Sun Belt Tournament Preview – Bracket Two – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Tournament begins Saturday at campus sites. Here's my preview of bracket two, featuring South Alabama, Texas State, Appalachian State, UTA and Coastal Carolina.
#2 SEED SOUTH ALABAMA (20-11, 13-7) Coach: Richie Riley (2nd season)
STRENGTHS: They have as much talent as anyone in the league. Josh Ajayi is a man.. He can get it done on both ends of the court. He's as good at finishing at the rim as anyone in the league and he'll rebound on both ends of the court. Chad Lott is a prime candidate for Newcomer of the Year. He leads the league in FG percentage in conference games by a wide margin. Trhae Mitchell, the Preseason POY, has been playing like it the second half of the conference season. They do a good job taking care of the basketball. The Jags have trimmed their rotation and that's helped as well. They can defend, especially inside the arc. And, Andre Fox can be dangerous behind the three point line.
WEAKNESSES: In conference games, they are dead last in assists per game, and their propensity to play one on one basketball hurts them at times. They've got a couple of guys you don't mind fouling at the end of games. Although they've been winning and have made some moves to help, I still don't think this team has the league's best chemistry. After Ajayi and Mitchell, they don't rebound it very well and don't have much inside depth.
OUTLOOK: This team was the biggest underachiever in the league the first half of the conference season. And, their team chemistry was the biggest issue. But the old "addition by subtraction" motto has made them better in that regard. South is playing the league's best basketball right now and they've managed to get the bye all the way to the semifinals. They are talented enough to win this thing, in fact, they might be considered the favorite. But they'll have to play together for forty minutes in two games and there's no guarantee that's going to happen.
#3 SEED TEXAS STATE (20-11, 13-7) Coach: Danny Kaspar (7th season)
STRENGTHS: Nijal Pearson is the Sun Belt Player of the Year. The senior from Beaumont can do it all. He scores, he rebounds, he defends and he's as good in the clutch as anyone in the league. What I like most about him is he rarely takes bad shots. The Bobcats have some inside presence with Eric Terry and Isaiah Small. Texas State has not one, but two really good point guards. Marlin Davis is the best in the league in assist/turnover ratio in conference games, the Bobcats lead the Sun Belt in turnover margin . They are also the league's best at the free throw line in league games.
WEAKNESSES: They've never been able to decide who their "3" man is. None of them have been a consistent offensive force. They aren't a particularly good three point shooting team and that can hurt them in a tight game. Terry, Small and Alonso Sule can get in foul trouble on any given night. They're good defensively, but Danny has had better defensive teams than this one.
OUTLOOK: It's taken longer than fans would like, but Kaspar has built this program into a solid contender. I think to win this thing, they've got to have some guys step up on the offensive end to get more balanced scoring. They've been really good at Strahan Arena, but not nearly the same team away from home. And, they only need one home win to get to New Orleans. These guys are capable of cutting down the nets and I know they'd love another shot at South Alabama on a neutral court.
#6 SEED APPALACHIAN STATE (17-14, 11-9) Coach: Dustin Kerns (1st season)
STRENGTHS: Justin Forrest is a first team all-league guy. He's a scorer, not just a shooter. O'Showen Williams has gotten a lot better from what we saw a year ago. Isaac Johnson is one of the league's best rebounders and Hunter Seacat helps there as well. When you look at them as a team, there's nothing they really do well. But there also isn't much they do poorly, either. When Forrest and Williams get it going, App is pretty tough to beat.
WEAKNESSES--Like I said, there's nothing glaring here. They don't get a lot of second chance points because they aren't particularly good at getting offensive rebounds. They are not a good free throw shooting team. Consistent shooting from the perimeter has bitten the Mountaineers at times. They only shoot 31% beyond the arc in league play. Forrest averages five turnovers per game in conference play. That's not good for a guy on the first team all conference.
OUTLOOK: Kerns has done a nice job in this, his first season. App is competitive every night. But, for the most part, this team goes as Forrest goes. And, sometimes Forrest doesn't go great. App has done well to draw a first round bye in Kerns' first season. But neither UTA nor Coastal will be a pushover, even in Boone.
#7 SEED UTA MAVERICKS (14-17, 10-10) Coach: Chris Ogden, 2nd season
STRENGTHS: Solid defensive team that can make you miss a lot of shots, both on the perimeter and inside. David Azore is a solid scorer, Radshad Davis gives them a very good undersized rebounder, Jabari Narcis has a good outside touch for a big man. This team is one of the best in the league in assist/turnover ratio and turnover margin. This is an excellent free throw shooting team. Brian Warren stabilizes their offense and Sam Phillips is a talented freshman with a bright future.
WEAKNESSES: This is not a very good shooting team. They can struggle to score the basketball at times, especially from long distance. When your big guy is your second best from three point range, that isn't especially good. They don't have much of an inside game except for Narcis and they don't have much backup behind him. And, for a great free throw shooting team, they don't get to the line much. In fact, they had the fewest attempts from the charity stripe in league play of anyone in the conference.
OUTLOOK: Their record overall indicates they played a tough schedule and you have to give them credit for that. But this team was kind of a disappointment, frankly. After getting deep in the tournament a year ago, seventh place isn't what anyone had in mind. They can beat Coastal, and for that matter, they can beat App State. And, they've already proven they can beat Texas State. But, they could also lose on Saturday. It's been that kind of year for the Mavs.
#10 SEED COASTAL CAROLINA (15-16, 8-12) Coach: Cliff Ellis (13th season)
STRENGTHS: DeVante Jones is an electric player. He can score it shoot it, distribute it and he is money from the free throw line. Coastal is a very good rebounding team, especially on the O-Boards. Tommy Burton can rebound with the best of them and Jones helps out on the boards as well. Tyrell Gumbs-Frater is as dangerous a shooter as there is in the league when he's on. Jones and Burton get most of the FT attempts and they're good from the stripe.
WEAKNESSES: These guys turn it over way too much. Coastal really doesn't have a secondary ball handler and that forces Jones to sometimes do too much. The have capability from beyond the arc, but their three point percentage in league games is the worst in the league. For a team that depends on the three ball a lot, that isn't a good thing. Coastal needs to get double digit threes to have a chance to win on most nights and even then, it's not always good enough.
OUTLOOK: The loss of Dibba six games into the season hurt this team.The Chanticleers are good enough to go to Boone and win...and bad enough to lose to the same team by twenty at home. This year it's all about their three point efficiency. Gumbs-Frater is capable of double digit triples. When that happens and they get it rolling, they're tough. But nowhere else in the Sun Belt does that "live by the three, die by the three" mantra more real than the home of the teal.