Sun Belt ShootAround: Can the conference get multiple NCAA bids again?
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Look who's back on the sideline
By Kyle Whelliston
AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
Former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis is getting a fresh start at Florida Atlantic.
Four Things To Watch In '08-09
By Kyle Whelliston
The Sun Belt's breakthrough two-bid season was the result of an exciting two-team race between South Alabama and Western Kentucky. South Alabama, granted a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament despite losing in the conference semis, represented the league's first NCAA at-large bid since 1994. And despite a No. 12 Dance card for winning the conference tourney championship, the Hilltoppers went two rounds deep and finished with 29 overall wins. That coveted multi-bid status also was a reward for the league as a whole for its improvements in nonconference play. WKU ended with a 37 RPI, and South Alabama closed with a 35. The league's overall RPI was 15, up sharply from 22 in 2006-07, and Sun Belt teams won 62 out-of-league games, the league's highest total in three years. Few of those victories were cheap. Seven came against BCS conferences, and the league compiled a 5-7 mark against Conference USA. Versus the other upstart mid-major league, the three-bid West Coast Conference, the SBC finished 4-2. As the early schedules leak out, Sun Belt teams look to have ample opportunity to continue their nonconference momentum in 2008-09. South Alabama will have the opportunity to repeat its 2007 win at Mississippi State on Dec. 13, and Western Kentucky is slated to play Louisville in the first game of a four-year series in late November. Mike Jarvis' Florida Atlantic squad will visit Kentucky on Dec. 27. • From the Horns to the Hilltoppers
After leading Western Kentucky to NCAA tournament wins over Drake and San Diego out of a No. 12 seed, coach Darrin Horn bolted for the vacant South Carolina head coaching job. In comes Ken McDonald, a former WKU assistant who most recently has worked under Rick Barnes at Texas. During McDonald's three years on the bench in Austin, the Longhorns won 80 games and featured NBA draft picks Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. "We had great success in the Big 12," the new head Hilltopper said. "You have to expect greatness and maintain a certain attitude, and you have to surround yourself with talent and resources. The administration here at Western is very aggressive in its pursuit of excellence. They want us to have the resources to make this a consistent top-25 program. They want us to run our operations like a top-25 program, and it's great to be part of that." McDonald has to start his tenure without three heroes of the Sweet 16 run. Sun Belt player of the year and NBA draft pick Courtney Lee, point guard Tyrone Brazelton (26.3 points per game in the NCAA tourney) and Ty Rogers (who drained that dramatic overtime 3-pointer to beat Drake in the first round) all are out of eligibility. Inside-outside combo Jeremy Evans and A.J. Slaughter, who both provided WKU with key depth in 2007-08, will be asked to step into larger roles. • Complete rebirth
After a 10-20 crash that included a school record for losses, Arkansas State's program is undergoing a complete rebirth. For starters, there's a new team nickname, an opportunity for fans to update their wardrobes. "Red Wolves" replaces an Indians moniker that had landed the school on the NCAA's hostile and abusive nicknames list. There's a new coach, too, as John Brady replaced Dickey Nutt in mid-March. Brady, a mid-campaign firing at LSU last season, is just two seasons removed from a 2006 Final Four run with the Tigers. As if that wasn't enough change, the team also will feature a practically brand-new roster. Last season's leading scorer, Adrian Banks (18.4 ppg in 2007-08), is done with his collegiate career, and key guard Ryan Wedel (15.1 ppg) transferred to Drake. Four juco signings should keep things from getting any worse in the loss column, at least until Brady can get his feet under him in Jonesboro. • The favorites?
Middle Tennessee State pulled the surprise upset of the Sun Belt tourney in the semifinals. The 17-15 (11-7) Blue Raiders, the No. 4 seed, upended regular-season champion South Alabama. MTSU was 20 minutes away from an even bigger splash, but the magic ran out against Western Kentucky in the title game, as a competition that was close at halftime turned into a 10-point loss. It was far from a disappointing ending -- Middle Tennessee had arrived just a bit early, that's all. Not a single Blue Raider graduated, so coach Kermit Davis brings back his team intact. Among the returnees are versatile 6-7 junior forward Desmond Yates (16.0 ppg, 51.3 percent from the 3) and the conference's leading shooter, 6-10 senior Theryn Hudson (9.1 ppg, 64.7 percent). With key losses in the league's upper reaches, MTSU stands to be the odds-on favorite to win its first Sun Belt championship and to return to the Dance for the first time since its OVC days back in 1989. "After we lost to Western [Kentucky], we all went right back to work within a week," said Davis, entering his seventh season as the Blue Raiders' bench boss. "There's been a lot of excitement in the program all summer. Now the team expects to be good."
If I were the Sun Belt commish
By Andy Katz
2008-09 Team Capsules
UALR managed its first 20-win season since 1995-96, but a young offense that managed just 65.3 points per contest was held to 55 in a blowout loss to Western Kentucky in the conference semifinals. Four returning starters, led by 6-7 junior Mike Smith (9.2 ppg, 5.4 rebounds per game), will maintain the same high level of punishing defense and quality rebounding. Someone will have to step up to become a go-to guy, however, for the only team in the SBC without a double-digit scorer in 2007-08. Arkansas State
Despite all the newness of player turnover, a new coaching staff and a new team nickname, the 2008-09 Red Wolves will feature a few familiar faces. Shawn Morgan led the team in rebounding at 6.9 rpg, and fellow 6-5 senior forward Yima Chia-Kur was a key contributor with 11.1 ppg. Along with four juco signings, they'll try to turn around a defense that easily rated as the worst in the Belt. Last season's 40.7 percent in defensive 3-point field goal percentage was last in the nation. Denver
After an aimless 2006-07 season in which the coach went AWOL in December, the Pioneers improved from four wins to 11 in 2007-08. Former Princeton bench boss Joe Scott installed a patient, clock-draining system well suited for a school that's long fancied itself an "Ivy of the West." Denver's next order of business is to win a road game, something it has not done since a playoff victory at Middle Tennessee on March 5, 2006. Florida Atlantic
Big man Carlos Monroe made the All-Sun Belt first team as a junior, scoring 15.4 ppg and grabbing a league-high 9.5 boards per contest. But he wasn't the Owl who tested the NBA draft waters a few months ago. Second-leading scorer Paul Graham III (14.0 ppg on 46.4 percent shooting), a 6-5 forward whose father played for the Atlanta Hawks in the 1990s, became Florida Atlantic's first early entry candidate. He didn't hire an agent and will return to school for his senior season. Florida International
The Miami-based Golden Panthers have endured nine straight losing seasons; the most recent four have belonged to current coach Sergio Rouco. A 10th most likely will lead to a change of direction next summer, but there is hope at the league's far southeastern outpost. Freddy Asprilla is a 6-9 specimen who was headed for Miami and was given serious consideration by Tennessee and Florida State, but he was an academic non-qualifier. He'll get a second chance in the Sun Belt. Louisiana-Lafayette
A seven-win improvement to 15-15 was a strong step back toward respectability for a program that annually racked up 20-win seasons not too long ago. But for the second straight March, the Ragin' Cajuns made a quick exit after the Sun Belt's campus-site first round. The 2008-09 version will be without Elijah Millsap (brother of Paul, the key Utah Jazz sub and former three-time NCAA rebounding champ), who transferred to UAB after averaging a team-leading 5.4 rpg as a sophomore. Louisiana-Monroe
Undersized ULM made quite a splash in its first Sun Belt season in 2006-07, finishing with a share of the West division title. But the league was wiser to the Warhawks last time around -- a 10-21 record (4-14) and unlucky No. 13 seed represented eight losses in their final 10 regular-season games. Three starters and 34.2 combined ppg are gone, and 5-11 senior Tony Hooper (15.1 ppg) joins four incoming jucos in an attempt to rediscover the perimeter defense that eluded Orlando Early's squad last season. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders will attempt to stave off the sluggish start that marked last season's campaign. MTSU went 1-2 in its own season-opening tournament and was 4-8 on New Year's Day before turning things around and earning 10 victories over a 13-game stretch. DeMario Williams is a newcomer to watch -- the 6-4 point guard from nearby Culleoka, Tenn., was a target of I-65 rival Western Kentucky before choosing to stay closer to home. New Orleans
When the Privateers begin 2008-09, it will mark the first time in three years they have retained their head coach. It also will be the first time in three years that the program will be without the services of all-everything guard Bo McCalebb, who was last seen on Sacramento's summer league team. Coach Joe Pasternack thinks he might have the next UNO star in 6-9 Mississippian Jacolby Pittman, who was rated the No. 27 available center by Scouts Inc. Pittman previously drew interest from UConn and Ole Miss. North Texas
They didn't repeat as champs, but the Mean Green scored early nonconference victories over Oklahoma State and New Mexico State on their way to a second straight 20-win season. UNT has a Sun Belt star-in-the-making in 5-10 firecracker Josh White (13.9 ppg), who scored 20 or more points six times on the way to being voted the league's top freshman. But the team that finished 18th in the country in rebounding (38.6 team rpg) lost the three leading glass-cleaners that made it so, well, mean. South Alabama
A second NCAA trip in three years inspired the school to sign first-year coach Ronnie Arrow to an extension through the 2012-13 season. In the near term, he'll have to find a replacement for SG Demetric Bennett (19.7 ppg), the primary on-court link between the 2006 and 2008 tournament teams. Arrow has two high-potential shooters lined up as future possibilities: juco signee Lashun Watson from Okaloosa-Walton (Fla.) College and incoming Dallas native Demarius Jones. Troy
The Trojans have shed a win every season since joining the Sun Belt in 2005, slipping steadily from 14-15 in 2005-06 to 12-19 this past season. After a quarterfinal exit in the conference tourney, outgoing senior guard and multisport star O'Darien Bassett (team-high 18.2 ppg) made it all the way to the finals of the U.S. Olympic trials in the long jump. He finished 10th. Without Bassett and the two other top scorers, 10th place in the Sun Belt seems like a reasonable goal for the men's basketball team. Western Kentucky
Hilltopper diehards in Bowling Green wouldn't be caught dead wearing blue and white, the colors of that SEC school over in Lexington. But many will make a wardrobe exception for an Orlando Magic jersey bearing the name and number of favorite son Courtney Lee, who went from the Sweet 16 to the No. 22 pick in the NBA draft. The 6-5 do-everything Lee averaged 20.4 points and shot 47.7 percent from the floor in his senior season at WKU, capped with conference player of the year honors.
2007-08 Sun Belt Standings
|East Division||Overall record||Sun Belt record|
|Middle Tennessee State||17-15||11-7|
|West Division||Overall record||Sun Belt record|
For all the Sun Belt news and notes, check out the conference page.
Top Returning Scorers
|Desmond Yates, Middle Tennessee, Jr.||16.0|
|Carlos Monroe, Florida Atlantic, Sr.||15.4|
|Ryan Wedel, Arkansas State, Sr.||15.1|
|Tony Hooper, Louisiana-Monroe, Sr.||15.1|
|Josh White, North Texas, Jr.||13.9|
Top Returning Rebounders
|Carlos Monroe, Florida Atlantic, Sr.||9.5|
|DeAndre Coleman, South Alabama, Sr.||7.8|
|Alex Galindo, Florida International, Sr.||6.7|
|Brandon Davis, South Alabama, Sr.||6.2|
|Russell Hicks, Florida International, Sr.||6.1|
|Afam Nweke, Louisiana-Monroe, Sr.||6.1|