Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sun Belt West Preview

Last season's champ (South Alabama) has shifted to the East division and the West looks as wide open as it has been recently. Let's have a look, shall we?

1. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (14-15, 5-9 Belt)
The Trojans were snakebitten by the injury bug last season, but they still played some of the roughest hoops in the Belt. Rebounding machine Rashad Jones-Jennings (12.2 ppg, 11.3 rpg) returns and is a likely All-Conference performer. He is flanked up front by beefy, 6'7" 252-lb Byron Ray (8.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and 6'6" SO Lekheythan Malone (9.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Malone has the ability to be the go-to guy this season. That trio should form a solid starting frontcourt. Rashad Moss (JC) and Brandon Nichols will provide depth. The Trojans were hampered by horrid shooting last season and they figure to be much-improved in that respect. De'Andre Eggins (7.4 ppg, .386 from Three) played on a hurt knee all season and still managed a decent FR campaign. Coach Steve Shields loves Tarance Akins' shooting ability, but he missed all but two games with a foot problem last year. Those guys will help, but there are major concerns at the point. Zack Wright (12.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.0 rpg) jumped ship in the off-season and Buddy Harding saw limited minutes last season. Freshman Steven Moore will need to deliver for UALR to climb to the top in the West.

2. Arkansas State Indians (12-18, 7-7 Belt)
Coach Dickey Nutt loves his recruiting class. After a yearly questioning of Nutt's status as coach for several seasons, A-State signed him to a 3-year deal and he says it allowed him to haul in what might be his best recruiting class. The Indians have 6'8" SR F Isaac Wells (14.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) back to anchor the frontcourt. Big Theo Little (6'10", 255) returns, but he has been spot player throughout his career. ASU also likes newcomers Abayomi Ajasin, a 6-7 JUCO, and Detroit transfer Shawn Morgan. The frontcourt looks to be in decent shape, though a tad green. Senior guard Jim Jones (12.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and junior Yual Banks (7.1 ppg) were solid last season at the guard position and the Indians have added a host of talented backcourt running mates. Ryan Wedel, a 5'11" PG and Kansas Mr. Basketball, is aboard as is 2nd team All-American JUCO Adrian Banks. Chris Brown, another highly rated JUCO guard, has also been added and can shoot it. If these parts come together, A-State has the talent to make a run in the West.

3. New Orleans Privateers (10-19, 6-9 Belt)
The Privateers endured a 7th-level-of-Hell season in 2005-06. Not only was their campus and arena battered by Hurricane Katrina, but star PG Bo McCalebb (22.6 ppg in 2004-05) injured his wrist in the fourth game and was forced to redshirt. Coach Monte Towe packed his bags to assist Sydney Lowe at Towe's alma mater, NC State. New coach Buzz Williams is now at the helm to reshape the Privateers. This season, with McCalebb's return and experience guards James Parlow (10.6 ppg) and Jamie McNeeley (9.2 ppg, 5.7 apg) back, UNO may have the top backcourt in the league. C Ben Elias also had to redshirt last season with a knee injury (remember, 7th level, people) and apparently was woefully out of shape at the end of the year. Much will depend on how much the 6'10" Elias, 6'7" Jacob Manning (4.7 ppg, 4.1 ppg), and former Bob Huggins recruit 6'9" Asrangue Souleymane can provide up front. If they are serviceable, UNO could surprise people a bit.

4. North Texas Mean Green (14-14, 6-9 Belt)
The improvement has happened at a glacial pace, but NT gets a little better each season under Johnny Jones. They can improve again this year, but they will have to replace dynamo PG Isaac Hines and shotblocking C Jeffrey Simpson. They return a Sun Belt POY contender on the wing in Kendrick Davis (16.8 ppg) as well as G Calvin Watson (9.8 ppg) in the backcourt. They have signed San Jacinto JC PG Ben Bell who racked up 7.9 apg last season to fill Hines' slot. Michael Sturns (9.7 ppg) was kicked off the team during the season last year, but has been welcomed back. As with most Belt teams, the real questions are up front. Quincy Williams, Harold Stewart, Harold Edwards, Jonathan Jackson and Justin Howerton will not have to score a lot, but they do have to pose some kind of threat to keep teams honest and they must play some defense if NT is to continue their incremental improvement.

5. UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (13-16, 7-8 Belt)
These are not the Cajuns of the last few years. There are no proven players like Orien Greene, Tiras Wade, Brian Hamilton, Antoine Landry, Dwayne Mitchell, or Michael Southall to rely upon this season. There are an astonishing TEN new faces and EIGHT freshmen and many are homegrown boys from Louisiana. In fact, only 16 ppg returns from last season and that's if the injured Maurice Barksdale can go. G Elijah Millsap (yes--Paul's brother) was a big-time scorer in high school and will get a chance to ring it up immediately. Coach Robert Lee will be playing chemist all season to find out which newbies can play right away. ULL hosts the Belt tourney, and that is a shame for them, because this could be their least competitive team in years. Or, maybe the talented youngsters can surprise everyone.

6. Denver Pioneers (16-15, 7-8 Belt)
See Lafayette above. Mount Yemi (20 and 11) is now dormant at the college level for all eternity. The frontcourt has some veterans returning, including DeShawn Walker (13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg). Walker will be relied upon heavily for scoring this season. Senior forwards Antonio Porch (7.8 ppg, 4.2) and David Kummer (6.2 ppg, 3.8 ppg) have plenty of Belt battle scars and internationl JC additions Adam Tanner (Aussie) and Chris Timms (English) will help. The backcourt is much more concerning. PG Steve Wetrich (6.9 ppg, 3.4) values the ball and will need to play well, because the real experience pretty much ends with him. A host of newcomers will jockey for playing time at the 2G. JC transfer Cedric Hill appears to be the most likely candidate. This will be a much different team than the Yemi-led squads of the last three seasons.

7. UL-Monroe Warhawks (10-18, 6-10 Southland)
Let me extend a hearty Belt welcome to ULM. The 'Hawks were not a good team in the Southland last season, so the step up to the Belt could be rough on them. Twelve players on the roster will be in their first or second season of college hoops. They do have some talent in redshirt FR PG Brandon Roberts and combo G Tony Hooper (10.6 ppg). James Perkins and Lance Brasher also saw significant time at G last season. The frontcourt has veterans (Darien Bynum, Dalky Melendez), but no one who looks to be a major threat. Like ULL, ULM will need some of the newcomers to step up to compete in the league.