Undoubtedly, the story of the Sun Belt's offseason was Isiah Thomas' arrival in Miami, where the former Detroit Pistons point guard and New York Knicks head coach takes over a struggling Florida International program. In just about his first act as coach, Thomas threatened to pull the Golden Panthers out of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, after the tournament's organizer, the Gazelle Group, scheduled FIU to play North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thomas wanted his team to play at Ohio State instead. Things were eventually smoothed out, which means that FIU will remain host of the "subregional" round, featuring four of the non-major participants in the tournament.
Outside of the circus in South Florida, the other big story to watch in the league this year is whether anyone will seriously challenge Western Kentucky for the league crown. Demetri Goodson took a second straight Sweet 16 from right under the Hilltoppers' noses, and Ken McDonald's 2009-10 outfit, featuring most of those performers, will still be a prohibitive favorite, even if they are a bit thinner this season. An earlier indicator of the 'Toppers chances will be the NIT Season Tip-Off. WKU has been placed in the South region in Baton Rouge. If they can get by Horizon contender Milwaukee, they could face an LSU side that's significantly weaker than last year's tournament squad. The winner of that contest books their ticket to New York. Even if the Hilltoppers don't make the semifinals, as the fifth seeded team in the competition, they'll host one of the consolation rounds in Bowling Green.
Additionally, for the second straight year, the conference has put itself in the early season showcase business. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky will host the second ever Sun Belt Classic in Nashville. The Blue Raiders will take on Tennessee there, while the Hilltoppers will face Vanderbilt.
More on the rest of the conference after the jump.
Let's first take a look at last season's Sun Belt standings.
Sun Belt Conference Standings
(updated 3.22.2009 at 12:14 AM EDT)
|Western Kentucky Hilltoppers||15||3||25||9|
|South Alabama Jaguars||10||8||20||13|
|Middle Tenn. St. Blue Raiders||10||8||18||14|
|Fla. International Golden Panthers||7||11||13||20|
|Florida Atlantic Owls||2||16||6||26|
Now, here are my picks for 2009-10, presented in reverse order, starting with the West Division.
New Orleans (last NCAA: 1996) The Privateers are one of the many teams in this conference who struggle away from home, as they went winless in conference road games last season. They managed to win six at home; however, UNO will struggle to improve that their three returning starters aren't scorers. 6-10 Czech center Jaroslav Tyrna, is the leading returning scorer, and he only averaged 6.5 points per contest. Joe Pasternack will have to find someone to replace swingman Kendall Dykes (17.3 ppg) and forward T.J. Worley (16 ppg), along with point guard Darrian McKinstry, who was kicked off team after being suspended three times last season. Pasternack may have to lean heavily on 3-star recruit Jacolby Pittman, a 6-10 F/C, and fellow freshman Devin McDonald, a 6-1 guard, along with 6-3 Georgia transfer Billy Humphrey.
Arkansas State (last NCAA: 1999) John Brady's team struggled at the end of last season, as they dropped 10 in a row. They also only won once in the Sun Belt away from Jonesboro, and that was against Denver. The Red Wolves had enough defense and rebounding, but struggled to score. These are all things that may not change this time around. Brady obtains the service of Oklahoma State transfer Martavius Adams, a 6-8 forward, and he'll be called on to replace F Eric McKinney, a stout defender who averaged 8.6 points and 6.1 points a game. Brady also welcomes back 6-5 G Donald Boone, the team's leading returning scorer, averaging 13.6 a contest, and 6-7 F JeJuan Brown (7.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg). 6-2 guard Trey Finn will come off a redshirt year to join Boone in backcourt, while Daniel Bryant, a 5-10 sophomore who averaged nearly 7 points and a little more than 2 assists a game, could be drafted to play point.
Louisiana-Monroe (last NCAA: 1996) The good news for Orlando Early is that he gets all five starters back from last season. The bad news is that those starters only managed to win 10 times in 2008-09, six times in the Sun Belt, and twice in league away games. However, the Warhawks could improve significantly, as Early also gets guard Tony Hooper back. He was granted a fifth year of eligibility after he missed the bulk of last season because of injury. That means five Warhawks averaged in double-figures last time they played: 6-6 G/F Malcolm Thomas (12.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg), 6-7 F Lawrence Gilbert (10.9 ppg), 6-8 F Rudy Turner (10.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg), 6-2 reserve guard Dynile Forbes (11 ppg), and Hooper (15.1 ppg in 07-08). 5-8 PG Kenneth Averette (6.1 ppg, 3.2 apg) should join Hooper in the backcourt to run ULM's offense.
Louisiana-Lafayette (last NCAA: 2005) The Ragin' Cajuns were yet another bad Sun Belt road team last year, winning only once on their travels (at Troy!). They managed this with five returning starters. This time around, Robert Lee has four returning starters, with only center Jeremy Barr gone (5.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg). Next year, Louisiana-Lafayette will be probably be down to three returning starters, as two seniors feature this time around, 5-10 guard Randell Daigle (11.3 ppg) and 6-8 forward Tyren Johnson (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg). The two returning juniors are the Cajuns leading scorers, 6-7 guards Chris Gradnigo (13.3 ppg) and Travis Bureau (12.4 ppg. 4.3 rpg) Lee gets another 6-7 player back, forward LaRyan Gary (6.9 ppg. 4 rpg) who is coming off knee injury. In the backcourt, Ryan McCoy (7.3 ppg, 2.1 apg) is a key performer off the bench.
Arkansas-Little Rock (last NCAA: 1990) Steve Shields' squad won the West Division and won 20 games for the second year in a row, but the Trojans could have done so much more. Unfortunately, the team fell apart after point guard Steven Moore was dismissed in late February, culminating in a loss to South Alabama in the Sun Belt semis, a game where UALR had a bit of a homecourt advantage. The two players who fell immediately behind Moore on the team's scoring chart, F Shane Edwards (11.8 ppg) and G John Fowler (10.5)--also a key defensive player, are also gone, as is 6-6 G Brandon Patterson (6 ppg, 4 rpg). Arkansas native and South Florida transfer Soloman Bozeman, a 6-foot guard, will be Moore's full-time replacement. Matt Mouzy, who averaged more than 10 points per contest last year, will have to increase his scoring output, but he is another good defender for Shields. The Trojans need 6-7 Mike Smith (7.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) to develop into more of a frontcourt force, as last year's lone returning frontcourt starter, 6-8 Wayne Burton (3.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) is offensively limited.
Denver (last NCAA: None) The only team in the Sun Belt to have never made the NCAA Basketball Tournament could rid itself of that title this season. (Now, for hockey, it's a completely different story.) Joe Scott's Princeton offense is really taking root in the Mile High City, and the Pioneers seem to have put their road woes behind them. DU won two straight road games at the end of the regular season, ending a drought that began after a February 11, 2006 win at Middle Tennessee. Scott's team features all five starters from a year ago, led by 6-5 G/F Nate Rohnert (15.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.7 apg), a serious threat for SBC Player of the Year, 6-7 F Rob Lewis (12.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg), 6-3 G Brian Stafford (11.4 ppg). Plus, 6-9 forward Andrew Hooper actually led the Sun Belt three-point percentage, nailing 46.6 percent of his attempts as he averaged a little more than 9 points per contest. The Pioneers were as solid on both offense (47.9 team FG percentage) and defense (top 25 in the nation in scoring defense), as you'd expect a Princeton-style team to be.
North Texas (last NCAA: 2007) The Pioneers' main stumbling block to the West Division crown is a team based in Denton, Texas that also returns all five starters. The Mean Green seek a return to the NCAAs after a two year absence, while picking up their fourth straight 20-win season. Four of Johnny Jones' returning starters averaged in double figures last time around. 6-7 F Eric Tramiel (12 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is another serious contender for Sun Belt POY. 6-5 guard Tristan Thompson, 5-10 point guard Dominique Johnson (3.8 apg), and 5-10 guard Josh White all averaged more than 11 a contest, with White being nearly automatic from the foul line (90.6 FT%), Inside, 6-8 George Odufwa is a monster on the boards, grabbing nearly 7 a game, to go along with 6-plus point. The Mean Green also get back 6-4 guard Collin Mangrum, who has struggled with injuries over the past two years. The two senior starters, Tramiel and Johnson want to go out on top, and they may have the supporting cast to do it.
Florida International (last NCAA: 1995) Isiah Thomas should be in for some rough sledding in his first year at the helm of the Golden Panthers. FIU's leading scorers of a year ago, forward Alex Galindo (14.4 ppg) and center Freddy Asprilla (13.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg) are both gone. Guards Michael Dominguez and Josue Soto, who also averaged around 10 points a contest are also gone. That means 6-9 forward Nikola Gacesa is the lone remaining starter for FIU. As you'd expect of a team hit by sudden departures, Thomas' first recruiting class heavy on JC transfers, but he does gain the services of 6-2 Temple transfer Martavis Kee.
Florida Atlantic (last NCAA: 2002) Mike Jarvis begins his second season in Boca Raton completely overshadowed by Isiah Thomas' arrival at archrival FIU. The Owls were terrible last season without Xavier Perkins (academics) and Carlos Monroe, who did manage to average 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds a game despite dealing with foot and eligibility problems. And they may not be much better this season, as they only return two starters, 6-8 forward Brett Royster (7.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and 5-11 point guard Alex Tucker (6.1 ppg, 4.8 apg). Jarvis will be expecting big things out of 6-2 sophomore Shavar Richardson, who averaged almost 12 points and four boards a game from the bench. He has a great chance to fill the void left by Paul Graham III's (18.5 ppg) graduation. Jarvis' team will be young, as he brought in seven freshmen and only one JC transfer this offseason.
Middle Tennessee (last NCAA: 1989) Kermit Davis was forced to start four guards last year after 6-10 center Theryn Hudson injured his foot. Hudson is back, but three of the guards are gone, with the graduation of MT's all-time assist leader, Kevin Kanaskie (3.8 apg), being the most painful. Last year's SBC Preseason Player of the Year, Desmond Yates, is the key returnee. He should move back to his natural position, power forward, thanks to Hudson's return. Yates averaged over 17 points and 4.5 boards a contest last time around. Davis will expect JC transfers Rod Emmanuel (6-2) and James Washington (6-0) to fill the holes in the backcourt. 6-4 guard Calvin O'Neil should also see more action this season, as he averaged 5.6 ppg and 3.7 rpg in '08-09.
South Alabama (last NCAA: 2008) Ronnie Arrow's team won 20 games last year, and made it to the Sun Belt championship game, but the season had to feel like a disappointment for Jaguars fans. USA may struggle to win 20 again, as Arrow returns only one starter, 6-5 guard LaShun Watson, who only averaged 7 points a contest. However, 6-0 point guard Bryan Sherrer did take on a starting role late in the season (5.3 ppg, 1.6 apg overall). 6-7 G/F Gary Redus joins the Jaguars from Centenary, where he averaged 12 points and 3.4 boards a game last year. (He's eligible immediately as the Gents' announced their move to D-III this offseason. Otherwise, Arrow will again lean on JC transfers, including Allyn Cooks, Raymond Sims, Bacari Moulton, Tim Williams (Moulton and Williams both averaged over 21 a game last year), Brandon Noble, and Adrian Sims to fill the void left by the graduation of Domonic Tilford, Brandon Davis, and DeAndre Coleman.
Troy (last NCAA: 2003) The Trojans will be a serious threat to Western Kentucky's reign atop the East Division, as they bring back four starters from team that won 14 league games and earned a CBI home game last year The only starter gone is 7-foot center Tom Jervis (6.7 ppg. 6.5 rpg), but 6-9 Alabama transfer Yamene Coleman will step in to replace him. The four returning starters for Don Maestri are all seniors, led by All-Sun Belt selection Brandon Hazzard, a pure scorer who averaged 16.2 ppg, while finishing as the nation's seventh best 3-point shooter, converting nearly 45 percent of his attempts. Richard Delk, who started his career at Mississippi State is another dangerous scorer, averaging nearly 14 points a contest. Point guard Michael Vogler is responsible for getting them the ball, and he did a great job last season, averaging nearly 6 assists a game and over 10 points. 6-6 Antywan Jones averaged 4.5 points and almost 3 boards a game in the frontcourt, which will be bolstered by the return of 6-8 junior Trayce Macon who returns after a year off (7.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg in '07-08).
Western Kentucky (last NCAA: 2009) Ken McDonald very nearly got the Hilltoppers where Darrin Horn led them before his departure for South Carolina, but a last second loss to Gonzaga kept WKU from traveling to Memphis for the South Regional. The 'Toppers will miss Sun Belt Player of the Year Orlando Mendez-Valdez (14.2 ppg, 4.1 apg), but the other four starters return, including 6-3 senior A.J. Slaughter (16 ppg, 3.6 apg), 6-5 junior swingmen Sergio Kerusch (11.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Steffphon Pettigrew (12.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg), and 6-9 F Jeremy Evans (8.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg) McDonald won't have the deepest team; however, especially with recruits Terrence Boyd, who would've provided substantial backcourt support, and David Laury dismissed from the team.
Despite their depth issues, I'm picking Western Kentucky to win yet another Sun Belt title, so they'll take the league's auto bid in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9. To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-SBC team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-Sun Belt Team
Player of the Year: A.J. Slaughter, 6-3 G, Sr. (Western Kentucky)
Remainder of the Team
Brandon Hazzard, 6-2 G, Sr. (Troy)
Nate Rohnert, 6-5 G/F, Sr. (Denver)
Eric Tramiel, 6-7 F, Sr. (North Texas)
Desmond Yates, 6-7 F, Sr. (Middle Tennesee)