Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sun Belt Preview

I am not much on preseason picks. I like having some results to look at, peruse, analyze, or examine. All we have at this point are rosters full of potential, hopes, and dreams. Those are grand things and should be celebrated. I do not want to rank potential, hopes or dreams, so a more general approach fits better here.

Not all hopes and dreams are equal, mind you. So, I do think it is fair to at least meet teams where they are.

East: WKU, Troy. On paper, it is hard to imagine anyone other than one of these two winning the division. WKU is the clear favorite. While Orlando Mendez-Valdez was a big loss, it was more of the "spirited leader" variety than the "irreplaceable talent" variety. Gutty, clutch, and tough as nails, OMV will certainly be missed. But, this roster is brimming with veterans and infused with touted newcomers. WKU is one of the handful of non-Power teams getting talk on a national scale. Not as much as the usual suspects (Gonzaga, Butler, Xavier), but enough that I don't have to tell you that they are going to be good. Troy is a bit lesser known, but they are a run-and-gun bunch of shooters. They often play four guards and their top four guards are seniors this year. Brandon Hazzard is a POY candidate and Richard Delk is quite a player as well. The Trojans play ONE non-conference home game against a DI opponent (Marshall), so to say they will be road-tested is an understatement.

West: North Texas, UALR, Denver. North Texas has the most talent. UALR is the perennially the brawniest and the toughest. Denver has all five starters back from a team that was hitting its stride late last season and boasts a POY candidate and senior leader Nate Rohnert. All have flaws. North Texas played poor FG% defense last year. Denver was an awful rebounding team. UALR was turnover prone. But, each did a lot of things well and have quite a bit coming back. North Texas seems to be the majority pick amongst experts, but it is a mistake to count out UALR because they defend consistently. Denver may be a bit of a dark horse, but I like the Pioneers this year. What they do, they do extremely well, playing the slowest pace in all the land last year as well as leading the entire country in 2-pt FG%.

East: South Alabama, Middle Tennessee. Team USA has been pretty solid in Ronnie Arrows second go as the Jags' coach, but they lost a TON from last year's club. They have a preposterous number of new faces (15!?!?!) and very little returning. But, it's a mistake to discount Arrow. He will probably cobble together a decent team. Middle Tennessee has not met expectations the last two years. Maybe a year coming from back in the pack will be good for them, although Kermit Davis has to be feeling some pressure at this stage.

West: UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State. The Cajuns have all five starters back from a pretty bad team, so it's unclear whether that will be a good thing or a bad thing. Chris Gradnigo and Travis Bureau are a couple of talented 6-7 forwards, and from what I've seen, Gradnigo could be a 1st-team All-Conference player if he puts it together. Coach Robert Lee's seat is likely feeling a tad toasty, too, given the scrawny win totals over the last few years. Their top players are older and wiser, and both players and coaches should be hungry. If ULL can't have a decent season this year, it is unlikely it is going to happen for Coach Lee. Arkansas State was playing pretty well early last season before totally imploding over the last half of the season, largely due to some disciplinary problems at midseason. Two players were not invited back this season. Donald Boone is back and he is nice player. Brady has also brought in former Oklahoma State big man Martavius Adams (6-9, 255). If they avoid the problems of last season, A-State could have a decent year.

Looking for Improvement
East: FAU, FIU. The Florida schools never seem to get it together. And, FAU was bad, 6-26 bad, and they lost 4 of their top 5 scorers. Let's just leave it there. FIU hired Isiah Thomas with much ballyhoo, but they also lost 4/5 starters. These two are hoping to lay a foundation and improve game to game.

West: UL-Monroe, New Orleans. The Warhawks won just 10 games for the second straight year, but they return four starters and have a couple of recruits with some size.. If 6th-year senior guard Tony Hooper is back to his old self after a foot injury, ULM moves up into the "hopeful" category. UNO lost a ton from a marginal team. The do add Billy Humphrey, a Georgia transfer who averaged double digits for the Bulldogs in 07-08, and some newcomers that coach Joe Pasternack likes a lot.

The Sun Belt is a strange league, sprawling from Miami, FL, to Denver, CO. It has uneven team divisions and a conference tournament in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It has Thomas, Mike Jarvis, and John Brady as coaches. It has a potential killer team in WKU, and after a couple of down years, the Belt should be on the uptick this season. It should be a fun year.