Tuesday , Nov , 01 , 2005 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: Last season, Arkansas-Little Rock, Denver and UL-Lafayette all
finished with 10 or more league victories. The Pioneers won the regular season
title with a 12-3 record but were relegated to the NIT. UALR won the league’s
Eastern Division but did not earn a postseason invite after an early exit from
the Sun Belt tourney. Western Kentucky participated in the NIT, but it was UL-
Lafayette that ran through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and earned the
league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This season, Denver, Western
Kentucky and UL-Lafayette all figure to challenge for the regular season
title, but Little Rock may have trouble reaching last season’s level of
achievement. Middle Tennessee State and New Orleans will both be solid teams,
and Florida International could prove to an unexpected force. As for clubs
such as South Alabama, North Texas, Troy and Arkansas State, a .500 finish may
be out of reach.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Western Kentucky

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: EAST DIVISION: 1. Western Kentucky; 2. Middle
Tennessee State; 3. Florida International; 4. Arkansas-Little Rock; 5.
Arkansas State; WEST DIVISION: 1. Denver; 2. UL-Lafayette; 3. New Orleans; 4.
South Alabama; 5. North Texas; 6. Troy

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

EAST DIVISION:

WESTERN KENTUCKY: When discussing the strengths of this year’s Western
Kentucky squad, you have to start in the backcourt. The guard duo of Anthony
Winchester and Courtney Lee is the best in the league, as both players can
light it up offensively. Winchester is a 6-4 senior who averaged 18.2 ppg on
50.3 percent shooting from the field last season, which included a stellar
45.3 percent from behind the arc. Equally impressive is the fact that he was
able to pull down 7.2 rpg from his guard position. As for Lee, a 6-5
sophomore, he netted 14.9 ppg as a rookie to go along with 5.2 rpg, and there
is reason to believe that he can improve upon those figures. Tragedy struck
the program in the offseason when Danny Rumph passed away during a pick-up
game. It remains to be seen how the club will deal with that loss both
physically and emotionally. Elgrace Wilborn is a big-time shot blocker who
needs to become more active at the offensive end and shoot much better from
the foul line. If he and a couple of unknowns can sure up the front line, the
Hilltoppers will be tough to beat.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE: Looking at the returning players for MTSU, there is
not a great deal to get excited about. Sure, 6-6 senior guard Marcus Morrisson
averaged 10.9 ppg a year ago and can score both inside and out, and forward
Kyle Young has the potential to be a scoring threat on the interior, but truth
be told, head coach Kermit Davis doesn’t know exactly what to expect of his
team. At least two fresh faces will be in the starting lineup when the season
tips off, perhaps even three. Forward Tim Blue is a juco transfer who sat out
last season, and the 6-9 Blue is extremely athletic and capable of an
immediate impact. Bud Howard is another juco transfer slated for the starting
lineup, and he is an explosive guard who figures to play right away. Maybe the
Blue Raiders are rated too high, but the program has been strong in recent
years so let’s give Davis the benefit of the doubt.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL: Two years ago, FIU won exactly five games and was one
of Division I-A’s weaker teams. In his first season as head coach, Sergio
Rouco led the 2004-05 Panthers to 13 victories, and the club can no longer be
viewed as an automatic win on the schedule. The league’s top frontcourt duo is
back in place, and both Ivan Almonte and Ismael N’Diaye will be marked men
this season. Almonte was simply sensational a year ago, as he racked up 17.2
points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, a line rivaled by few players
nationally. He shot 52.9 percent from the field despite constant hounding by
defenders, and the 6-6 senior is eager to prove that he is as good as those
numbers suggest. N’Diaye posted 13.4 ppg a year ago, and the energy that he
brings to the floor is undeniable. Some fresh faces and unproven returnees
will surround the standout forwards in the lineup, but the presence of Almonte
and N’Diaye makes FIU a legitimate threat in the Sun Belt.

ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK: Last season, head coach Steve Shields had the luxury of
starting five seniors. Obviously, all of them have to be replaced as we enter
a new campaign, so the expectations of fans have to be lessened somewhat.
Fortunately, super sixth man Zach Wright is back after finishing second on the
club in scoring in 2004-05 with 11.1 ppg. He is a terrific three-point shooter
and tremendous at the foul line as well, and he could rank among the league’s
leading scorers this season. No other returnee averaged double figures in
minutes last year, and a pair of juco transfers figure to be in the lineup.
Three of the projected starters are 6-7 or taller, so size should not be a
problem. Still, cautious optimism is probably best at this point.

ARKANSAS STATE: There are reasons why Arkansas State has been chosen to finish
at the bottom of the East Division standings. First, the Indians have had only
one winning conference slate since 2000. Secondly, the club’s top two scorers
from a year ago are gone, leaving few proven commodities remaining on the
roster. Jerry Nichols, a 6-6 senior guard, shot 41.8 percent from three-point
range a year ago and made 61 treys. He becomes the new go-to guy at the
offensive end, and it remains to be seen if he can be more than just a spot-up
shooter. Kitus Witherspoon ripped down 7.0 rpg last season and shot better
than 50 percent from the floor, but he needs to look for his shot more often.
Dereke Tipler is a 5-10 senior point guard who dished out 5.3 apg in 2004-05,
and he is certainly capable of running the offense. There are some pieces in
place for head coach Dickey Nutt, but it is hard to get too excited about the
Indians.

WEST DIVISION:

DENVER: Perhaps the most surprising player in all of college basketball last
season was Denver’s Yemi Nicholson. After originally coming to the school for
music with no intention of playing basketball, Nicholson racked up 21.2 ppg,
9.7 rpg and 4.0 bpg in league play in 2004-05 en route to winning Sun Belt
Conference Player of the Year honors. He is now on every NBA scouting list,
and the 6-10 senior has a chance to be even better this season. He will not
have to get it done alone, fortunately, as a few other key contributors from
last year’s squad are back in place. Antonio Porch is a 6-6 junior who managed
12.8 ppg and 6.3 rpg as a sophomore, and his success last year should breed
even more confidence as we begin this season. Andrew Carpenter, a 6-2 senior
guard, was a solid contributor last year and he is expected to up his
productivity. With a couple of juco transfers slated to round out the starting
lineup, Denver has to be considered one of the favorites to win the league.

UL-LAFAYETTE: Why are we so high on UL-Lafayette despite the fact that the
team’s top three scorers from a year ago are gone? First, let’s look at the
program’s track record. The Cajuns have posted four consecutive 20-win
campaigns and have managed double-digit league victories in six straight
years. Secondly, the Sun Belt’s second best all-around point guard is back for
his senior season. Dwayne Mitchell can do it all, as the 6-5 senior point man
racked up 10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 3.6 apg in 2004-05 while shooting 52.8 percent
from the field. Keep an eye on forward/center Chris Cameron, a 6-11 senior who
has tremendous shooting touch for a player his size. As many as three new
faces figure to be in the starting lineup for ULL, and all three are extremely
athletic. No club in the Sun Belt will run the floor as well as the Cajuns,
who seem to be a force every season regardless of personnel.

NEW ORLEANS: There are many outstanding players in the Sun Belt Conference,
but none can take over a game at the offensive end quite like Bo McCalebb. The
6-0 junior from New Orleans is not physically imposing by any means, but he is
the premier point guard in the league and can do a little bit of everything on
the court. McCalebb averaged 22.6 ppg as a sophomore on 48 percent shooting
from the field, numbers that are even more impressive than they originally
appear when considering that the team lacked a solid second scoring option. He
also pulled down 4.3 rpg and dished out 3.7 apg, and he will have to post
similar numbers just for the Privateers to be competitive. The hope is that
Ben Elias and Shawn Malloy can combine to create a strong front line, and
while both put up solid rebounding numbers a year ago, neither player was a
major factor at the offensive end. Once again, McCalebb should expect two
defenders surrounding him on every trip down the floor.

SOUTH ALABAMA: The Jags have gone through a stretch of four bad seasons, and
coach John Pelphrey has been at the helm for the last three. Clearly, he needs
to prove to the school that he is the right man for the job. He has had ample
time to recruit and the results need to be evident this season. Sure, 6-2
senior guard Mario Jointer is one of the more explosive scorers in the league
and is coming off a campaign in which he netted 16.6 ppg on 39.7 percent
efficiency from behind the arc while also pulling down 5.2 rpg. Still, he must
become more consistent, as there were a few contests last year in which he
didn’t help the team at all. One player who is expected to provide immediate
offensive help is Chey Christie, a 6-4 senior transfer from Clemson. He should
be able to score in double figures this season, and that will keep teams from
keying on Jointer. Even if both players perform well, USA is a middle-of-the-
pack club at best.

NORTH TEXAS: Head coach Johnny Jones enters this season with few proven
commodities, so expectations aren’t very high for the program. The hope is
that Calvin Watson and Kendrick Davis can form a lethal one-two punch at the
offensive end. Watson, a 6-5 junior guard, posted 11.3 ppg a year ago on 40.2
percent efficiency from three-point range. As for Davis, he is a transfer from
Arkansas with big-time ability. The fact that Davis averaged double figures in
the scoring column for Arkansas as a freshman has to be exciting for fans of
the Mean Green, as the Sun Belt isn’t quite as tough as the SEC. Jeffrey
Simpson was one of the top shot blockers in the league a year ago, and he shot
the ball at a high percentage as a junior as well. Now, the 6-8 senior must
become more active on offense in his increased role. North Texas will not be
an easy out for opponents, but don’t expect the Mean Green to finish with a
winning record.

TROY: This is the first season for the Trojans as Sun Belt members, and don’t
expect the wins to come easily. Troy relies heavily on the three-point shot,
and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, head coach Dan Maestri
understands the importance of establishing a formidable scoring threat on the
interior. Bobby Dixon, a 5-10 senior point guard, is coming off an outstanding
junior campaign that saw him tally 14.7 ppg and 4.1 apg while shooting nearly
40 percent from behind the arc. As many as three new faces will be in the
starting lineup for the opener, and the best of that trio may be juco transfer
Sammy Sharp. A 6-7 swingman, Sharp can score both inside and from out on the
perimeter, and he figures to get a great deal of touches right away. Don’t
expect big things from the Trojans just yet, however, as they need to get
settled into their new league and begin to recruit better players.