Friday, March 3, 2006

Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview

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The Sun Belt Conference had a solid season, with two teams getting 12 wins and six teams finishing within two games of each other after the top two. Western Kentucky won the regular-season title by a half-game over South Alabama as a result of the unbalanced schedule that the Sun Belt plays. 'Bama played an extra game and ended up losing the league as a result. In their head-to-head matchup, WKU won by one at South Alabama. Those two teams should be the main contenders for the title, while several other teams will challenge.

Favorite: The league champion, Western Kentucky, has to be considered the favorite heading into the conference tournament. They have won 15 of their last 17 and have defeated the likes of Virginia and UAB this season. The Hilltoppers own the league's best offense and are atop the conference in many categories. They also have one of the best backcourt duos in the country in Anthony Winchester and Courtney Lee. Winchester is an excellent scorer and perimeter shooter, while Lee is an outstanding all-around player who can score, play defense, rebound, and shoot the ball. Benson Callier and Ty Rogers also produce on the perimeter, while Elgrace Wilborn is the main man down low.

Contenders: South Alabama, as a result of the fact that they finished a half-game behind WKU, is obviously the main threat to the Hilltoppers. They have won eight of their last nine and are playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Jaguars rank near the top of several statistical categories and own one of the conference's best defenses. South Alabama is a deep and balanced team with only two double-figure scorers. Mario Jointer is an excellent all-around player, while Richard Law is a solid forward that can stroke the three with efficiency. Guards Demetric and Chey Christie are two more consistent contributors. Middle Tennessee has won eight of their last ten, including a W over Western Kentucky at home. They started off the season slow, but have bounced back to become a solid team. The perimeter trio of Adam Vogelsberg, Fats Cuyler, and Marcus Morrison is one of the better troikas in the conference. Tim Blue and Kyle Young are very good players in the paint.

Sleeper: Louisiana-Lafayette has won seven of eight, and own wins this season against South Alabama, Oral Roberts, and UTEP. They might have the best inside-outside combo in the Sun Belt in guard Dwayne Mitchell and big man Michael Southall. Mitchell is an excellent scorer who is also one of the best rebounding guards in the country, while Southall is an efficient post shooter who is an outstanding shot-blocker. Chris Cameron is another solid inside performer, while Ed Turner and Maurice Barkdale contribute on the perimeter.

Prediction: Not to be boring or anything, but the tournament championship is going to be between the two division winners, Western Kentucky and South Alabama. WKU has been one of the best mid-majors throughout the entire season, while South Alabama has stayed with the Hilltoppers every step of the way. In the title game, Western Kentucky is going to have the advantage because of the perimeter combo of Anthony Winchester and Courtney Lee. Moreover, neither team is too great down low, but WKU has a better big man in Elgrace Wilborn, a former Tennessee transfer. The aforementioned trio should be enough to get Western Kentucky the automatic bid.

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