Sun Belt Tournament Preview: Bracket One – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Championships begin Wednesday at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Here is my analysis of Bracket One, featuring #1 UTA, #4 Texas State, #5 Arkansas State, #8 Coastal Carolina, #9 South Alabama and #12 ULM
#1 seed UTA MAVERICKS (24-7, 14-4) Coach: Scott Cross (201-146, 11th season) Record vs. Teams in Bracket One, 7-2
STRENGTHS: Well, you start with Kevin Hervey. He's the latest in a line of NBA prospects in this league. Projected as a "stretch-4" on the next level, Hervey leads the team in scoring (17.3) and rebounding (8.4). He can shoot it from outside, hit a mid range jumper and drive to the basket. He is a solid rebounder. He's the total package. Erick Neal leads the SBC in assists (6.5). He might be the toughest to guard in the entire league. Talented shooters who can look to a different player on any given night. Jalen Jones and Drew Charles can shoot the rock and they don't take many bad shots. Jorge Bilbao is a blue collar inside guy who is a tough, physical player. The Mavs can go ten deep and that keeps the starters fresh at the end of the game.
WEAKNESSES: Neal can create, but he can create turnovers, too. Their average of over 13 per game is high for a team trying to compete at a high level. They don't really have a dependable scorer down low and have to rely on their guards to get to the basket. Bilbao can be foul prone and they can struggle to rebound if he and Hervey are out of the game at the same time. Hervey and Jones are excellent free throw shooters, but they are the only two over 70%. If Jones and Charles both struggle to score on the same night they can be vulnerable.
OUTLOOK: Their loss to Louisiana probably took them out of the "at-large" discussion but that might be a blessing in disguise. They aren't going to take anything for granted. Expect this team to play like a team on a mission and if they do, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the competition.
#4 seed TEXAS STATE BOBCATS (18-12, 11-7) Coach: Danny Kaspar (55-68, 4th season). Record against teams in Bracket One: 6-3
STRENGTHS: Kavin Gilder-Tilbury has blossomed into one of the league's most dangerous players. He shoots near 40% from three point range, can mix it up as a rebounder and can score inside as well. Nijal Pearson is the future of the Bobcats. He's the second leading scorer as a freshman and can score down low. He's a good offensive rebounder and can hit a perimeter shot as well. Ojai Black is the perfect point guard for Kaspar's patterned offense. He gets the ball to the right guys, can score enough to where you have to respect him and doesn't turn it over. They'll make you play defense all the way to the end of the shot clock and they'll make you pay if you don't. Like all Kaspar teams, this club can defend...and they like to play defense.
WEAKNESSES: With exception of Gilder-Tilbury, they don't shoot it particularly well from the perimeter. Their game is based on working the ball for a good percentage shot and if you take them out of that rhythm, they can struggle to score. They don't shoot free throws well except for Black. They aren't a great rebounding team and teams that are physical inside can hurt them. Their bench is thin, especially in the scoring department. If Gilder-Tilbury or Pearson get in foul trouble, they can wonder where the points will come from.
OUTLOOK: Picked to finish dead last in the pre-season poll, here the Bobcats are with a first round bye. How did it happen? No one knew Pearson would be as good as he is...but the real story is Kaspar has players he recruited, and they're all embracing his system. 14 of their 18 league games were single digit margins. They aren't the most talented team by a long shot. But they'll play tough and the team that beats them will have earned it.
#5 SEED: ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (20-11, 11-7) Coach: Grant McCasland (20-11) 1st season. Record vs.teams in Bracket One: 6-4
STRENGTHS: Devin Carter can flat out shoot it. He's one of the deadliest in the league and he doesn't need much room to get it off. He feeds off Donte Thomas who is one of the league best distributing point guards. He's not a great shooter, but can score if you don't pay him enough attention. This team has a bunch of guys who can score the basketball and that's a part of what makes them dangerous. Carter is their guy, but they don't have to rely totally on him to make it happen. Very athletic team whose four guard offense causes matchup problems.
WEAKNESSES: They have to rely on their guards getting to the basket because, with exception of Tamas Bruce, they're not real physical inside. Bruce can get in foul trouble and if he does, you can exploit them inside. Outside of Thomas, they don't share the ball particularly well. They can run into cold perimeter nights and that's when they're particularly vulnerable. Outside of Carter and Simms, they can be downright brutal at the free throw line and if the wrong guys get to the line, it's a liability, especially if the score is close.
OUTLOOK: McCasland has done a great job getting them to buy in and he has guys who, when they're on, can light up the scoreboard in a hurry. The biggest issue for the Red Wolves is, they are so guard heavy. They also haven't been great away from home in league play (3-6). Arkansas State has lost five of its last seven coming into the tournament. The potential battle of wills in the quarterfinals with Texas State could be fun to watch.
#8 seed: COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS (15-16, 10-8) Coach: Cliff Ellis (194-124, 10th season). Record against teams in Bracket One: 5-3
STRENGTHS: Elijah Wilson was voted pre-season all conference and now we all know why. Wilson is an outstanding scorer with one of the quickest releases in the league. Jaylen Shaw is a great compliment to Wilson with his scoring ability and is their best three point shooter. Demario Beck is the inside guy in their four guard offense and he's the best rebounder in the league not named Bryce Washington. They'll shoot it and shoot it some more and if you leave them open, they'll make you pay. Wiggins, Ray-St. Cyr and Labinowicz all have the green light as well.
WEAKNESSES: They take a lot of three point shots. They don't always make them. This isn't a very physical team except for Beck. They don't get to the free throw line much and Beck is a huge liability when he's fouled. After the first six guys, the rest of their depth isn't going to hurt you on offense. This has been a much better team at home than on the road, probably because of their outside shooting. They don't force many turnovers.
OUTLOOK: This is one of those "any given night" teams. If their shots are falling, they can be really dangerous. But their biggest strength can also be their biggest liability. They aren't going to turn you over much and they don't particularly like being physical. That leaves making shots as their way to beat you. It's hard to win consistently doing it that way.
#9 seed: SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS (14-17, 7-11) Coach: Matthew Graves (51-77, 4th season). Record vs.teams in Bracket One: 3-5.
STRENGTHS: Ken Williams is a four year starter and he's always been well respected in his abilities. Josh Ajayi is a welcomed addition to this team. He's second on the team in scoring and has a capable touch from outside if you leave him open. Nick Stover can fill it from the outside. In fact, there are several guys who are capable from the perimeter on this team. Don't put Williams at the line. He can get a lot of points from there and is an 80% shooter. Don MuepoKelly is athletic inside. South Alabama's defense will force turnovers.
WEAKNESSES: Williams and Shaq Calhoun take more threes than anyone else on the team. They both shoot 26% and that's perhaps why South Alabama has been disappointing this year. They've been better than that in the past. This team doesn't rebound very well, especially if MuepoKelly gets into foul trouble. This team has had some really cold stretches shooting the basketball at times, and, as a result, they've coughed up some leads down the stretch and seem to panic a little when that happens. They'll try to get you to play fast but if you don't succumb to their ability to force turnovers, you'll get some good shots against their defense.
OUTLOOK: I've been waiting for two years for this team to break out and I thought they'd be better than they are. They just don't shoot it well enough, and with the way they play, they have to shoot it well. They can get down on themselves and I don't know if they have the chemistry to overcome that. They blew a 14 point halftime lead against CCU in their first meeting...and that was at home. They got a buzzer beater to beat Arkansas State on Saturday. Was that enough to give them any kind of confidence? We'll see.
#12 seed: ULM WARHAWKS (8-23, 2-16) Coach: Keith Richard (71-141, 7th season) Record vs. teams in Bracket One: 0-8
STRENGTHS: Travis Munnings is a solid player who can score inside, step out and shoot the three and is a good rebounder. Sam McDaniel gives them some inside presence as a rebounder as well. Nick Coppola is the Sun Belt's iron man. He's averaged 35 or more minutes his entire career. He's not overly athletic, but he's smart and he doesn't turn the basketball over. Keith Richard's teams play hard nosed defense and they play with passion.
WEAKNESSES: Well, there are a lot. First off, they aren't a very good shooting team, or a very consistent one. They aren't physical and don't get to the free throw line much at all. Opponents have shot 113 more free throws on the season. They can get hurt on the boards and they don't force many turnovers or get many steals. They have to work for their points because of that and they just don't shoot it well enough to compensate.
OUTLOOK: Keith Richard is a very good coach. But he got hit hard by graduation and the newcomers just haven't been good enough to begin to replace those guys. Here's hoping recruiting addresses some of that because with Coppola leaving, Munnings is the only one on this squad with the talent to win, unless they get a lot better in the off season.