The Sun Belt Conference Mens’ Basketball Tournament begins Thursday at the UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.  Here is my preview of Bracket #2.

#2 seed—WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (20-11. 12-6)  Coach:  Ray Harper (3rd season)

STRENGTHS—Veteran inside/outside combination with juniors George Fant and T. J. Price.  Fant is a tough matchup because of his quick feet and is a good rebounder.  Price is one of those player who scores quietly until you really need a bucket, then he makes some noise.  Good depth with interchangeable parts with Brandon Harris and Chris Harrison-Docks, along with Trency Jackson and Caden Dickerson.  O’Karo Akumane and Aaron Adeoye are physical players inside.  Harper will substitute freely in order to keep his players fresh to play hard on the defensive end.  Hard-nosed, physical basketball team.  Most of the team is capable of making the three point shot.  They’re the two time defending tournament champions.  They’re battle tested and ready.

WEAKNESSES—Hilltoppers take plenty of three point shots (43rd in the nation), but are just 207th in three point percentage.  Outside of Harrison-Docks and Price, they can be pretty brutal from the free throw line on any given night, and Fant in particular can struggle from there. Fant has a propensity to get into foul trouble and it hurts the Toppers’ offensive game when that happens.  Team turns it over more than Harper would like.  No consistent third scoring option, although several have stepped up on any given night.

INJURIES—Their inside and outside depth is hurt by the loss of Alex Rostov and Kevin Kaspar.  Both played a lot of minutes for the Hilltoppers.

OUTLOOK:  Even without the two injured players, this is still a solid basketball team.  Defense and rebounding is usually what they’re all about.  If one of those breaks down, they either need to shoot it better from the perimeter or make free throws.  They’re potentially vulnerable to a really good rebounding team.  If the seeds hold, the semifinal against Louisiana could be the game of the tournament.


#3 LOUISIANA RAGIN’ CAJUNS (20-11, 11-7)  Coach:  Bob Marlin (4th season)

STRENGTHS:  Elfrid Payton is the best player in the Sun Belt Conference.  Period.  He’s in the top five in scoring, leads the league in steals and assists and is in the top ten in field goal percentage and top 15 in rebounding.  He creates his own shot and gets to the rim faster than anyone in this league.  Shawn Long can be a beast inside.  He’s a very good rebounder on both ends of the floor, can score inside and is shooting more than 45 percent from three point range.  You’d better send your big guy out to cover him on the perimeter.  The other Cajuns’ guards, Mbamalu, Rimmer, Brown and Register can all shoot it.  Elridge Moore is undersized, but he’ll guard you.  Cajuns have done a good job defending the three point line this year.

WEAKNESSES:  Not much inside depth.  Both Moore and Steven Wronkoski are natural small forwards playing the power position.  Other than J. J. Davenport, no one over 6’6 plays much off the bench.  Payton is not a good percentage free throw shooter, although he gets to the line more than almost any player in America.  Cajuns shoot just 67%, but they’ve gotten to the line more than 100 times more than anyone in the league.  Sometimes guards pay so much attention to the three point line that they’re susceptible to the dribble drive.  Long is a great shot blocker, but post men with quickness give him trouble.  Long can be prone to foul trouble and the Cajuns struggle offensively and rebounding if has to spend too much time on the bench.

INJURIES:  Mbamalu missed the first twelve games but is 100%.  Quick, sharpshooting guard Kasey Shepherd is out for the season with a knee injury.  He was leading the league in three point percentage when he went down.

OUTLOOK:  This team is undefeated this year when they outshoot their opponents.  They have to make their share of perimeter shots.  Everyone thinks Payton is the key to the team, but actually it’s Long.  When he’s able to stay on the court, it creates and inside/outside combination that can be lethal, and teams rarely outrebound the Cajuns if Long isn’t spending time on the bench.  This team is playing as well as anyone right now, with eight wins in their last ten games, with losses by three points each at Georgia State and WKU the only blemishes.  If Long stays out of foul trouble and the Cajuns get a consistent third scorer, they just might play on Sunday.  But they have to make sure they’re focused on their quarterfinal opponent.

#6 UT ARLINGTON MAVERICKS (14-16, 9-9)  Coach:  Scott Cross (9th season)

STRENGTHS:  Excellent guard play with the Sun Belt leading scorer Reger Dowell and the ultra-quick Lonnie McClanahan.  Dowell is more apt to shoot the three, but both are very good going to the basket and both get to the free throw line and are good from there.  Shaquille White-Miller is a solid player at the point and Jamel Outler can flat out shoot it.  Brandon Edwards can put up some really good numbers if you don’t pay attention to him.  He’s a tough guard because he’s quick and can get to the free throw line, where he shoots 80%. This team loves the uptempo game and usually does a good job getting you to play faster than you want to.

WEAKNESSES:  This team scores a lot of points, but they give up a bunch as well.  I don’t think they’re particularly good defensively.  You can usually get a good shot on your possessions, especially if you’re willing to make the extra pass.  Outside of Edwards, this team doesn’t rebound the ball that well.  Can be turnover prone, especially when they get out of control and try to go too fast.

OUTLOOK:  This can be a dangerous basketball team when they’re playing well.  Leads aren’t safe with them because they’re capable of scoring a lot in a little bit of time.  What hurts them is they don’t get enough defensive stops.  To win, they need to take good shots and they need to make them.  Keeping Edwards in the game to rebound is absolutely paramount.  If they advance past ULM this is a team the upper seeds better not overlook.

 UL MONROE WARHAWKS (10-16, 7-11)  Coach:  Keith Richard  (4th season)

STRENGTHS:  Very athletic starting lineup with Jayon James, Tylor Ongwae and Marvin Williams on the front line.  Nick Coppola is an iron man at the point and he’s just a freshman.  He’s averaging 36 minutes a game in Sun Belt Play.  Ongwae can hurt you from anywhere on the court.  James is a tough matchup because he can handle the ball and leads the team in assists playing small forward.  The Warhawks have a deep bench and Richard isn’t afraid to use them.  Playing hard and playing good defense has always been a Richard staple.  This team plays hard and on any given night, can give your offense fits.  They are a much better rebounding team than they have been the last few years, although the loss of Amos Olatayo really hurts them in that department.

WEAKNESSES:  Warhawks don’t get a lot of scoring from the guard position.  They don’t take a lot of three point shots and that’s probably a good thing, because no one is really consistent in making them.  Biggest problem is they don’t shoot it that well from inside the arc, either. No one on this team is what you’d call a dangerous scorer except for Ongwae.  Williams is a good, physical player inside, but he’s one of the few bulky guys on this team and if he’s in foul trouble, Warhawks can really be hurt inside.  Frankly, they’re pretty brutal from the free throw line, with exception of Ongwae.

INJURIES:  Amos Olatayo went down with a knee injury and, no pun intended, really crippled this team.  He could score, he could slash to the basket and was a very good offensive rebounder.

OUTLOOK:  Richard took over a program that had been brutalized because of APR issues.  He was told to clean the program up, starting with academics and he’s done that.  Now, after three years of sanctions that weren’t his fault, he actually had a full compliment of scholarships and this team is much better than anyone thought they would be.  The Warhawks may not have the talent to win, but they can frustrate you with their pesky defense and have a chance to surprise you if they get the game at their tempo.  Richard has gotten this team a LOT better.  They aren’t ready yet, but they’ve made it to the top eight and they think now, anything can happen.

BRACKET OVERVIEW:  Recently in the Sun Belt Tournament, someone jumps up and spoils the party.  That team could be UTA.  They’re a dangerous bunch.  But if you ask anyone who follows this league that isn’t from Arlington, they’re hoping for a UL-WKU battle in the semis.  They way those two teams are playing, it might happen.  And, it will be a fitting end to a very intense Sun Belt rivalry