By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK : Last season it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Middle Tennessee would cruise to the Sun Belt Conference title as the Blue Raiders racked up a 27-7 overall record and went 14-2 in conference play while even flirting with the national rankings. However the Blue Raiders fell to No. 9 seed Arkansas State in the postseason which allowed Western Kentucky to make a surprising run to the tournament title and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it. In 2012 Middle Tennessee will be trying to take care of unfinished business, that is if Tony Mitchell and North Texas don't get in the way.
The East Division is Middle Tennessee's to lose. The Blue Raiders return four starters from a smothering defense, including second leading scorer Marcos Knight (11.2 ppg).If any team is prepared to unseat the Blue Raiders it is South Alabama which has all five starters back and has the benefit of having Augustine Rubit pounding away on the inside.
Western Kentucky was a shocking representative for the conference in the NCAA Tournament and will try to build on that success with the return of four starters, although the loss of Sun Belt Rookie of the Year Derrick Gordon will be tough to overcome. Florida Atlantic could surprise if Greg Gantt can be a more consistent offensive threat and the backcourt gels. Troy and FIU will more than likely remain at the bottom of the conference with the Trojans' difficulties on defense and the Golden Panthers losing five starters off of a 8-21 squad.
The Mean Green look like the team to beat in the West Division with the return of star forward Tony Mitchell. In just his freshman season Mitchell put up numbers that had many thinking he would enter the NBA Draft, but he has returned to Denton to lead a strong squad. Arkansas State will give the Mean Green a run with its solid shooting and strong backcourt play. However a lack of frontcourt depth could hurt the Red Wolves, especially against some of the more formidable inside presences in the conference.
While North Texas and Arkansas State figure to duel it out for the East Division the rest of it will largely be trying to make noise while rebuilding. Louisiana was not a strong offensive team last season and that was before it lost three starters. Arkansas-Little Rock can rely on talented forward Will Neighbour, but will need a jump in production from a number of players that were complementary last season. Finally ULM has to replace four starters from a team that won just three games overall last season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION : Middle Tennessee
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH : East Division: 1. Middle Tennessee, 2. South Alabama, 3. Florida Atlantic, 4. Western Kentucky, 5. Troy 6. FIU; West Division: 1. North Texas, 2. Arkansas State, 3. Arkansas-Little Rock, 4. Louisiana, 5. ULM
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS :
EAST DIVISION :
MIDDLE TENNESSEE : The Blue Raiders have taken home the division regular season title in the Sun Belt in two of the last three seasons but that has not equated to an NCAA Tournament berth. That should change this season with the Blue Raider geared up and motivated by the team's early exit in the conference tournament last season. Middle Tennessee rarely played in close games last season by averaging 72.3 points per game on offense while allowing just 62.6 for a scoring differential of nearly points a contest. On offense Kermit Davis' squad relies heavily on production from the interior. That works just fine after Middle Tennessee was fourth in the nation in field goal percentage (.495). J.T. Sulton (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) will be the focal point down low with the departure of LaRon Dendy. Forward Shawn Jones (7.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) also figures to key the Blue Raiders on the inside after playing well primarily as a reserve last season. The Blue Raiders can also get it done on the perimeter with guards like Marcos Knights (11.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Raymond Cintron (8.4 ppg) and Bruce Massey (6.1 ppg, 3.9apg). Massey will be relied on more for his stellar play at point guard.
SOUTH ALABAMA : After Middle Tennessee, South Alabama was the only team in the East Division to have a record above .500 overall (17-12), but at 8-8 in conference play, didn't give much pressure to the Blue Raiders in terms of division supremacy. In 2012-2013, Ronnie Arrow is hoping is squad will be able to rectify that. Like the Blue Raiders, the Jaguars are extremely potent up front. Last season South Alabama was the top rebounding team in the conference (39.7 pg) and the eighth best in the nation overall. Junior forward Augustine Rubit (15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg) is the major reason for the Jaguars strong inside game. Last season he connected on 71.3 percent of his shots as is scoring numbers jumped by two points per game from his freshman season, although his rebounding did drop by nearly the same amount in that time. Mychal Ammons (10.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is more of a swingman but can play both on the inside and outside effectively on both sides of the ball. More consistent guard play could push the Jaguars to the next level. Freddie Goldstein (11.7 ppg) was the best scorer from the perimeter, while Trey Anderson (5.8 ppg, 3.1 apg) turned in the best numbers in terms of assists. TCU transfer Xavier Roberson is also an intriguing backcourt option after averaging 9.9 points per game in eight games last season.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC : The Owls had a pretty dismal finish to the season with losses in seven of their final nine games, all in conference play. The disastrous finish left what began as a somewhat promising season in an 11-19 overall finish including a 7-9 mark in conference play. Another season like that may be in order yet again for the Owls unless Greg Gantt (14.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg) gets a considerable amount of help from his supporting cast. Gantt has averaged 14.6 points per game over his three year career and can score from most parts of floor including from beyond the arc where he knocked down 38.2 percent of his shots last season. Pablo Bertone has good size for a guard (6-4) and will see more court time with the departure of Raymond Taylor. Bertone (7.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) played in 30 games last season and averaged 19.6 minutes per contest scoring in double figures 10 times. More minutes could make that a more regular occurrence. In terms of frontcourt production the Owls don't have a whole lot to speak of. Jordan McCoy is the lead returning rebounder (4.4 pg) but at 6-6, lacks the size to dominate inside. The 6-8 Kelvin Penn (2.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) has a better chance of filling that role.
WESTERN KENTUCKY : Despite going just 16-19 overall and 7-9 in the Sun Belt last season, the Hilltoppers punched their ticket to the Big Dance with a 74-70 win over North Texas in the conference title game. The momentum didn't stop there as Western Kentucky dropped Mississippi Valley State 59-58 before getting routed by eventual champion Kentucky. All in all for a team that ranked last in the conference in field goal percentage (39.4) it was a successful season. Repeating it will now be the challenge for Ray Harper who accomplished a great deal in his first season. Improving the team's offensive efficiency is vital and the development of point guard Jamal Crook will be crucial to that goal. Crook (8.5 ppg, 2.7 apg) was a solid scorer but needs to set his teammates up better especially with the loss of Sun Belt Rookie of the Year Derrick Gordon who led the team in points. Sophomore forward George Fant (10.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is fully capable of taking over that mantle from the inside and out. Gant is joined by T.J. Price (9.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Kahlil McDonald (8.3 ppg) as candidates to take on the bulk of the scoring responsibilities. Price is especially promising after scoring in double figures in eight of the team's final 14 games.
TROY : In his 30 seasons as head coach at Troy, Don Maestri has overseen a number of successful teams and several disappointing ones. Last season would fall into the latter category as the Trojans finished just 10-18 overall and tied for last place in the Sun Belt East Division at 5-11. It wasn't the offense that held the team back but rather the defense, with the Trojans surrendering 75.8 points per game and an opponent field goal percentage of 46.8. Maestri needs to get his team to improve in that area to have any chance at moving up in the standings. The offense doesn't really need much tweaking at all other than replacing lead scorer Will Weathers. The Trojans were the second highest scoring team in the Sun Belt last season. Replicating that type of production shouldn't prove to difficult with a trio of solid scorers returning. Chief among them is Alan Jones (10.4 ppg), who is the leading returning scorer after doing the majority of his work off the bench. Justin Wright (10.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is the best option among returning starters, although Emil Jones (9.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is another starter that has the ability to score.
FIU : The Isaiah Thomas experiment was a failure for the Golden Panthers. Under the former NBA standout the Golden Panthers went just 8-21 overall and tied for last in the Sun Belt East Division at 5-11 against conference foes. In to clean up the mess is Richard Pitino. The son of Louisville's legendary coach, the younger Pitino spent last season as an associate head coach under his father after being an assistant at four different programs over seven years. It will be a real struggle for Pitino in his rookie season as the Golden Panthers lost all five of their starters, many fleeing for the NBA Draft with Thomas fired. Cameron Bell (4.0 ppg, 2.5 apg) assumes the role as the most experienced returning reserve and will be relied on to produce at a higher level than last season, as will Tola Akomolafe (3.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Joey De La Rosa (1.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg). Seven-footer Ivan Jurkovic will be in his first season with the team and could be a piece for Pitino to build around for the next couple seasons. Still 2013 figures to be a long year for FIU which has not had a winning season since 1998 and hasn't made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1995.
WEST DIVISION :
NORTH TEXAS : Tony Mitchell is coming off a stellar campaign in which he averaged 14.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. Those numbers are staggering for any player, but Mitchell posted them in just his freshman season and had many thinking he might declare for the NBA Draft. Mean Green fans were relieved though as Mitchell is set to return to Denton. Not returning with him will be head coach Johnny Jones who took the head gig at his alma mater LSU. Former Marquette assistant Tony Benford takes over for Jones, and with Mitchell, has a ready-made player to build around. How far North Texas will go is going to depend on the play of those around Mitchell. Other starters will be back from last season's 18-14 squad, including Alzee Williams (10.5 ppg. 3.4 rpg) and Chris Jones (14.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.3 apg. Jones is a versatile player in the backcourt with his ability to score, rebound and pass the ball. He is an able second option to Mitchell and will keep teams from focusing the entirety of their defensive gameplan on Mitchell. Jordan Williams will make his return after being academically ineligible last January. In 19 games before that, Williams scored 10.9 points per game.
ARKANSAS STATE : Good guard play is essential to any successful college basketball program and the Red Wolves are lucky enough to be loaded at the position. Marcus Hooten (12.5 ppg. 2.4 rpg) returns to lead a trio of solid backcourt performers for John Brady's squad which looks to improve on a 6-10 mark in conference play last season. At 6-4 and 205 pounds, Hooten is a physical guard that can get inside but has no problem stepping outside and shooting from beyond the arc. Speaking about outside shooting, Trey Finn (11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was lethal from three-point range last season sinking 45.9 percent of his shots from the three-point line. Finn knocked down a phenomenal 9-of-18 three point shots during the Red Wolves run in the conference tournament. Edward Townsel (9.0 ppg) is also a solid shooter and contributor in the backcourt. In terms of the frontcourt, the Red Wolves need to replace departed forward Malcoln Kirkland and his 12.1 points per game. Brandon Peterson (9.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg) should be more than capable of taking on that role, while continuing to be an effective player on the boards. Improved scoring from the interior could be crucial for Arkansas State as the team ranked second to last in scoring (64.6 ppg) last season.
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK : Losing three starters, including two of your top three players, is not normally a recipe that will lead to success. Head coach Steve Shields will need it to be though as the Trojans attempt to replicate the 12-4 mark they had in conference play last season, which led the West Division. The loss of scorers like D'Andre Williams (13.2 ppg) and Chuck Guy (10.4 ppg) would hurt any team but it is especially problematic for the Trojans who ranked second to last in the Sun Belt in scoring (63.7) and last entirely in field goal percentage (40.6). All is not lost though for the Trojans who do get back Will Neighbour. The 6-10 forward averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season and even at his size is versatile enough to play both on the interior and outside. Neighbour knocked down 41.3 percent of his three-point shots last season and is also a marksman from the free throw line. In fact if there is any area where Neighbour needs to improve it is his scoring closer to the basket. Neighbour will need to get some help from fellow returning starter Michael Javes (5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who has taken a backseat in recent years but will be called on to carry more of the scoring load this season.
LOUISIANA : For Louisiana, last season was a pretty solid one. The Ragin' Cajuns finished with an overall record of 16-16 (their best since 2008) and finished 10-6 in the Sun Belt West Division. Bob Marlin's unit even made a postseason appearance, losing a 68-63 contest to Rice in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament's first round. That loss ended a poor finishing to the season for the Ragin' Cajuns who lost six of their final eight games. Marlin's squad will need to forget about that and focus on the success of earlier in the season, all while replacing the production left behind by three departing starters. Kadeem Coleby (9.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) has the size at 6-9 to be a force on the interior, but his less than stellar rebounding numbers need to improve along with his ability to take advantage when teams send him to the free-throw line. The senior forward connected on only 50 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe a season ago. Bryant Mbamalu (7.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) also returns after making 25 starts and playing in 32 games last season. Developing players like Elfrid Payton (7.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.0 apg) will go a long way in keeping the Ragin' Cajuns competitive.
ULM : The Warhawks were the worst team in the conference last season managing just a 2-14 record in conference play and a 3-24 ledger overall. ULM scored only 60.3 points per game, which was the worst mark in the conference, and was outscored by almost 12 points per game. In fact, the Warhawks lost 19 games by double digits and 10 by at least 15. Not much should be expected to change with the Warhawks losing four starters from that team. Junior guard Charles Winborne (11.2 ppg) is the only player returning who consistently started for the unit with 21 under his belt. He was also the team's second-leading scorer and the closest thing head coach Keith Richard has to a go-to player. After Winborne, there are a number of unproven players that will be tested early. Trent Mackey (5.8 ppg) and Marcelis Hansberry (5.8 ppg) have the most in-game experience with each playing in at least 28 games last season. Hansberry is the more intriguing option after he finished last season strong with double- digit scoring efforts in four of the final eight games. He had only two such games the rest of the season.