The Sun Belt Conference sprawls all over Pangaea. I think it earned the moniker "Sun Belt" due to the fact that all of the member institutions reside in the Milky Way. When I say "Sun Belt East," I am referring to an area roughly the size of Neptune. The East Division alone stretches from Miami, FL, to Little Rock, AR. The West Division reaches even farther, from Mobile, AL, to Denver, CO. This is not a conference for those who hate flying or are prone to car sickness. Life on the road is long and tough in this league. (Enter saxophone riff from Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" here)
What truly stinks for fans of this conference is the lack of viable road trips for us working stiffs. The rivalry that WKU and MTSU have is nice, and UALR and Arkansas State have a healthy one as well. Maybe new member Troy can spark a rivalry with South Alabama. But each school only has one rival, if that, in the Belt. This hurts attendance and leaves fans relatively indifferent toward opponents. WKU and UL-Lafayette have developed a healthy hatred for one another, but these schools are a full day's drive apart. That makes it tough.
Despite these negatives, the Sun Belt has become steadily better over the last five years. Can the Belt maintain this improvement? Let us begin today with the East Division preview.
1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (21-8, 9-5 conf, 2nd East)
The Tops were a scrappy band of overachievers last year, playing most of the season with sharpshooting G Anthony Winchester at power forward. Even when asked to guard opposing brutes, Winchester managed to score 18.2 ppg and shoot a blistering 45.3% from downtown. His backcourt partner in crime, Courtney Lee (14.9 ppg), returns primed for a huge sophomore campaign. The Tops also return pogo-sticking C Elgrace Wilborn (9.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 83 blks). The tragic death of G Danny Rumph this summer leaves an immeasurable emotional hole on this team, and the Tops also lost starting PG Antonio Haynes to graduation. The Toppers have a bevy of talented, but mostly unproven players waiting to contribute this season. Reserve G Ty Rogers has displayed deadeye shooting and tremendous confidence on the summer Spain tour. Redshirt PG Mike Walker has ridiculous positive buzz surrounding his athleticism and rebounding prowess. Local boy F Matt Maresca has folks excited about his development as well. If the recruits are as good as advertised, this will be the Tops deepest, most athletic team since the Willard era. They have an excellent non-conference schedule to boot and could make noise against big names like Arizona, UAB, Virginia and Georgia. The Tops are the clearcut favorite in the East.
2. Florida International Golden Panthers (13-17, 4-10 conf, 5th East)
Not since the days of Raja Bell has FIU had a team with legitimate post-season hopes. The Panthers have hope this year based on the return of All-Sun Belt F Ivan Almonte (17.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and a cast of solid contributors from last years squad (Junior Mattias was the only major loss). FIU's record was still pretty poor last year, but they score some big wins late in the year including a win over WKU and division champ UALR (a FIVE overtime game!). After an 0-7 start to the conference slate, they finished 6-5 including two wins in the Belt tourney. They return a great deal and some promising newcomers. They also just landed Kansas transfer Alex Galindo for 06-07. Coach Sergio Rouco has it going in the right direction. FIU has testy games at Michigan State, Notre Dame, and George Washington.
3. Middle Tennessee State Blue Pegasi (19-12, 7-7 conf, 3rd [tie] East). Center Steve Thomas (10.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) exhausted his eligibility, as did G Mike Dean (14.4 ppg) and F Michael Cuffee (14.3, 7.4 rpg). PG Bryan Smithson left the team in the offseason (6.9 ppg, 3.2 apg). This leaves SO G/F Marcus Morrison as the lone returning starter. The Blue Pegasi have TEN, yes TEN, new faces represented by five FR, three JC transfers, and two redshirts from last season. It's nametag time in Murfreesboro. MTSU did go on a Canadian tour this summer, and that should help team chemistry a bit.
4. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (18-10, 10-4 conf, 1st East). The Trojan horse has been thoroughly emptied. The Trojans lost a staggering SEVEN seniors from last year's East Division champs. G Zach Wright (11.1 ppg) represents the only returning player who saw significant minutes last season. There are six FR and six JC transfers on the roster. Coach Steve Shields will need to work some magic for his team to challenge for a third straight division crown. He did sign the top JC rebounder from last year in Rashad Jones-Jennings out of Chattanooga State. UALR has games against perennial powers Michigan State, Illinois, and Southern Illinois on the docket.
5. Arkansas State Indians (16-13, 7-7 conf, 3rd [tie] East). The Indians lost their two biggest guns in guards J.J. Montgomery and DeWarrick Spencer. Dickey Nutt is still their coach. Plus, the most recent stats on their website are from the 2002 season. Really, this last item sticks in my craw and it forces me to put them in the cellar in the East. If it makes me seem less childish, I would have placed them there anyway. They have games at Mississippi State, Mississippi, Louisville, and Oklahoma State, plus they play home-and-home with Missouri State. I will say this for ASU, they scheduled BIG this year in the non-conference. Sadly, I see many merciless beatings in their future in the non-conference. Of course, I hope they prove me wrong.
Tomorrow, we go westward.