Sun Belt Conference 2008-09 Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
The Sun Belt made some traction last season by getting two teams in the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, Western Kentucky got a lot of attention with its buzzer-beating first round win. The conference has had its share of good teams over the years, and the Hilltoppers have produced plenty of them, but last season was particularly noteworthy for the conference.
This season might be a slight step down, as at first glance the conference doesn’t appear to have two teams as strong as Western Kentucky and South Alabama were last season. Western Kentucky lost more, as South Alabama should still contend, and the two divisions should be more even this season after the East was noticeably superior last season, winning more conference games than West Division teams despite having one less team. Both divisions should have a good battle for the top, with South Alabama pushing Middle Tennessee and UALR pushing North Texas.
Three programs have new leaders this season, one of whom saw its coach resign before last season ended. Arkansas State hired former LSU head coach John Brady to lead its program after Dickey Nutt resigned before the season was over. Rex Walters left Florida Atlantic to head west for the San Francisco head coaching job, and the school hired Mike Jarvis to replace him. Western Kentucky saw Darrin Horn take the South Carolina job, replacing him with former Texas assistant Ken McDonald, who once was an assistant at the school.
Player of the Year: Desmond Yates, Middle Tennessee
Top Newcomer: Richard Delk, Troy
Top Freshman: Brian Stafford, Denver
Defensive Player of the Year: Shawn Morgan, Arkansas State
Coach on the Hot Seat: Sergio Rouco, Florida International
Best NBA Prospect: Carlos Monroe, Florida Atlantic
All-Sun Belt Team
Alex Galindo, Sr. F, Florida International
Carlos Monroe, Sr. F, Florida Atlantic
Domonic Tilford, Sr. G, South Alabama
Josh White, So. G, North Texas
Desmond Yates, Jr. F, Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (17-15, 11-7 Sun Belt)
Sr. G Kevin Kanaskie (11.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.2 spg)
Sr. G Demetrius Green (12.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.9 apg)
Sr. G Nigel Johnson (7.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.4 apg)
Jr. F Desmond Yates (16.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
Sr. C Theryn Hudson (9.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Six non-conference home games are on tap, including visits from Tennessee, Houston, Southern Illinois and Ohio Valley contender UT-Martin. They also have challenging road games at Vanderbilt and Atlantic Sun contender Belmont, and will play Houston Baptist both at home and on the road. In December, the Blue Raiders will play three games in a Basketball Travelers event hosted by Missouri State. We’ll get an early feel for how good this team will be once Sun Belt play begins in earnest, as four of their first six games are on the road and all will be tough ones: North Texas, South Alabama, Western Kentucky and UALR.
Outlook: Fresh off a season where they made it to the tournament final without a senior, the Blue Raiders look poised to be the class of the conference this season. They return all five starters and get back Calvin O’Neil, who was forced to redshirt after tearing an ACL in the season opener. All three guards are steady and unselfish, and they all help the rebound-by-committee effort that improved once conference play began. If they can take better care of the ball – the Blue Raiders had 75 more turnovers than assists last season – they will be a complete unit. Yates is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, and along with Hudson and junior Dino Hair forms a good frontcourt that does need to rebound better. There’s experience, good size and depth, and it all could add up to a conference title this season.
South Alabama Jaguars (26-7, 16-2 Sun Belt)
Jr. G Bryan Sheerer (junior college transfer)
Sr. G Domonic Tilford (12.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.0 apg)
Sr. F Brandon Davis (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.3 bpg)
Sr. F DeAndre’ Coleman (7.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.6 apg)
Sr. F Ronald Douglas (6.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.1 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Jaguars have six non-conference home games and some challenging road games as well. They host Arkansas in the Coors Classic and will play two in the USA Basketball Classic that they host in late November. They go to Louisville for two games in the Billy Minardi Classic and have true road games at Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Mississippi State. In Sun Belt play, they have a stretch starting at the end of January where they play four of five at home. In inter-division games, they get North Texas and UALR at home only.
Outlook: Although the Jaguars lose two key starters in Demetric Bennett and Daon Merritt, they return a solid core of upperclassmen and add junior college transfers that should help right away. Tilford and Davis are all-conference candidates, with the former having potential to contend for Player of the Year, and Coleman is back to anchor the inside again after leading in rebounding last season. Sheerer should step in and run the show from the outset, while fellow junior college transfer Lashun Watson should see plenty of minutes in the backcourt as well and could even push Douglas out of the starting lineup for the Jaguars to go a little smaller. If the Jaguars repeat their excellent defense and rebounding margin (only North Texas was better in that category last season and by just 0.1 per game), the Jaguars could be back in the NCAA Tournament once again.
Florida Atlantic Owls (15-18, 8-10 Sun Belt)
Sr. G Carderro Nwoji (10.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.7 apg)
Sr. G Paul Graham III (14.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.4 apg)
So. G Sanchez Hughley (6.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Sr. F Carlos Monroe (15.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.1 spg)
So. F Brett Royster (3.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Owls’ non-conference schedule is very challenging, with just three home games. They play in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Arizona, starting with the host Wildcats and then taking on Santa Clara or UAB. Road games include trips to UAB, Kentucky and Miami. Early in Sun Belt play, they have five of seven at home, but they also close the season with four of five on the road and the lone home game in that stretch coming against Middle Tennessee.
Outlook: The Owls aren’t lacking talent, but they had some growing pains last season that make them a sleeper for this season, depending on how they adjust to new head coach Mike Jarvis. Monroe is one of the conference’s best players, and Royster showed some promise as a freshman to indicate that he can complement him well. The perimeter is where the talent lives, as Nwoji and Graham III are a good start. Graham can score, but has to cut down on turnovers and isn’t an all-world defender. Hughley and classmate Xavier Perkins, a well-built wing who seemed to get better as the season went along, will battle for minutes at the other perimeter spot. The Owls had over 100 more turnovers than assists last season, and that along with a defense that allowed more points than all but one Sun Belt team doesn’t equal a formula for success.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (29-7, 16-2 Sun Belt)
Jr. G A.J. Slaughter (7.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.1 spg)
Sr. G Orlando Mendez-Valdez (5.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 2.2 apg)
So. G-F Steffphon Pettigrew (3.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Jr. F Jeremy Evans (5.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
Jr. F D.J. Magley (4.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Four home games are on tap in a challenging non-conference schedule, including visits from Southern Illinois and Georgia. Among the many road challenges are Ohio Valley favorite Murray State, Louisville, Tulane, Florida State and Mississippi State. In Sun Belt play, they get UALR twice and North Texas at home only among inter-division games. A three-game homestand in January that starts with Middle Tennessee is a chance to get something going.
Outlook: New head coach Ken McDonald takes over a team that lost three players who were crucial to the team’s success last season and may have a rebuilding year ahead. But he’s not starting from scratch, especially in the frontcourt as Evans and Magley are good building blocks there, and senior Japeth Aguilar is a serviceable backup. Add in Pettigrew’s potential to break out this season now that he will be asked to do more, and the Hilltoppers are in good shape in the frontcourt and on the wing. Slaughter and Mendez-Valdez are serviceable guards, but will need to do more as they step into the starting lineup. Freshmen Robbie Townsend and Jameson Tipping should be in the mix as well. The program has a good history, and McDonald is known as a solid recruiter, so the Hilltoppers might have a brief rebuilding year but should be back in contention before long.
FIU Golden Panthers (9-20, 6-12 Sun Belt)
So. G Josue Soto (transfer from Florida State)
So. G Tremayne Russell (5.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.7 apg)
Sr. F Alex Galindo (13.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.9 apg)
Jr. F Nikola Gacesa (5.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Sr. C Russell Hicks (12.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.1 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: Seven home games are on tap in non-conference play, five of which come in two in-season tournaments. They get three home games as hosts of part of the CBE Classic, one of which comes against Horizon League favorite Cleveland State, and later host Ohio Valley contender UT-Martin and Fordham in the FIU Holiday Tournament. The toughest road games are at Washington, UCLA, Miami and Georgetown. In Sun Belt play, they get a break with inter-division games as they get both North Texas and UALR at home only.
Outlook: The Golden Panthers have some talent, but injuries early in practice won’t help. Seniors Galindo and Hicks are expected to lead the way and form a solid frontcourt, but Galindo suffered a dislocated right ankle and could miss the season. As if that’s not enough, backup center Badara Ndiaye and junior college transfer J.C. Otero have suffered knee injuries. That means Gacesa and junior Cedric Essola will need to do more, and massive freshman Freddy Asprilla may have to play more minutes right away than first planned, although he does have a chance to be a solid player in this conference. Soto should run the show right from the outset, while Russell showed some promise in his freshman season. Depth isn’t a strong suit here, which means junior college transfer Michael Dominguez will surely see a lot of minutes from the outset. If the Golden Panthers are to improve, they must take better care of the ball, as they led the conference in turnovers by a wide margin last season.
Troy Trojans (12-19, 4-14 Sun Belt)
Jr. G Brandon Hazzard (6.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg)
Jr. G Michael Vogler (6.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.8 spg)
Jr. G Richard Delk (transfer from Mississippi State)
Jr. F Trayce Macon (7.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
Sr. C Tom Jervis (5.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: Although the Trojans’ non-conference schedule has just four home games, two are against very good teams in UAB and Colonial contender Georgia State. The Trojans will play UAB and UNC-Wilmington both at home and away. Early on, they travel for four games in the LSU Thanksgiving Tournament, then later travel to Dayton in early December. In Sun Belt play, they have four of five on the road in the latter half of January, including inter-division opponents North Texas and UALR.
Outlook: The Trojans had four senior starters last season and struggled to a 4-14 Sun Belt record, so expectations aren’t high for this group although there isn’t a freshman or sophomore on the roster. Delk should immediately be the team’s best player, while Vogler should benefit from his addition and Hazzard likely has the inside track on the other perimeter job. Macon, the only returning starter, looks to be the only holdover in the frontcourt who will start. Jervis has the inside track in the middle, but the Trojans could go smaller and start Chris Leggett or Antywan Jones, both junior college transfers. The recruiting class is a good group, which can only be a good thing since last season’s team was the worst defensive team in the conference and also shot below 41 percent from the field, which also ranked last, and was the worst rebounding team as well.
North Texas Mean Green (20-11, 10-8 Sun Belt)
So. G Josh White (13.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.5 apg)
Sr. G Colin Dennis (13.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Sr. G Adam McCoy (5.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
So. F Kedrick Hogans (2.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
Sr. F Harold Stewart (3.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Mean Green have six home games on tap in non-conference play, including three straight to start December. Most notable among the home games are visits from Southland contenders Sam Houston State (who they also play on the road) and UT-Arlington, as well as New Mexico State. Notable road games are at Oklahoma State, Houston and Arkansas. In Sun Belt play, the Mean Grean has two stretches where four of five are at home. They got no favors in inter-division games, as they get South Alabama and Western Kentucky on the road only and play Middle Tennessee twice.
Outlook: Johnny Jones has built this program nicely, as the Mean Green looks to have a good chance for its third straight 20-win season. Although they return just two starters, they’re both good, as White and Dennis lead a backcourt that should rival that of Middle Tennessee. They should help offset the loss of four of the top six scorers from last season, along with some good newcomers. While Hogans and Stewart could move into the starting lineup, don’t be surprised if newcomers like Arizona State transfer George Odufuwa and/or junior college transfer Eric Tramiel start right away. The veteran backcourt has some room for improvement, as only four Sun Belt teams turned the ball over more last season and they had over 100 more turnovers than assists.
UALR Trojans (20-11, 11-7 Sun Belt)
Jr. G Steven Moore (9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.5 apg)
Sr. G Brandon Patterson (6.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.8 apg)
Sr. F John Fowler (6.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.1 spg)
Jr. F Mike Smith (9.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Sr. F Shane Edwards (6.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Trojans have six home games in non-conference play, with five coming in a seven-game stretch early on. The toughest home game is against Missouri Valley favorite Creighton, and they also get a visit from Horizon contender Wright State. The Trojans will hit the road for games against Summit contender Oral Roberts and Memphis. In Sun Belt play, a key stretch starts near the end of January, when they play four of five on the road.
Outlook: Steve Shields has this program at a good point, as evidenced by the fact that the Trojans should still contend despite having a couple of players transfer out of the program after last season. All five starters return, and they’ll simply re-load off the bench. One should also expect them to continue the scoring balance since the starters return along with sophomores Matt Mouzy and Derrick Bails, and they could finish second in their division and not have any All-Sun Belt players. The Trojans were the best defensive team in the conference last season and had the third-best rebounding margin. While repeating that will go a long way towards winning again, some improvement at the offensive end wouldn’t hurt after they shot just under 43 percent from the field and turned it over more than all but one team.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (15-15, 11-7 Sun Belt)
Jr. G Randell Daigle (8.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.5 apg)
So. G Travis Bureau (7.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
Jr. G-F La’Ryan Gary (7.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Jr. F Courtney Wallace (5.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
So. F Chris Gradnigo (9.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Ragin’ Cajuns will play six non-conference games in the Cajundome, including visits from Summit contender Oral Roberts and Southland contender Sam Houston State. They will hit the road for UAB and three SEC opponents: Alabama, Tennessee and LSU. In Sun Belt play, a January stretch with six of eight on the road could go a long way in determining how this season winds up, although they open with three straight at home that includes two in mid-December.
Outlook: With a roster composed of only sophomores and juniors, this might appear to be a year with some growing pains for the Ragin’ Cajuns. But the transfer of Elijah Millsap will stunt what could have been a big year considering the contributions of last season’s freshmen and sophomores. Despite not having a senior, much of this team got a chance to grow last season, and they’ll need more of it this season. The perimeter trio of Daigle, Bureau and Gary is solid and unspectacular, and there’s depth with juniors Brandon Dison and Corey Bloom. The frontcourt is where there’s more depth, and don’t be surprised if UNLV transfer Lamar Roberson pushes Wallace out of the starting lineup. They also add more size from the transfer ranks with Jeremy Barr (USC) and Emmanuel Adeife (UNLV), so there isn’t a shortage of bodies to help them attempt to improve on the boards after being out-rebounded last season. There’s enough talent and experience to contend for a division title, with some improvement needed offensively after only Troy shot worse from the field last season and no player averaged double-digit points.
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (10-21, 4-14 Sun Belt)
Jr. G Brandon Roberts (redshirt)
Sr. G Tony Hooper (15.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 spg)
Jr. G Jarvis Hill (junior college transfer)
So. F Lawrence Gilbert (transfer from Miami)
So. F Raphelle Turner (6.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Warhawks will play five home games in a non-conference slate that has plenty of tough road games. They play Tennessee Tech and McNeese State both at home and away, and hit the road for games at Mississippi State, Auburn, improving Louisiana Tech and Colorado. Three of the first four Sun Belt games are on the road.
Outlook: The Warhawks will have to integrate some new faces this season, as two newcomers will likely move into the starting lineup along with Roberts, who redshirted last season and wasn’t cleared to do any contact drills in practice by the beginning of November. Hooper could lead the conference in scoring, though he could also lead in turnovers after he had nearly 50 percent more turnovers than assists last season. There is some good talent among the newcomers to help him at the offensive end, and chief among them is Gilbert, who should start right away and could form a nice inside tandem with Turner, who showed promise as a freshman. Hill is a journeyman who can shoot, and junior college transfers Malcolm Thomas and Reggie Lassiter also project to see good minutes. Lassiter could start at the point if Roberts isn’t ready to go at first, as could sophomore Kenneth Averette, who started 11 games there last season. Gilbert’s move into the starting lineup likely pushes senior Afam Nweke to the bench since Turner seems ready to start. There are many areas for improvement this season, but taking better care of the ball would be a good start after the Warhawks had over 130 more turnovers than assists last season.
Denver Pioneers (11-19, 7-11 Sun Belt)
So. G Kyle Lewis (8.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.4 apg)
Fr. G Brian Stafford
Jr. F Nate Rohnert (8.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.1 spg)
So. F Rob Lewis (8.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.4 apg)
Fr. F Andrew Hooper
Schedule Highlights: The Pioneers will play five non-conference home games, including three straight to close December starting with Colorado State. The toughest road game looks to be at Wyoming, and right after that they head to Montana for the Grizzly Basketball Classic against host Montana and Texas-Arlington. In Sun Belt inter-division games, they caught a break in getting Middle Tennessee and South Alabama at home only.
Outlook: With no seniors and just two juniors on the roster, this looks like a rebuilding year for the Pioneers. Both Kyle and Rob Lewis (no relation) and Rohnert are good building blocks, with Rohnert being the team captain. Stafford and Hooper look to be the newcomers most ready to start, and other than lanky freshman Justin Coughlin, there’s not much size up front among the potential reserves. The Pioneers were last in the conference in scoring by over seven points per game last season and allowed opponents to shoot just under 46 percent from the field, a combination this team hopes to improve upon. They went 0-16 on the road last season, and with just five home games on the non-conference slate this season it’s possible that wins will be hard to come by while looking toward the future with this young group.
Arkansas State Red Wolves (10-20, 5-13 Sun Belt)
Sr. G Ifeanyi Koggu (3.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.6 apg)
Jr. G Mike Lance (4.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg)
Sr. F Shawn Morgan (9.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.9 spg)
Sr. F Yima Chia-Kur (11.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
Jr. F JeJuan Brown (junior college transfer)
Schedule Highlights: Five home games are on tap in non-conference play, including a visit from Ohio Valley favorite Murray State. Road games on the slate include trips to Ole Miss, Ohio Valley contender UT-Martin and Oklahoma State. In mid-January, the Red Wolves have a chance to pick up some wins as they have a stretch with four of five at home, though the only road game is at Middle Tennessee.
Outlook: New head coach John Brady is starting over to a degree, as just two starters from last season remain with Ryan Wedel transferring to Drake after the season. But this isn’t a team lacking in experience, as there are five seniors and just three freshmen and sophomores on the roster. Morgan and Chia-Kur are good frontcourt bookends, and Brown could start right away to join them. The tallest players are 6’8″, so the Red Wolves won’t have a lot of size inside. Koggu should run the show, while Lance is the most likely holdover to start alongside him and sophomore Jeremy Thomas seems the likely backup. The first place the Red Wolves need to improve is the defensive end, as they allowed opponents to shoot a conference-high 48 percent from the field last season.
New Orleans Privateers (19-13, 8-10 Sun Belt)
Jr. G Destin Damachoua (junior college transfer)
Sr. G Kyndall Dykes (13.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 apg)
Sr. F T.J. Worley (6.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg)
Jr. F Obi Ikeakor (junior college transfer)
So. C Jaroslav Tyrna (3.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Six home games are on tap in non-conference play, including visits from North Carolina State, Tulane and Ole Miss. The slate of road games is not overly difficult, but does have a trip to Colorado State included. In Sun Belt play, they close the season with four of five on the road.
Outlook: With Sun Belt all-time leading scorer Bo McCalebb and three other starters gone, a rebuilding season looks to be ahead for second-year head coach Joe Pasternack. Seniors Dykes and Worley, the only seniors on the roster, should snag two of the starting spots. Damachoua, a talented point guard, should be the third perimeter starter and give them a little more experience as a junior college transfer. Ikeakor has had a cup of coffee in Division I before, having started his college career at Saint Louis, and Tyrna should start in the middle. Many of the newcomers will get a chance to play right away, which is sure to lead to some ups and downs. Pasternack got the team off to a great start last season and still won 19 games despite an 8-10 showing in Sun Belt play, and now he starts building with his own players.
Two good division races should be in store this season, as well as more balance between the divisions. At first glance, the conference doesn’t look like it will be as strong at the top as last season, so we may not see an at-large team from here like last season. But the conference has some “potential” teams that certainly could turn out better than advertised, as was the case last season. A few of the bottom teams are rebuilding, but aren’t lacking talent, and by late in the season they might be able to play spoiler or surprise a team in the conference tournament.