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Sun Belt Notebook

March 2, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Sun Belt Conference Notebook

by Zach Van Hart

Coming on strong

They started out the conference season hot. Now they have finished it hot too. South Alabama, which lost eight straight Sun Belt games during the middle of the season, won its last three conference games to sneak into the conference tournament as the eighth and final seed. While they are only 12-15 on the regular season and 6-9 in the Sun Belt, they have one thing going for them heading into their quarterfinal match with No. 1 Louisiana Lafayette – they are only one of three conference teams to beat the Cajuns this season.

Playing three games last week, the Jaguars went on the road to defeat lowly Florida International, 62-46, before coming home to beat Denver, 73-54, and North Texas, 80-63. Still, South Alabama needed help. The only way they were getting into the tournament was if Denver and New Mexico State lost their final regular season game. They did, one in dramatic fashion. Arkansas State defeated the Aggies, 82-73, while New Orleans knocked off Denver in double overtime, 74-73.

The key to last week was the return of the Jaguars bread and butter – their defense. During the three wins they surrendered just 54.3 points per game. They had allowed 79.3 points during the previous three games, all losses. Senior guard Chris Young has also finally broken out of his scoring slump, averaging 18.7 points during the win streak. Look out Sun Belt, the Jags are back.

“Operation Full House”

Thursday, A. Murphy Center held a record crowd of 11,807 for the Middle Tennessee State versus Western Kentucky game. “Operation Full House” was the coined phrase by longtime MTSU professor Aaron Todd, whose dream was for capacity crowds every night. The attendance was the second highest ever between to Sun Belt teams. The Blue Raiders did not send the fans home disappointed either, whipping the Hilltoppers, 73-59. WKU will get its revenge, as the two teams will face off in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

Privy to overtime

By now, New Orleans is probably hoping its games go to overtime. OK, that might be pushing it, but after playing six overtime games during the regular season and winning four of them, the Privateers are completely comfortable playing an extra five minutes, or more.

Saturday was one of those and more games, as New Orleans went to double overtime to defeat Denver, 74-73. This one was especially sweet for a few reasons: they trailed by nineteen during the first half, they trailed by six late during the first overtime, they clinched the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and they guaranteed their fourth straight winning season.

With wins against Louisiana Lafayette, Arkansas-Little Rock and Western Kentucky, the other top four seeds, New Orleans has proven it can beat anyone in the conference. They will have as good a chance as any to take the title and go dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

And that’s a wrap

Denver, New Mexico State and Florida International all brought the curtain down on their 2003-04 season during the past few days, all in losing fashion. The Pioneers and Aggies both finished with 6-9 conference marks, while the Golden Panthers struggled to a 1-13 Sun Belt record. Both New Mexico State and Denver could have clinched a spot in the conference tournament with a win over the weekend but failed to do so. The Pioneers lost a heartbreaker in double overtime to New Orleans, while the Aggies lost at home to Arkansas State.

The rest of the Sun Belt

Arkansas-Little Rock (16-11, 9-5)

The Trojans won the Sun Belt East title, their first crown since the 1995-96 season and their first outright title since the 1986-87 season. Despite losing the season finale to Louisiana Lafayette, Arkansas-Little Rock clinched the title by winning their previous four games.

The biggest win came Thursday against New Mexico State, as both teams battled to the final seconds. The Trojans squeaked out a close, 58-55 win. Zack Graber was the hero, hitting a crucial three-pointer during the final minutes to secure the lead. The Trojans enter the Sun Belt Tournament as the No. 2 seed.

Arkansas State (17-10) 7-7

With conference play all wrapped up, the Indians closed out the regular season Monday with a 83-70 win against Texas Pan American, one of four independents in Division I basketball. Dewarick Spencer sailed to the conference scoring title by scoring 30 points, shooting eight of fourteen from the field and seven of ten from beyond the arc.

Prior to Monday’s game, ASU stopped 40 years of futility against New Mexico State and in the process eliminated them from the conference tournament. The last time the Indians had defeated the Aggies, John Kennedy was in the White House. They had to go to overtime to do it, but behind Spencer’s 32 points, ASU defeated New Mexico State 82-73, their first win against them since the 1962-63 season. Going into the conference tournament, they will have the No. 7 seed and face rivals Arkansas-Little Rock

Louisiana Lafayette (17-8, 12-3)

The Ragin’ Cajuns had their bracket busted, but they are still the favorites heading into the Sun Belt Tournament. After losing to Rice, 81-76, on Bracket Buster Saturday and at North Texas by three points the next game; Louisiana Lafayette won its final two games of the regular season, clinching the No. 1 seed and the West division title.

Against Arkansas State Thursday, five players scored in double figures as the Cajuns cruised to a 82-62 win. Their bench out-scored the Indians 37-18, keying the win. Saturday was more difficult, as the top two seeds battled it out with Louisiana Lafayette defeating Arkansas-Little Rock, 70-66. Playing his last home game of his career, senior guard Antoine Landry scored 24 points to lead the Ragin’ Cajuns.

North Texas (13-14, 8-7)

The Mean Green may have lost its last game of the regular season, 80-63 to South Alabama, but their previous two wins more than made up for it. Feb. 21 North Texas beat the best the Sun Belt has to offer, the Ragin’ Cajuns, by the score of 71-68. Then for an encore, they went into New Orleans and left with a 84-81 win against the Privateers. Heading into the conference tournament, the Mean Green has the No. 6 seed.

Awards time

Without further to do, here are the award winners for the 2003-04 season in the Sun Belt conference. Five awards will be handed out: MVP, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. In addition there is the First Team All-Sun Belt. Enjoy.

Most Valuable Player

Nigel Dixon, Western Kentucky

This 6-foot-11 senior from Orlando, Fla., was the backbone of a Hilltopper squad that came on strong after a dismal 0-6 start. He led the team in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (10.3), placing him fifth and first in the conference, respectively. How valuable was he? During the last eleven games of the season WKU went 8-3. During their eight wins, Dixon averaged 20.3 points per game. During their three losses, he averaged 9.0. When Dixon plays well the Hilltoppers win, case closed.

Coach of the Year

Monte Towe, New Orleans

The Privateers were picked to finish last in the East division by the coaches and ninth overall, good enough to miss the conference tournament. Towe took a young group and played a tough non-conference schedule (Texas, Mississippi State, Hawaii, Auburn) to prepare for the Sun Belt. The Privateers won their first two conference games, both on the road, and finished with the No. 3 seed and a 9-6 conference mark.

Defensive Player of the Year

Shawnson Johnson, North Texas

The 6-foot-9 senior big man was a force in the paint and on the glass. He lead the team in rebounding (7.9) and blocks (2.8), ranking him third and first in the conference, respectively. Very consistent, he had at least block in all but one game this year. He reached double figures in rebounding six times, including his season-high of thirteen on two occasions.

Freshman of the Year

Lester “Bo” McCalebb, New Orleans

McCalebb made a big splash to start his career, scoring seventeen points on opening night and averaging fourteen during his first four. He really started to turn it up during conference play, where he averaged 14.7 points per game and scored in double figures in every game except two. By seasons end, he became the Privateers go-to guy.

Sixth Man of the Year

Dwayne Mitchell, Louisiana Lafayette

On any other team in this league, Mitchell would be a starter. The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard averaged 9.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, always doing whatever the team needed. He scored 20-plus points twice and shot 55.4 percent from the field for the season.

First Team All-Sun Belt:

Dixon, Western Kentucky
Dewarick Spencer, Arkansas State
Tommy Gunn, Middle Tennessee State
Johnson, North Texas
J. J. Montgomery, Arkansas State

Quick preview of the tournament

Interesting match-ups grace Saturday and Sunday’s quarterfinals. The No. 1-No. 8 game is Louisiana Lafayette versus South Alabama, who split their games this season with the road team winning both games. The Jaguars have been hot lately as mentioned before and the Cajuns are prone to upsets in the conference tournament, going down to Denver in the quarters last year.

At the No. 2-No. 7 is the always heated rivalry of Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas State. The squads also split their games, with the home team winning both. If Dewarick Spencer and J.J. Montgomery are both on, the Indians could also pull an upset here.

Another great battle will be the No. 4-No. 5 game, which pits Middle Tennessee State against Western Kentucky. The two just played Thursday, with the Blue Raiders coming away with a 73-59 win. But this game will take place at WKU, a nice present for the No. 5 seed Hilltoppers.

Rounding out the quarters will be No. 3 New Orleans taking on No. 6 North Texas. Thursday, the Mean Green marched into New Orleans and stole a win. The Privateers would like nothing more than to enact some revenge.


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