Parity reigns across conference

Jason Stamm

Going into the Sun Belt Conference tournament this weekend, Western has a few challengers that wouldn’t mind dethroning the three-time defending champs.

The Toppers have stumbled their way to a 15-12 record (8-6 Sun Belt) while playing inconsistent ball all season. That’s mostly been the tune of the entire Sun Belt Conference this year, with no true favorite sticking out among the crowd.

“I’ve been around this league for nine years and I don’t remember the parity in the league being as big as it is this year,” Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt said.

The top seed in the tournament, Louisiana-Lafayette, has played its way to a 17-9 record (12-3 Sun Belt) but has looked slugglish of late, dropping four of its last seven games and leaving the door wide open going into the tournament.

“We’re not satisfied with our standing but we’re OK with it,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Jessie Evans said. “We understand that it’s in part to us mixing and matching our lineup but we know that it’s all about who can compete and survive over four days.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns have balance and leadership, with five players averaging double figures in scoring. They are led by 5-foot-11, 170 pound senior guard Antoine Landry with 13.4 points per game. Senior guard Brad Boyd has added 12.3 points per game while the Cajuns’ leader in the paint is 6-foot-6 junior forward Brian Hamilton who averages 11.7 points and seven boards per game.

“We’re a good team, but we’re definitely a team,” Evans said. “We’re very balanced and we have a number of guys that can carry us.”

The New Orleans Privateers are another top team in the hunt, as they bring their 15-13 (9-6 Sun Belt) record into the Sun Belt Tournament. The Privateers are led by 6-foot-2 190 pound senior guard Johnell Smith, who leads the team in scoring and assists with 13.1 points and 3.1 assists per game. Cleaning up on the glass is 6-foot-8 junior forward Victor Brown, who averages 9.1 points and a team high 5.9 rebounds.

“New Orleans has continued to find a way to win,” Western coach Darrin Horn said. “One key is that they’ve gotten good guard play all year.”

Also respectable from the West are the Mean Green from North Texas. Despite ending its season with a home loss to South Alabama on Sunday, North Texas enters the tourney with a 13-13 record (8-7 Sun Belt).

The Mean Green are led in scoring by junior Leonard Hopkins with 13.5 points per game. North Texas’ banger on the boards is 6-foot-9 senior forward Shawnson Johnson, who’s good for 11.3 points, 7.9 boards, and 2.8 blocks per game. In the East, the top contender along with Western is Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans enter tournament play with an East Division best 9-5 conference record (16-11 overall).

The Trojans are led by 6-foot-2, 175 pound junior guard Brandon Freeman, who averages a team best 12.8 points per game. On the boards, junior forward Richard Hardman leads the team with 6.3 rebounds while chipping in with 10.3 points per game.

“Little Rock is very well balanced,” Horn said. “They do all the little things that help you win games and Steve Shields does a good job coaching that team.”

Also packing a punch from the East are the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State. Two guards, junior Mike Dean and senior Tommy Gunn, each average more than 16 points per game for the Blue Raiders, who enter the tourney with a 16-11 record (8-6 Sun Belt). Junior Michael Cuffee is MTSU’s main post presence, averaging 5.7 boards to go with 11.5 points per game.

“There’s so many good players in the conference,” Nutt said. “But I think Tommy Gunn scares you the most. He can light it up on any given night.”

Perhaps the top duo in the league though, are Arkansas State’s juniors Dewarick Spencer and J.J. Montgomery. The guards are one and two in scoring in the Sun Belt, with Spencer pouring in 19.2 points per contest and Montgomery adding 17.7.

These front runners look to give Western a run for its money in this year’s tournament, but the Toppers will again hold the homecourt advantage, hosting the tourney for the second consecutive year.

“I’d like to see a neutral site but we already knew what we’d be in for,” Evans said. “Western’s fans are very knowledgeable and they know just how to get on your nerves.”

Reach Jason Stamm at [email protected]