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Sun Belt Preview: North Texas/FAU collide tonight

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The University of North Texas won the Sun Belt Tournament last year and was the overwhelming favorite to win it again in the 2010-2011 preseason polls.

But the Mean Green find themselves three games behind West leader Denver with seven games left.  Coach Johnny Jones’ squad is unbeaten at home, however, and they’ll try to protect their home court against East leader Florida Atlantic tonight at the Super Pit.

FAU (16-7), (8-1) had its eight game winning streak snapped Saturday night with a home loss to Western Kentucky.  The Owls still have a three game lead in the divison, but still must travel to Denver and WKU, in addition to tonight’s game.

The Owls sport one of the best field goal defense teams in the Sun Belt.  Defense has been anything but a strong suit for the Mean Green of late, allowing 93 points in a loss to Louisiana last Thursday.  Denver blistered the Mean Green for 80 points.

Despite North Texas’ struggles, the Mean Green and Owls look to be two of the top teams in the league, which could make for a fun time at the Super Pit.

In other Sun Belt games tonight:

DENVER (11-10, 7-1) at UALR (12-11), (4-4)

Fans of the three point shot should be in heaven tonight at the Jack Stephens Center.  Both teams are ranked in the top ten in the nation in three point percentage.  UALR suffered a rare home loss Saturday night to Arkansas State before a record crowd.  Denver continued to obliterate Sun Belt opponents at the Magness Arena with a double digit win against North Texas.

The second half of the conference season will tell the tale for the Pioneers, who still must still travel to both Arkansas schools, Troy, Louisiana and North Texas.  Any road win would be precious for Denver.  The Pioneers usually score well at home, but try to keep the score down on the road.  That will make for an interesting matchup against the Trojans, who like to push the ball.

Neither team is very good inside, so tonight’s game could come down to whoever shoots it the best from the outside.  Denver won the game in Colorado earlier this season, 72-70 in overtime.

SOUTH ALABAMA (9-11, 3-6) at WESTERN KENTUCKY (9-11, 4-4)

Those who aren’t fond of the Hilltoppers, which is just about everyone in the league who doesn’t reside in the Commonwealth, were smiling when the Tops lost their first four conference games, part of a six game losing streak.

But no one is laughing right now.

Western has won four in a row, including an upset win at Florida Atlantic on Saturday, part of a sweep of their Florida trip.  Now WKU returns to Diddle Arena for a five game homestand (four of them in conference) as they host the Jaguars tonight.

Chemistry, a real problem for Western earlier in the season, seems to be smoothing out, and that could spell trouble for the rest of the league.  Sergio Kerusch and Steffphon Pettigrew are two of the league’s top players and starting to perform like it.

The Jaguars have good shooters, but not much inside.  In their loss to Louisiana on Sunday, South was outrebounded by the Cajuns and allowed the Cajuns to shoot 50 percent.  Freshman center Augustine Rubit is question after suffering a groin injury against the Cajuns. 

WKU won the game in Mobile 84-75.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (8-13, 3-6) at TROY (5-16, 3-6)

After starting the conference season with three straight wins, FIU has lost six in a row as they head to Troy for tonight’s matchup.

FIU has turned its roster over since Isiah Thomas took over as head coach before last season.  The Golden Panthers have scored the ball well this season, but are next to last in the league in average points allowed.

That’s kind of the mirror image of Troy.  The Trojans and Panthers like to shoot it and they like to play fast.  Whichever team plays the most consistently for 40 minutes will win.  The Trojans have a little more confidence right now, having won its first road game of the season Saturday night at Louisiana-Monroe.

LOUISIANA-MONROE (6-17. 1-8) at MIDDLE TENNESSEE (10-12, 5-4)

Every game is crucial for the Blue Raiders, who have a half game lead over Western Kentucky for second place in the Eastern Division.  The top two teams in each division get a first round bye in the Conference tournament.  The Raiders can’t afford to stumble against ULM, who lead the league in bad luck.  The Warhawks have five losses by four points or less.

While Middle would normally have a depth advantage against ULM, the Raiders have three players who log significant minutes who may be out of action tonight. 

Meanwhile, ULM has been trying to get by with playing just seven players.

Both teams should hope they don’t get a Saturday night Sun Belt crew for this Thursday game.

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