The Sun Belt West should be a fairly competitive division this season. Teams at the top lost a good bit and some of last year's lesser teams return a lot or made nice additions. I like Denver and UL-Lafayette again, but UNO, South Al, and NT should all be improved.
1. Denver Pioneers (20-10, 12-3 conf., 1st West)
They return conference POY C Yemi Nicholson (18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 92 blks) and F Antonio Porch (12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), but lost two key pieces in their starting backcourt in PG Rodney Billups and sharpshooting G Erik Benzel. The steady G Andrew Carpenter (8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) returns to anchor the backcourt. The Pioneers will lean heavily on Mount Yemi, as he will likely see even more touches this season. He was an honorable mention All-American last year and is set to challenge for full honors this season. Someone will need to fill Benzel's sniper role to keep defenses honest on the perimeter. No returning bench player averaged more than 9 minutes per game, so there will be a host of inexperience players looking to fill the backcourt gaps. Denver has non-conference tests at Stanford, a neutral court game against Colorado State, and a home game against Wyoming. The rest of the slate is fairly soft.
2. UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (20-10, 11-4 conf., 2nd West)
Will oft-troubled Michael Southall really play this season? All indicators point toward a return by the 6'10" center. If he does play, it gives the Cajuns a talented nucleus, as he joins senior C Chris Cameron (8.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 39% 3-pt) and do-it-all G Dwayne Mitchell (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpb, 3.3 apg). The Cajuns lost their three top scorers in G Tiras Wade, F Brian Hamilton, and G Orien Greene, so this Cajun team does not figure to be as good as last year's squad. If Southall is out, then UNO, South Al, and/or NT could challenge the Cajuns. However, if Southall can stay eligible, he could team with Cameron to form one of the more formidable frontcourt duos in the conference. Perimeter play is also a huge question mark for this team. If they get solid ball-handling and find a perimeter scorer to compensate for the losses of Wade and Green, the Cajuns will be tough. They have challenging road games at SIU, Tennessee, UTEP, LSU, and Nevada in the non-conference and host a solid Oral Roberts club.
3. New Orleans Privateers (13-17, 7-8 conf., 3rd west)
The Privateers had big plans to challenge for the West crown in the offseason, but Hurricane Katrina will have them displaced and out of sorts until at least January. UNO returns 1st-team SBC G Bo McCalebb (22.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.7 apg) who penetrates better than anyone in the league and finishes well. If McCalebb improves his perimeter jumper (26% from 3-land), he will be nearly unguardable. UNO also returns three other starters in G Jamie McNeilly (7.7 ppg), F Shawn Malloy (7.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and C Ben Elias (5.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg). This is a team in search of scoring, as McCalebb too often is the only option. The non-conference schedule packs some serious firepower, with games at Mississippi State, LSU, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Kansas, and Tulane twice (home and home). Wow.
4. South Alabama Jaguars (10-18, 6-9 conf., 4th[tie] west)
This year is do or die for coach John Pelphrey. The native Kentucky boy has been roughed up during his three year tenure at South Al, and he needs a good season to get off the hot seat. He has a couple of big guns that may help him do just that. G/F Mario Jointer (16.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .394 % from Three) is a first-team SBC caliber player. The Jags also have Clemson transfer Chey Christie (9.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg as a junior at Clemson) available this year in addition to SMU transfer G Demetric Bennett. The Jags return four starters total and should have more depth than they have had in awhile. I am picking them fourth, but they are my official SBC dark horse team. They have notable games at Purdue, at Tennessee and home vs. Houston.
5. North Texas Mean Green (14-14, 6-9 conf., 4th [tie] West)
Everyone keeps waiting for NT to make the big jump in the West. Slow and steady improvement has been more their style. They have improved in each of coach Johnny Jones' first four seasons, and the West is as open as it's been in awhile. I have the Mean Green fifth, but the gap between first and fifth in the West does not appear to be that wide. The loss of super guard Leonard Hopkins makes me doubt that this is the year for them to soar, but NT does look to be on the right track. G Calvin Watson is a nice player (11.3 ppg, .402 for Threes) and Arkansas transfer G Kendrick Davis has nice credentials. NT also returns C Jeffrey Simpson (7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 51 blks) who came on strong late last season, and dynamo PG Isaac Hines (6.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.2 spg). They have big dates at Arizona State, at Texas A&M, and at Houston. Not to be a broken record, but NT can challenge, too. The West is wide open.
6. Troy Trojans (12-18, first season in Belt)
The Men of Troy lost three starters from last season, but do return leading scorer Bobby Dixon (14.7 ppg) and Jacob Hazouri (9.6 ppg). This is Troy's first season in the Belt, so I have not seen them play too often. They had a couple of nice teams a few years back, but went 10-10 in the Atlantic Sun last season (8th seed in the conf tourney) and lost three starters. Unless they brought in some great recruits, they likely will find it tough going in the competitive SBC West. They do return all of their important bench players, so maybe they can hang tough in the league. They have highlight non-conference games at Mississippi State (Are the Bulldogs an honorary Belt member?) and at Xavier.
Some random stuff is coming this week.