The hysteria was not quite hysterical in nature, but a few nuggets were taken away from the WKU Hilltoppers' season kickoff event last Friday night.
1. Incoming FR PG A.J. Slaughter (Shelby County, KY) is for real. The kid is quick, rangy, and has good end-to-end speed. He drives, floats, and shoots well, and he will nab his share of steals on defense. It was only a short scrimmage, but his strengths were obvious.
2. None of the frontcourt players are likely to dominate individually, but they are a long and athletic bunch. Lots of wiry, interchangeable 6'7"-6'9" bodies are on the roster. If this group can play solid defense and box out with abandon, that will be enough for this team to be successful. It is not clear if any of them have a back-to-the-basket game, but that is not terribly important for Coach Darrin Horn's style.
3. The Tops had no true starting PG last season, but now they have JC All-American Tyrone Brazelton, improving SO Orlando Mendez-Valdez, Ivory Coast native Desire Gabou, and adapted SG's from last season in Ty Rogers and Courtney Lee. The aforementioned Slaughter could be used in a pinch, but that does not seem necessary this season.
4. The Tops need a second fiddle to the fine Stradivarius that is Courtney Lee (17.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.6 spg, .408 from Three, .847 FT%). Senior G/F Benson Callier (8.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, .438 from Three) looked like he might be ready to take it up a notch. His biggest weaknesses last season were his wild drives to the hoop that lead to forced shots or a turnover, and his overall inconsistency. He looks much more collected this year...of course, this was a meaningless scrimmage. Time will tell.
This Topper talk leads us to today's preview of the Sun Belt East Division. And, like every other publication out there, I will take the Tops to win the division.
Sun Belt East Preview
1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (23-8, 12-2 Sun Belt, 1st Round NIT)
I have said much above, so no long preview is needed. This is Horn's first full roster of his players, and he is chirping about his army of athletes. The non-conference schedule is brutal (at Georgia, at Tennessee, at Nebraska, at Montana, vs Florida, host SIU, host UAB), and the team is pretty young (only two seniors), so the losses may come early on. But, this is the most talented group he has had to this point. Lee is a big-time player and the bench is deep. The questions are whether the PG position is solid, and how much the frontcourt will produce. Ultimately, the Tops have the best player, the most overall talent, and the deepest team in the league. This team will get a little slack this season as they try to fill the void left by Anthony Winchester (18.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg), but expectations will be sky-high in Bowling Green next year.
2. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (16-12, 8-6 Sun Belt)
Fats Cuyler, Marcus Morrison, and Bud Howard were important cogs in the Blue Raider machine last season. Their departures will require several players to step up. MTSU has a legit big man in the blossoming 6'10" Theryn Hudson and a solid outside shooter in Adam Vogelsberg (12.4 ppg, .417 from Three). Up front, two redshirt FR, Dino Hair and Desmond Yates, have good buzz surrounding them and will help on the wing. Senior Kyle Young (6'10") has bulked up to 222 pounds and will assist in the post. In the backcourt, SO Kevin Kanaskie and JC transfer Nigel Johnson will handle the point guard duties. Calvin O'Neill and Marques Johnson also return, adding depth to the guard corps. MTSU has good talent, but do they have a "gamebreaker?" The answer to that question will probably determine whether or not they can challenge in the East.
3. South Alabama Jaguars (24-7, 12-3, 1st Round NCAA)
The Jags lost seven players from last year's NCAA Tournament team. To many a Belt fan's surprise, they retained their coach anyway. Coming off an NCAA berth and a huge loss of personnel, lots of folks figured Pelphrey was gone. Not so. Pelphrey will rely on three transfers to anchor the frontcourt in 6'7" Kenny Hooks (Oregon State), 6"7 Brandon Davis (Birmingham-Southern), and 6'9" Ernest Little (UAB). The only returning frontcourt player of import is Leandro Buboltz (4.6 ppg). The backcourt returns a bit more seasoning with guards Carlos Smith (7.1 ppg, 2.9 apg), Demetric Bennett (8.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg), and Stephen Cowherd. Richmond transfer Daon Merritt is expected to be one of the top newcomers in the league and should help right away. He will need to if South AL is going to defend their Belt Tourney title.
4. Troy Trojans (12-18, 6-9 Belt)
Last season was not a great one in Troy, but it did have its moments. Like the 76-49 whipping they hung on regular season champ WKU. Or the 63-point half on 15-22 3-pt shooting they displayed against Arkansas State in the Belt Tourney. But, those were lights in an otherwise dim season. Unfortunately, All-Belt PG Bobby Dixon is gone as is sharp-shooter Boo Ramsey. The Men of Troy do get SR Utah transfer Richard Cheney (on the Andrew Bogut-lead Sweet 16 team) who will help in a big way. The rest of the backcourt is a laundry list of transfers and freshmen. The frontcourt is in much better shape. Cedric Jackson and Sammy Sharp are both full-time starters who averaged double figures in scoring. There is depth with Jarvis Acker and Bernard Toombs as well. Chaney is likely to be a force, so if the PG position can be solid, Troy should be be able to hold their own on most nights.
5. Florida International Golden Panthers (8-20, 4-10 Belt)
Last year was supposed to be the year that FIU made the leap in the East. Instead, they lost 20 games, and they return only one starter from last year's team. Kansas transfer Alex Galindo is expected to help immensely, and FIU returns some good guards in Johwen Villegas (10.4 ppg), Elvis Lora (9.1 ppg), a solid SG recruit in Dejon Prejean, and newcomer PG's Michael James and Erick Nsangou. Up front, a lot is being hung on FR Cedric Essola. There are not a lot of post threats on this team, so FIU is going to struggle against teams with skilled bigs. Coach Sergio Rouco would love to avoid the PG injury bug for once and see what happens.
6. Florida Atlantic Owls (15-13, 14-6 Atlantic Sun)
New conference, new coach, and a high roster turnover; that is not the ideal situation for Rex Walters in his first season as the head man at FAU. There are NINE new Owls in the barn, so one cannot expect FAU to do too much in their first season. They do return a couple of nice players in G DeAndre Rice (16.1, 2.7 rpg) and F Carlos Monroe (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg). The Owls had low expectations last season and Matt Doherty led them to a surprising winning season. Maybe Coach Walters can surprise everyone again.