Who Will Challenge UTA? (Part One) – From the Bird’s Nest
It's time for Sun Belt play to begin and already it looks as though the final standings won't come close to mirroring the Sun Belt Coaches' Poll.
Which isn't anything new. Preseason polls are just that.
But the one thing that non conference play has taught us is, the team picked first is the team to beat.
Over the next two days we'll take a look at what the teams have done so far as we head into league play. Today: Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. RPI figures are from the NCAA website as of Wednesday morning.
UTA (10-3) RPI: 21-- BEST WIN: at then #12 St. Mary's (CA) WORST LOSS: at Florida Gulf Coast. Streak W9.
The Mavericks started 1-3 and have since won nine in a row. Most impressive is the fact six wins have come on opponents' home courts. They've played only four games at the College Park Center. The players' names are familiar. UTA has only two (Kevin Hervey, Jalen Jones) who average in double figures, but have six players who average seven points or more. Erick Neal is already closing in on 100 assists. As always, the Mavs aren't afraid to shoot it long range and they've got plenty of guys who are capable. 43% of their shots come from behind the arc. They've done nothing to make anyone believe they aren't the cream of the crop in the league.
TEXAS STATE: (7-5) RPI 303--BEST WIN: vs. Florida Atlantic WORST LOSS: at UT Rio Grande Valley. Streak W2
As expected, Kavin Gilder-Tilbury is leading this team in scoring. He's become a more consistent player and a better outside shooter during his career. Newcomer Nijal Pearson is the other double figure scorer and leads the team in rebounding. It's a typical Danny Kaspar club, with a motion offense that makes you play good defense and a team that's going to keep the score in the sixties if they can. This team was picked at the bottom of the league for this year and despite a winning record entering league play, this team is going to struggle to win games the rest of the way, although they'll always be a tough out at Strachan Coliseum.
LITTLE ROCK (9-4) RPI 227--BEST WIN: Tulsa WORST LOSS: Idaho. Streak L2
Marcus Johnson, Jr. was one of the best shooters in the league last year and he's one of five double digit scorers for this team. The five names are familiar ones. Jalen Jackson is really athletic and Lis Shoshi is a force in the post. He can shoot and he can rebound. Kemy Osse has been the best three point shooter and the Trojans shoot it well as a team (36%). This isn't a particularly deep team and, while they are a veteran club, there's no replacing Josh Hagins who put this team on his back down the stretch last season and was always "the man" in crunch time. This team probably isn't as good overall defensively as they were a year ago as well. But they're always going to be tough to beat at home and they've got enough veterans who know what it's like to win on the road.
ARKANSAS STATE (9-4) RPI 44--BEST WIN: At Georgetown WORST LOSS at North Dakota State. Streak L2
With so many newcomers, the Red Wolves didn't get much support in the preseason poll, but it's a guards' league, and this team has a couple of really good, veteran guards. Devin Carter is second in the league in scoring and can really shoot it. Donte Thomas is among the league leaders in assists. New head coach Grand McCasland has recruited well and come up with a squad that may not shoot a ton of threes, but they make more than their share. This isn't a very big club and they don't have a lot of inside depth. They aren't afraid to go to a four guard offense and that can cause matchup problems for the opposition. They'll turn it over some and they have to rebound by committee, but their perimeter defense has been terrific. Their leadership has enabled them to win away from home; they've only had four games at the Convo this season.
LOUISIANA (10-3) RPI: 139--BEST WIN: Louisiana Tech, WORST LOSS: at Montana State: Streak W2
They've played what Coach Bob Marlin calls a "favorable schedule." They've had seven home games and two of the teams on the schedule (James Madison, Pepperdine) aren't nearly as good as advertised. Bryce Washington leads the nation in double doubles and as a result, the Cajuns are showing there is life after Shawn Long. Their only senior, Jay Wright, has elevated his game and become a reliable scorer to go along with being one of the league's premier perimeter defenders. Newcomer Frank Bartley IV carried this team early but has slumped a bit of late. Marlin plays five freshmen, with two in the starting lineup. The Cajuns play fast and get to the free throw line like no one else in the league. But the competition is going to amp up. Can the Cajuns do the same?
ULM (5-7) RPI 301--BEST WIN: Stephen F. Austin WORST LOSS: vs. Bryant Streak L1 (plays Grambling State tonight).
This team is counting on more new players than any other in the league. Travis Munnings, who was great as a freshman a year ago, is second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding. Newcomer Sam McDaniel is the top scorer and second leading rebounder. Four year starter Nick Coppola doesn't get nearly enough credit for his abilities. He's shooting it more this year and having some success. His 61/19 assist/turnover ratio is solid. They don't turn it over a lot, but they don't force many, either. Opponents get to the free throw line a lot more than they do. It's a club that hasn't come together yet but there's still time. And, you know Keith Richard will have them playing hard, tough defense.
Tomorrow we'll look at Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.