Sun Belt Tournament Preview–Bracket One
The Sun Belt Conference Tournament gets underway Saturday with four games on tap. Here is my preview of the Cajuns' side of the bracket.
EAST #1 FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS (21-9) (13-3) Coach: Mike Jarvis (41-51, 3rd season)
Record vs. Bracket teams: 5-2 (Lost to Louisiana, Lost to Western Kentucky, both at home)
First game: Quarterfinals Sunday at 6:45pm vs. North Texas/Troy winner.
STRENGTHS: Not one, but two lightning-quick point guards in Raymond Taylor and Alex Tucker, a bonafide scorer in Greg Gantt and two-time defensive player of the year Brett Royster. Good depth, with bench players combining for 27 starts. Outstanding assist/turnover ratio. Tucker and Taylor combine for eight assists per game. Cat-quick on defense, averaging six steals per game. Good defensive club, allowing opponents only 42% from the floor.
WEAKNESSES: Very hit and miss rebounding team. Royster and Kore White are poor free throw shooters. They take a lot of three pointers, but don't shoot a high percentage (.326). They sometimes get out of their offense which results in poor shot selection. Tightly called games could result in foul trouble.
OUTLOOK: There's a reason why this team won 21 games this year. Jarvis is an excellent coach who demands a lot from his players. Their depth sets up well for three games in three days. This bracket causes them some matchup problems and their quarterfinal battle, if their opponent is North Texas, could present a challenge. But if they pay attention to detail, they could be playing on Tuesday.
WEST #2 LOUISIANA RAGIN' CAJUNS (14-14, 11-5) Coach: Bob Marlin (14-14, 1st season)
Record vs. Bracket Teams 6-1 (lost at North Texas)
First game: Sunday 6:30pm vs. WKU/ULM winner
STRENGTHS: Players who have bought into Marlin's team concept, which has resulted in making them the league's hottest team with 11 straight wins. Very good rebounding club, despite not having a lot of size. Freshman J. J. Thomas and senior Travis Bureau cause other teams serious matchup problems. Inspirational leader La'Ryan Gary has played at an all-conference level down the stretch. Good at guarding the perimeter with underrated defenders Raymone Andrews and Bryant Mbamalu. Marlin has earned raves around the league for his coaching ability. Team is always well-prepared.
WEAKNESSES: Last in the league in assist/turnover ratio. This team turns the ball over at an alarming rate at times. Streaky free throw shooting team that has been hot during their winning streak, but has struggled mightily in the past. Teams with a good big man cause them problems because of their lack of size. Not a great outside shooting team. Questions abound about Gary's status with potentially three games in three days.
OUTLOOK: Louisiana comes roaring into the tournament with eleven straight wins. Almost everything has fallen their way during the streak and that will need to continue for the Cajuns to reach the finals. There will be no questioning their confidence coming into this tournament. The number of effective minutes that Scottie Farrington plays during the tournament could be critical to the Cajuns' success. This team can win, but there's little margin for error.
EAST #3 WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (14-16, 8-8) Coach: Ken McDonald (60-37) 3rd season
Record vs bracket 4-3. Losses at Troy, home to FAU and at Louisiana
First game: Saturday 6:45pm vs. Louisiana-Monroe
STRENGTHS: The best front line in the league featuring first team all-conference selections Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch and transfer Juan Patillo. Caden Dickerson and reserve Kahlil McDonald give them a threat from the outside. Pettigrew and/or Kerusch are capable of taking over a game on any given night.
WEAKNESSES: Team has almost no depth, with six players getting the bulk of the playing time. WKU has always relied on the three point shot, but they haven't shot it that well this year and have trouble making contested three pointers. Team averages nearly 15 turnovers a game. Vanilla offense is easy to scout and prepare for. Team isn't particularly good on defense, especially Kerusch, who frequently becomes a situational substitute in close games. Outside of Dickerson, not a particularly good free throw shooting team.
OUTLOOK: There's plenty of talent here, but they're paper-thin depth-wise. It's going to be difficult for the Toppers to get four wins in four days. Assuming they beat ULM, Toppers face a red-hot Cajuns team in the quarters. With the vultures circling around McDonald as head coach, it will be interesting to see how WKU responds.
#4 WEST: NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN (19-10, 8-8) Coach: Johnny Jones (168-131, 1oth season)
Record vs. Bracket 3-4 Lost at WKU, at Troy, at Louisiana, ULM at home
First game: Saturday 6:30pm vs. Troy
STRENGTHS: Experienced, senior laden team featuring 1st team all-conference performer Tristan Thompson, along with guards Josh White and Dominique Johnson. George Odufuwa averages a double-double. Very good three point shooting team and outstanding free throw shooting team. North Texas made nearly as many free throws as their opponents attempted.
WEAKNESSES: Not a good defensive team. Teams can get good shots on every possession if they show a little patience. UNT has struggled on nights that they can't get to the free throw line. Loss of Jacob Holman means they're pretty thin on the bench. After Odufuwa, not a good rebounding team.
OUTLOOK: The biggest enigma in the league comes in losers in six of their last nine games, although they did win their last two vs. Denver and UALR. They haven't been a good team away from the Super Pit this year. This was the year that the Mean Green had been pointing to, but they just lost it, especially defensively, down the stretch. North Texas is schizophrenic enough to go out in the first round.....or cut down the nets on Tuesday.
#5 EAST: TROY TROJANS (8-20, 6-10) Coach: Don Maestri (485-343, 29th season)
Record vs. Bracket: 3-4 Lost twice to FAU, lost at Louisiana, split with WKU.
First game: Saturday, 6:30 pm vs. North Texas
STRENGTHS: Very good scoring guard tandem of Will Weathers and Vernon Taylor. Two other good shooters in Travis Lee and Regis Huddleston.
WEAKNESSES: Not much of an inside game. Not a great rebounding team. Outside of Taynor and Weathers, not a good free throw shooting team. Passive zone defense has lots of holes in it.
OUTLOOK: No one really wants to play Troy because on any given night, they can shoot you right out of the arena. And, because of that, anyone facing them will be wary. But if they aren't shooting lights out, the rest of their game is such that they don't pose much of a threat. Could pose problems for North Texas in game one, given UNT's propensity for forgetting to play defense at times.
#6 LOUISIANA-MONROE WARHAWKS (7-23, 2-14) Coach: Keith Richard (7-23 first season)
Record vs. Bracket 1-6. Won at North Texas
First game: Saturday 6:45pm vs. Western Kentucky
STRENGTHS: Guard Fred Brown is a legitimate scorer who is capable of having a good night. Forward Tommie Sykes is adept at getting to the free throw line and is a good rebounder. Warhawks will get the capable Lawrence Gilbert back after missing the last two games.
WEAKNESSES: Where to begin. Poor defensive team. Sykes can get to the line with the best of them, but shoots less than 60% from there. Virtually no depth to speak of. Not a good shooting team, with exception of Brown. photo courtesy ulmwarhawks.com
OUTLOOK: ULM has been tough at times this year, having lost four league games by six or less. Richard is a good coach, but he is going to a gunfight with a water pistol here. If they were to pull a first round upset, it would be a successful tournament.