Sun Belt Tournament Preview: Bracket One – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Conference Basketball Tournament begins this Friday in Hot Springs, Arkansas. This will be the final time the tournament resides in Hot Springs. It will move to the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena for 2014. Here’s a look at the participants in bracket one with my analysis.
#1 SEED – MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS (27-4. 19-1)—Coach: Kermit Davis, Jr.
STRENGTHS—Balanced, deep basketball team that features only one player (Marcos Knight) averaging in double figures. Raiders have eleven players averaging double digit minutes. Very athletic team that defends extremely well. Bruce Massey is one of the underrated players in the league. Raiders can shoot it inside and shoot it from the perimeter, averaging 38.4 percent. Raymond Cintron is one of the best perimeter shooters in the league. Much better from the free throw line than a year ago, averaging nearly 70 percent.
WEAKNESSES—For a Sun Belt team, not many. Raiders, despite their athleticism, are a bit undersized. MT gets to the free throw line a lot. If the wrong guys are there at the wrong time, that could be an issue.
OUTLOOK—The Raiders have won the league for the second straight year and come into the tournament on a 16-game winning streak. Last year the Raiders, a poor free throw shooting team, lost a game they had won in the quarterfinals because they couldn’t make the free throws when they needed them. That probably won’t be an issue this time. They have the athleticism, the depth and the shooters to not only win the tournament, but do some damage at the next level. This is a better team than the NIT quarter-finalist team a year ago. It’s not very often a team is a prohibitive favorite coming into the conference tournament, but this one is, and it would take a monumental effort by someone to deny them the championship.
#4 SEED—FIU PANTHERS (16-13, 11-9) Coach: Richard Pitino
STRENGTHS—Tymell Murphy has proven to be one of the league’s better players. Despite being undersized, very good rebounder, especially on the offensive end. Malik Smith is a good scorer, Deric Hill does a nice job at the point and freshman Jerome Frink is going to be a good one. Panthers’ trapping defense forces nearly 18 turnovers and 9.5 steals per game, which leads to easy baskets. Solid free throw shooting team (.703).
WEAKNESSES—Not a particularly good perimeter shooting team although they’re near the top of the league in 3 pointers per game. Despite having Frink and Murphy, team gets out rebounded regularly. Just as FIU can trap to get turnovers, they are prone to turning it over themselves. Team has good perimeter depth, but not so much inside. Panthers are only 3-7 as a road team in league play.
OUTLOOK—Pitino will get some Coach of the Year votes after leading FIU to a winning season, something that was totally unexpected. His teams play hard and have taken coaching well. But there’s something about this club that makes me feel like they are a year away and of course, won’t be in the Sun Belt next year. It’s a team worth following in the future, though. Pitino has done a nice job.
#5 SEED—UALR (17-14, 11-9) Coach: Steve Shields
STRENGTHS: Like most UALR teams, they can make it hard for you to get a shot. Solid defensive team that can play physical, especially inside. Javes, Neighbour and Leeper can cause matchup problems because of their size. Josh Hagins, just a freshman , is going to be a good one. Hagins, John Gillon and Ben Dillard are all solid from the perimeter. UALR is good at making the opposition play at their tempo.
WEAKNESSES—Not a particularly good shooting team that really shot it poorly for a spell until last week. Neighbour has struggled from the perimeter this year, taking away a valuable weapon. Team can have a tendency to turn it over if Hagins is on the bench. They’ve got some good free throw shooters, but some bad ones as well.
OUTLOOK—Steve Shields has a very young club this year, yet got another winning season. Their only senior is a walk on and they are mostly freshmen and sophomores. Like FIU, they’re a year away. But don’t fall asleep on this team during the tournament. Shields will get everything out of them he can. Quarterfinal matchup with FIU will be interesting. Each team won by double digits during the regular season. The key will be the young backcourt handling the FIU pressure and UALR’s success against FIU’s zone.
#8 SEED—LOUISIANA’S RAGIN CAJUNS (12-19, 8-12) Coach: Bob Marlin
STRENGTHS: Elfrid Payton has improved to the point where he’s a first team all conference player. He can score, but also leads the league in assists and steals. He’s the best perimeter defender in the Sun Belt. Center Shawn Long, despite playing out of position, has 17 double doubles, best in the league and is an outside scoring threat. Bryant Mbamalu and Alan-Michael Thompson are both very capable of lighting it up from the outside at any time.
WEAKNESSES—Aside from the players mentioned above, no one else on this team scores much. Team is undersized after Long and that results in the team being outrebounded regularly. Not much depth, especially inside, forcing the Cajuns to play a lot of players out of position. Team can be hit and miss at the free throw line.
OUTLOOK: Cajuns were good at home but had a long road losing streak. And, it all boiled down to shooting. Because of their lack of size, the Cajuns have to shoot it from the perimeter with success. Thompson and Mbamalu will be key in the tournament. Regardless of what happens, fans will be impressed with Payton, who is probably the quickest guard in the league and is really fun to watch.
#9 SEED—NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN (12-19, 7-13) Coach: Tony Benford
STRENGTHS: Tony Mitchell is a sure first round NBA draft pick, and, although his numbers are down a little from last year, he’s a double double waiting to happen every time he steps on the court. He’s an unselfish player on the offensive end and the best shot blocker in the league, although he doesn’t have the most blocked shots. Sophomore Jordan Williams can really score the basketball. Roger Franklin is a very good rebounder despite being undersized. And, the Mean Green have Chris Jones back after he missed 16 games with a broken foot. Jones is an excellent point guard who averages nearly five assists per game. UNT has some depth at just about every position. Very good free throw shooting team.
WEAKNESSES—Mitchell and Franklin are prone to foul trouble. This team doesn’t shoot it very well from the perimeter, less than 29% from three point range. Williams can shoot it, but the others are hit and miss from the perimeter. Team doesn’t force a lot of turnovers.
OUTLOOK:–But let’s face it. This team puts the dys in dysfunctional. The players never bought into Benford’s system and it’s pretty obvious there have been chemistry and locker room issues all season. The injury to Jones notwithstanding, this has been the biggest underachieving team the Sun Belt has seen in recent memory. And, it can all be traced, at least for now, to the selection of Benford. It’s too early to call him the Todd Dodge of basketball, But AD Rick Villareal probably isn’t a happy guy right now. But make no mistake. The talent is there. And, this team has put it together in Hot Springs before. The question is, can they do it with Benford as coach.