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Sun Belt Tournament Preview: Bracket One – From the Bird’s Nest

It came down to the final games, as we thought it would, but the seedings for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament have been determined.  First round action takes place on Thursday as the #5 seed UALR takes on the #8 seed Troy.  Also on Friday, #6 UT Arlington faces off with #7 UL Monroe. (That bracket will be featured tomorrow.)

Here are my thoughts on bracket #1, which features the #1, #4, #5 and #8 seeds.

SUN BELT TOURNAMENT PREVIEW – BRACKET ONE

#1—GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS (24-7, 17-1)  Coach:  Ron Hunter (3rd season)

STRENGTHS–Offensively, this team really has no peers in the league and they showed it during the regular season.  They’ve got a veteran club and they play with maturity.  R. J. Hunter is a terrific player.  He’s not the best player in the league, but his team is 17-1 so he’ll probably be Player of the Year.  That’s splitting hairs, though.  Hunter has the quickest release we’ve seen in some time.   He is simply a great scorer.  Their double point guard offense means two things.  They have a great assist/turnover ratio and they simply don’t turn over the basketball.  DeVonte White is one of the more under the radar players in the league.  Manny Atkins can flat out shoot it and he’s a pretty good rebounder.  Ryan Harrow can take it to the basket and distribute.  He’s really good at taking care of the basketball.  You put this team at the free throw line at your own risk.  They’re one of the best teams in the nation in that regard.  People spend so much time praising the Panthers’ offense, they fail to notice they lead the league in field goal defense, blocked shots and steals. They play exclusively zone defense and it works for them.

WEAKNESSES—As good as they are, they’ve got a few and one of them is glaring.  They aren’t a good rebounding team.  At all.  They give up way too many second chance points and on a night when they aren’t shooting well, they won’t get a lot of second chances.  This is also a team with precious little depth.  They’ll play a few guys here and there, but they rely on only six.  It’s one of the reasons they play exclusively zone defense.  They can’t afford to get players in foul trouble.

OUTLOOK—This is a very good basketball team.  Each player knows what is expected of him and GSU has done a good job of paying attention to detail.  You pick your poison when trying to guard these guys as they have four who have scored 1.000 points or more in their careers.   If you’re going to beat them, you have to have a very good outside shooting night and they have to be subpar shooters.  Keeping them off the free throw line is important.  Bottom line is, only one team in the league this year succeeded in beating them.  They’re a solid favorite to cut down the nets…but they aren’t invincible.

#4  ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (18-12, 10-8)  Coach:  John Brady, 6th season.

STRENGTHS—I don’t think there’s a substitute for senior experience, and this team has got plenty.  Ed Townsel is a four year starter for this group and he’s a solid player.  He can shoot the three and drive to the basket.  Melvin Johnson III is the best pure shooter in the Belt.  He’s in the top ten in America in 3-point percentage.  What I like about him is, he doesn’t take bad shots.  He has no problem passing the ball and he’s good at it.  Rakeem Dickerson and Cameron Golden are both quick at the point.  And, Kirk Van Slyke can be a tough cover because of his ability to shoot the outside shot, even though he’s 6-10.  Kendrick Washington is a physically strong player on the inside.  John Brady’s teams are always pretty solid defensively.  A good free throw shooting team (.733)

WEAKNESSES—Sometimes they rely too much on that outside shot.  Washington is their only really physical player inside.  They don’t have much inside depth, except for Kelvin Downs.  Van Slyke doesn’t like players who are physical with him and he can get frustrated on both ends of the court when that happens.  Teams that can play two physical big guys at once can have a big advantage.  They’re not a great rebounding team, especially at the times when Van Slyke isn’t a factor.  The guards, with exception of Townsel, don’t help on the boards much.

INJURIES—It’s not an injury, but Gator Worsham’s decision to leave the team after seven games has hurt this team.  He was a good shooter, very athletic and could help inside.  I don’t think they are the same team without him.

OUTLOOK—When you get down to it, they’re very similar to Georgia State.  Good guard play, multiple perimeter shooters, good assist/turnover ratio, not a great rebounding team.  During the regular season, GSU did everything a little better.  ASU’s two losses to the Panthers were by one point in Atlanta and overtime in Jonesboro.  They match up well with the Panthers, but will have a tough quarterfinal game if they’re playing UALR just because of the rivalry.

#5–ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK TROJANS (14-16, 9-9)  Coach:  Steve Shields  11th season

STRENGTHS—I don’t know if anyone plays harder than this group.  They play solid, in your jock defense for forty minutes.  That’s where it all starts for them, on the defensive end.  They’ve got a lot of blue collar guys who play because they can defend.  In that regard, it’s a pretty deep team when they’re healthy, which they really haven’t been all season.  They shoot free throws well for the most part.  They’re third in the league in that category.  Ben Dillard can shoot the three but I wish he’d shoot it more often.  Josh Hagins is their best perimeter scorer and Shields brings him off the bench.  James White is a tough matchup for the opposition.  He’s got a little size and a lot of quickness. There’s not a lot statistically that will raise your eyebrows with this team, but they’re not terrible in anything, either.

WEAKNESSES—They aren’t a great shooting team.  There are nights they really struggle to score and even their good defense can’t save them at those times.  The loss of Will Neighbour is just killing them.  He was their leading scorer and rebounder and gave UALR their best outside threat.  They’re 2-4 since his injury and the fact they won two games without him is impressive.  They’re a good defensive rebounding team, but don’t get a lot of offensive boards.  On nights they aren’t shooting well, that becomes a big statistic.  As I said, UALR isn’t terrible in anything.  They also aren’t great in anything, except they’re really good at making you take the shot they want you to take.

INJURIES—They’ve crippled this team.  LeRoy Isler is back but he missed a few games.  But leading scorer and rebounder Will Neighbour is out..  Kemmy Osse is out with a knee.  J. T. Thomas, who was going to be a really good player for UALR, went down for the year after four games.

OUTLOOK—This team was set for a top three finish before the injuries made them pretty ordinary.  If it was going to happen to a team though, this might be the one that does the best job adjusting, because Shields can do more with less better than just about anyone.  There’s no guarantee they’ll get by Troy in the first round (the two teams split during the regular season) but if they do, their arch rivals await.  That one could be a lot of fun.  With the injuries, there probably isn’t enough firepower to get through the bracket.  But they just might have something to say about who gets there.

#8 TROY TROJANS (11-19, 6-12)  Coach:  Phil Cunningham 1st season

STRENGTHS:   Balanced scoring team where anyone can bust out on any given night.  Multiple players who can shoot from the perimeter.  The addition of Kevin Thomas has given them an athletic guy inside who can both score and rebound.  Tevin Calhoun can, on any given night, be one of the league’s most dangerous shooters.  Hunter Williams is a solid combo guard who plays cerebral basketball.  Jeff Mullahey can shoot it. And, Antoine Myers is a guy who can drive to the basket and score inside.  They’ve improved as a rebounding team.

WEAKNESSES:  Consistency is probably the biggest thing.  Williams is probably playing out of position.  I think he’s better served playing the off guard, but he’s the best they have at the point.  Balanced scoring is great, but you never know which players won’t show up on a given night.  When this team isn’t scoring outside, they really struggle because they just aren’t big enough inside to score there regularly.  Not a good free throw shooting team.  Troy’s poor assist/turnover ratio is more about the lack of assists, and that isn’t a good thing. 

OUTLOOK—This team was good enough to sweep the state of Arkansas on the road and beat the league champions.  This team is also bad enough to lose to just about anybody.  Their lack of consistency is usually directly related to how well they shoot.  This is year one of Cunningham’s philosophy change after more than three decades of Don Maestri’s tenure with the Trojans.  It’s going to take some time to get his guys in.  In the meantime, he’ll get some gray hairs watching this team.  If the good Troy shows up, they’ll give UALR fits in round one.  If it’s the Troy that lost 19 games, well, it’ll be 20 losses by Thursday night.

BRACKET OUTLOOK:  No question who the favorite is.  But Georgia State lost to Troy and beat Arkansas State twice by a grand total of four points.  They can’t simply have the #1 attitude.  They have to play well in order to get to Sunday.

 

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