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Sun Belt Notebook

March 7, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



Sun Belt Notebook

by Andria Wenzel

The Sun Belt Conference wrapped things up on Wednesday when the top seeds of the East Division and West Division battled it out in what could be a preview of the tournament championship on Tuesday. No. 1 Western Kentucky (21-8, 12-2) in the East edged No. 1 Louisiana-Lafayette (20-8, 12-3) in front of a national television audience on ESPN 2.

Denver vs. Arkansas State

The Sun Belt Tournament will begin in Bowling Green on Friday when the University of Denver (15-14, 7-8) the No. 5 seed from the West. They’ll match up with Arkansas State University (13-14, 6-8), the No. 4 seed in the East. The teams met up earlier in the season and the Pioneers bested the Indians, 82-68.

The Pioneers will be led by junior center Brett Starkey who leads the conference in rebounding, averaging 10.1 per game. Starkey was named to Sun Belt second team after averaging 12.3 points per game and shooting just over 50 percent.

With senior guard B.J Pratt, as well as sophomore Erik Benzel improving under Pratt’s tutelage, the Pioneers have the advantage in this game. Pratt has been leading the team with 15.4 points per game.

Starkey’s help in the frontcourt comes from two experienced seniors, Carvell McAlister and Zupic Zelijko.

Arkansas State has been able to reel in on the scoring consistency of junior guard Trevoris Thompson and senior forward Paris London. The Indians starting five is loaded with upperclassmen, three senior and two juniors – but age hasn’t helped the Indians thus far. Besides Thompson and London, who average 15 and 11 points per game respectively, no other member of ASU’s starting five has been scoring consistently.

The Indians have also showed a lack of ability on the boards, and against Starkey their problems should only get worse. My prediction: the Pioneers will be moving on to face UL-Lafayette on Saturday night.

Louisiana-Lafayette awaits winner

The Ragin’ Cajuns have the best shot of knocking off last year’s champs, Western Kentucky. The way that UL-L has been doing things all season, they are not led by one star yet rely on a solid starting five, of which four average double figures in points.

Junior guards Brad Boyd and Laurie Bridges have been the main reason why the Ragin’ Cajuns tend to go up early and often in the first half. Boyd averages 14.3 points per game and Bridges 12.2.

Although at times the Cajuns can let down a bit in the final 20 minutes they usually find a way to maintain a 10-point lead. Boyd’s performance this season even earned him a vote onto the Sun Belt’s second team alongside sophomore forward Michael Southall.

Southall has been averaging 12.7 points per game and has helped his team to a 2.5 turnover advantage over their opponents. Southall and Boyd weren’t the only players who were bestowed awards; senior wingman Anthony Johnson, the second leading scorer on the team (14.3), was named to the Sun Belt’s third team.

With sophomore forward Cedric Williams added to complete this starting five, many are predicting the Cajuns to knock the Hilltoppers from their perch.

If Louisiana-Lafayette, as I predict, makes it past their first round game they’ll meet up in the semifinals with the winner of the quarterfinal game between the No. 3 seed from the West, the University of South Alabama (14-13, 7-8) and the No. 2 seed from the East, Middle Tennessee State (19-8, 9-6).

South Alabama vs. Middle Tennessee State

The Jaguars lay stake to Chris Young, voted the Sun Belt’s Newcomer of the Year. The junior guard has been averaging 16 points per game and has set numerous records for USA; including most number of 3-pointers made in a game -8- and most 3-pointers made in one season, 98.

USA arguably has one of the best guard tandems in the conference. Alongside Young in the backcourt is four-year starter Demetrice Williams, who averages five assist and 2.6 steals per game. In his final stint the senior was voted to the Sun Belt’s third team.

The Jaguars have also had some success in the frontcourt with their upperclassmen forwards, junior Malerick Bedden and senior Henry Williams. Williams has been lethal on the boards, averaging 6.2 per game.

The Blue Raiders will try to counter USA’s offensive guard tandem, with a pretty successful guard tandem of their own. MT boasts junior guard Tommy Gunn who averages 16.2 points per game and leads his team in assists and rebounds. Gunn was named to the Sun Belt’s first team and the other guard he teams up with is John Humphrey, who has been consistently solid all year.

Senior forward William Pippen has been making the most of his final season, averaging 15.6 points per game while junior Napoleon Rhodes helps him with the rest of the frontcourt dirt work.

The Jaguars and Blue Raiders are evenly matched, but with MT’s head coach Kermit Davis getting the nod as the Sun Belt’s Coach of the Year and Gunn virtually unstoppable, I have to give the edge to Middle Tennessee.

North Texas vs. Arkansas-Little Rock

On the other side of the bracket No. 6 in the West, the University of North Texas (7-20, 2-13) will have the task of trying to get by the No. 3 seed in the East, the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (17-11, 8-6).

The Mean Green are led by senior guard Chris Davis, who was named to the conference’s first team for the second straight season. Davis is second in the conference in scoring (19.0 ppg) and leads his team in points, rebounds and assists.

UNT has developed a tendency to go falter early and are usually unable to overcome the hump in the second half. They Mean Green turn the ball over more than their opponent, a margin of 3.6 turnovers per game. Davis hasn’t had a lot of help this season the only other players in double figures have been sophomore guard Leonard Hopkins and senior forward Jermaine Green.

In the last meeting between UALR and UNT, the Trojans walked away with an 88-80 win. Their wins can be attributed to Jibrahn Ike, voted to the conference’s second team. Ike leads his team with 14.1 points per game.

With the backcourt combination of Ike and sophomore guard and designated 3-point specialist Nick Zachery (13.4 ppg), UNT will have their hands full. If the Mean Green want to take advantage, it will have to be in the frontcourt. Trojan junior forwards Jamal Holden and Columbus Willis have struggled all season to score consistently and have been routinely outworked on the boards.

UALR should take the win in this win as long as they knock down 3- point shots like they have done all season. But never count out UNT’s Davis: his days in a mean Green uniform are numbered and an exit on Friday could be too early for the do-it-all guard.

New Mexico State awaits winner

The winner of the first round game will meet up with the Sun Belt’s player of the year, junior forward James Moore and the rest of his New Mexico State (19-8, 9-6) teammates.

The 6-foot-8 forward is the first Aggie to be named player of the year and is averaging 19 points per game. His shooting percentage of 60 percent is number one in the conference and 15th in the nation.

Balancing Moore’s performance in the paint has been sophomore Jason Fontenet and senior Brandon Mason. The guards average 12.1 and 11.9 points per game respectively, and when Moore was out of the lineup earlier in the season the duo took over the scoring responsibilities to keep the Aggies afloat.

With Moore as players of the year and Mason and Fontenet as the sleeper backcourt of the Sun Belt, the Aggies could oust WKU in the semifinals if they meet up.

Florida International vs. New Orleans

Friday’s final first round match up pits the No. 5 East finisher, Florida International (7-20, 1-13) against No. 4 West finisher the University of New Orleans (15-13, 7-8).

The Golden Panthers only won one game this season and it doesn’t look like they’ll get their second against the Pioneers. Although junior forward Eulis Baez was named to the conference’s third team, Baez – averaging 13.0 points and 8.2 boards per game – has not had a lot of help this season.

Junior guard Junior Matias has been averaging 12. 4 points per game and sophomore Al Harris has played decent, working well with Baez in the paint. FIU is usually out of the game early on and despite Baez’s efforts the Golden Panthers haven’t put up to many wins.

The Privateers will say goodbye following this season to senior forward Hector Romero who was voted to the conference’s first team, averaging 18.3 points per game and 9.1.

UNO was surprised this year with the play of junior guard Johnell Smith who split his time starting and coming off the bench. In either situation Smith showed his value, averaging 13.8 points per game. Next year will only give the junior more opportunity to work on his game, without Romero though Smith will be expected to lead the team instead of being the No.2 go-to-guy. Junior guards Kyle Buggs and A.J. Meredith have scored big numbers but have ran the offense well.

Western Kentucky earns bye

If the Privateers do get by the Panthers they will meet up with the No. 1 team from the East – the Hilltoppers who will have home court advantage on their side.

Even with Chris Marcus bowing out this season with the need to take care of an injury, the Hilltoppers have managed to stay atop the Sun Belt. The Hilltoppers have the best record in the Sun Belt and have won the East Division for the third year in a row.

All five of WKU’s starters average scoring in double figures with sophomore guard Patrick Sparks leading the way (13.3 ppg). Sparks was named to the first team and has been teaming up with junior Mike Wells and freshman Anthony Winchester in the backcourt. The freshman was named freshman player of the year by the conference, while Wells was named to third team as well as earning the title of defensive player of the year for the conference.

Senior forwards David Boyden and Nate Williams have stepped up huge in the place of Marcus, averaging 12.7 and 10.1 points per game respectively.

The Hilltoppers are the favorites in this tournament, but could meet up with NMS in the semifinals on Monday and Moore and the Aggies could have separate plans all together.

Predictions:

First Round

No.5 West, Denver v. No. 4 East, Arkansas State, Friday 3 p.m.

Winner: Denver

No. 6 West, North Texas v. No. 3 East, Arkansas Little Rock, Friday 8 p.m.

Winner: UALR

No. 5 East, Florida International v. No. 4 West, New Orleans, Friday 5:30 p.m.

Winner: UNO

Second round

Denver v. No. 1 West, Louisiana-Lafayette; Saturday 5:30 p.m.

Winner: Lafayette

No. 3 West, South Alabama v. No.2 East, Middle Tennessee State, Sunday 5:30

Winner: MT

UALR v. No. 2 West, New Mexico State, Sunday 8 p.m.

Winner: NMSU

No.1 East, Western Kentucky v. New Orleans, Saturday 8 p.m.

Winner: WKU

Semifinals

Lafayette v. Middle Tennessee State, Monday 5:30 p.m.

Winner: Lafayette

Upset: New Mexico State v. Western Kentucky, Monday 8 p.m.

Winner: NMSU

Final

Lafayette v. New Mexico, Tuesday 8 p.m.

Winner: New Mexico State Aggies

     

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