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October 15, 2010

League preview: Sun Belt

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

18. Sun Belt

By Mike Huguenin

After back-to-back seasons featuring NCAA tourney wins by conference teams, the Sun Belt slipped a bit last season, with league teams going 0-3 in the postseason.

That included North Texas getting trounced in the first round of the NCAA tourney by eventual Elite Eight participant Kansas State.

North Texas very well could get another NCAA tourney shot this season. Coach Johnny Jones' team returns four starters, including the league's best inside-outside duo in F George Odufuwa, who averaged a double-double last season, and G Tristan Thompson. Jones played guard at LSU for Dale Brown, and he has the league's deepest backcourt to work with, a major reason North Texas is the league favorite.

Arkansas State and Denver return four starters each, but they appear to be a level below North Texas in the West Division. Arkansas State should benefit from the return of G Donald Boone, who suffered a severe knee injury in the opener last season. But the Red Wolves will miss G Brandon Reed, the league's freshman of the year who transferred to Georgia Tech. Denver runs a Princeton-style offense, and though the Pioneers lack athleticism, they shoot well and can fill it up from 3-point range. G Brian Stafford has all-league potential.

Louisiana-Lafayette hopes the hiring of Bob Marlin away from Sam Houston State gets the program back on track, but it's not going to happen overnight for the Ragin' Cajuns, who haven't had a winning season since 2004-05. Arkansas-Little Rock needs a big season from G Solomon Bozeman, who began his career at USF, if it wants to challenge for a top-three finish. ULM is starting over under new coach Keith Richard, a former Louisiana Tech head coach who was hired off the staff at LSU. Richard will depend heavily on Kansas State transfer Fred Brown.

Western Kentucky should return to its familiar spot atop the East Division. The Hilltoppers finished third in the division last season, but coach Ken McDonald will count on what should be the league's best frontcourt this season. Holdovers Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch will be joined by Oklahoma transfer Juan Pattillo in an undersized but extremely athletic frontcourt. But the Hilltoppers will miss G A.J. Slaughter.

South Alabama looks to be the toughest challenger in the East, thanks to four returning starters. The Jaguars won 17 games last season, their first non-20-win season since 2004-05. G Tim Williams should be one of the main contenders for league player of the year honors; he led the Jaguars in scoring and rebounding and was second in assists and steals.

Florida Atlantic is the other team to watch in the East. The starting backcourt of Greg Gantt and 5-foot-6 Raymond Taylor is excellent for coach Mike Jarvis, but will the Owls get enough offensive production from their frontcourt?

Middle Tennessee and Troy should expect drop-offs. MTSU needs a big season from UTEP transfer Jason Jones, while Troy is replacing all five starters. Expect Isiah Thomas' Florida International team to again finish last in the division.

F George Odufuwa, North Texas (6-8/240, Sr.)
F Steffphon Pettigrew, Western Kentucky (6-5/223, Sr.)
G Greg Gantt, Florida Atlantic (6-2/205, Soph.)
G Tristan Thompson, North Texas (6-5/193, Sr.)
G Tim Williams, South Alabama (6-3/194, Sr.)
C Martavius Adams, Arkansas State (6-8/255, Jr.)
F Sergio Kerusch, Western Kentucky (6-5/225, Sr.)
G Fred Brown, Louisiana-Monroe (6-2/190, Jr.)
G Solomon Bozeman, Arkansas-Little Rock (6-0/183, Sr.)
G Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic (5-6/150, Soph.)
PLAYER OF YEAR: G Tristan Thompson, North Texas
NEWCOMER OF YEAR: G Fred Brown, Louisiana-Monroe (transfer from Kansas State)

1. Western Kentucky
2. South Alabama
3. Florida Atlantic
4. Middle Tennessee
5. Troy
6. Florida International
1. North Texas
2. Arkansas State
3. Denver
4. Louisiana-Lafayette
5. Arkansas-Little Rock
6. Louisiana-Monroe

New coaches: Bob Marlin at Louisiana-Lafayette (had been coach at Sam Houston State); Keith Richard at Louisiana-Monroe (had been assistant at LSU).
Regular-season winner last season: Middle Tennessee and Troy (East) and North Texas (West)
Tourney winner last season: North Texas
League RPI rank in each of past 3 years: 21st in 2009-10, 17th in 2008-09, 16th in 2007-08
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2009, Western Kentucky as a No. 12 seed in first round
2011 conference tournament: March 5-8, Hot Springs, Ark.

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