Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season, which begins with the first games on Nov. 9, with a countdown of the nation’s top conferences. We will release one conference preview each day, counting down to the top conference. For profiles of every team in each conference, check out the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store.
Western Kentucky emerged last season from the rubble to go on an unlikely NCAA Tournament run. This season, the margin may be more slim.
The Hilltoppers started 5-11 and fired coach Ken McDonald midseason. Interim coach Ray Harper went on an 11-8 run that included a Sun Belt tournament title and a win over Mississippi Valley State in the NCAA First Four. Naturally, it earned Harper the full time job in Bowling Green as well.
Western Kentucky, the Sun Belt’s most successful basketball program, will try to continue that momentum into 2012-13, but the conference may be tougher at the top than it was a year ago.
North Texas has one of the nation’s most underrated stars in Tony Mitchell, a potential NBA Draft lottery pick who landed in Denton after he failed to qualify at Missouri. Middle Tennessee, which had the league’s best record at 14-2, returns most of its firepower from a year ago as well.
This will also be the last year for the Sun Belt in its current incarnation. The departure of Denver to the WAC leaves the league with just 11 teams this season before Georgia State, Texas State and UT Arlington replace FIU and North Texas in 2013-14.
ATHLON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM
SUN BELT FACTS AND FIGURES
G Marcos Knight, Middle Tennessee
2011-12 regular season champion: Middle Tennessee (East), UALR (West)
G Trey Finn, Arkansas State
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: Western Kentucky#
F George Fant, Western Kentucky
New coaches: Tony Benford (North Texas), Richard Pitino (FIU)
F Augustine Rubit, South Alabama
Realignment: Lost Denver to the WAC
F Tony Mitchell, North Texas*
*preseason player of the year
#conference tournament champion
2012-13 SUN BELT PREVIEW
1. Middle Tennessee (27–7, 14–2)
Kermit Davis, MTSU’s all-time winningest coach, must replace 2012 Sun Belt Player of the Year LaRon Dendy, but he returns 10 of the top 12 players from last season’s squad, which broke the program’s single-season wins record. Playmaking guard Marcos Knight and steady forward J.T. Sulton are all-league players. Point guard Bruce Massey is a lockdown defender and team leader. Raymond Cintron is a sharpshooting guard (43.2 percent from 3 last year) who plays with toughness, and juniors Shawn Jones and Kerry Hammonds are rising standouts. The roster is loaded, and expectations are soaring.
NCAA Tournament prediction: One and done
2. Western Kentucky (16–19, 7–9)
Coach Ray Harper revitalized the slumping Hilltoppers with a second-half surge, Sun Belt Tournament title and First Four victory in the NCAA Tournament last season following Ken McDonald’s midseason firing. Harper must stretch that momentum to an entire season and do it without leading scorer Derrick Gordon, who transferred to UMass. George Fant, a 6-6 forward, is a rising star after a breakout freshman season, and fellow sophomore T.J. Price also carries a big upside. Point guard Jamal Crook is a steady veteran. Freshman forward Eddie Alcantara could be inserted into the lineup early.
3. South Alabama (17–12, 8–8)
Veteran coach Ronnie Arrow returns nearly his entire roster, highlighted by 6-6 forward Augustine Rubit, one of the Sun Belt’s elite players. Freddie Goldstein is a streaky shooter, and Mychal Ammons showed shades of standout play as a 6-5 freshman swingman. Add shot-blocking post player Javier Carter and returning point guard Trey Anderson, and USA has a core that is ready challenge for a league title. Size and proven depth are still needed. The addition of 6-10 Slovakian center Viktor Juricek could help in both areas.
4. Troy (10–18, 5–11)
Starting point guard and leading scorer Will Weathers left a year early to play professionally, but Troy is accustomed to retooling its lineup every year. Don Maestri, Troy’s coach for 31 years, puts together an up-tempo, streak-shooting squad every season. Justin Wright, Emil Jones and R.J. Scott are each threats from 3-point range, and Maestri is a master at adding junior college transfers who fit his system. Also, former FIU commitment Antoine Myers, a true freshman, will join the Trojans, perhaps as an eventual replacement for Weathers at point guard.
5. Florida International (8–21, 5–11)
Richard Pitino, Louisville associate head coach and son of Rick Pitino, takes over after the failed three-year experiment of Isiah Thomas as head coach (26–65 record). Pitino must rebuild the roster, as no starters return and five signees are added to the mix. Jerome Frink, a 6-6 freshman forward, and junior college guards Malik Smith and Tymell Murphy should find roles immediately. FIU always seems to have the talent to play with any team in the Sun Belt, but the Golden Panthers have lacked the consistency to contend for a full season.
6. Florida Atlantic (11–19, 7–9)
Last season’s squad greatly underachieved, as the Sun Belt East preseason favorite started slowly, lost its final five games and never made a push in the league race. And the offseason has been tumultuous, with the early departures of standout point guard Raymond Taylor (pro ball) and post player Kore White (South Florida) among others. The honeymoon of coach Mike Jarvis is over, and now he must rebuild earlier than planned.
1. North Texas (18–14, 9–7)
New coach Tony Benford, a former Marquette assistant, inherits a team led by 6-8 sophomore forward Tony Mitchell, who is projected to be an NBA Lottery pick next year. Mitchell was the only freshman in the nation to average a double-double last season (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), and he returns as the league’s undisputed star. Plus, the top seven players are back, including guards Chris Jones (14.1 ppg), Jordan Williams (10.9 ppg) and Alzee Williams (10.5 ppg). The Mean Green narrowly lost in the Sun Belt Tournament title game last season, and they will be a prime contenders to return this season.
2. Arkansas State (14–20, 6–10)
Coach John Brady’s squad took its lumps last season, but the Red Wolves could be the sleeper in this year’s Sun Belt race. Four starters return, paced by seniors Marcus Hooten, Trey Finn and Brandon Peterson. Despite a knee injury, Finn averaged 11.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and shot 46 percent from 3-point range last season. Now at full strength, Finn will help lead a veteran lineup. Houston transfer Kendrick Washington, a 6-7 forward, will add another weapon.
3. Arkansas-Little Rock (15–16, 12–4)
UALR won the West Division title last season, but only two starters return for a team with no scholarship seniors. Will Neighbour, a 6-10 smooth shooting forward, is a key returnee after an all-conference season, but the Trojans need another dynamic scorer. Coach Steve Shields always puts together a scrappy team that is tough on defense, but a rebuilding year looks to be ahead.
4. Louisiana-Lafayette (16–16, 10–6)
An offseason of mass exodus puts the Ragin’ Cajuns in an uncertain position. The departures included four graduating seniors (top scorer Josh Brown among them) and five notable players transferring. That leaves coach Bob Marlin, who has only three of his top 12 scorers back, searching for role players to step forward and newcomers to make an instant impact. Sophomore point guard Elfrid Payton has upside, while Mississippi State transfer Sean Long and Tulane transfer Kevin Brown could provide a boost. This team, however, has a lot of issues.
5. Louisiana-Monroe (3–26, 2–14)
The Warhawks were winless at home and ineligible for the Sun Belt Tournament due to NCAA sanctions last season. It will again be an uphill climb for Keith Richard’s team, which has no seniors. Charles Winborne, a 6-1 junior guard, will be the centerpiece after averaging 11.2 points last season. He is the lone full-time returning starter.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame
More from the 2012-13 College Basketball Preview:
Top 10 Freshmen for 2012-13
Impact Transfers for 2012-13
Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2012-13
10 Players Returning from Injury
Gonzaga leads International Dream Team