Posted on: March 6, 2012 9:32 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2012 10:27 pm

Tiny Dancers: Western Kentucky

We have our first true Cinderella story of March.

Western Kentucky, which was 5-14 at one point this season, ran through the Sun Belt Conference tournament as the No. 7 seed, beating the Nos. 10, 2, 3 and 5 seeds along the way. It was capped with a come-from-behind 74-70 win over North Texas in the championship game, led by big men George Fant and Teeng Akol combining for 40 points and 11 rebounds.

Head coach Ray Harper took over the program on January 6 after Ken McDonald was fired, going 4-7 over the next 11 games. On February 19, it was announced that Harper had his interim tag removed and therefore became the permanent head coach of the Hilltoppers. Since that announcement, Western Kentucky is 6-0. 

Western Kentucky is a young team, starting three freshmen and two juniors. It’s certainly not the same team that made back-to-back NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2009, winning three postseason games in two years. With that said, the Hilltoppers are miraculously dancing again.

Western Kentucky won four games in four days to get into the NCAA tournament with a 15-18 record. (US Presswire)

Player to know: Derrick Gordon. Playing alongside Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dexter Strickland and Kyrie Irving at St. Patrick (N.J.), Gordon was often overshadowed. He has made sure that didn’t happen in the Sun Belt, entering the league as a freshman and making an impact immediately. Gordon struggled in the semifinals and title game, but he had been on a tear in the previous stretch. The 6-foot-2 guard had 25 points and 15 boards in the upset of No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock. 

The Vitals:

  • Record: 15-18 overall, 7-9 in Sun Belt
  • Most recent tournament appearance: 2009, No. 12 seed, beat Illinois 76-72 in first round, lost to Gonzaga 83-81 in second round.
  • We’re thinking: 16 seed (play-in game)
  • KenPom ranking: 197
  • Sagarin ranking: 206
  • RPI: 197
  • Best wins: Middle Tennessee, Denver
  • Worst losses: Troy (2), FIU, Furman
  • Notable stat: Western Kentucky gets to the free-throw line with exceptional effectiveness. The Hilltoppers took 118 foul shots in the Sun Belt tournament.

-- Jeff Borzello

Posted on: March 6, 2012 12:54 am
Edited on: March 6, 2012 3:57 pm

Championship game preview: Sun Belt

The first conference tournament to get turned upside-down this year was the Sun Belt, which saw three of the top four seeds – including the top two seeds – lose in the quarterfinals. The fun didn’t stop on Monday, as the remaining favorite, No. 3 seed Denver, was toppled by No. 7 Western Kentucky. On the other side of the bracket, No. 5 seed North Texas will head to the title game for the third straight season after beating No. 9 Arkansas State.

North Texas won the first meeting between the two teams, in mid-January. In that game, the Mean Green shot better than 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range en route to a 17-point win.

Western Kentucky is a very different team than it was back then, as Ray Harper took over as the head coach and completely turned around the Hilltoppers’ season. They knocked off regular-season champion Middle Tennessee in the season finale and also beat the top tournament contenders in the conference tournament. During their recent five-game winning streak, the Hilltoppers are playing far better offensively and showing more consistency on the defensive end.

Plenty of impressive freshmen will be on display Tuesday night in Hot Springs, Ark. North Texas’ Tony Mitchell is one of the top newcomers in the country, capable of dominating at both ends of the floor. Western Kentucky counters with Derrick Gordon and George Fant.

North Texas has been far more balanced lately, with Alzee Williams, Jacob Holmen and Roger Franklin all picking up the slack with Mitchell struggling in the postseason. If Mitchell returns to the form he showed in the regular season, Western Kentucky could have trouble.

The winner of this game will likely be the lowest-rated team in the field, meaning the winner could end up in Dayton for the First Four.  

-- Jeff Borzello

Posted on: March 5, 2012 10:21 am

Sun Belt tournament bursts wide-open

Conference tournaments have been fairly normal so far. Only a couple of No. 1 seeds were knocked out, but the second seeds in those leagues picked up the slack.

Not in the Sun Belt. Sunday saw both Middle Tennessee and Arkansas-Little Rock – the top two seeds – fall in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Moreover, No. 4 seed Lafayette also lost over the weekend.

Where does that leave things?

No. 3 seed Denver is now the favorite to win the automatic bid, as the Pioneers have won five in a row and are the highest-remaining seed. They draw No. 7 seed Western Kentucky in the semifinals. The Hilltoppers have defeated Middle Tennessee and Arkansas-Little Rock in the past two weeks, so they won’t be an easy out anymore.

An intriguing team could be North Texas. The Mean Green have the league’s most dominant player, freshman forward Tony Mitchell. He is capable of carrying the team at both ends of the floor. Moreover, Mitchell struggled in the quarterfinals, but North Texas still had four players score in double-figures. The Mean Green face No. 9 Arkansas State in the semis on Monday.

The loss by Middle Tennessee also brings up another discussion point: are the Blue Raiders worthy of an at-large bid? Heading into last weekend, it would have looked like they had a chance, but they have since lost to Western Kentucky and Arkansas State, two teams with RPIs below 200. They have no marquee wins, with the best victories coming over Ole Miss, Belmont and Akron. The computer profile has also taken a huge hit with the recent losses. More than likely, Middle Tennessee is headed to the NIT. 

-- Jeff Borzello

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 1, 2012 2:10 pm
Edited on: March 1, 2012 3:28 pm

What-to-know conference previews: Sun Belt

After not being selected to win the Sun Belt in the preseason, Middle Tennessee used a non-conference campaign with quality wins to pick up momentum and steam roll the league. The Blue Raiders did lose two of its last six games, though; could we see an upset?

Middle Tennessee beat UCLA, Belmont, Akron and Ole Miss prior to conference play starting, and didn’t slow down from there. Kermit Davis’ group started 10-0 in the Sun Belt, prior to stumbling in a couple games late. They might make a case for an at-large if they lose in the tournament, but the season finale loss at Western Kentucky really wrecks those chances. The Blue Raiders play excellent defense, contesting shots and forcing turnovers. Offensively, they get inside very effectively, leaning on Player of the Year LaRon Dendy.

Behind Middle Tennessee, there are two teams that were chasing for much of the season. Arkansas-Little Rock has won seven of its last nine, and was fairly consistent throughout league play. The Trojans get to the free-throw line effectively and also force turnovers.

Middle Tennessee only lost two games during the league season, heading into the tourney as the favorite. (US Presswire)

Denver seems to be hitting its stride at the right time, winning its final four games of the season to get the three seed. The Pioneers are very efficient offensively, with plenty of shooters on the perimeter. Despite their slow pace, they force turnovers and really share the ball. Chris Udofia is dominant inside.

North Texas has been up-and-down for much of the season, but the Mean Green have the pieces to make a run in the conference tournament. Tony Mitchell is the most talented player in the conference, with the ability to rack up 20 points, 15 boards and five blocks every night out. The Mean Green also defend as well as any team in the conference.



Title game: Tuesday, March 6 on ESPN2 (6 p.m., ET)


  1. Tony Mitchell, North Texas
  2. LaRon Dendy, Middle Tennessee
  3. Chris Udofia, Denver
  4. Augustine Rubit, South Alabama
  5. D’Andre Williams, Arkansas-Little Rock

Conference RPI: 19

KenPom.com rating: 19

Sagarin rating: 19

NCAA Tournament Locks: None

NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams: Middle Tennessee

Last NCAA Tournament Appearances

  • Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans: 2011, No. 16 seed, lost to UNC-Asheville 81-77 in the opening round.
  • Arkansas State Red Wolves: 1999, No. 15 seed, lost to Utah 80-58 in the first round.
  • Denver Pioneers: N/A.
  • Florida Atlantic Owls: 2002, No. 15 seed, lost to Alabama 86-78 in the first round.
  • Florida International Golden Panthers: 1995, No. 16 seed, lost to UCLA 92-56 in the first round.
  • Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns: 2005, No. 13 seed, lost to Louisville 68-62 in the first round.
  • Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders: 1989, No. 13 seed, beat Florida State 97-83 in the first round, followed by a 104-88 loss to Virginia in the second round.
  • North Texas Mean Green: 2010, No. 15 seed, lost to Kansas State 82-62 in the first round.
  • South Alabama Jaguars: 2008, No. 10 seed, lost to Butler 81-61 in the first round.
  • Troy Trojans: 2003, No. 14 seed, lost to Xavier 71-59 in the first round.
  • Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: 2009, No. 12 seed, beat Gonzaga 83-81 in the first round, followed by a 76-72 loss to Illinois in the second round.

- Jeff Borzello

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 8, 2011 9:35 pm

Welcome to the Dance, Arkansas-Little Rock!

With one clutch 3-pointer, the biggest shot and biggest Cinderella story of championship week will come from the Sun Belt. Conference player of the year Solomon Bozeman stopped on a dime and pulled up for the game-winning 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left to send Arkansas-Little Rock to the NCAA tournament. The Trojans overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 1:28 to defeat North Texas, 64-63. Bozeman finished with 20 points to lead UALR.

Coming into the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed from the West division, Little Rock were just 15-16 during the regular season, losing seven of its last 10 games. The Trojans turned it around in the postseason, though, holding opponents to fewer than 60 points per game. After reaching the NCAA tournament three times during a five-year span in the late 1980s, the Trojans had gone 20 seasons without an appearance. The alma mater of Derek Fisher is finally back in the Big Dance.

Player to know: Solomon Bozeman. Who else could it possibly be? Although most of America was introduced to Bozeman on his game-winning 3-pointer, he has been doing things like that all season for the Trojans. Bozeman is a tremendous outside shooter, knocking 46.3 percent of his 3-pointers. He took his game to another level during the conference tournament, averaging 19.5 points in four games, getting to the free-throw line an astonishing 50 times.

The Vitals:

  • Record: 19-16, 7-9 Sun Belt
  • Team colors: Maroon, silver and black
  • We’re thinking: 16-seed
  • KenPom ranking: 212
  • RPI: 205
  • Best win: Tulsa (18-12)
  • Worst loss: South Alabama (12-16)
  • Notable stat: The Trojans rank ninth in the country in 3-point percentage, knocking down 40.5 percent of their outside shots.
  • Most recent tournament history: 1990. Went into the tournament as a No. 16 seed and lost to UNLV in the first round.

Photo: US Presswire

Posted by Jeff Borzello

More College Basketball coverage
Category: NCAAB
Tags: BELT, Sun Belt
Posted on: March 8, 2011 9:43 am

Sun Belt championship game preview

The best part of championship week is the Cinderella stories that emerge, lower-seeded teams making runs through their respective conference tournaments to get automatic bids. Luckily, the Sun Belt Conference championship game (7 p.m., ESPN2) features two that fit the description: North Texas and Arkansas-Little Rock.

North Texas (22-10, 8-8) came into the season as the Sun Belt favorite, after winning the title last year. The Mean Green struggled in conference play, though, finishing fourth in the West division. It looks like they have hit their stride in the conference tournament, winning their three games by an average of nearly 16 points per contest. North Texas swept Arkansas-Little Rock during the regular season.

The Mean Green have a balanced crew, led by guard Tristan Thompson. The senior guard has been lighting it up in the conference tournament, totaling 64 points in his last two games. Thompson teams in the backcourt with fellow seniors Josh White and Dominique Johnson. White is a solid scorer, although he has been inconsistent lately, while Johnson is an efficient offensive playmaker. Up front, George Odufuwa averages a double-double and has been playing well in the league tournament.

Arkansas-Little Rock (18-16, 7-9) didn’t look like much of a threat heading into the tournament. The Trojans had lost their final three games and seven of their last 10, stumbling into the postseason as the No. 5 seed in the West. UALR has been doing it with defense in the conference tournament, holding South Alabama, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee to an average of 58.7 points per game.

Sun Belt Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman leads the way for the Trojans. Bozeman is an unbelievable scorer who has put the team on his back in the conference tournament, averaging nearly 23 points per game. He has been to the free-throw line an astonishing 42 times in three games. If Bozeman gets hot, look out. UALR is a very deep team, with balanced offensive options after Bozeman. Alex Garcia-Mendoza and D’Andre Williams are playing well at the right time.

The match-up to watch in this one will be Thompson vs. Bozeman. Both players are on fire in the conference tournament and have the ability to carry their respective teams to a victory. North Texas has to attack the rim offensively, drawing fouls and scoring from the charity stripe. Defensively, the Mean Green have to guard the arc. On the other side, UALR has to be disciplined defensively and get consistent perimeter production.

North Texas seems to have rid itself of whatever plagued it during the conference season; the Mean Green are hitting on all cylinders right now and look very difficult to beat. Bozeman will keep Little Rock in the game, but he doesn’t have the supporting cast to match Thompson and North Texas. Expect the Mean Green to be an intriguing 16-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Photo: US Presswire

Posted by Jeff Borzello

More College Basketball coverage
Category: NCAAB
Tags: BELT, Sun Belt
Posted on: March 7, 2011 12:15 pm
Edited on: March 7, 2011 12:19 pm

Sun Belt blown wide open

With the top three favorites getting knocked out before the semifinals, we suddenly have our most wide-open conference tournament: the Sun Belt.

It was a crazy Sunday in the conference, as Middle Tennessee (17-15, 10-6) was the only team with a bye to advance out of the quarterfinals.

Regular-season champion Florida Atlantic (21-10, 13-3) was defeated by defending champion North Texas (21-10, 8-8), which received 36 points from guard Tristan Thompson. Perennial contender Western Kentucky (16-15, 8-8) knocked off Louisiana-Lafayette (14-15, 11-5), which came into the tournament with 11 straight wins. West division champ Arkansas State (17-15, 11-5) lost to Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman and Arkansas-Little Rock (17-16, 7-9). Middle Tennessee destroyed Florida International (11-19, 6-10) to restore some semblance of sanity.

Where does that leave us? Is Middle Tennessee automatically the favorite?

The Blue Raiders lost three of their final four heading into the conference tournament, including one to four-win Houston Baptist. They have bounced back since then, though, winning two in a row by a combined 43 points. This is a very deep team, utilizing a 10-man rotation. James Washington III and Jason Jones are the main options offensively, although J.T. Sulton is coming on strong down low.

Heading into the tournament, we said North Texas and Western Kentucky would be the two sleepers to watch. North Texas, which reached the NCAA Tournament last year, still has plenty of talent. Thompson leads a deep perimeter group that also features scorers Josh White and playmaker Dominique Johnson. George Odufuwa has posted 16 double-doubles for the Mean Green. When Western Kentucky is getting the production it has been receiving from its frontcourt, the Hilltoppers are tough to beat. The trio of Sergio Kerusch, Steffphon Pettigrew and Juan Patillo combined for 65 points and 24 rebounds against Lafayette in the quarters.

Arkansas-Little Rock lost seven of its final 10 games, but the Trojans are hitting their stride at the right time. Solomon Bozeman is the league’s best player, although he has been inconsistent lately. Fellow guard Alex Garcia-Mendoza, a native of Mexico, has posted double-figures in four of his last five games. Little Rock makes a killing from the 3-point line and the free-throw line, getting just 45.7 percent of its points from 2-point shots.

The semifinals are set, with Middle Tennessee taking on Arkansas-Little Rock, and North Texas facing Western Kentucky. North Texas was the preseason favorite; with the way the Mean Green are playing, have things come full circle?

Updated Sun Belt Bracket

Photo: US Presswire

More College Basketball coverage
Category: NCAAB
Tags: BELT, Sun Belt
Posted on: March 7, 2011 12:15 pm
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