Things are a bit sunnier in the Sun Belt this season. Eleven of the fifteen members from the 2007 All-Sun Belt team return this season, including the cream of that group: New Orleans PG Bo McCalebb (New Orleans), WKU SF Courtney Lee, Arkansas State G Adrian Banks, and South Alabama G Demetric Bennett. The Belt should, SHOULD, have its strongest season in several years. The conference RPI for the last five years has been #15-17-13-18-20. The league has taken a tumble the last two seasons mainly due to adding a couple of RPI anchors to the league and the utter demise of used-to-be-perennially-powerful UL-Lafayette. The anchors look a little less weighty this year, ULL should be improved, and a couple of teams should be downright good. The Belt might creep into the top 15 again this season.
1. WKU Hilltoppers. Fourth verse, same as the first. The Tops are the favorite just about every year, but they have yet to fully deliver in the Darrin Horn era. There are six seniors on the roster including pre-season All-American Courtney Lee and Horn will can go as deep as he wants with the bench. SO PF Jeremy Evans has huge potential. There is real size and athleticism in the newcomers. Anything less than the NCAA will be a major disappointment this season.
Why they will be better than this: If one or two of the bigs can actually defend and rebound, this will be the best WKU team since the days of Chris Marcus.
Why they will be worse than this: Horn's team have yet to figure it out defensively. This team will fall short unless they shore up the matador defense. Also, one of the big men will have to step up for this team to max out.
2. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. MT has the goods to challenge WKU in the East. They return four starters and coach Kermit Davis inked a top 50 recruiting class including two standout JUCO frontcourt players and 6'5" G Josh Sain, who won Tennessee's state tourney MVP and was a finalist for its Mr. Basketball. PG Kevin Kanaskie is one of the better guards in the league and F Desmond Yates had a great FR season (10.9 pp, 3.4 rpg). Big Theryn Hudson returns up front as well. Calvin O'Neil, Nigel Johnson, and newcomer Demetrius Green will give MT a deep and talented backcourt. This should be Davis' best team since the Tommy Gunn era.
Why they will be better than this: If Green and JUCO C Uriah Hethington are as good as their press clippings.
Why they will be worse than this: If a number of these star recruits do not pan out--as has happened in the past with MT.
3. South Alabama Jaguars. Coach John Pelphrey left for Arkansas, so USA went back to the future in hiring former head coach Ronnie Arrow. Arrow has been busy building TAMU-Corpus Christi into a D-I program, nay, an NCAA Tourney-calibre D-I program, over the last few seasons. Pelphrey did not leave the cupboard bare. USA has a super backcourt tandem in guards Daon Merritt and Demetric Bennett, who combined for 29 ppg last season. Bennett shot 43.5% from downtown last season and Merritt averaged 5.3 assists. They are also high on former Mr. Kentucky Basketball Dominic Tilford who is eligible this season. Like a lot of Belt compadres, the guesswork is up front. The Jags have high hopes for former Cincinnati Bearcat Ronald Douglas in the post, and they do have F Brandon Davis returning.
Why they will be better than this: If Ronald Douglas is for real.
Why they will be worse than this: Several potential pratfalls including a new/old coach and reliance on newcomers.
4. Florida Atlantic Owls. They lost a super guard in DeAndre Rice, but return the Belt's best frontcourt player in Carlos Monroe (18.4 ppp, 9.4 rpg). The Owls have other options on the perimeter, too. They also add transfer Sammy Hernandez, who folks might remember from George Mason's Final Four team in 2006. FAU completed a $10 million renovation of their facilities in the offseason. The Owls made a solid debut in the Belt last season, and they seem to be headed in the right direction. This is my dark horse in the East.
Why they will be better than this: The Owls play ANY defense whatsoever (an abysmal #308 in AdjDefEff last season).
Why they will be worse than this: The loss of Rice hurts more than anticipated.
5. Florida International Panthers. FIU has not been good for awhile (see: Arroyo, Carlos: early career), but here is cause for optimism this year. The Panthers have added some serious size to their roster in the form of 7'0" Pepperdine transfer Russell Hicks and 6'11" JC transfer Badara Ndiaye. Neither put up huge numbers at their former schools, but FIU hopes they do enough to allow Alex Galindo (13.9 ppg) to do his thing more freely on the perimeter. FIU also adds Texas A&M transfer G Kenneth "Red" White who carries the reputation of a big-time scorer. Colorful coach Sergio Rouco is high on this team. FIU hosts Miami-FL, George Mason, and South Florida this year as part of a 17-game home schedule. FIU could make a little noise against those names in the non-conference.
Why they will be better than this: Rouco is right in his assessment of this team's talent.
Why they will be worse than this: If they are typical FIU: all sizzle, no steak.
6. Troy Trojans. The Trojans lost four major players from a 13-17 team, all of them double-digit scorers and the leaugue defensive POY.. In a league full of uncertain frontcourts, Troy has the youngest and least experienced. In standard Troy fashion, they have some gunners on the outside including seniors Odarian Bassett (15.1 ppg) and Justin Jonus (9 ppg). There are a truckload of other seemingly capable young guards and wings. This is coach Don Maestri's 25th year at Troy, and he has not won 424 games without being resourceful. Troy will likely wind up being better than they look on paper and will clip some wings of the league's peacocks when they are on from outside.
Why they will be better than this: The young size can play and some leadership emerges.
Why they will be worse than this: The losses hurt as much as it looks like they will.
1. UL-Monroe. They won the West last season and the 'Hawks return all five starters. ULM was small, but scrappy, and they add two promising newcomers with size this season. Four players that averaged double-figure points and another that chipped in 9.7 ppg return. They are also adding 6'7" F Mitchell Hampton who had offers on the table from Ole Miss and Auburn. WKU may be the overall favorite, but ULM certainly has the NCAA Tourney on its mind this season...and with good reason.
Why they will be better than this: If the perimeter players keep pace with last season and the frontcourt is indeed upgraded.
Why they will be worse than this: Seemed to overachieve last year (read: LUCKY. By Ken Pomeroy's calculations: 10th luckiest in the nation), and karma may come back on them.
2. New Orleans Privateers. One is hard-pressed to find any trio of seniors that have endured what Bo McCalebb, Ben Elias, and James Parlow have endured. McCalebb and Parlow not only went to UNO during Hurricane Katrina, but both are actually from the city of New Orleans. Also, McCalebb tore his ACL two seasons ago just for good measure. It is hard not to root for reigning POY McCalebb. He has been the best penetrator in the league for years, is as tough as nails, and will likely become the Belt's all-time leading scorer if he avoids injury this season. Three other starters return to flank McCalebb, and UNO has hired hometown guy Joe Pasternack as head coach. This should be UNO's best team in awhile.
Why they will be better than this: If some frontcourt scoring emerges.
Why they will be worse than this: If Privateer bad luck continues. Oh, and maybe that pesky issue of no returning big who averaged more than 2.8 ppg.
3. Arkansas State. If Isaac Wells had returned instead of declaring for the NBA draft (he's in Poland now), the Indians would be the pick in the West. They still have a shot as it stands. Adrian Banks is a POY candidate (21.1 ppg) and will be a headache for any team to contain. Combo G Ryan Wedel had a great FR campaign last year and give ASU another solid perimeter player. There are MAJOR questions up front, however. With Wells and starting center Theo Little gone, they will need JC transfer Yima Chia-Kur to live up to his considerable hype (recruited by Colorado, Providence, and Nebraska).
Why they will be better than this: Chia-Kur is for real and frontcourt steps up.
Why they will be worse than this: Frontcourt does not deliver and they are relegated to being a perimeter-only team.
4. North Texas Mean Green. Gone are Greenies Kendrick Davis, Calvin Watson, Rich Young, and Michael Sturns from NT's NCAA Tournament team that gave Memphis a serious run in the NCAA first round. PG Ben Bell does return and the Green adds USF transfer Collin Dennis (a starter for the Bulls), and two guys that filled it up in high school in Tristan Thompson and Josh White. In a rarity for Belt clubs, the strength is up front. Seniors Keith Wooden (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Quincy Williams (10.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) will anchor what will likely be the best frontcourt in the league.
Why they will be better than this: Young perimeter players can step right in and present a scoring/shooting threat.
Why they will be worse than this: The losses are too great to overcome.
5. UALR Trojans. The Trojans are always physical--on that you can rely. Further, coach Steve Shields is not hiding his optimism. He does not have a lot of size up front, but he has lots of 6'6" and 6'7" guys. UALR welcomes two Ole Miss transfers in Brandon Patterson and big Mike Smith (6'7", 277 lbs). Add these two to the returning firepower of Lekheythan Malone and company, and there is potential for UALR to suprise some folks. This is my dark horse pick in the West.
Why they will be better than this: The infusion of the Ole Miss tandem and JC F Shane Edwards will shore up the frontcourt and open the perimeter up for Malone, et al.
Why they will be worse than this: Frontcourt does not deliver and it's a repeat of last season.
6. UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns. Like many teams in the Belt, the Cajuns have real reason for optimism this year. They return two excellent players in G David Dees and SF Elijah Millsap (Belt FR of the Year). Incoming 6'6" FR G Chris Gradnigo has Coach Robert Lee going gaga. He made official visits to Arkansas and Notre Dame before committing. They also have something else in common with a lot of Belt teams: lack of a proven inside presence. They have good perimeter talent, but will need one or more of the bigs to step up. No obvious answers are on the roster.
Why they will be better than this: If there is a hidden gem among the bigs.
Why they will be worse than this: If Gradnigo does not deliver and the bigs are as sparse as they seem.
7. Denver Pioneers. They were 4-24 last season and #335 of 336 in the RPI (thank you, Northern Colorado!). They lost three starters and will be in their first year implementing new head coach Joe Scott's Princeton-style offense. Expectations are, uh, low.
Why they will be better than this: The Princeton offense clicks right away.
Why they will be worse than this: If God is unmerciful.