 6 in the conference). The Brooklyn, N.Y., native leads the conference and ranks No. 7 in the nation in shooting percentage (59.2). Murphy also leads the team in rebounding, averaging 7.1 rebounds-per-contest (No. 5 in the conference). Junior Malik Smith is second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.5 points-per-game (No. 11 in the conference). The Boston, Mass., native leads the conference and ranks No. 58 in the nation in 3-pointers made (2.7 per game). Smith also ranks among the conference leaders in free-throw percentage (78.4 – No. 7). Freshman Jerome Frink is averaging 10.5 points-per-game (No. 25 in the conference) and 6.4 rebounds-per-contest (No. 9 in the conference), while sophomore Deric Hill ranks No. 8 in the conference in assists-per-game (2.9) and is No. 2 in the conference and No. 46 in the nation in steals, averaging 2.1 spg.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

With two games left in the regular season, the Ragin' Cajuns basketball team takes to the road in hopes of improving their seed for the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Championship. The Cajuns open the week in Little Rock, Ark. on Thursday (Feb. 28) for a 7:30 meeting with UALR in the Jack Stephens Center. Louisiana has won four of their last seven games to improve to 11-18 overall and 7-11 in league play, currently owning the No. 8 seed for the SBC championship. Louisiana could finish as high as No. 5 or drop as low as No. 9, depending on how the final week of play works out.

Sophomore guard Elfrid Payton reached a playing milestone against WKU on Saturday, playing 38 minutes to surpass the 1,000 minute mark for the season. He now has 1,028 minutes, the most by a Cajuns player since Tyren Johnon had 1,082 in 2009-10.

Elfrid Payton turned 19 on Feb. 22 and turned in his best week of basketball to celebrate. The day before his birthday, Payton scored 23 points, going nine-for-nine from the foul line, with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals in a win over Troy. On Saturday, the day after his birthday, he scored a career-high 31 points, the most points by a Cajun since David Dees had 36 points vs. Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 24, 2007. For the week, Payton averaged 27.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.5 steals in the two games, shooting .615 from the field (16-26) and .786 from the line (22-28).

One large improvement that has gone relatively unnoticed this year has been the improvement at the foul line by Elfrid Payton. As a freshman, Payton was 75-for-133 from the stripe (.564) but he has improved that figure to .665 this year (115-173). Over the last five games, he has gone 32-for-40 from the stripe (.800), including a string of 21 straight makes. He was nine-for-nine in the win over Troy,

Elfrid Payton spent a good portion of the WKU game (Feb. 23) at the foul line as he shattered his personal bests by making 13 of hi 19 free throw attempts. The 19 attempts fell one short of the school record 20 by Dean Church vs. Northwestern State (2/26/65) and Larry Simon vs. Nicholls State (2/23/62). The 19 attempts were the most ever by a Cajuns player in a Sun Belt game.

With at least three games left in the 2012-13 season, the duo of Elfrid Payton (465 points) and Shawn Long (453) are closing in on becoming the first duo since 2006-07 to score 500 point in the same season. Tyren Johnson was the last Cajuns player to score 500 points in a season when he had 538 in 2009-10. The last duo was Ros Mouton (514) and David Dees (504) in 2009-10.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

ULM suffered road losses at Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee this past week. The Warhawks enter the final week of the regular season with a record of 4-20 overall, 3-15 in Sun Belt play. ULM finishes the regular season with home contests against FIU (Feb. 28) and UL-Lafayette (March 2).

Junior guard Amos Olatayo continued his stellar play this season, averaging 14 points and 6.5 rebounds in two games last week. Olatayo ranks fourth in the Sun Belt in scoring with an average of 15.9 points per game. Olatayo also ranks 15th in the conference in rebounding (5.8) and 14th in field-goal percentage (.465).

Junior Jayon James averages 9.5 points per game and ranks second in the Sun Belt with 5.0 assists per game. James has recorded double-digit assists twice this season, including a Sun Belt-best 15 assists against FIU on Feb. 2. James is just eight assists shy of moving into sole possession of 10th place on ULM's single-season assists list.

Sophomore Trent Mackey is second on the team in scoring with 10.8 points per game and he leads the Sun Belt in 3-point percentage (.434) and ranks third in 3-point makes per game (2.6). Mackey needs five more 3-point makes to move into top 10 on ULM's single-season 3-pointers list.

The Warhawks rank fourth in the Sun Belt in field-goal percentage (.428) and third in 3-point percentage (.353). ULM also ranks second in the conference in assists per game (13.3), fifth in steals per game (7.1) and seventh in 3-point makes per game (6.0).

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

MT ranks the highest in the Sun Belt in all of the following: NCAA RPI: 27, ESPN Daily RPI: 27, ESPN BPI: 43, Pomeroy: 21, Sagarin: 51, ESPN Mid-Major Poll: 2, Bleacher Report Mid-Major: 3, AP Poll: RV (3), USA Today Coaches Poll: RV (15)

MT is now receiving votes in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls. The Blue Raiders received votes in the coaches poll for the fifth straight week with 15 and entered the AP Poll for the first time this season with three votes.

Kermit Davis is the Sun Belt's all-time winningest coach with 115 league wins. He broke the record at UALR in MT's 66-61 win on Feb. 16.

MT clinched its second-straight Sun Belt regular-season title and third in the last four years, in addition to the No. 1 seed at the league tournament with the win over South Alabama on Feb. 23.

MT finished a perfect 16-0 at home this season, including one at Bridgestone Arena. MT holds a 30-2 record at Murphy Center over the past two seasons. The Blue Raiders have won 28 straight regular-season home games, which is second-longest in the country.

MT has won 14 in a row, the fourth-longest streak nationally and matching the longest in MT history, and 18 of the last 19 games.

MT's 17 league wins are a school record, surpassing the mark of 14 set last season.

MT is one of two teams in the country 16-0 or better at home this year. Michigan is the only other team 16-0 at home. It is the best home record in school history.

MT is seventh nationally with an .825 winning percentage over the past two seasons and tied for fifth with 52 combined wins in the last two years.

MT currently ranks 20th nationally in scoring defense (58.0) and ninth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.289).

MT has the second-most wins in the country, behind Gonzaga with 27.

MT ranks 12th nationally in defensive efficiency with a rating of 87.0 according to Pomeroy. The Blue Raiders have held eight of their last 10 opponents to 60 points or less and 15 of their last 18.

North Texas Mean Green

North Texas picked up a split last week with a home win over South Alabama (69-57) on Thursday and a road loss at South Alabama on Saturday. NT closes the regular season on Thursday at home against Arkansas State, which knocked off the Mean Green in overtime in Jonesboro last month.

The Mean Green would be the No. 10 seed if the Sun Belt Conference Tournament started today, but NT could take the No. 9 seed with some help from Troy. The Trojans have two games left and remain a half game ahead of NT in the standings. North Texas owns the tiebreaker over Troy thanks to a pair of regular season wins over the Trojans.

NT hopes to change its luck against Sun Belt West Division foes on Thursday against Arkansas State. NT is 6-6 against the East Division this season, but is 0-7 versus the West.

Thanks to the blocking prowess of Tony Mitchell, NT is on the cusp of breaking the program's single season team blocks record. This week NT moved into second place with 143 on the year. NT is just eight swats behind the 2006-07 squad's record of 151. NT ranks 44th in the country with 4.8 blocks per game, and Mitchell's 2.7 per game ranks 18th in the NCAA.

North Texas is 7-7 at home this year, and has an opportunity on Thursday to keep the program's streak of winning home records alive. NT has had a winning record at the Super Pit in each of the last nine seasons, and can make it 10 seasons with a win over the Red Wolves. Since the Super Pit opened in 1973, NT has posted a winning record in 27 of the 39 seasons at the venue.

South Alabama Jaguars

USA is the only Sun Belt school to lead the all-time series with Western Kentucky (33-29).

South Alabama is 15-0 (11-0 Sun Belt) this season when leading or tied at halftime and 12-1 (10-1 Sun Belt) when recording a higher shooting percentage than its opponent.

USA's 13-5 Sun Belt record is the program's best after 18 games since starting 16-2 in 2007-08. The Jaguars' 13 conference wins are also the most since the 2007-08 campaign.

The Jaguars closed their home schedule with a seven-game win streak in the Mitchell Center.

South Alabama held North Texas to 33.8 percent shooting from the floor, the lowest by a USA opponent all season. The Mean Green converted just 1 of 11 shots from 3-point range, also the lowest percentage (9.1%) by an opponent in 2012-13. The Jags had allowed three straight teams to shoot 42 percent or better from the floor before Saturday.

Saturday marked just the second time in the last seven games that USA failed to get to the free throw line 28 times, but the Jags made up for it by shooting a season best 15 of 16 (93.8%) at the stripe. Wendell Wright, a career 45.5% shooter entering the game, made a career-high six free throws in six attempts. USA leads the SBC in free throws made (18.0) and attempted (25.3) per game.

Augustine Rubit went to the charity stripe just three times Saturday, his fewest attempts since going 1-for-1 at Florida Atlantic on Nov. 29. Through Saturday, Rubit is third in the nation in free throws made (6.5) and attempted per game (8.3). He has already set a new school record for free throws made in a season with 169 and is second with 215 attempts.

Rubit's double-digit scoring streak ended Saturday at 17 games with nine points—just his second single-digit game this season—but managed to grab a game-high 15 rebounds, his most in the 2013 calendar year, to tie Chris Gatling of Old Dominion for 11th in Sun Belt history for career rebounds with 859. Rubit needs four boards to move into the league's top 10. He also leads the nation in offensive rebounds per game (4.5).

Rubit needs nine points to move into ninth in USA history for career points (currently has 1,301).

Javier Carter recorded his third career double-double—and first of the 2012-13 season—Saturday with 10 points and a personal-best 12 rebounds. He added six blocks, his highest total since blocking seven vs. William Carey. Carter has blocked six or more shots in a game five times in his career. He is shooting 63 percent from the floor in his last 10 games.

Troy Trojans

Troy was swept last week, falling at Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State. Head coach Don Maestri still sits at 499 career wins, with just two more regular season games to play. The Trojans are 6-12 in Sun Belt games this season, putting them in ninth overall.

Deonata Jethroe had a career night at Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday, scoring 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. He also led the team in rebounding, with six boards. With his performance, he became the fourth Trojan to top 20 points in a game this season, joining Antoine Myers, Emil Jones and Hunter Williams. Troy got down early against the Ragin' Cajuns but fought to level the score in the final minutes, before Louisiana-Lafayette pulled away to close out the game.

Myers was Troy's star at Arkansas State, scoring 21 points and grabbing seven rebounds. The Trojans hit a long scoreless stretch late in the first half and couldn't recover, falling by eight.

Troy is 8-5 at home and has clinched its first winning season at home since 2009-10.

WKU Hilltoppers

The Hilltoppers snapped a three-game losing streak last week with a pair of wins, defeating ULM Thursday night 75-57 and putting together its finest offensive performance of the season in an 88-77 win at Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. The wins move the Hilltoppers to above .500 overall at 15-14, and WKU is now 9-9 in Sun Belt Conference play entering the final two games of the regular season this week against South Alabama and Middle Tennessee. Four Hilltoppers averaged double figures last week, led by T.J. Price's 19.0 points per game and seven three-point field goals. Jamal Crook, George Fant and Brandon Harris each averaged at least 14.0 points per game as well. Looking to build on the 18-point win over ULM, WKU torched the nets at Louisiana-Lafayette to the tune of 53 first-half points, its highest-scoring half of the season, and finished the game with 10 three-pointers and shooting over 81.0 percent from the free throw line. WKU is currently tied for the fifth seed in the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament with UALR with two games remaining.