2001-02 Sun Belt Conference Preview
by Chad Muszynski
The Sun Belt Conference looks to be one of the more talented of the Mid-sized conferences. The SBC features a pair of preseason All-Americans and the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky are featured in the Top 25 of both major polls. Here is a team-by-team breakdown in order of anticipated finish.
1. Western Kentucky: Fresh off a 24-7 record in 2001 and a sweep of the Sun Belt regular season and conference tournament crowns, the Hilltoppers look to be the class of the Sun Belt Conference again in 2001-02. They are led by preseason All-American Chris Marcus. Last season, Marcus averaged 16.7 PPG and led the nation in rebounds at 12.2 per game.
Senior guard Derek Robinson leads a supporting cast featuring 12 returning lettermen and JC transfer Caleb Holcomb. Look for great things from this team as they have started the season by topping the Harlem Globetrotters in the preseason and intrastate rival Kentucky early on in the regular season. Another visit to the Big Dance and a couple of post season victories are well within this team’s reach.
2. Arkansas State: Arkansas State comes off a solid 17-13 season a year ago. They are led by one of the top centers in the country, All-American candidate Jason Jennings. Jennings is one of three returning starters. Senior guard Nick Rivers will dish to Jennings as well as shoot a few of his own. Rivers averaged 13.5 PPG last season including 31 against Louisiana Tech. ASU will need both players to be on top of their game if they hope to knock off WKU or New Mexico State and make the trip to the NCAAs.
3. Florida International: Florida International went on a late season run ending in the Conference Quarterfinals a year ago. This season they add to that momentum with one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country including 3 transfers who had to sit out last season. Look for FIU to improve on their 8-21 record from 2000-01, but they are still a year away from making a serious run at the Sun Belt title. The senior guard tandem of Haven Jackson and Fab Fisher make a spoiler role in the conference tourney is a definite possibility.
4. Arkansas-Little Rock: Last year head coach Porter Moser led UALR to the greatest turnaround in Sun Belt history, 14 wins better than two seasons ago. This year, unless Moser can create even more magic, things look bleak for the Trojans. With only two returning starters, UALR will need to look to their younger players to step up if they hope to contend in the East. Keep your eye on Nick Zachary, sophomore shooting guard. He shot 46.6% from beyond the arc last season.
5. Middle Tennessee: Things look bleak for sixth year coach Randy Wiel. The Blue Raiders look to put last season’s injuries behind them and return to their former position among the conference elite. Unfortunately, unless they can pull together to improve on last season’s 5-22 record, this probably won’t be the year they do so. Iiro Tenngren and Tommy Gunn will carry the bulk of the load this season for the Blue Raiders.
1. New Mexico State: New Mexico State will challenge Western Kentucky for supremacy in the SBC. Head coach Lou Henson returns three starters from last season including First Team Academic All-American Eric Channing. Channing is joined by last year’s Sun Belt freshman of the year, James Moore. Moore set the team record for blocks last season with 52 and shot 53.3% from the floor. Las Cruces should be home to a strong team that should challenge for a berth in the NCAAs.
2. Louisiana-Lafayette: The Rajun Cajuns might have one of the best nicknames in the country. The players on the court aren’t too shabby either. Fifth-year coach Jessie Evans looks to duplicate the success of two seasons ago when ULL won both the regular season and conference tourney crowns. Thanks to players like Anthony Johnson and Blaine Harmon, the Cajuns might do just that. If these to stars can bring some leadership to a relatively young squad, ULL could be dancing in March.
3. South Alabama: The Jaguars just missed the NCAAs last season, falling to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Finals. This season Bob Weltlich hopes to lead his team back to the big time. Weltlich will have his work cut out for him with just 4 returning lettermen. However Weltlich is one of only 19 head coaches to lead three different teams to the Big Dance. If the young players accept the challenge, and juniors Demetrice and Henry Williams (no relation) improve on last year’s 9.2 and 7.7 points per game averages, chants of USA could be heard well into March. If not, there’s always baseball season.
4. Denver: The Pioneers are under the direction of first year coach Terry Carroll. Denver returns 9 letter winners from a 10-18 team a year ago and could play a spoiler role this season. Coach Carroll has an impressive resume, including national JuCo Coach of the Year honors twice. However, until the Pioneers adjust to their new coach, they will have to settle for a lower division finish.
5. New Orleans: First year coach Monte Towe has raised the hopes of UNO fans thanks to his recruitment of one of the top classes in the nation this off season. Coach Towe has had success in the JuCo ranks, but this is his first Division I head coaching job. Expect great things from this season’s three JuCo transfers, just don’t expect great things this season.
6. North Texas: The good news is North Texas only lost one starter from last year’s squad. The bad news is last year’s team was 4-24. Things don’t look to improve much this year for the Mean Green under first year coach Johnny Jones. The lone bright spots are Juniors Chris Davis and Jason Miller. It looks to be a long season in Denton.