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Sun Belt Conference Preview

November 12, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



Sun Belt Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

The Sun Belt Conference is back for another season of intrigue. The Sun Belt Conference qualifies as a solid mid-major conference. It has several programs that every major conference team should respect, lest they be upset on the road or at home. Louisiana – Lafayette, Western Kentucky and New Mexico State are fully capable of surprising an unsuspecting and unprepared major conference squad.

The conference does it have its share of programs going through rebuilding periods. Florida International and New Orleans will likely struggle to win many games this season. But sometimes it’s the teams with no expectations that can overachieve. That’s why the play the games.

For everyone else, it’s business as usual. Work hard. Win division games to earn a good seed in the conference tournament. Then take care of business in the clutch and earn that cherished automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Sun Belt Preseason Awards:

Most Valuable Player:

James Moore, New Mexico State

Moore is the holdover from New Mexico State’s explosive trio from last season. It’s his team to lead. Moore should not only put up outstanding numbers but also make the rest of the team even better.

Newcomer of the Year:

Antonio Haynes, Western Kentucky

Haynes is a Hilltopper after leading the nation in assists last year at a junior college in Georgia. Haynes bears the responsibility of ensuring that Western Kentucky remains at the top of the Sun Belt standings. Look for a monstrous year from Haynes and a postseason award to follow.

Coach of the Year:

Jesse Evans, Louisiana – Lafayette

Evans has the good fortune of a talented lineup, but he must coach the squad to overcome a difficult schedule. More importantly, he must coach the Ragin’ Cajuns past Western Kentucky to claim dominance of the Sun Belt Conference. Evans should lead the team to the top of the standings, an NCAA Tournament bid and whispers across the nation about his team becoming a dominant mid-major program.

All-conference Team:
James Moore, New Mexico State
Brad Boyd, Louisiana – Lafayette
Tommy Gunn, Middle Tennessee
Nick Zachery, Arkansas – Little Rock
Chris Young – South Alabama

West Division

1. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

Overall record: 20-9
Conference record: 12-3 1st place – West

Projected starting five:
Guard Brad Boyd, senior
Guard Laurie Bridges, senior
Forward Michael Southall, junior
Forward Cedric Williams, junior
Forward Chirs Cameron, sophomore

Key players lost:
Guard Kenneth Lawrence: 6.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg
Forward Anthony Johnson: 14.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
At Georgia Tech in Preseason NIT: 11/18
At Dayton: 12/9
At Xavier: 12/20
Valparaiso: 12/28

The Ragin’ Cajuns have a lineup built for success in the NCAA – senior leadership in the backcourt and ever-maturing, talented big men to pound opponents in the post. Look for several analysts to mention Louisiana – Lafayette as a team that deserves a critical look for a Top 25 ranking at some point this season.

2. New Mexico State Aggies

Overall record: 20-9
Conference record: 9-6 2nd place – West

Projected starting five:
Guard Detrius Roberson, junior
Guard Allen Haynes, junior
Forward Kelsey Crooks, senior
Forward James Moore, senior
Forward Andre Scott, junior

Key players lost:
Guard Brandon Mason: 12.0 ppg, 3.5 apg
Center Chris Jackson: 10.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg
Guard Will Morris: 4.2 ppg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
New Mexico: 12/3
At Tulsa: 12/14
At New Mexico: 12/22

The Aggies must overcome the losses of two major contributors and team leaders – Mason and Jackson. But the Aggies still have Moore, who should be the most valuable player in the Sun Belt Conference this year. As he goes, the Aggies go. After a splendid year last year, look for Moore to go far and carry New Mexico State to the top of the standings and competition with the Ragin’ Cajuns for the western division title.

3. Denver Pioneers

Overall record: 17-15
Conference record: 7-8 Tie 3rd place – West

Projected starting five:
Guard Erik Benzel, junior
Guard Rodney Billups, junior
Forward Carvell McAlister, senior
Forward Zelijko Zupic, senior
Center Brett Starkey, senior

Key players lost:
Guard Dusty Waldington: 4.6 ppg, 3.8 apg
Guard B.J. Pratt: 16.0 ppg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
At Gonzaga: 11/24
At Eastern Washington: 11/26
Colorado State: 12/13
Wyoming: 1/6

The Pioneers return an experienced and solid starting five. The question for Denver is on the bench. Are the Pioneers deep enough to support the starting five? Look for Denver’s starting five to play major minutes early in the season while the younger players continue to improve in practice. Denver plays a tough non-conference schedule with several firmly legitimate NCAA contenders.

4. South Alabama Jaguars

Overall record: 14-14
Conference record: 7-8 Tie 3rd place – West

Projected starting five:
Guard Chris Young, senior
Guard Ugo Ezekwe, sophomore
Forward Malerick Bedden, senior
Forward Richard Law, sophomore
Forward Justin White, junior

Key players lost:
Guard Demetrice Williams: 14.0 ppg, 4.9 apg, 76 steals
Forward Henry Williams: 11.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
At Mississippi State: 11/26
At Georgia State: 12/12
At Georgia: 12/18
At Alabama – Birmingham: 1/3

The Jaguars still have their leading scorer, Chris Young, from last season, and he must lead this lineup mixed with experience and youth. Young will probably put up strong numbers all season, but South Alabama needs another player or two to step forward as alternative options to help free Young from the focus of opposing defenses.

5. North Texas Mean Green

Overall record: 7-21
Conference record: 2-13 6th place – West

Projected starting lineup:
Guard Leonard Hopkins, junior
Guard Jerome Rogers, senior
Forward Michael DeGrate, senior
Forward Will Smith, senior
Forward Justin Barnett, sophomore

Key players lost:
Guard Chris Davis: 19.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg,
Forward Jermaine Green: 11.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg
Guard Lee Green: 6.5 ppg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
Baylor: 12/9
At TCU: 12/13
Indiana: 12/29
At Arkansas: 1/3

The Mean Green have one of the best nicknames in NCAA basketball, but will the players live up to the name? They must overcome the losses of two of their three top scorers. The Mean Green does have three seniors in the starting lineup, but North Texas should fare only slightly better than last season’s rough last place finish in the western division. Prediction:

6. New Orleans Privateers

Overall record: 15-14
Conference record: 7-8 Tie 3rd place – West

Projected starting lineup:
Guard A.J. Meredith, senior
Guard Kyle Buggs, senior
Guard Johnell Smith, senior
Forward Kentrell Martin, senior
Forward Victor Brown, junior

Key players lost:
Forward Hector Romero: 19.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg
Center Nerikus Lisauskas: 5.4 ppg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
At Tulane: 12/3
At Texas: 12/14
At Mississippi State: 12/16
At Auburn: 1/2

The Privateers lost an unstoppable scoring threat in Hector Romero and must find a go-to guy to replace him. New Orleans fortunately starts four seniors who have plenty of experience. New Orleans has few solid players in the post, which will be a problem all season.

East Division

1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Overall record: 24-9
Conference record: 12-2 1st place – East

Projected starting lineup:
Guard Antonio Haynes, junior
Guard Mike Wells, senior
Guard Anthony Winchester, sophomore
Forward Todor Pandov, senior
Forward Jamaal Brown, sophomore

Key players lost:
Guard Patrick Sparks: 13.3 ppg, 5.9 apg
Forward David Boyden: 12.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg
Guard Filip Videnov: 9.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Forward Nate Williams: 10.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg
Center Chris Marcus: 3.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
Mississippi State: 11/29
Louisville: 12/4
At Ball State: 12/23

The Hilltoppers need instant production from several players who did not play for Western Kentucky last season. The squad welcomes transfers Antonio Haynes and center Nigel Dixon. Each must contribute to this lineup. Todor Pandov played only one game last season before suffering a season-ending injury. But don’t be fooled – Western Kentucky has one of the most talented lineups in the conference and may surprise a couple of the big name schools on their schedule.

2. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Overall record: 16-14
Conference record: 9-5 2nd place – East

Projected starting lineup:
Guard Tommy Gunn, senior
Guard Keith Connor, senior
Guard Marcus Robinson, senior
Forward Darrio Scott, sophomore
Forward Steven Jackson, senior

Key players lost:
Forward William Pippen, 15.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg
Guard John Humphrey, 9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Guard Eric Parham, 5.7 ppg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
At Tennessee Tech: 12/6
At Cincinnati: 12/20
Wyoming: 1/8

The Blue Raiders surprised many Sun Belt followers last season by making a run to the conference championship game before falling to Western Kentucky. This season’s team has that valuable experience under their belts. The Blue Raiders have a dominant player in Tommy Gunn, who has one of the better names in basketball, but they must find players who are willing to step forward to support Gunn. Middle Tennessee has a relatively small lineup that could become a liability against teams with better size down low.

3. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans

Overall record: 18-12
Conference record: 8-6 3rd place – East

Projected starting lineup:
Guard Brandon Freeman, junior
Guard Nick Zachery, senior
Forward Columbus Willis, senior
Forward Jamal Holden, senior
Center Alexei Korolev, sophomore

Key players lost:
Guard Mark Green, 11.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Guard Jibrahn Ike, 13.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg

Non-conference schedule highlights:
At Arizona State: 11/22
At St. Bonaventure: 11/25
At Creighton: 12/20
Mississippi State: 1/3

The Trojans have their leading scorer from last season, Nick Zachery, returning for his senior year. He promises to carry the Trojans to some degree of success in the Sun Belt Conference. The Trojans have a strong balance of experience and youth, both inside and outside. If this team matures, they could become one of the stronger teams in the conference.

4. Arkansas State Indians

Overall record: 13-15
Conference record: 6-8 4th place – East

Projected starting lineup:
Guard Tevoris Thompson, senior
Guard Antonio Rambo, senior
Forward Kim Adams, senior
Forward Chris Moore, sophomore
Forward Evqueni Sokolov, junior

Key players lost:
Guard Tony Brown, 9.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg
Center Paris London, 11.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Guard Odie Williams, 7.5 ppg, 3.9 apg

Non-conference schedule highlights
At Mississippi: 11/21
Southern Mississippi: 12/13
At TCU: 12/22
Penn State: 12/28

The Indians have a handful of dangerous weapons in Tevoris Thompson, Kim Adams and Antonio Rambo. But they also have a plethora of inexperienced and unproven players who must learn quickly for the Indians to remain competitive in the Sun Belt Conference.

5. Florida International Golden Panthers

Overall record: 8-21
Conference record: 1-13 5th place – East

Projected starting lineup:
Guard Carlos Morban, junior
Guard Junior Matias, senior
Guard Marcus Robinson, junior
Forward Belco Bamba, senior
Forward Taurance Johnson, junior

Key players lost:
Forward Rodrigo Viegas: 8.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg
Forward Eulis Baez: 12.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg
Forward Al Harris: 10.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Guard Fab Fisher: 6.7 ppg
Forward Nikola Novakovic: 6.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg

Non-conference schedule highlights
At George Washington: 11/25
At Miami: 12/6
La Salle: 12/13
At Stanford: 12/15

The Golden Panthers struggled through last season and may have more challenging times ahead. Florida International loses several key players but will hope the new starters have hidden talents. Florida International should have strong guard play, which may create opportunities for the Golden Panthers to hang in several games and maybe upset some of the conference favorites.

Summary

Western Kentucky has established a winning tradition in the Sun Belt Conference and emerged as the team to beat. This year, Louisiana – Lafayette may have a squad worthy of bringing down the mighty Hilltoppers. Look for the Ragin’ Cajuns to peak in February and ride a wave of momentum through the conference tournament and into the NCAA Tournament. Western Kentucky, however, can earn its own bid to the NCAA Tournament with wins over crucial non-conference foes Mississippi State and Louisville. An at-large bid is far less likely, however, for any Sun Belt team that fails to win the conference tournament.

     

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