Breaking Down the Sun Belt Tournament – Bracket One – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Conference Basketball Tournament begins Thursday in New Orleans. Here is my breakdown of the upper bracket, featuring Little Rock, Louisiana, Georgia Southern and South Alabama
#1 LITTLE ROCK TROJANS (27-4, 17-3) Coach: Chris Beard
STRENGTHS: Patterned, disciplined offense that doesn't mind passing up a good shot to get a better shot. WIlling to make teams play defense for 30 seconds every possession if necessary. Tenacious defensively and deep enough to keep the pressure on without getting overly fatigued. Multiple three point shooting weapons, although they don't take a ridiculous amount of them. Very good free throw shooting team. They take care of the basketball and have a very good assist/turnover ratio. This is a team that looks like a team.
WEAKNESSES: They don't have great size and are just an ok rebounding team. While they are a good free throw shooting team, they don't get there nearly enough and that can hurt them if they're not shooting it well on a given night. The big guys inside can be foul prone, which hurts their ability to rebound.
OUTLOOK: What makes this team really good is their unselfishness. They've all bought in to Beard's system and it shows. Josh Hagins has blossomed into the first team all-conference player he's always had the potential to be, mostly because he's now accepted coaching. If you can go out and make them play your style, you have a shot. But not many teams have been able to do that. Their talent isn't unbeatable...but you'd better be really, really good if you're going to beat them
#4 LOUISIANA (16-13, 12-8) Coach: Bob Marlin
STRENGTHS: SImply put, Shawn Long is the best big man this league has seen in the last 25 years He can score, he can rebound, he can defend, he can block shots, and he can step out on the perimeter and hit a shot. He is capable of a 30/20 night any time. Long needs just four points to get to 2,250 points and 1,400 rebounds, and that's something only one player (Lionel Simmons/LaSalle) has done in the modern era (since 1973). Bryce Washington is a great inside compliment. Double team Long and Washington can really hurt you. Johnathon Stove is underappreciated for his ability to get to the basket and the free throw line. He's also a solid defender. Ridiculously good rebounding team. Team can and will get to the free throw line...a lot
WEAKNESSES: It's amazing how a team can go from leading the league in three point shooting one year and finishing dead last the next....with the same players. But that's what the Cajuns have done. Their guard play has been inconsistent on both ends of the court. Defensive lapses have led to too many easy baskets and there are nights when the Cajuns turn it over way too many times. There have been nights when their free throw shooting has failed them.
OUTLOOK: This team is stumbling into the tournament after losing five of its last seven games and it's not hard to figure out why when you look at their outside shooting percentage. The Cajuns won nine in a row at one point and shot 35% or better from three in seven of those nine. This isn't rocket science. Long hasn't gotten into a lot of foul trouble this season and if he remains a force inside and the Cajuns hit those open shots, they're a threat to win the tournament. But they've got to shoot it well and that's something they haven't done in six of their last seven.
#5 GEORGIA SOUTHERN (14-16, 10-10) Coach: Mark Byington
STRENGTHS: If Tookie Brown isn't the Freshman of the Year in the league, they need to do away with the award. He can shoot it, he can drive it and he's great at the free throw line. Mike Hughes is an outstanding compliment. He can do all the things Brown can do with great upper body strength. Jake Allsmiller is a good catch and shoot guy and they find ways to get him open. Ike Smith is another player who can hurt you on any given night. 44% of their shots taken are from beyond the arc. They're a tough guard because they, at times, play five guards. Good free throw shooting team that takes good care of the basketball.
WEAKNESSES: They don't rebound the basketball well at all, primarily because of their size and that's the main reason why they're a .500 ball club. And, just as they are tough to guard because of their size, they have trouble defending inside because of matchups. Like any team that relies on the trey, they really struggle when shots aren't falling.
OUTLOOK: Picked to finish next to last, Georgia Southern has turned themselves into a potentially dangerous team, despite being almost all freshmen and sophomores. They've got weapons offensively...a lot of them. But the fact remains, this is a team with many flaws, particularly the lack of an inside game. Hughes and Brown will usually get theirs. But they've got to have more and the other guys have been pretty inconsistent scorers. This team is good enough to break a heart or two during the tournament, but they aren't complete enough to win it unless they have four unconscious shooting nights.
#8 SOUTH ALABAMA (13-18, 8-12) COACH: MATTHEW GRAVES
STRENGTHS: There are nights when Ken Williams can take over a game, and, when he does, the Jaguars can be really good. Williams can drive to the bucket and get to the free throw line, where he's excellent. He can hit the mid-range shot as well as anyone in the league. Georgi Boyanov is very athletic inside and he can cause problems with his quickness. Shaq Calhoun is a weapon from the outside and both Nick Stover and Barrington Stevens can hurt you if you spend too much time worrying about the other guys.
WEAKNESSES: These guys turn it over way too much and don't turn over the opposition nearly enough. They can be good when they're in the team concept but when they get selfish they can really get out of synch Boyanov can get frustrated early in a game and he's not very good if that happens. They aren't a great rebounding team, especially on nights when Boyanov isn't effective. The have a couple of guys who are solid free throw shooters, but they also have a couple who are pretty brutal. Williams, as good as he is, hasn't been nearly as consistent as a shooter as he was a year ago. If you make an extra pass, you'll get a good shot against these guys.
OUTLOOK: This team was good enough to beat UT Arlington, Louisiana, Georgia State and Georgia Southern (twice). They were also bad enough to lose eight league games by double digits, including three by 20 or more. And, there's the rub on South Alabama. Disciplined teams frustrate them because they don't guard very well. Williams is dangerous and if he gets it going, South will be in the game. But if you guard the Jags on the perimeter, their lack of inside play gets exposed.