Pioneers are all-too-frequent fliers
In its current incarnation, the Sun Belt Conference reaches from Denver University to Miami's Florida International -- a breadth of 2,097 miles, more than 93 percent of this year's Tour de France. It might take you about day and half straight to drive its length, and at least a month to walk it. If the Sun Belt were a fashion accessory, it might fit Argentina or India. Barely.
One of the great things about college athletics is the rivalries, and all that space makes it very hard to hate. The last six conference tournament championships have been split evenly by Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette, two schools that are separated by 704 long miles of bitter blacktop.
"It's difficult," says Robert Lee, head coach of the defending conference champion ULL Ragin' Cajuns. "Our fans can't get really attached to a rivalry because of the distance. We'd like to have a more regional league, but this is where it is right now and we'll play the hand we're dealt."
According to Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters, today's long and winding Sun Belt came about as a result of attrition in the late 1990s.
"Denver and Florida International were added largely as a reaction to schools leaving the league," Waters says. "Lamar and Texas-Pan American had left the league, and then there was another group -- Jacksonville and Central Florida. They left, as well."
And as with nearly all collegiate conference issues, it all goes back to football.
"The power of the NCAA is so clearly vested in the I-A conferences," Waters says. "At that time, the criteria for a I-A conference was six teams playing football together. We probably could have done that and not gone out west, but about that time, the NCAA had changed the criteria and made it eight schools. In 2000, Troy was still a I-AA program, and Florida Atlantic and Florida International were still not in the football business. They weren't really options for us yet. Even in 2000, we felt that league realignment was coming our way.
"We thought we could offer a football home to Idaho, Utah State and New Mexico State, and keep them viable as options for the WAC. Worst-case scenario, we'd have a Western division. We tried to keep those schools in business out west, and buy some time for FAU, FIU and Troy to become viable football options."
Idaho and Utah State would choose to play their basketball in the Big West, but New Mexico State signed on for Sun Belt hoops, as well. All three recently left for the Western Athletic Conference.
"There's no secret ... those three schools fit in the WAC's footprint, and they're nice additions to that league," Waters says. "When Fresno State comes to town, they don't have to spend money explaining who Fresno State is, as they would have had to do with Florida Atlantic. There were never any hard feelings about them leaving -- in fact, we always thought they would."
But where does that leave Denver? DU has been playing Sun Belt basketball since 1999, when the school completed its transition from Division II. With relatively short trips to New Mexico State's Las Cruces campus a thing of the past, Denver is now a whopping 840 miles from its closest Sun Belt rival -- the University of North Texas in Denton.
"Denver is a great school," Waters says. "They've won our graduation rate every year they've been in the league. As a friend of mine in the Ivy League told me, the University of Denver is the outpost between the Ivies and Stanford."
"Outpost is right," DU hoops coach Terry Carroll says. "We're very fortunate that we've got a great hub here at DIA [Denver International Airport]. I imagine it's more of a problem for teams trying to come here than it is for us going there."
Commissioner Waters recognizes the Pioneers' status, equal parts loner and oddball.
"Denver has a home as long as [it wants] it and [needs] it. We do understand the problems that [the Pioneers are] going to have -- every time they play a conference game in any sport, they're going to the airport. There's going to be a day when the missed class time becomes a concern to them. If they find a home out west, we'll be as supportive of that decision as we were about the other three western schools leaving."
According to Carroll, partial relief for Denver's travel problems might be close.
"The ADs are going to be meeting later this month," he says. "There's probably going to be some type of conference realignment for basketball, or maybe we'll have to go to three divisions. We might end up like Florida International's been, with no travel partner, or maybe we'll have the Monday night game instead of Thursday-Saturday. We'll know soon."
And while the Sun Belt's sticky travel situation is being sorted out, the 30-year-old conference is moving ahead with plans to consolidate as a truly southeastern circuit.
"There are a lot of talented athletes in Florida," Waters says. "I think it's important to have a presence there. I think it's equally important to have a presence in Texas and to have a presence in Louisiana. Those are three of the five great recruiting areas in the country."
Next year, the Belt will welcome Florida Atlantic (which will play its final Atlantic Sun season in 2005-06) and Louisiana-Monroe (in the Southland for now). Additionally, Troy will enter the league this fall as a full-fledged member. The league will then have three schools each in Florida and Louisiana; two apiece in Arkansas and Alabama; and one member each in Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee. And, of course, that one school way out in Colorado.
"We like our little group," Waters says. "We're starting to create some real rivalries within that group. And life goes on."
Good signs: In the upwardly mobile sections of Mid-Majorville, a rising tide can lift all boats ... closer to that elusive status as a multibid league. Good league rivalries, distance and all, also are welcomed. That's why the emergence of Denver last year was a welcome one.
The Pioneers snatched the Western Division title from perennial power Louisiana-Lafayette, sweeping their two regular-season meetings. They'll bring back the centerpiece of their offense, reigning Sun Belt Player Of The Year Yemi Nicholson (18.1 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game). Nicholson is a 6-foot-10 human swath of destruction, and he has been spending the summer working hard in camps and toning up for a run at senior-season dominance. Joining him will be long-armed 6-6 junior Antonio Porch (12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), who teamed up with "Mount Yemi" for twin double-doubles on a regular basis last year.
But an important part of Denver's breakout season, point guard Rodney Billups (yes, Chauncey's little brother), graduated and took his team-leading 6.5 assists per game with him. The Pioneers' No. 1 burning question going into next season: Who's going to feed Yemi the ball?
"We've got Alex Cox, a young man from Daytona Beach [junior college], coming in, and Steve Wetrich backed up Rodney last year," Pioneers coach Carroll says. "One of those guys is going to have to step up and become our point."
Lafayette finally was able to overcome Denver in the conference title game, but the Cajuns approach autumn with significant question marks, as well, having lost several key components of last season's NCAA Tournament team.
Orien Greene, the Sun Belt's defensive player of the year, was the only mid-major player picked in the NBA draft not named Turiaf (by Boston, with the 53rd pick). Leading scorer Tiras Wade (20.3 ppg) went undrafted but had hired an agent, ending his collegiate eligibility. Brian Hamilton and his 13.7 ppg output also are out the door.
"We're going to have to find a way to beat Denver in the regular season, 'cause they're still around," ULL head coach Lee says. "We did lose some very good basketball players, but I think we've replaced them with very good basketball players. We always have belief that we'll rise to the top of the Sun Belt, and that belief carries us through."
The coach has particularly high hopes for Ed Turner, a muscular 6-8 juco transfer and former Pittsburgh Panther who, Lee feels, will have an "immediate, real impact" on the league. Another instant boost came in the form of a recent NCAA decision to grant 6-5 sky-walker Dwayne Mitchell an extra year at the Cajundome. Mitchell played in one exhibition game for Auburn in 2002-03 before transferring to ULL, and he had been penalized one full year of eligibility before the successful appeal.
"He continued to make great progress last year," Lee says of Mitchell, who started each of the Cajuns' 31 contests and averaged 10.4 points with 5.8 boards. "He's going to be a tremendous player for us this year, and I'm expecting a lot of great things from him."
Safe bet: Western Kentucky will strive with an increased sense of purpose this year -- not just because of the Hilltoppers' desire to recapture the Eastern Division from Arkansas-Little Rock and to get their fourth Sun Belt title in six years.
The Hilltoppers will go through this season playing in honor of backup point guard Danny Rumph, who collapsed at a recreation center in his hometown of Philadelphia. He had just finished a pickup game with some friends, relatives told The Philadelphia Inquirer, and it turned out that the last shot he ever took was a game-winner. He was pronounced dead at an area hospital soon thereafter, and the cause was released later as cardiac arrhythmia.
The loss was felt deeply and immediately throughout the Western Kentucky basketball community. Rumph was regarded as a quiet and dignified role player who would selflessly perform any task his coach and teammates required of him. The entire Hilltoppers squad traveled north from Bowling Green to attend his funeral.
"Danny conducted himself as a player and a person and a student exactly the way you want people in your program to be," WKU coach Darrin Horn says. "His legacy will be such that we'll always ask ourselves, 'Are we doing this thing in a way that would make Danny proud, and bring honor to his memory?' For us, that's a great motivator, because it's a high standard."
Red flag: South Alabama was an emergent Sun Belt power in the late 1990s under legendary journeyman coach Bob Weltlich, winning three regular-season titles and reaching the Big Dance twice (in 1997 and 1998). The bottom dropped out in 2002, when a string of 20-win seasons ended with a 7-21 thud. With three years left on his contract, Weltlich left the school.
But after a quick bounce under John Pelphrey, Team USA has been in nosedive mode, its win total declining from 14 to 12 to 10. It's getting harder and harder to find any students on the Mobile campus who can remember what a winning basketball team looks like. The situation seems to be worsening, with at least three outbound transfers from last year's squad.
And Weltlich? Since his ouster at South Alabama, he has been enjoying life as an author. His sudden retirement gave him time to finish and self-publish his first novel, "Crooked Zebra." Nothing cryptic at all about the title -- it's about a mafia plot to fix the NCAA Tournament by purchasing the loyalties of a referee.
Worth watching: After seven years in the Atlantic Sun, Troy (née Troy State) makes its Sun Belt debut this year, replacing WAC-bound New Mexico State in the West Division. Will the Trojans' run-and-gun system translate well to the bigger, tougher SBC?
In Don Maestri's 22 years as the head coach, the "Troy Offense" has always been predicated on pressure defense and blistering tempos but, above all, on an unwavering allegiance to the 3-point shot.
But before they learn about their new conference home, they'll have to learn about themselves. Maestri expects his 2005-06 Trojans to have four -- and perhaps five -- new starters, as 585 of last year's 923 3-point attempts have graduated.
The Trojans do have a conference title and an NCAA Tournament appearance (2003) to remember their old league by. But they struggled to an eighth-place finish in their final A-Sun season, going 12-18 overall while converting 36.3 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Unfortunately for them, their opponents averaged a full percentage point better. When you live by the 3, there's always the chance of death by same.
"Some years we make a lot," Maestri acknowledges. "And some years we miss a lot."
But don't expect Maestri to join Weltlich and Phil Jackson in the ranks of coaches-turned-authors -- "Zen and the Art of 3-Point Shooting" will not be appearing in your local bookstore anytime soon.
"We're not very philosophical around here," Maestri quips. "We've just been lucky in the past with getting kids that can shoot it. Hopefully we've signed some new kids who can, too."
"If they can, we'll shoot the 3. If they can't, we'll have to do a little coaching."
Despite the returning strength of Denver and the defending champs at ULL in the West and defending East champs Arkansas-Little Rock, our resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, thinks traditional Sun Belt power Western Kentucky is ready to climb the hill again.
His early look at the 2006 bracket has WKU as the conference's automatic bid winner.
|Team||League record||Overall record|
|Middle Tennessee St.||7-7||19-12|
|New Mexico St.||1-14||6-24|
# -- NIT participant
Note: Troy went 12-18 (8-10) in the Atlantic Sun last season.
|Expected leading returning scorers|
|Player (Team)||2004-05 PPG|
|Bo McCalebb (New Orleans)||22.6|
|Dewarick Spencer (Ark. St.)||18.6|
|Anthony Winchester (WKU)||18.2|
|Yemi Nicholson (Denver)||18.1|
|Ivan Almonte (FIU)||17.2|
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a contributor to ESPN.com.