Greetings my fellow Americans and Sun Belt enthusiasts...
Hello? Is this thing on? Oh. OK.
The start of conference play normally brings excitement, anticipation, and the general feeling that basketball is in full swing. Unfortunately, for the Sun Belt Conference, the swing resides on a broken-down playground overgrown with weeds and chiggers.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, the Belt was consistently ranked #14-16 in Conference RPI. It was the classic hard-nosed one-bid conference. Then, the Belt started to slide in 2000, falling to #19 by season's end. Part of this can be attributed to WKU's slippage after Matt Killcullen's disastrous, soul-crushing tenure. It makes sense that the conference would slip with one of the conference stalwarts hobbled. Plus, Denver (is that in the "sun belt"?) was added to the conference and promptly went 6-22, further damaging the conference RPI. However, the Toppers were back to their old 20-win tricks in 2001...and the conference still slipped to #20. In 2002, WKU was in the top 30 RPI, yet the conference only moved up one slot to #19.
This is where is gets interesting. From 2003 to 2005, the conference looked to be on the uptick by moving from #19 in '02, to #15 in 2003, #16 in 2004, and up to #13 in 2005. Then, the conference added Troy last season and the conference slipped back to #18. This season, the Belt has added both Florida Atlantic and UL-Monroe and the conference currently sits at #20.
Division I-A football has been the motivating factor behind the addition of Troy, FAU, and UL-Monroe. In the short run, it is hurting basketball. In addition to bringing in poor hoops teams, some traditionally strong basketball schools are in disarray or transition. UALR has struggled mightily early on. South Alabama's NCAA team from last season was gutted by graduation. UL-Lafayette lost three senior starters from a fairly mediocre team. MTSU is trying to mesh a lot of young players. Denver has hit rock(y mountain) bottom after losing C Yemi Nicholson. Hurricane Katrina has left an indelible mark on New Orleans' program. Arkansas State and FIU have not been relevant for a long time.
The Belt currently has only TWO teams with winning records: WKU (8-2) and North Texas (6-2). It remains to be seen what will happen in the long run with the IA football additions. Hopefully, those schools will improve and the old conference standard-bearers will again find their way. But, even through the sunny-beltiest of lenses, this looks like a bad year for the league.
That said, conference play begins tonight. On the bright side, many of this year's clubs are young, so this season could lay a good foundation for some good teams in the next couple of years, especially at WKU, MTSU, UL-Lafayette, and South Alabama.
May God bless you, and may God bless (have mercy on?) the Sun Belt.
--Xavier at Cincinnati. In-city rivalry alert! The Crosstown Shootout usually plays out nicely. The X is certainly the favorite this season.
--UMass at Louisville. If the Minutemen are going to make a serious run at an At-Large bid, they could use this one. The Cards simply need a win over a solid team, and they are tough at home.
Sun Belt Slate
--Troy at Florida Atlantic
--UL-Lafayette at New Orleans