Tag:Sun Belt
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: January 27, 2012 1:42 pm

Middle Tennessee pins at-large hopes on Saturday

By Jeff Borzello

With multiple major conferences suffering down years and a number of mid-majors still unbeaten in conference play, we might see a higher number of non-BCS teams getting at-large bids this season.

One of those teams to keep an eye on could be Middle Tennessee, whose at-large hopes come down to Saturday.

That is when the Blue Raiders head to Vanderbilt in an intriguing non-league contest. Right now, Middle Tennessee sits at 19-2, with 12 consecutive wins heading into the weekend. The only losses were to Belmont – whom they also beat – and UAB.

Does Kermit Davis’ squad hold legitimate at-large potential? The Blue Raiders have top-100 wins over Ole Miss, Akron and Belmont, with road victories over Loyola Marymount and UCLA also on the resume. Assuming they run the table in the Sun Belt – not a guarantee, with road games against North Texas and Denver remaining – and then lose in the Sun Belt tournament, the Blue Raiders do have a chance.

But it comes down to Saturday’s game in Memorial Gym.

A win over Vanderbilt would vault Middle Tennessee’s RPI into the top 50 and it would also give the Blue Raiders a marquee win to hang their hat on come Selection Sunday. Victories over Ole Miss and Akron don’t have the same effect. The win would likely leave Middle Tennessee with at least a 5-1 record against the RPI top 100 heading into the NCAA tournament. That’s tough to pass up.

A loss on Saturday, though, and Middle Tennessee might have to win the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Photo: US Presswire

Posted on: January 5, 2012 11:22 pm
Edited on: January 6, 2012 4:12 pm

Louisiana-Lafayette wins game with six on court

By Jeff Goodman

I wasn't a math major, but I sure can tell from the video below that Louisiana-Lafayette had six players on the court for the game-winning possession. 

I was also taught that that's one more than is allowed. 

Unfortunately, the officiating crew didn't catch it - and Western Kentucky was on the losing end of a game-winning shot because they had to guard six players for the final 21 seconds of overtime. 

Hilltoppers coach Ken McDonald had no idea that Louisiana-Lafayette had six players on the court until after the final horn sounded. 

The game was tied at 70-all as Lafayette inbounded the ball with 21 seconds remaining in overtime. The officiating crew had no idea that the Ragin' Cajuns had an extra player on the court. 

The officials are supposed to count the number of players on each sides on the floor. 

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said McDonald, who team nearly forced a turnover despite being a man down. "What really hurts is the kids. They really played hard." 

"The refs made a mistake," he added. 

McDonald said by the time everyone figured out what had transpired, the officiating crew was already off the court. He was told that he can't appeal. 

"Once they leave the court, you can't review it," McDonald said. "From what I've been told, you can't appeal it, either." 

McDonald was surprisingly calm for a coach whose young team (he starts four freshmen) could have used this victory. 

"It's a tough way to lose," McDonald said. "But we can still take a lot of positives from this game." 

Video via Tim Burke of Deadspin, who was on the ball with this shortly after it ended.
Posted on: December 22, 2011 10:36 am
Edited on: December 22, 2011 10:42 am

Kendrick at PG might work for Ole Miss

By Gary Parrish

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. -- Ole Miss freshman Jelan Kendrick scored his first collegiate points late Wednesday.

They came in a 68-56 loss to Middle Tennessee State.

So that's not good.

But the reality is that Kendrick -- the former McDonald's All-American best known for being removed from the team at Memphis last year before ever playing a game -- looked surprisingly comfortable on the court in just his second game since becoming eligible. He played 29 minutes and mostly at point guard, which is something coach Andy Kennedy said he decided to try out of necessity.

"I'm just looking for somebody that doesn't throw it to the other team," Kennedy said. "I don't mean that flippantly, but that's the truth."

Here's some more truth: Kendrick's natural gifts were obvious against MTSU. He finished with eight points, three assists, three rebounds and four steals, and he turned the ball over just once. The 6-foot-7 playmaker operated under control, didn't force much and rarely hurt the Rebels on the defensive end of the court. More important, Kendrick finally provided a tangible reason to believe the possible reward of enrolling the talented but troubled prospect might out-weigh the obvious risks that've plagued his college career to date.

"If he can just do what Andy asks him to do all the time, he's gonna be a really good player," said MTSU coach Kermit Davis. "He's long and athletic, and I didn't think he settled for jumpshots. He kept trying to get to the rim. I thought he played well."
Posted on: December 15, 2011 1:40 pm

Mid-season Mid-Major Mojo: Middle Tennessee State

By Matt Norlander

We’re going to give the blog spotlight to a few quite-deserving mid-majors in the next 10 days or so. These are the dog days of the college hoops season, the finals-addled lull that comes just in time for all of us to get that free moment to procrastinate even further from buying holiday gifts.

We’re starting with Middle Tennessee State, which is 10-2 and has the best record in the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders defeated Belmont Tuesday night in a grudge match of a game, knocking off the Bruins 65-52, the most impressive win of the season so far (yes, far better than beating UCLA). It was the second time they played this year, since the two met in lower-48 bracket play during the Maui Invitational.

“It was the same game we always play against them,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “Belmont had beaten us in two straight overtime games. Every game with us is like last night.”

I caught up with head coach Kermit Davis over the summer after his team’s trip to Calgary. Davis told me Wednesday that trip is the biggest reason why his team’s been able to win 83 percent of its games to date this season. They’re deep, and they’ve needed those bodies, because the remarkable thing about Middle Tennessee State’s start: it’s done it despite some big injuries to big players.

  • Torin Walker, the Oklahoma State redshirt sophomore transfer and projected starting center, was forced by the NCAA to sit three games to start the season. And he’s been out for the rest of the start to this season due to plantar fasciitis.
  • Jason Jones, a preseason All-Sun Belt players and the team’s returning scorer, missed the team’s first five games with a back injury. Recently, that injury’s been inflamed, causing him to miss the team’s past two games.
  • Kerry Hammonds led the Sun Belt in 3-point percentage last season. He’s missed games because of a stress reaction on the top of his left foot. He should be available for next Wednesday’s game against Ole Miss.

And what a big one that will be. It’s not a true road game (it will be played in South Haven, Miss., instead of Oxford), but nevertheless, if MTSU got a win there, it could start to make its case as possible bubble team down the road. But MTSU is used to being top dog in the Sun Belt; problem is the team’s been picked off in postseason play in recent years. This year, it looks like only Denver, which plays in a separate division in the Sun Belt, is close to MTSU’s class of team.

“It is so difficult in these mid-major leagues to get off a start like 10-2, because you play so many road games, and that’s why you see a lot of teams in our league get off to these starts,” Davis said. “But getting off to the start we’ve had, you’ve got to take advantage of that and back it up in the league.”

Davis, who turned 52 Wednesday, has been able to do this with four new players injected into his starting lineup, none contributing at a more efficient rate than J.T. Sulton, who is scoring 1.18 points per possession. LaRon Dendy, transfer from Iowa State, played great against Belmont, and he’s been big, as has junior college transfer Marcus Knight, the biggest surprise on this year’s team.

Depth is something I think is overrated in college basketball, but mid-major teams can use it to their advantage against big boys with the right schemes and truly a 10-man rotation that’s relentless. Davis’ team has seen 10 player score in double figures so far this season. He wants, needs it to keep up. Now, though: some rest.

“We need a break. We’ve really, starting with Akron, we’ve played four games in nine days,” Davis said.

Davis will give his guys the 22-25 off. He wants his player to be at home for Christmas, then come back the 26th and practice that afternoon. I said it in August: this needs to be the year MTSU finally breaks the 20-W mark under Davis (Davis’ previous campaigns, in succession, have win totals of 14, 17, 19, 16, 15, 17, 18, 19, 16). It’s already halfway there, and we’re not at Festivus yet. A great sign. Barring the unthinkable, this team is winning at least 20 games. Beyond that, it needs to shake its Sun Belt tournament voodoo, but that’s a matter that can wait another 10 weeks.

Photo: AP
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