Monday , Nov , 08 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Sun Belt Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Sun Belt Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: Sun Belt Conference basketball finished the 2003-04 season with an
RPI of 16, four spots better than where it was following the 2000-01 season.
Therefore, it is fair to say that the league is on the rise. UL-Lafayette is
not on the rise, as the team is already at the top of the Sun Belt heap. The
Ragin’ Cajuns made some negative headlines because of the controversy
surrounding former head coach Glenn Cyprien, but things have calmed down and
there is plenty of talent in place to make another title run. The stiffest
competition for UL-Lafayette in its West Division figures to come from New
Orleans, a team that appears poised for big things after some years of
mediocrity. South Alabama certainly won’t be a pushover, as a few big-time
transfers are in place to help carry the load. Denver has plenty of stability
and talent in its backcourt, but the play of an unproven frontcourt will
determine the team’s success. North Texas surprised many people with an 8-6
league record a year ago, but it’s hard to imagine the team duplicating that
mark. Rounding out the West Division is New Mexico State, and interim head
coach Tony Stubblefield’s patience will be tested in 2004-05. Over in the
East, the competition for supremacy will be fierce. Arkansas-Little Rock,
Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State can all make a case as the
division’s top team heading into the campaign. The Trojans won the division a
year ago and welcome four starters back, the Blue Raiders welcome a talented
transfer to the fold and the Indians possess the Sun Belt’s top offensive
backcourt. Surprisingly, perennial power Western Kentucky will likely finish
off the pace as it rebuilds. Still, there is some talent in place to go along
with a winning attitude. Rounding out the East is Florida International, a
team that could potentially go winless against Sun Belt competition.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: EAST: 1. Arkansas-Little Rock; 2. Middle Tennessee
State; 3. Arkansas State; 4. Western Kentucky; 5. Florida International

WEST: 1. UL-Lafayette; 2. New Orleans; 3. South Alabama; 4. Denver; 5. North
Texas; 6. New Mexico State



ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK: There is no substitute for experience and leadership, so
the Trojans have reason to be optimistic considering that seven seniors are on
the roster. Among those seven players are guard Brandon Freeman, who was
selected to the preseason All-Conference Second Team, and forward Darius
Eason, who was chosen to the Third Team. Freeman, who was named to the All-SBC
Second Team at the conclusion of last season, led Little Rock against league
foes with 16.0 ppg. Thanks to some added strength, Freeman should be more
effective this year driving to the basket. Eason led the Trojans with 31
blocked shots last season and moved into sixth place on UALR’s career blocks
list with 68. If Eason can become a consistent offensive threat on the
perimeter, the Trojans will likely repeat as division champs.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE: The Blue Raiders were recently chosen by the league’s
coaches as the team most likely to claim the East Division title. That
selection is certainly understandable considering that the team welcomes back
four starters, including explosive guard Mike Dean. He averaged a team-high
16.2 ppg a year ago and shot a sensational 43.7 percent from three-point
range. In addition to Dean and the three other starters, MTSU will benefit
tremendously from Georgia transfer Steve Thomas, a strong forward who will
make his presence known on the interior immediately. Head coach Kermit Davis
also has another solid recruiting class, which is considered by many as one of
the best in the league. Make no mistake, MTSU has as good a chance as any team
to represent the Sun Belt in NCAA Tournament this year.

ARKANSAS STATE: Dickey Nutt’s Indians have a chance to win every time they
take the court because of Dewarick Spencer and J.J. Montgomery, the top
scorers in the league last year. Only three times in 28 games last season did
someone other than Spencer or Montgomery lead the squad in scoring. Spencer
averaged 19.0 ppg thanks to his deadly 45.7 percent accuracy from three-point
range, and he also dished out 3.0 apg. As for Montgomery, he wasn’t far behind
with 17.9 ppg. Montgomery does have plenty of room for improvement, however,
as he finished with 86 turnovers and only 33 assists. If the Indians can get
solid contributions from their role players, this season could be a memorable

WESTERN KENTUCKY: While the Hilltoppers are said to be in a “rebuilding” phase
this season, don’t tell that to some of the talented holdovers from last
year’s squad. Anthony Winchester was named preseason Second Team All-league
while Antonio Haynes earned Third Team honors. Winchester, a 6-4 guard,
averaged 14.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg last season as a first-time starter. The junior
led the league and finished 12th in the country with his 87.8 percent shooting
from the foul line. Winchester also posted 60 assists and 23 steals as a
sophomore, and his 40-point effort against UL-Lafayette last year is proof of
his explosiveness. As for Haynes, he averaged 11.9 ppg and 3.2 rpg in 2003-04
while also racking up a team-high 117 assists. He shot 40 percent from three-
point range to rank seventh in the league, and he is key to the success of the
squad this season.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL: First-year head coach Sergio Rouco certainly has some
work to do, as Florida International finished 1-13 against Sun Belt
competition a year ago. Fortunately, Junior Matias is back after injury cut
his season short. Matias averaged 14.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg before getting hurt,
and he is clearly the top option offensively. The Golden Panthers return three
other starters in center Byron Burnett, and forwards Raphael daSilva and
Warren Gale. Burnett finished last season with more than 100 rebounds, and his
34 blocks tied him for the sixth-best season total in the history of the
program and the most for any Golden Panther since 1990-91. Over the last 10
games of last season, daSilva averaged 12.0 ppg and should enter the new
campaign with plenty of confidence. Finally, Gale is a solid performer who
knocks down nearly 90 percent of his free throws.


UL-LAFAYETTE: Coach Cyprien was fired not long after being hired because
he did not have a degree from an accredited institution, but long-time
assistant Robert Lee has taken over the leadership role and his team
ready to play. Senior forward Brian Hamilton is expected to lead the way on
the court, as he shot 61 percent from the floor last season and averaged 11.4
ppg to go along with 6.9 rpg. Hamilton also recorded 58 steals and blocked 13
shots, proof of his outstanding versatility. Orien Greene played in only 18
games a year ago, but he averaged 10.4 ppg in those tilts and should get
plenty more looks this season with the departure of some scorers. Dwayne
Mitchell is another strong offensive performer who adds yet another threat for
the Cajuns, who should challenge for the league title once again.

NEW ORLEANS: The best player in the Sun Belt Conference may be a sophomore, as
New Orleans guard Bo McCalebb was named the Sun Belt Preseason Player of the
Year. McCalleb became the first freshman in league history to be named the
SBC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and he figures to improve
considerably on the 13.1 ppg he averaged as a rookie. Unfortunately, McCalleb
is the only returning double-digit scorer on the roster, and it is unclear how
much help he will get from an offensive standpoint. As the point guard, he
will be hounded constantly and prevented from getting open looks unless at
least one teammate proves capable of being a solid second scoring option.

SOUTH ALABAMA: The Jaguars return three starters and five letterwinners from
last season’s 12-16 squad. Seven newcomers are in the fold, including transfer
guards Jeffrey Collins from UAB and Stephen Cowherd from Mississippi State who
sat out last season. Malerick Bedden and Chris Young, the only two double-
digit scorers during the 2003-04 season, are gone. Without a go-to guy, the
door is wide open for someone to emerge as a consistent scorer. Mario Jointer
scored 19 points to lead five Jaguars in double figures in the team’s first
exhibition game, a 90-58 romp over North Alabama. Richard Law added 16 points,
Collins 15 and Cowherd and Daniel Northern finished with 11 and 10 points,
respectively. Although it was just a scrimmage, the results were promising.

DENVER: The good news for Denver is that it should get solid play from its
backcourt this season. Erik Benzel was fifth in the nation in three-point
field goals made per game and 26th in the country in three-point field goal
percentage (.422). He also led the team in scoring (14.4 ppg) and finished
second in assists (64) and steals (35). As for Rodney Billups, brother of NBA
standout Chauncey, he netted 10.4 ppg a year ago to go along with 134 assists
and 50 steals. Yemi Nicholson and Terrence Gordon figure to be two of the many
players that will get significant minutes in the frontcourt. Gordon is an
outstanding runner and jumper who is quick and explosive. As for Nicholson, he
has been able to add some much-needed bulk to his frame, although there is
room and need for much more.

NORTH TEXAS: The success of this North Texas team will depend heavily on the
play of senior guard Leonard Hopkins. A Second Team All-Sun Belt Conference
selection at the end of last season, Hopkins led the Mean Green in scoring
with 14.0 ppg and reached double figures on 19 occasions. He tallied at least
20 points in six games, including a career-high 27 points against New Orleans
in the SBC Tournament. The fact that there isn’t another returning double-
digit scorer on the roster is concerning, however, as Hopkins will likely face
constant double-teaming until a teammate emerges as a solid second scoring
option. Calvin Watson averaged 8.3 ppg as a freshman in 2003-04 thanks to his
deadly 41 percent efficiency from three-point range. After missing the first
11 games of the season, he played in the final 17 and became the first true
freshman to start 13 or more games for the program since the 1999-00 campaign.

NEW MEXICO STATE: Junior guard Duane John was named a Preseason Third Team
All-Sun Belt selection, and strong play by him will certainly make things
easier on coach Stubblefield. He is coaching in place of Lou Henson, who has
stepped away from the team for an undetermined amount of time for health
reasons. John was the Aggies’ second-leading scorer a year ago, averaging 13.1
ppg to go along with 5.2 rpg. He dropped 33 points against New Mexico and 26
against UTEP three nights later last year, proof of his explosiveness. Senior
Robert Frazier scored 22 points and added nine rebounds and six assists in the
team’s exhibition win over Western New Mexico recently, and that performance
was certainly promising. Overall, however, not much should be expected of the