Monday, October 16, 2006

Sun Belt Conference Preview


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. The conference tournament reflected the regular season standings, as both WKU and USA coasted to the championship game. However, unlike the meeting between the two during the year, the Jaguars blew out the Hilltoppers by 25, winning the automatic bid. Unfortunately, USA ran into the eventural national champions in the first round, bowing out to Florida. Don't be surprised to see a similar look to the standings again this season.

Favorite: Western Kentucky was one of the last teams out of the NCAA Tournament last season, yet received an inexplicable #6 seed in the NIT. Either way, the Hilltoppers had an outstanding season, going 23-8 and winning the conference. WKU looks very impressive again heading into this season. Courtney Lee, one of the best wings in the country, leads the way. The Player of the Year favorite can do a little bit of everything. He lead the Hilltoppers in rebounding, assists, steals, and is the leading returning scorer as well. Also returning on the perimeter are guards Ty Rogers and Benson Callier. Callier is a very good shooter who is a solid scorer and rebounder, while Rogers is a part-time starter who can score. Manning the point will be JC transfer Tyrone Brazelton. He is very quick and will make an impact at both ends of the floor. Up front, a nice mix of returning players and newcomers will lead the way. Juniors Boris Siakim and Mike Walker were role players last season, but need to expand their game this year. The same goes for sophomore Daniel Emerson, who could be due for a big season in the frontcourt. Fresh faces Jeremy Evans and Reed Mostafa will be counted upon immediately.

Contenders: South Alabama had an outstanding campaign a year ago, reaching the NCAA Tournament. However, three starters are gone from that team, making it more difficult for the Jaguars to have a repeat performance. Carlos Smith leads the way in the backcourt. He's a solid point guard who will have to up his scoring numbers this season. Demetric Bennett is the team's leading returning scorer and is a very good inside-outside option on the wing. Steven Cowherd is another key contributor on the perimeter. Richmond transfer Daon Merritt will get immediate playing time and could be one of the best guards in the conference. Up front, Leandro Buboltz is the only returning rotation player from a year ago. He is a solid rebounder and shooter who will see more time this year. Three transfers will step in right away and make an impact: Kenny Hooks (Oregon State), Brandon Davis (Birmingham Southern), and Ernest Little (UAB). Middle Tennessee has been a contender for the past few years, and nothing should change this season. The Blue Raiders are led by all-conference guard Adam Vogelsberg, who could be poised for a huge season. He is a big-time scorer who is one of the best shooters in the Sun Belt. Part-time starter Kevin Kanaskie returns at the point. He's an efficient ballhandler and passer. JC transfer Nigel Johnson will make an impact on the perimeter. Forward Tim Blue injured his knee in April and is questionable for this season. When healthy, he provides Middle Tennessee with a strong rebounder and scorer in the frontcourt. Without him, the Blue Raiders will rely on Kyle Young and Theryn Hudson down low. Young is a versatile forward, while Hudson could have a breakout season. Desmond Yates will help at small forward. Arkansas Little-Rock may be the best candidate to win the West division. They return a double-double machine in Rashad Jones-Jennings, the nation's leading returning rebounder. He has unbelivable instincts for the ball and is also developing as a scorer. He had 23 points and 30 rebounds in a game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in December. Joining him up front are Byron Ray and Lekheythan Malone. Ray is a good rebounder and a solid scorer, while Malone should develop into more of a scorer this season. That trio comprises arguably the best frontcourt in the conference. In the backcourt, two players that were injured for much of last season will return. De'Andre Eggins is a versatile wing who can score and rebound well, and Terrance Akins is a big-time shooter. Newcomers Steven Moore and Corey Johnson for time at the point guard slot, while returnee Buddy Harding needs to step up his production. While the Trojans may have the league's best frontcourt, New Orleans owns the conference's best backcourt. Most of that optimism results from the fact that Bo McCalebb will return from a redshirt season. He missed all but four games of last season after an injured wrist. He averaged almost 23 points per game during his sophomore season and was putting up 19 a game before his injury. He is an outstanding scorer than can carry the Privateers. He is joined on the perimeter by the league's best point guard in Jamie McNeilly. He averaged nearly 6 assists per game and also has the ability to score the ball. James Parlow is a double-figure scorer on the wing. He is a very good long-range shooter. The frontcourt isn't too bad, either. Ben Elias is recovering from an ACL injury, but if he is healthy, he provides New Orleans with a good rebounder and a solid scorer. Jacob Manning also returns as a rotation player up front. Asrangue Souleymane will see minutes right away.

Sleepers: Troy will likely follow the same formula it used last season en route to a decent first season in the Sun Belt. That formula? Shoot threes, shoot threes, and shoot threes. The Trojans made more three pointers than anyone in the country last season, and also led the nation in threes per game. They will, however, have to replace guard Bobby Dixon, who was arguably the best all-around player in the conference last season. The leading candidate to replace him is Utah transfer Richard Chaney. He is a very good long-range shooter and a solid all-around player who will make an immediate impact. JC transfer Jerome Odem is another newcomer expected to play right away. The Trojans also have an excellent forward duo in Cedric Jackson and Samy Sharp. Both started every game last season and are all-conference candidates. Jackson is an excellent scorer and a solid rebounder who has a nice inside-outside gae. Sharp is a big-time athlete who is a very good rebounder. JC transfer Ralph Jennings and senior Jarvis Acker will provide depth. Denver has unenviable task of replacing the conference Defensive Player of the Year Yemi Nicholson, who also averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds. Likely to start up front will be Antonio Porch and David Kummer. Porch is a solid post player who can score and rebound well, while Kummer is a good all-around player who is also very versatile. The backcourt is anchored by all-conference wing DeShawn Walker, who is a very good scorer and shooter and can also contribute in a variety of areas. Point guard Steve Wetrich also returns. He takes care of the ball and is also a solid distributor. JC transfer Cedric Hill and senior Alex Cox will also see plenty of playing time. North Texas could really make noise in the West division. They return three starters, including all-conference guard Kendrick Davis. Davis is an excellent scorer and a very good shooter from both inside and outside the arc. Moreover, he also plays solid defense and passes the ball well. Two players that averaged just under double-figures in scoring last season also return on the perimeter. Calvin Watson is a good point producer who can also grab a couple of rebounds, while Michael Sturns could be poised for a big season. JC transfer Ben Bell will have a chance to play at the point due to his passing ability. The frontcourt is also solid. Arizona State transfer Keith Wooden is expected to step in immediately and produce up front. Quincy Williams and Harold Edwards head the returnees at the forward spots and both will have to up their production this season. Arkansas State finished only 12-18 last season, but the expectations should be a little higher this season as the Indians have the talent to make an upper-division finish. They return one of the best inside-outside combos in the league in guard Jim Jones and forward Isaac Wells. Jones is a good scorer who is very quick at both ends of the court and can also rebound the ball. Wells is an inside-outside option on the offensive end and is an all-conference player. JC transfer Abayomi Ajasin will contribute up front next to Wells, while Brandon Ballard will also contribute on the wing. Two JC transfers could start in the backcourt next to Jones. Adrian Banks is going to make an immediate impact and could become one of the better guards in the Sun Belt, and Chris Brown will help out as a scorer right away. Yual Banks is another solid guard.

Rounding Out the Pack: Florida Atlantic hopes to carry the same success they had last season in the Atlantic sun over to the Sun Belt. The Owls finished third in the conference a year ago, but return only two starters. However, those two starters form one of the better guard duos in the league. DeAndre Rice could become one of the best scorers in the conference provided he improves his conditioning, while point guard Brent Crews contributes in a variety of ways. He averaged almost 5 assists per game last season. JC transfer Tavarus Harris and freshman Eni Cuka will push for playing time. Returning up front is Carlos Monroe. He was a double-figure scorer and a solid rebounder a season ago. Derrick Simmons and Paul Graham will also continue to key contributors for FAU. Transfers Jeff Parmer and Jimmie Sutton could start immediately. Florida International was one of the worst teams in the conference last year, and the Golden Panthers lose four starters from that team. Wings Johwen Villegas and Elvis Lora lead the way. Both are very good three-point shooters who could develop into go-to-guys this season. JC transfer Dejon Prejean is also expected to see time on the perimeter. Kansas transfer Alex Galindo could immediately become one of the league's best players. Newcomers Michael James and Erick Nsangou are expected to fight for the point guard spot. Down low, Facundo Giorgi leads the way, while Chris Fuller also gets minutes up front. Louisiana-Lafayette snapped a streak of four straight 20-win seasons last year, falling to a 13-16 record and a first-round conference tournament loss. An even worse season is possible this year with the loss of four starters. Point guard Maurice Barksdale should return at the point if he recovers from a broken wrist. If he is not able to play, the Ragin' Cajuns have a nearly bare cupboard. The perimeter should be decent, though. Liberty transfer David Dees will lead the way after averaging over 16 points per game for the Flames. Freshmen Willie Lago and Randall Diagle are expected to be the backcourt of the future for Lafayette, while Elijah Millsap could become an explosive scorer. Up front, freshman Courtney Wallace will see immediate playing time, while seniors Adam James and Valentino Hart will get an expanded role this season. Louisiana-Monroe will have a rough welcome to their new league after finishing in eighth place in the Southland Conference last season. The Warhawks have a chance to stay out the cellar due to their backcourt. Tony Hooper is a very good all-around player who can contribute in a variety of ways, while wings James Perkins and Lance Brasher are good shooters who can also score. Point guard Brandon Jenkins should start immediately after redshirting last season due to a broken foot. Anchoring the frontcourt is senior Darien Bynum, who could have a breakout season down low, while Dalky Melendez is a part-time starter who has a nice inside-outside game. JC transfer Gerard Jackson will make an impact right away.

Prediction: The Sun Belt Conference could be wide-open this season. Western Kentucky is the favorite heading into the season, due to the return of Courtney Lee and several key returnees. However, there are plenty of teams with a chance to knock off the Hilltoppers, including last season's champion, South Alabama. Arkansas Little-Rock, with Rashad Jones-Jennings, and New Orleans, with the league's best backcourt, are also prime contenders for the league title. Right now, I'll have to give the edge to Western Kentucky, though. They lack a bonafide inside presence, but Lee and Benson Callier are versatile wings who can swing to the frontcourt. New Orleans will be right on their heels, however.

Player of the Year: Courtney Lee, SG, Western Kentucky

All-Conference Team:
G- Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky
G- Bo McCalebb, New Orleans
G- Kendrick Davis, North Texas
F- Rashad Jones-Jennings, Arkansas Little-Rock
F- Isaac Wells, Arkansas State

Second Team:
G- Adam Vogelsberg, Middle Tennessee
G- DaShawn Walker, Denver
G- Jamie McNeilly, New Orleans
G- DeAndre Rice, Florida Atlantic
F- Cedric Jackson, Troy

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