Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview–Bracket One
As the Sun Belt Tournament gets ready to begin, here’s my look at the field, starting with bracket one.
#1 MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS (25-5) (14-2) Coach: Kermit Davis, Jr. (178-131, 10th Season.) Sun Belt Tournament Titles: None
STRENGTHS: Stifling man-to-man defensive team that leads the Sun Belt in Field Goal Defense. Deep, athletic team that plays ten players most nights. Solid inside game with LaRon Dendy, along with J. T. Sulton and Jason and Shawn Jones. Marcos Knight can hit the mid-range jumper and is a very good rebounder. Bruce Massey has a 2:1 assist/turnover ratio at the point. Solid, if not spectacular, rebounding team.
WEAKNESSES: Very poor free throw shooting team. Only Sulton and Raymond Cintron shoot over 70%. They don’t make a lot of threes, but don’t take a ton, either. Cintron is their best threat, after him it’s kind of hit and miss. Dendy can sometimes get into foul trouble, which diminishes them significantly.
OUTLOOK: MT won 25 games for a reason and should be the favorite going into Hot Springs. Their depth suits them playing three days in a row. They aren’t an unbeatable team, as WKU and Denver proved and the question is, if they’re playing a close game, can they make enough free throws and hit a three if they need one? If the Raiders make the semifinals, as expected, they’ll get tested against the winner of the North Texas/Louisiana game. But, all things considered, you have to like their chances to be playing on Tuesday night.
#4 LOUISIANA RAGIN’ CAJUNS (16-14), (10-6) Coach: Bob Marlin (30-29, 2nd season) Sun Belt Tournament Titles: 1992, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2005
STRENGTHS: Solid Defensive team, especially on the perimeter. Cajuns were among the league leaders in FG defense and 3pt. defense. Front line is solid. Newcomer Kadeem Coleby is the best shot blocker that doesn’t wear a South Alabama uniform. Good rebounding team on both ends of the court. Can get baskets in transition and will look to push the ball at every opportunity. Josh Brown might be the most underrated player in the league. Point guard Elfrid Payton can take it to the rack and finish when he gets there. Bob Marlin has played a lot of players this season, which should bode well in a tournament scenario.
WEAKNESSES: Like Middle Tennessee, a bad free throw shooting team. The two guys who take the most free throws are under 60%. Their transition game means some easy baskets but they turn the ball over at an alarming rate. Very inconsistent shooting team on the perimeter, capable of shooting 60% from the arc one night and 10 percent the next.
OUTLOOK: While their defense and rebounding have been consistent, the rest of the Cajuns’ game has not. They could make a run to Tuesday or be done quickly; depending on how they shoot the ball and how many free throws they miss. Marlin has a knack for winning close games more often than not. He’ll do his best to keep it close down the stretch, but this team hasn’t been really consistent all year. They’ve been blown out in two of their last three games and that’s a concern.
NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN (16-13, 9-7) Coach: Johnny Jones (187-143, 11th season) Sun Belt Tournament Titles: 2007, 2010
STRENGTHS: Boasts the league’s most electrifying player in freshman Tony Mitchell, who averages a double-double since becoming eligible after the first semester. Very athletic club that can rebound the basketball. This is one of Johnny Jones’ better defensive teams. Mean Green shoot 70% from the free throw line.
WEAKNESSES: Backcourt depth is suspect after losing two players to grades at mid-term. Not a great outside shooting team, averaging barely 30% from beyond the arc. If Mitchell gets In foul trouble, inconsistency inside hurts them and they can get hurt on the boards. Can be prone to turning the basketball over on any given night, given their propensity to force tempo.
OUTLOOK: They face a Louisiana team in the quarterfinals that beat them twice during the regular season in close games. Mitchell means so much to this team they could win the tournament if he plays big or go home early if he doesn’t. Mitchell did little against the Cajuns in the first two meetings. If the third time is the charm, Jones’ club will give Middle Tennessee all it can handle in the semifinals.
#8 FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS (11-18. 7-9) Coach: Mike Jarvis (52-70, 8th season) Sun Belt Tournament Titles: None
STRENGTHS: Efficient double point guard offense featuring Alex Tucker, who has amassed over 500 assists in his career. Very good outside shooter and scorer in Greg Gantt. Kelvin Penn and Kore White have combined to block 76 shots. Very capable three point shooting team on any given night.
WEAKNESSES: They might be capable, but they just haven’t shot it that well this season. Gantt has been their only consistent shooter as a starter. Freshman Omari Greer can shoot it but he can’t guard. While they have more assists than turnovers, it’s not by much of a margin. Not a very good defensive team. Not a good rebounding team. And, there are obviously serious chemistry problems on this squad.
OUTLOOK: With exception of Brett Royster, this is basically the same team that won 21 games last year. They got off to a slow start, Jarvis started tinkering with the lineup and this team just has no continuity. Frankly, they’re playing like a team that can’t wait for the season to be over. Yet, if they decide to play, they have lots of weapons.
#9 ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (12-19. 6-10) Coach: John Brady (59-65) 4th season. Sun Belt Tournament Titles: 1999
STRENGTHS: One of the league’s best all around players in Trey Finn, who can shoot and play defense. Two good rebounders inside in Malcolm Kirkland and Brandon Peterson and a good outside shooter in Marcus Hooten. Overall solid three point shooting team. Team has shot more than 200 more free throws than their opponents.
WEAKNESSES: This team has very little quality depth, really going only seven deep. None of them are great free throw shooters. Poor assist/turnover ratio. When your starting point guard has more turnovers than assists, that’s not a good thing. And, for a John Brady-coached squad, this isn’t a great defensive club.
OUTLOOK: ASU’s woes started before the season began with the dismissal of Martavius Adams. This team has capabilities, but their lack of depth really hurts them. Who would have thought that the teams picked to win their respective divisions would be playing in the 8-9 game? Remember, Brady’s squad played Middle Tennessee tough in Murfreesboro for about 35 minutes. That could make for an interesting quarterfinal game if ASU can win the first one.
Overall, there could be some really interesting games on this side of the bracket. But, while Middle Tennessee isn’t a shoo-in to reach the finals, they did win 25 games this year and have to be considered a solid favorite.