Thursday, October 18, 2012

Conference Calling's 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 Sun Belt Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9.


The Sun Belt became a much more compelling basketball league when former Missouri recruit Tony Mitchell landed at North Texas, and speculation ran rampant over how he would produce in his new league.

He didn't disappoint.

The disappointment came in the conference tournament, where Middle Tennessee stumbled after the greatest season in the program's history. The NIT quarterfinal berth, victory over Tennessee and all, was a cold consolation after a 25-win season featuring wins over UCLA, Belmont and Ole Miss.

Aside from MTSU and North Texas, though, is there anyone else qualified to win this conference?


Yeah, read on after the jump.

West Division:
1. North Texas
--The Mean Green are widely considered the Tony Mitchell Show, and that's an easy concept to grasp. If Mitchell had appeared in one more game, he would have led the league in rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage, while also ranking third in scoring. The bottom line is that Mitchell is the most dominant player the league has seen in decades, and we may not have seen him at his best yet.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!!!! #billymays

The Mean Green backcourt is a five-headed monster, and all of those heads averaged at least 8.2 PPG last season. Sophomores Chris Jones and Jordan Williams missed the second half of the season with academic issues, and North Texas went 7-3 in the 10 games they played with Mitchell. Jones ended up third in the league in assists and second in steals. And also in turnovers per game, but that's another story.

Junior Alzee Williams and senior Brandan Walton took over the starting positions and may well keep them. Williams is a skilled penetrator and Walton is the team's top three-point shooter. The problem is that Walton may be the team's only three-point shooter.

Swingman Roger Franklin carded four double-doubles on the season and ranked second on the team in rebounding, behind only Mitchell.

Up front, the most important player aside from Mitchell may be a transfer who averaged eight PPG in junior college last season. Mitchell frequently had to play out of position at center because UNT didn't really have another qualified big man. Enter 250-pound Keith Coleman. Coleman is a former three-star prospect with the bulk to stay immovable against any big man in the Sun Belt. His presence may be the one thing that can hold down Mitchell's rebounding numbers, especially since he allows Mitchell to play away from the basket more often.

There's more frontcourt depth this season, with seniors Jacob Holmen and Niko Stojiljkovic joined by Grambling transfer Justin Patton. Patton was a 13-and-7 man at Grambling, leading the SWAC in rebounding in the process.

New UNT coach Tony Benford has inherited a better roster than nearly any new coach in America, with the possible exception of Bruce Weber at Kansas State. Anyone else getting into the NCAA tournament might be a major upset.

2. Arkansas State
--ASU may be the only team in the Sun Belt whose backcourt can hang with North Texas. Junior Ed Townsel and seniors Trey Finn and Marcus Hooten combined to knock down 149 threes last season and score 33 PPG.

Finn in particular was an underexposed success story last season. His 128.3 offensive efficiency ranked ninth in America, according to In a simpler metric, he paced the SBC with a .459 three-point percentage. The Red Wolves' biggest game of the season was a good one for Finn, as he dropped 16 points and seven boards in the tournament upset of MTSU.

Hooten is a more conventional slashing guard, putting up more shot attempts than any player in the league but not living and dying with the three-pointer. Hooten produced four 20-point games, including one against North Texas in January.

Point guard Townsel may struggle to keep his job after a season in which he finished second in the league in steals and ninth in assists, but recorded three more turnovers than dimes. Freshman Cameron Golden averaged 17 points, six assists and four steals last season and is much more of a scorer than Townsel. Golden can occasionally struggle to involve his teammates, but if he learns to distribute and can keep from turning it over three times a game, the job should be his sooner than later.

The frontcourt is anchored by senior Brandon Peterson, who finished third in the league in rebounding. A 9-and-8 player last season, a double-double average is far from out of the question. He doesn't victimize defenders frequently by scoring over them, but he certainly draws large quantities of contact. He scored nearly a third of his points from the foul line, attempting 153 free throws in all.

The problem is finding Peterson some help. Houston transfer Kendrick Washington is eligible this season, and the last time he played, he averaged nearly 8-and-5. Like Peterson, he loves to draw contact. His .610 free throw rate was only a few points short of Peterson's.

Freshmen Kelvin Downs and Kristopher Brown are both north of 230 pounds, and so is 6'5", 240-pound sophomore Darion Griswold. Griswold shot 61% from the floor, the best percentage on the team. Griswold and at least one of the newcomers need to produce to give Peterson an occasional rest.

3. Arkansas-Little Rock
--Unlike the Mean Green and Red Wolves, the Trojans don't have a color in their name. Also unlike those other two teams, UALR's backcourt is in shambles. Luckily, there's some solid talent in the frontcourt.

All-conference candidate Will Neighbour (6'10", 210) is the conference's top stretch four. He drained 41 percent from deep, but failed to make 40% from inside the arc. He'll need to improve his mid-range scoring to truly help his team toward the conference title. It didn't help that he injured his shoulder right after a pair of back-to-back 20-point conference games in February. A healthy Neighbour might crash a lot of Sun Belt parties this season.

Another 6'10" player, sophomore Michael Javes, is a decent rebounder and one of the Belt's top shot-swatters (1.5 per game), but did more harm than good offensively. Javes recorded an ugly .423 TS% last year.

Sophomore wing Taggart Lockhart is the next-most experienced frontcourt player, and he was nearly invisible the last month of the season. Lockhart had a couple of double-figure non-conference games, but totaled 12 points in the season's final 12 games. He did rip six rebounds in the conference tournament loss to Western Kentucky.

The rest of the frontcourt is comprised of a redshirt sophomore who missed last season, a redshirt freshman, a juco transfer and two true freshmen. 280-pound freshman Andrew Poulter's bulk would come in handy, as would a healthy return from 250-pound Gus Leeper. Another freshman, 6'5" Stetson Billings, is a pure shooter may swing into the backcourt.

The backcourt could use some pure shooters. Sophomore Ben Dillard's 14 MPG last season sums up the total experience of the entire backcourt. Dillard had five double-figure nights in conference play and is a capable shooter from the arc and foul line. Beyond him, though, you can't tell the guards without a program.

Five more freshmen and two more juco imports comprise the rest of the backcourt. Freshmen John Gillom, who shared a backcourt with Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon, and Josh Hagins, who averaged nearly 15-7-7 over his last two high school seasons, will battle at the point. Dillard will be pushed at the two by 6'7" swingman Mareik Isom and 6'5" Leroy Isler. Isom's length may make him a candidate at forward, as well.

4. Louisiana
--Another team struggling with inexperience will be the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns. The team returns a total of 37 starts out of a possible 160. All told, ULL retained only about 27% of last year's scoring.

Junior forward Bryant Mbamalu and sophomore point guard Elfrid Payton are the top returning producers. Mbamalu had his moments, lighting North Texas for 19 points and Troy for 27, but he'll have to hit double digits every night for the Cajuns to compete most nights.

Payton dished 97 assists, but chased them with 96 turnovers. Not a tremendous scorer, he may get pushed hard by freshman Kasey Shepherd and Tulane transfer Kevin Brown. Payton has to hope that an offseason eye exam aids his shooting stroke. (Seriously.)

The team's only senior, and only other returnee, is guard Alan-Michael Thompson, who played only 10 MPG last season. Thompson scored 14 on UALR in January and 11 in the CIT against Rice, but expecting that kind of production on a regular basis may be overly optimistic.

Shepherd and Brown could also see time at two-guard, unless coach Bob Marlin is impressed with freshmen Josh Soto and Steven Wronkowski.

The most experienced D-I player among the new Cajuns is former Nicholls State forward Elridge Moore, who played 14 MPG as a freshman in 2010-11 before heading to a junior college. Redshirt freshman Shawn Long never played at Mississippi State, but his 6'9", 250-pound frame will get him into the lineup quickly. Freshmen Matt Moss and Cornell Barnett will compete for time at power forward, as well.

5. Louisiana-Monroe
--The good news for the ULM Warhawks is that this year's roster doesn't have a single senior on it. The bad news is that this year's roster doesn't have a single senior on it. After all, if this team doesn't perform better than last year's, fans won't want these players back and the school almost certainly will not invite coach Keith Richard back.

The lone returning starter is guard Charles Winborne, who finished second on the team in scoring at 11.2 PPG. He was the Sun Belt's third-most accurate three-point shooter, as well. The difficult part for Richard will be finding complementary scorers.

Junior Marcelis Hansberry caught fire during a five-game stretch in February, averaging 13.6 PPG on 53% shooting. Sophomore Trent Mackey shot 43% from deep, helping him card an eFG% of .574 and a TS% of .580. Between Winborne, Hansberry and Mackey, the hope is that they can shoot well enough to keep the Warhawks in some conference games.

Juco transfer Amos Olatayo started at Stephen F. Austin, so he has a little D-I experience. Freshmen Kyle Koszuta and Taylor Birchett may also compete for spots.

Sophomore Trey Lindsey is the lone returnee up front, unless we count Ife Eke, who played 16 minutes two years ago. (Perhaps we have to.) Lindsey has the ability to do the little things aside from scoring, evidenced by his interesting stat line against South Alabama last February: four points, four rebounds, five assists and five steals in 25 minutes. He can be a serviceable point-forward type, but don't expect 10 PPG.

Juco transfers Millaun Brown (6'7", 220) and Jayon James (6'6", 240) are as close as the Warhawks come to inside bulk. James posted a unique set of averages last season at Lamar State College, racking 7.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 5.9 APG. Brown also averaged between six and seven rebounds a night. The two will need to duplicate that kind of production if ULM intends to avoid getting blown off the boards.

East Division:
1. Middle Tennessee State
--The Blue Raiders may have been victims of their own success, as a loss in the meaningless regular-season finale segued directly into a lackluster effort in the conference tournament opener against Arkansas State. Now, MTSU faces the prospect of chasing a repeat without conference Player of the Year LaRon Dendy.

Backcourt trio Marcos Knight, Raymond Cintron and Bruce Massey all bring particular skills to the court that would form the perfect point guard if combined. Knight is the slasher who can crash the glass surprisingly well (5.2 RPG) for a 6'2" player. Cintron is the highly efficient shooter (.450/.432/.907) capable of scoring from any level. Massey is the creator, setting up teammates on offense (second in the league with 134 assists) and springing the ball loose on defense (third with 54 steals).

Frontcourt scoring will come from low-post threat J.T. Sulton and swingman Jason Jones. Jones was a 13-PPG man two years ago before scuffling through last season with nagging injuries. Sulton averaged 10-and-5 as Dendy's trusty sidekick, and could be capable of numbers in the vicinity of 15-7.

Junior Shawn Jones caddied for Dendy and Sulton last season, but this could be his year to step into the starting five. Jones' shot-blocking ability is a dimension that Sulton lacks, and the two together could be dominant on the glass. Juco transfer Neiko Hunter has Dendy-esque ability to score inside, shoot outside and crash the glass.

Backcourt depth is another strength, with 6'5" wing Kerry Hammonds capable of scoring at an efficient clip from anywhere (.657 eFG%) and juco import Trantell Knight possessing many of the same strengths as his brother Marcos.

MTSU has more than enough talent and depth to win the Sun Belt, but unfortunately, they were done in by the idiotic custom of giving a tournament winner the automatic NCAA bid. In the smaller leagues, more harm than good is done by making the regular-season champion run the same gauntlet as everyone else. A bye to the final for the regular-season champion would be a fitting reward, because as Western Kentucky proved, the entire season can be validated or erased by four days in March, and that's insanely unfair to a team like Middle, one that dominated its league all season.

2. Western Kentucky
--Speaking of WKU, the NCAA tournament's least deserving entrant at least got its young team some experience last year. That baptism will serve this year's squad well, but it won't be worth a fart in a hurricane if the Hilltoppers can't shoot better than 39% from the floor.

SBC Rookie of the Year Derrick Gordon is gone, headed to UMass, but the other four starters return. Shooting guard T.J. Price struggled to shoot consistently all season, but found his stroke in the NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky, dropping 21 on 6-of-11 shooting. Backcourt mate Jamal Crook is a fine distributor (2.7 APG), but took 60 more shots than anyone else on the team. Deferring to his teammates would help the offense function a bit more smoothly.

Forward George Fant and center Teeng Akol provide a strong inside duo. Fant was one of the league's top offensive rebounders and never backed down from a challenge, scoring 31 points in WKU's two meetings with North Texas. The lowlight, however, came when Fant fouled out in only 11 minutes against Denver.

Akol played only 17 MPG, but managed 1.4 blocks per game in that time. A sneaky shooter, the 6'11" Sudan native could bring his scoring average into double figures if he can earn starter's minutes.

Junior O'Karo Akamune averaged around five points and six rebounds in games where he played 15 minutes or more. Since he averaged 9.5 MPG on the season, the math should be clear. Sophomore Nigel Snipes established himself as an occasionally strong rebounder (three games of eight boards) and deadly foul shooter (84%). 6'10" freshman Aleksejs Rostov should back up Akol.

Freshman Eddie Alcantara, a three-star prospect according to Rivals, should battle for minutes as well.

In the backcourt, reserve minutes should be divvied between sophomore Kevin Kaspar and juco transfer Brandon Harris. Kaspar scored 15 against LSU, then followed with 13 points, three assists and four steals against VCU in the next game. He can provide some quick bench scoring. Harris was a 10-point/six-board man at Otero JC, and should contend at either guard position.

3. South Alabama
--The Jaguars spent their offseason in a manner similar to the way MTSU spent the summer of 2011: touring Canada. Not that the returning veterans need to get used to new roles, mind you. The Jags bring back six of their top seven scorers. What the tour did do, according to coach Ronnie Arrow, was to get newcomers up to speed and show the vets that their jobs could be in peril if their efforts flag this season.

USA's efforts begin with conference Player of the Year candidate Augustine Rubit. Rubit has averaged 14 and 10 through his first two seasons and was held to single-digit scoring only four times in 29 games last season. Rubit's low-post sidekick, senior Javier Carter, is the Sun Belt's most dangerous shot-blocker, swatting 2.7 per game last year.

Guards Freddie Goldstein, Mychal Ammons and Trey Anderson play roles similar to those of MTSU's backcourt trio. Ammons is the slasher and rebounding threat, ranking seventh in the league at 6.3 RPG. Goldstein is a more versatile version of Ray Cintron, knocking in 37% from deep but also adding 2.7 RPG and 2.6 APG. Team assist leader Anderson is a solid distributor and shaky scorer like Bruce Massey, but isn't the defensive hawk that Massey is.

The backcourt talent at USA is a major strength. Senior Xavier Roberson is back after suffering a foot injury eight games into last season. He was averaging nearly 10 PPG when he went down. Newcomers Dre Conner (Towson) and Antoine Allen (Miami) both started their careers at other D-I schools and have both been tipped as potential Newcomer of the Year winners. Conner attacks the basket (229 FTA last season) and Allen is the shooter (38% from deep).

Outside of Rubit and Carter, there's no frontcourt depth. Juco transfer Gregoryshon Magee is an athletic shot-blocking fiend and freshman Viktor Juricek is 6'10".

With all the backcourt talent, it'll be imperative that the Jaguars tighten up their perimeter defense, outside shooting and ball security.

Not many teams will want to test Carter, Magee and Rubit inside, so USA will get ample opportunity to contest three-point shots. South Alabama sat seventh in the Sun Belt in three-point defense last season and dead last in turnover margin by a large amount. The Jags were also last in three-pointers made. Of course, MTSU sat right in front of USA in that category and they did just fine.

4. Florida Atlantic
--Like so many other SBC teams, FAU's production is most concentrated in its backcourt. Senior Greg Gantt will finish the season on one of the all-conference teams, most likely the first one. Gantt was the only Owl to average double-figure points last season, pouring in at least 14 a game for the third straight season. He's capable of scoring from anywhere, and may challenge for the league crown this year.

Guards Omari Grier and Pablo Bertone provide able support for Gantt. Grier averaged 6.3 PPG in only 14.2 MPG last year, living outside the arc. Bertone scored in double figures in seven of the first 10 games, then largely disappeared until he dropped 20 on Troy in the regular-season finale.

Freshmen Cavon Baker, Jackson Trapp and Stefan Moody (a Parade All-American) will fight for minutes, and expect at least one of them to win over Bertone or Grier. Baker and Moody can both be the true point guard the team currently lacks.

Senior Jordan McCoy and sophomore Kelvin Penn are the only frontcourt returnees of any substance. McCoy has been a steady 5-and-4 man in his career, although he did up those averages to 7-and-6 over the final 11 games of last season. Penn makes his bones as a rebounder and shot blocker. Any offense out of him is pure gravy.

Freshman forward Chris Bryant should get the chance to start and excel from day one. The three-star prospect is a superb athlete and defensive playmaker. Two more 6'8" freshmen, Javier Lacunza and DeVonte Thornton, can be strong scorers with just a little more muscle. Baylor transfer Dragan Sekelja should be another Owl that excels on defense and on the glass.

Coach Mike Jarvis needs 17 wins to break the all-time FAU record. His prospects for getting those wins may be iffy unless Bryant and a couple of other newcomers excel immediately.

5. Troy
--The Troy Trojans are an exciting team to watch, unless you're a Trojan fan. Then, the games are about as gutwrenching as getting on a roller coaster right after Thanksgiving dinner. Troy's high tempo means they will score, but so will their opponents. The Trojans were one of America's worst defensive teams last year.

Only four of the top minute men return for coach Don Maestri. Guards Justin Wright and Emil Jones are both reliable double-figure scorers, and Jones also crashed the glass for nearly six RPG last season. Both are efficient enough offensively that they could crack 15 PPG if they're assertive enough.

Third guard R.J. Scott lives behind the arc, scoring more than two-thirds of his points from there last year. Juco imports Antoine Myers and Jeff Mullahey may figure in the rotation, as none of the top three can be considered a true point guard.

Up front, senior Ray Chambers is the only returning inside scorer. Chambers was one of the top offensive rebounders in the league, and could pull down seven or eight caroms a night if given starter's minutes. He tore down 11 against Mississippi State, not backing down from the monstrous duo of Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney.

Juco transfers Josh Warren and Tevin Calhoun, along with redshirt freshman Sidki Muwalif, should all see decent minutes. Muwalif blocked 202 shots in his high school career, and the Trojans could use that sort of athleticism in the post.

6. Florida International
--Richard Pitino's name is going to have to carry some weight in recruiting, and quickly. To put it bluntly, his roster is barren.

The only returnees of substance are guard Cameron Bell (4 PPG, 2.5 RPG), forward Tola Akomolafe (3.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and center Joey De La Rosa (1.4/1.6). The latter is only included because he's 6'11 and 260, and you can't teach size. Bell, for his part, is a quick-handed defender who recorded the seventh-best steal percentage in the conference. 

The biggest name on the roster is forward Rakeem Buckles, who followed Pitino from Louisville, but he's sitting out the mandatory season for transfers and rehabbing a torn ACL in the process. FAU guards Dennis Mavin and former all-conference performer Raymond Taylor will also join the active roster next season.

A "big" name in another sense of the term is junior center Ivan Jurkovic, a 7-foot, 265-pound Croatian. Jurkovic was a 5-and-4 man in junior college, which looks like massive underachievement given his size. But, once again, you can't teach size, and Jurkovic will get some minutes to prove whether or not he can play.

If anyone on this tire fire of a roster will achieve big things, it looks to be forward Jerome Frink. A superb athlete, the two-star prospect played for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony in Jersey City. Frink can score from mid-range and in, rebound and block shots.

Freshman guard Dee Lewis and juco transfer Malik Smith should get plenty of backcourt minutes. The rest of the backcourt is filled with question marks until next season.

In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference game, weighted by visibility and chance of a win.
Arkansas-Little Rock: Nov. 24 vs. SMU (Hoops for Hope Classic, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico)
--The Trojans get a firsthand look at what Larry Brown hath wrought a couple of weeks into his college return.
Arkansas State: Dec. 19 vs. Murray State
--The Wolves have a very good backcourt, but they have nothing like Isaiah Canaan. Even on the road, he's hard to rattle, so ASU fans will need to bring it hard.
Florida Atlantic: Dec. 15 at Dayton
--They may not match up face-to-face, but seeing Greg Gantt and Kevin Dillard on the court at the same time should be fun.
Florida International: Dec. 19 at Louisville
--Not entirely sure Rick Pitino will have the slightest bit of mercy on his kid. If Richard was never spanked as a child, he's about to find out what it feels like. At least he'll be able to sit down afterward.
Louisiana: Dec. 18 vs. Robert Morris
--The Cajuns will already have a couple of conference games in the books (against heavies MTSU and UNT, no less), but this home game and the followup against Duquesne could set a good tone going into the meat of the Sun Belt slate.
Louisiana-Monroe: Nov. 11 at Oklahoma
--Blowout? Most likely. But, perhaps ULM coach Keith Richard can take a few notes on program building from the master, Lon Kruger.
Middle Tennessee State: Dec. 8 vs. Ole Miss
--The Rebels got stuffed in Oxford last year, and they may not be equipped to exact revenge in The Murf.
North Texas: Nov. 9 at Creighton
--Mid-major hoop nirvana when Tony Mitchell and Doug McDermott face off. If you don't get the Tony Mitchell hype, revisit the question after this game.
South Alabama: Nov. 19 vs. Tennessee State (Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, Atlanta)
--Not quite as big a superfight as Mitchell/McDermott, but Augustine Rubit vs. Robert Covington could be interesting.
Troy: Nov. 9 vs. Mississippi State
--The first look at whatever Rick Ray has been able to cobble together from the tattered remains of last season's roster and the ever-pivotal walk-on tryouts.
Western Kentucky: Nov. 20 vs. Iowa (Cancun Challenge, Cancun, Mexico)
--Another SBC team heads to Mexico, where WKU can take the pulse of the "Iowa is much improved" talk.

Mitchell handles the rock, too.
F George Fant, Western Kentucky (6'5", 245, Soph.)
--Will get his due as a great Sun Belt performer if he can stay on the floor (12 games of four-plus fouls last season).
G Greg Gantt, Florida Atlantic (6'2", 205, Sr.)
--If he gets a new point guard who can create as well as Ray Taylor did, look for him to threaten the league scoring title. If newcomer Chris Bryant doesn't lead the team in scoring, that is.
G Marcos Knight, Middle Tennessee (6'2", 225, Sr.)
--Contributes a little bit of everywhere, but the Blue Raiders will need more consistent scoring from him. Otherwise, Kermit Davis doesn't guarantee anyone a job (see Jones, Jason).
F Tony Mitchell, North Texas (6'8", 235, Soph.)
--To hell with All-Sun Belt, Mitchell's shooting for All-American this year.
F Augustine Rubit, South Alabama (6'6", 235, Jr.)
--Few players his size dominate the boards the way Rubit does.

G/F Mychal Ammons, South Alabama (6'5", 220, Soph.)
--Should take a more prominent role in the offense this season. 
G Trey Finn, Arkansas State (6'2", 210, Sr.)
--If there's a deadlier shooter in the Belt, point him out. 
G Chris Jones, North Texas (6'2", 195, Soph.)
--May not be a starter at the beginning of the season, but is still one of the Mean Green's most explosive playmakers.
F Will Neighbour, Arkansas-Little Rock (6'10", 210, Jr.)
--More bulk would help with his post game, which lags well behind his perimeter skills at this point.
F Brandon Peterson, Arkansas State (6'7", 215, Sr.)
--Should attain this level unless he buckles under the pressure of being ASU's entire post game. Kendrick Washington will help.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tony Mitchell, North Texas (Duh.)
COACH OF THE YEAR: Tony Benford, North Texas
--The challenge will lie in keeping proven academic casualties in their books and making sure the egos don't clash. With the kind of talent on this roster, that may be harder than it looks.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Chris Bryant, Florida Atlantic
--Should make defensive plays while he figures out his role in the FAU offense. Once that happens, look out.

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