Sun Belt Tournament Preview – Bracket Two
Here’s the second of my two-part preview of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Today: Bracket Two
#2 ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK TROJANS (15-15, 12-4) Coach: Steve Shields (147-127) 9th season. Sun Belt Tournament Titles: 2011
STRENGTHS: D’Andre Williams is one of the rare guards in this league that can take over a game on any given night. Dangerous perimeter shooting team with Williams, Will Neighbour and Chuck Guy. Fundamentally sound team that values possession of the basketball, especially in league play. Williams, Guy and Neighbour are all good free throw shooters and they get to the line more than anyone else. Good defensive team that finds a way to get good position. Nine players average double-digit minutes.
WEAKNESSES: It’s not easy to stop Williams, but if you can, you can get this team out of sync. Michael Javes is going to be a good player down the road, but right now he has trouble staying on the court because of foul trouble and when that happens, UALR struggles to rebound the basketball. Not much inside depth. Courtney Jackson, although he’s improved, is not a good free throw shooter. Teams that can get the ball inside can do some damage against the Trojans.
OUTLOOK: When you watch them, there’s not much of a “wow”factor. But at the end of the night, they’ve got more points than the opponent. Shields and his staff have done a masterful job after a rough 3-10 start to the season. There’s not a lot of room for error with this team, but the good news for the Trojans is, they don’t err a whole lot. UALR must beware a potential quarterfinal matchup with Western Kentucky.
#3 DENVER PIONEERS (21-8, 11-5) Coach: Joe Scott (79-73) 5th season. Sun Belt Tournament Titles: None
STRENGTHS: Very good shooting team in all phases. More athletic than in years past, which makes them more dangerous than ever. Sophomore Chris Udofia has turned into one of the league’s best players and Royce O’Neale is the best freshman in the league not named Tony Mitchell. Veteran leadership from Brian Stafford, Rob Lewis and Justin Coughlin. Pattered offense can frustrate opponents, although this year they sometimes shoot more quickly, especially if Udofia can beat the opposition down court. Unselfish basketball team that has an assist on 68% of their field goals. Denver averages just 12 turnovers per game and has a great assist/turnover ratio.
WEAKNESSES: Pioneers struggle in close games, going 1-5 in games decided by five points or less. 2-3 matchup zone defense frequently leaves them in poor rebounding position. Denver can be hurt by point guards who can score the basketball. Although they had a winning record on the road this year, Denver isn’t quite the same team when they’re out of Magness Arena. Four of the five starters average over 30 minutes per game.
OUTLOOK: I’m still having trouble believing this team was picked fourth in the West by the coaches in the preseason. Denver is four seconds away from being 25-4 and with quality wins on their schedule, they’d be looking at a possible at-large berth. O’Neale and Brett Olson make them so much better than they’ve been in the past, and they’re both freshmen. Sun Belt fans should be really happy Denver is going to the WAC, because they’re just going to get better. And, this year, they just might be good enough. Their best path to the finals is to have UALR lose in the quarters. They don’t match up well with the Trojans.
#6 SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS (16-11). (8-8) Coach: Ronnie Arrow (205-155) 13th season. Sun Belt Tournament Titles (since 1992): 1997, 1998, 2006
STRENGTHS: Very solid inside game with last year’s Freshman of the Year Augustine Rubit leading the way. This team rebounds the basketball like no one else in the Sun Belt, and Javier Carter is the league’s best shot blocker. Freddie Goldstein is an outside shooting threat and freshman Mychal Ammons has become a solid player down the stretch, which has a lot to do with USA winning six of their last eight games. Good free throw shooting team.
WEAKNESSES: Look no further than the backcourt. South Alabama turns the ball over too much and doesn’t get enough turnovers. They have one of the leagues worst assist/turnover ratios. Not a lot of depth in that backcourt, either. Outside of Goldstein, no one on the perimeter really scares you as a shooter.
OUTLOOK: This team had to adjust to the loss of Xavier Roberson after nine games and the adjustment period wasn’t pretty. USA’s inside game has carried them all year and to get very far in the tournament, they’re going to have to get some help from their guards. If they take care of Troy, Denver would be next and the Pioneers beat the Jags by 17 in Mobile. But that was when USA was playing poorly. If they get their shot at the Pios, we’ll see just how much better the Jags have gotten.
#7 WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (11-18. 7-9) Coach: Ray Harper (6-7) 1st season. Sun Belt Tournament Championships (since 1992): 1993, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2009
STRENGTHS: A very talented freshman class that just keeps getting better. Derrick Gordon is an All-Conference player as a freshman, and George Fant might be the league’s most improved player since the beginning of the season. Considering their youth, WKU does a good job of not turning the ball over. Very good free throw shooting team, especially the second half of the season. Team has a renewed enthusiasm since making coaching change in January. Seniors Khalil McDonald and Jamal Crook keep the freshmen grounded.
WEAKNESSES: Fact of the matter is, WKU doesn’t shoot it very well. They’re under 40% in league play and barely 30% from beyond the arc. Not a great rebounding team, although they’ve gotten better as Fant has improved. As you might expect with so many freshmen, they’re pretty inconsistent, adding credence to the old saying “Youth will be served….sometimes as the main course.”
OUTLOOK: No question they’ve gotten better since Ray Harper took over as head coach. And, they’ve gotten a big lift from a renewed fan base down the stretch. This is still, however a team with a lot of holes and only time is going to cure that. WKU, even under Harper, hasn’t had much success this year away from Diddle Arena. They’ve got a tough first game against a very talented FIU team. If they get past that one, they’re a pretty decent matchup against UALR, who they beat during the regular season. This program won’t be down long. There’s too much young talent for that to happen.
#10 FIU PANTHERS (8-20. 5-11) Coach: Isiah Thomas (26-65) 3rd season. Sun Belt Tournament Titles: None
STRENGTHS: Solid backcourt with Phil Taylor and Jeremy Allen, both of whom can shoot it. DeJuan Wright missed seven games, but healthy, might be the league’s toughest matchup. He can play on the perimeter, but can post up inside against players his size and is the best “undersized” rebounder in the league. Dominque Ferguson is very capable inside, although his numbers aren’t as good as they should be. Very good free throw shooting team, except for Ferguson.
WEAKNESSES: Incredibly inconsistent team who is capable of beating just about any team in the league…or losing by 20. Team plays way too much one-on-one basketball. Assist/turnover ratio is the league’s worst. Poor defenders force them to play a 2-3 zone most of the time and they aren’t real good at it. Despite having good size, not a great rebounding team, although Wright, now healthy, helps out considerably.
OUTLOOK: When Isiah Thomas was hired, most people believed the talent level at FIU would increase considerably…and it has. But the results have not. This team sometimes looks like they haven’t been coached at all. Thomas still hasn’t learned that you can’t use an NBA approach to college basketball. But, as Denver learned last year at the tournament, this is, on any given night, a dangerous team.
#11 TROY TROJANS (10-17, 5-11) Coach: Don Maestri (495-374) 30th season. Sun Belt Tournament Championships: None
STRENGTHS: As always, multiple perimeter players capable of making the three-point shot. Team has a positive assist/turnover ratio and doesn’t turn it over a lot. Most of the team shoots well from the free throw line. Will Weathers averages nearly six assists per game, and Emil Jones can score and rebound.
WEAKNESSES: Team doesn’t defend well. Not a very big team, except for Tim Owens and teams with good inside games that can penetrate their zone can have success. Not a good rebounding team. Team doesn’t force many turnovers.
OUTLOOK: Troy is Troy. And, on any given night, if they’re really shooting it, they can break your heart. This team has lots of deficiencies, but double digit three pointers can cover up a lot of sins. Troy’s first opponent is South Alabama and it’s not a good matchup for Don Maestri’s squad because of USA’s inside game. If they’re going to advance, they’d better be shooting it well.