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East Division

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (21-8, 12-2 Sun Belt)

Expectations were high for the Hilltoppers in the preseason, especially with the highly-anticipated return of All-American center Chris Marcus, who could have easily gone in the top 15 of the NBA Draft. With junior forward Todor Pandov and senior captain David Boyden backing up Marcus in the frontcourt and explosive play-maker sophomore guard Patrick Sparks leading the backcourt, preseason polls had no choice but to pick Western as a Top 25 team. Then came the game-opener against Arizona, where Western lost Pandov for the year due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. To top that off, the Hilltoppers were left Marcus-less as he was done for the season after playing only four games. After suffering from two key players’ injuries, Western managed to bounce back, winning nine of their last 10 games. The Hilltoppers will enter the Sun Belt Conference tournament as the No. 1 seed as they look for their third consecutive conference title.

Projected starters: G Patrick Sparks (6-1, So.); G Mike Wells (6-3, Jr.); G Filip Videnov (6-4, Sr.); F David Boyden (6-8, Sr.); F Caleb Halcomb (6-10, Jr.)

Head coach: Dennis Felton (5th year, 97-53 overall; 0-2 NCAA Tournament)

Leading scorers: Sparks (13.3 ppg); Boyden (12.7 ppg); Wells (10.8 ppg); Williams (10.1 ppg); Videnov (10 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 2002

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: 2002

Last year’s finish: 28-4, 13-1 Sun Belt; 1st East (lost to Stanford in NCAA first round)

Location: Bowling Green, Ky.

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (14-13, 9-5 Sun Belt)

When Randy Wiel left MTSU, he left new head coach Kermit Davis with a 14-15 team. Davis improved on that record with the Blue Raiders ending the season one game over the .500 mark in his coaching debut. One-two punch Tommy Gunn, who scored 1,025 points in his four-year career, and William Pippen, who posted a career-high 32 points twice this season, have been the highlight of MTSU’s stint as second place in the Sun Belt East. Central Florida Junior College transfer Napoleon Rhodes gives the inside presence that the team needs while senior Eric Parham and Temple Junior College transfer Keith Connor play major roles at the point guard position.

Projected starters: G Tommy Gunn (6-2, Sr.); G John Humphrey (6-2, Sr.); G Eric Parham (5-11, Sr.); F William Pippen (6-8, Sr.); F/C Napoleon Rhodes (6-9, Jr.)

Head coach: Kermit Davis (1st year, 14-13; 85-62 overall in 5 years; 0-2 NCAA Tournament)

Leading scorers: Gunn (16.2 ppg); Pippen (15.6 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1989

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: None

Last year’s finish: 14-15, 6-8 Sun Belt; 3rd East

Location: Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (17-11, 8-6 Sun Belt)

All five starters returned to the Trojan lineup this season, led by hot hand senior Jibrahn Ike and consistent 3-point shooter Nick Zachery, who went 40 percent behind the arc. Zachery ended his regular season reaching the 1,000-point milestone. UALR is the third seed from the East and will play North Texas Friday at 8 p.m.

Projected starters: G Jibrahn Ike (6-2, Sr.); G Mark Green (6-2, Sr.); G Nick Zachery (6-3, Jr.); F Jamal Holden (6-9, Jr.); F Columbus Willis (6-5, Jr.)

Head coach: Porter Moser (17-11; 53-33 overall in 3 years)

Leading scorers: Ike (14.1 ppg), Zachery (13.4 ppg), Green (11.4 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1989

Last regular-season Sun Belt Title: 1996

Last year’s finish: 18-11, 8-6 Sun Belt; 2nd East

Location: Little Rock, Ark.

Arkansas State Indians (13-14, 6-8 Sun Belt)

The Indians had to rebuild from the loss of post players Jason Jennings and Kolin Weaver. Junior Kim Adams has done a good job filling the void of his frontcourt predecessors, entering the tourney averaging 8.8 rebounds a game. ASU had a huge upset against the No. 1 team in the West, Louisiana-Lafayette.

Projected starters: G Tony Brown (6-3, Sr.); G Trevoris Thompson (6-1, Jr.); G Odie Williams (6-3, Sr.); F Kim Adams (6-8, Jr.); C Paris London (6-8, Sr.)

Head coach: Dickey Nutt (116-112 overall in 8 years).

Leading scorers: Thompson (15.1 ppg); London (10.9 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1999

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: 1998

Last year’s finish: 15-16, 5-9 Sun Belt; 4th East

Location: Jonesboro, Ark.

Florida International Golden Panthers (7-20, 1-13 Sun Belt)

FIU began the season with the bad news that senior wing man Rodrigo Viegas would sit out due to surgeries on his ACL and meniscus. They also had to deal with the suspension of sophomore Taurance Johnson for academic reasons. Viegas was named to the third All-Sun Belt team and averaged 13.4 points per game as well as 6.0 rebounds per game; Johnson was named to the honorable mention All-Sun Belt team, averaging 14.7 points per game and 6.2 points per game. The Golden Panthers struggled without their two leading scorers and had an eight-game losing skid. Southeastern Community College transfers Junior Matias and Eulis Baez have been playing well as they try to put FIU back on track.

Projected starters: G Fab Fisher (5-11, Sr.); G Junior Matias (6-2, Jr.); G Carlos Morban (6-2, So.); F Eulis Baez (6-7, Jr.); C/F Belco Bamba (6-9, Jr.)

Head coach: Donnie Marsh (25-60 3rd year; 101-114 overall in 7 years; 0-1 NCAA Tournament)

Leading scorers: Baez (13.3 ppg); Matias (12.4 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1995

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: None

Last year’s finish: 10-20, 4-10 Sun Belt; 5th East

Location: Miami, Fla.

West Division

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (20-8, 12-3 Sun Belt)

The Ragin’ Cajuns ended their season on a low note when Western snapped their 21-game home winning streak on national television. But that won’t stop them from coming into the tournament ready. Western and other other opponents will have to get past super sophomore Michael Southall in the paint. The talented tandem Brad Boyd and Laurie Bridges will also be a huge factor for ULL’s quest to the title.

Projected starters: G Brad Boyd (6-5, Jr.); G Laurie Bridges (6-4, Jr.); G Kenneth Lawrence (6-1, Sr.); F Anthony Johnson (6-6, Sr.); C Michael Southall (6-11, So.)

Head coach: Jessie Evans (112-70 overall in 6 years; 0-1 NCAA Tournament)

Leading scorers: Boyd (16.4 ppg); Johnson (14.3 ppg); Southall (12.7 ppg); Bridges (12.2 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 2000

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: 2000

Last year’s finish: 20-11, 11-4 Sun Belt; 1st West tie (Lost to Louisiana Tech in NIT first round)

Location: Lafayette, La.

New Mexico State Aggies (19-8, 9-6 Sun Belt)

While some coaches flirt with retirement as they reach year 40, Lou Henson stayed with his Aggies for his 15th year. He and his crew will take on the winner of the North Texas-Arkansas-Little Rock game on Sunday night. Other teams will have to work harder to contain conference leading scorer Jason Moore and battle it out with senior Chris Jackson on the boards.

Projected starters: G Jason Fontenet (5-10, So.); G Allen Haynes (6-1, So.); G Brandon Mason (6-5, Sr.); F James Moore (6-8, Jr.); C Chris Jackson (6-10, Sr.)

Head Coach: Lou Henson (271-125 15th year; 761-385 overall in 40 years; 19-20 NCAA Tournament)

Leading scorers: Moore (19.2 ppg); Fontenet (12.1 ppg); Mason (11.9 ppg); Jackson (10.5 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1999

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: None

Last year’s finish: 20-11, 11-4; 1st West tie

Location: Las Cruces, N.M.

Denver Pioneers (15-14, 7-8 Sun Belt)

The Pioneers had a surprising turnaround from their 8-20 previous season record. Denver has a Player of the Year candidate in center Brett Starkey, who averaged a double-double for the season (12.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg). Along with Starkey’s inside force, guard B.J. Pratt has been a scoring phenom, and intense ball-handler Dusty Wadlington has been leading the way in the backcourt.

Projected starters: G Erik Benzel (6-1, So.); G Dusty Wadlington (5-5, Sr.); B.J. Pratt (6-2, Sr.); F Carvel McAlister (6-8, Jr.); C Brett Starkey (6-9, Jr.)

Head coach: Terry Carroll (23-34 2nd year)

Leading scorers: Pratt (15.4 ppg); Starkey (12.3 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: None

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: None

Last year’s finish: 8-20, 3-12 Sun Belt; 5th West

Location: Denver, Colo.

New Orleans Privateers (15-13, 7-8 Sun Belt)

UNO will have to make their run in the tourney without stellar forward Hector Romero, who is out due to an ACL injury. It is a major loss for the Privateers; Romero, last season’s Player and Newcomer of the Year, averaged 18.3 points a game and collected 9.1 rebounds per game this season. Sophomore forward Victor Brown and junior guard Johnell Smith will have to step their game up a notch in order to be a challenge to opponents.

Projected starters: G Kentrell Martin (6-4, Jr.); G Johnell Smith (6-2, Jr.); F A.J. Meredith (6-0, Jr.); F Victor Brown (6-8, So.); C Nerijus Lisauskas (6-10, Sr.)

Head coach: Monte Towe (30-27, 2nd year)

Leading scorers: Smith (13.8 ppg); Brown (8.0 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1996

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: 1993

Last year’s finish: 15-14, 9-6 Sun Belt; 3rd West tie

Location: New Orleans, La.

South Alabama Jaguars (14-13, 7-8 Sun Belt)

USA ended their season on a high note with a key win against New Orleans, making it a three-way tie for the No. 3 seed between the aforementioned teams and Denver. The Jaguars will face off No. 2 East seed MTSU March 9 at 5:30 p.m. Leading the team are junior college transfers Chris Young and Malerick Bedden along with Demetrice Williams.

Projected starters: G Demetrice Williams (6-2, Sr.); G Chris Young (6-1, Jr.); F Malerick Bedden (6-6, Jr.); F Henry Williams (6-6, Sr.); C Justin White (6-9, So.)

Head coach: John Pelphrey (14-13, 1st year)

Leading scorers: Young (16.0 ppg); D. Williams (14.0 ppg); Bedden (13.1 ppg); H. Williams (11.6 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1998

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: 2001 (West)

Last year’s finish: 7-21, 2-13; 6th West

Location: Mobile, Ala.

North Texas Mean Green (7-20, 2-13 Sun Belt)

Senior guard Chris Davis has been a spark on the offense throughout his career at North Texas, scoring over 2,200 points total. After missing out earlier in the season due to injury, junior forward Will Smith has done a good job in the inside. With a dismal regular season, the Mean Green hopes to fare well in the tournament when they play Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round.

Projected starters: G Chris Davis (6-5, Sr.); G Lee Green (6-3, Sr.); G Jerome Rogers (5-10, Jr.); F Jermaine Green (6-8, Sr.); F Will Smith (6-7, Jr.)

Head coach: Johnny Jones (22-34 2nd year; 52-64 overall in 3 years)

Leading scorers: Davis (19.0 ppg); J. Green (11.8 ppg)

Last NCAA appearance: 1988

Last regular-season Sun Belt title: 1988

Last year’s finish: 15-14, 8-7 Sun Belt; 4th West

Location: Denton, Texas