Sun Belt Championship Preview
Hilltoppers, Hilltoppers, Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky has already locked up the number one seed in the SBC East Division. WKU is on a 15-game winning streak and has climbed back into the Top 25 after spending the first few weeks of the season in the polls before falling out during Chris Marcus’ absence. The Hilltoppers will face the winner of Florida International- North Texas. FIU could pose an interesting challenge for WKU as both games between these teams were close until the very end.
In the West Division, Louisiana-Lafayette has secured the top spot following wins against Denver and their 2-point win in the finale against New Mexico State. ULL will face off against the Denver-Arkansas State winner on Saturday March 2. NMSU falls to the second seed and will face either South Alabama or Middle Tennessee. A second round matchup between UALR and tournament host UNO fills out the bracket.
Who is the potential spoiler in this tournament? Look out for North Texas. Despite an up and down season and falling to the fourth seed in the West Division, the Eagles have wins against NMSU and ULL – the top teams in the West. Unfortunately for NTU, they would face Western Kentucky in the second round, a team that put up 100 points against them just two weeks ago. Look for Middle Tennessee to make some noise as they draw a virtual bye against South Alabama in the first round and a favorable draw against NMSU, a Jeckyl-and-Hyde team they beat earlier this season, in the second round. New Mexico State has to win that second round game to have any chance of making the NCAAs. A win over the Hilltoppers on Monday night, is probably also a necessity.
Players to watch: Obviously Chris Markus has returned to his early season form that made him an All-America candidate. He will lead the Hilltoppers in this tournament as well as the NCAAs. Derek Robinson will also need to step up. He became just the second player in WKU history to reach the 400 assist plateau last week and needs just 4 points and 17 boards to reach 1000 points – 400 assists – 400 rebounds for his career.
SBC Freshman of the Year candidate Michael Southall. Southall scored 11 second-half points to led ULL to an upset win over NMSU and the Sun Belt West Title. His 86 blocks are a school record at ULL. Senior Darryl Robins also had a big game Saturday with his second career double-double.
For New Mexico State, watch Junior Chris Jackson. Jackson amassed 11 points and 10 boards in each of the Aggies two games this week, despite only playing 20 minutes a game.
Will the Aggies get in? NMSU sits at 19-11 heading into tournament play. Four of their losses were by four points or less. Their RPI is a lowly 102 prior to their 2-1 week. A quality win over Western Kentucky (AP #20, USA Today/ESPN #23, RPI #38) would greatly help their chances, but it looks like an automatic bid will be their only ticket to the NCAAs.