We continue our conference spotlights this week with a look at three more conferences. This being a Thursday, we're focusing on three leagues that play A LOT of games on Thursdays through the regular season:


All three leagues try to reduce the impact on academics with Thursday-Saturday schedules that have minimal influence on class schedules. All three share some other characteristics:

  • The quality of basketball is very poor outside of 1-2 teams each year in each league. In fact, in some years, the Sun Belt and Big West don't have ANYONE who's really very good by national standards.
  • The quality of defense is abysmal. Those things go hand in hand. One of the main reasons we try to get you to study defense is that it helps you see quickly who lousy pretenders really are. It's tough to fall in love with some imagined Cinderella when you find out opponents are shooting 50% against them that season.
  • These teams are rarely on TV outside of Gonzaga and whoever the second best team in the West Coast Conference is in a given year (St. Mary's lately, but some others have popped up in the past). That actually provides some opportunities for sharp sports bettors. Oddsmakers pay the most attention to teams that the public is betting. The public largely ignores these intense research and analysis can yield some gems. We won't talk about these teams much in the NOTEBOOK because internet readers want to spend more time on the power conferences and the ranked title contenders. HANDICAPPERS should be willing to do some research in conferences like this on your own. Maybe what you learn today will open some doors for you in that regard.

As always, we focus on two-point defense because we consider that the best indicator stat in college hoops. Quality teams defend their goal. Poor teams don't. It's amazing how much THAT fact jumps out when you start studying these lesser known conferences. Defense isn't just a lost art at some of these places. It's apparently something players and coaches haven't even heard of!

We'll take the leagues in the order they generally appear on your that means the Sun Belt first. Here's how the teams rank in two-point defense heading into tonight's jam-packed schedule...

SUN BELT: 2-POINT DEFENSE (league record thru Tue)
Florida Atlantic: 46% (4-3)
South Alabama: 46% (4-3)
Arkansas State: 47% (5-1)
Louisiana Lafayette: 47% (3-3)
Troy: 48% (4-3)
New Orleans: 48% (2-5)
North Texas: 49% (4-4)
Denver: 50% (5-3)
Western Kentucky: 51% (4-2)
Middle Tennessee: 51% (4-3)
Arkansas Little Rock: 51% (1-6)
Louisiana Monroe: 52% (3-5)
Florida International 54% (3-5)

What a mess! Could you imagine a conference that had so many teams at 50% or worse on two-point defense? Are their feet glued to the floor? Usually the top teams in a conference will rank in the low 40's or even high 30's. The best teams here are at 46%. Disgraceful.

Sometimes in bad leagues like this, it's possible to post a great record without being a defensive power. NOBODY is a defensive power, so you can win a division, or even the whole conference with other strengths. Western Kentucky is always a team to watch in the Sun Belt, even though they're not in the upper half of the chart above. Arkansas State is off to a 5-1 start, and deserves your respect in league play even if they're not currently the top defensive side.
Tonight's schedule (in rotation order):
Arkansas Little Rock at Florida Atlantic
Middle Tennessee at Louisiana Monroe
Arkansas State at Florida International
South Alabama at North Texas
Western Kentucky at Troy
New Orleans at Louisiana Lafayette

If you don't normally do much scoreboard watching with this group, check in on them tonight and see how internal defense might be foreshadowing scoreboard results.

Moving to the West Coast Conference...home of Gonzaga and St. Mary's...

WEST COAST: 2-POINT DEFENSE (league record thru Tue)
Loyola-Marymount: 45% (1-2)
Gonzaga: 46% (3-0)
Santa Clara: 48% (0-4)
St. Mary's: 49% (3-1)
Portland: 49% (1-2)
Pepperdine: 51% (3-0)
San Francisco: 51% (2-2)
San Diego: 51% (1-3)

More lousy defenses. Gonzaga was actually solid much of last year because they were so big. They're still second in the conference right now with a disappointing 46% mark. St. Mary's has been getting good media run. If you're allowing 49% inside vs. a soft schedule, what happens in March when you step up in class. Gonzaga has had trouble playing to its seed ever since they made those runs deep into the tourney many years ago. They played over their heads a couple of times, but have been underachieving expectations since. They don't play in a great league. People will realize that eventually.

Portland had high hopes coming in, and were supposed to be a real threat at the top. A tough early schedule has them 1-2 in league play. They're better than that, but not as good as the early hype. Again, defense is an issue. Can you believe how rarely TV pundits talk about defense, particularly when discussing off-the-radar conferences like this? It's the single most important element of college hoops play...which makes it the single most important element in evaluating off-the-radar conferences.

Tonight's schedule (in rotation order):
Pepperdine at Gonzaga
Loyola Marymount at Portland
San Diego at St. Mary's

Let's wrap up the Thursday report with the Big West...

BIG WEST: 2-POINT DEFENSE (league record thru Tue)
Pacific: 42% (3-1)
Cal Fullerton: 46% (3-2)
Cal Riverside: 46% (1-4)
Cal Northridge: 47% (2-3)
Cal Santa Barbara: 51% (4-2)
Cal Poly: 51% (3-2)
Cal Irvine: 51% (2-4)
Long Beach State: 52% (2-3)
Cal Davis: 56% (3-2)

Yes, 56%. A defense in a board conference is allowing 56% on two-point shots this year! More than half the conference is allowing 51% or better. Do they just take guys off the beach, put them in baggy shorts, and call them basketball players?

Well, let's exclude Pacific from derision. They're playing very solid in a league that doesn't guard anybody, which will put them ahead of the game every time they take the floor. They won't win them all. They've already dropped one decision. They take the floor with an edge (often a significant edge) in every game because they're the only team taking defense seriously. Let's see how that plays itself out through the rest of conference action.

Tonight's schedule (in rotation order):
Cal Fullerton at Pacific
Cal Riverside at Cal Poly
Long Beach State at Cal Irvine

Tomorrow we'll focus on the NBA to get you ready for a monster Friday Night schedule. We'll be mixing college and pro hoops for the foreseeable future (outside a handful of football days remaining). Friday's will generally focus on the NBA since college hoops owns the headlines on weekends and in the midweek TV sequence. Don't forget that our NFL Championship previews will run Saturday this week...following the schedule we've been on for several weeks now.

Just make a note to be with us every day. NOBODY ELSE gives you the handicapping information we do here at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK.


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We'll put more college conferences in the spotlight next week...then kick things up a further notch as we move toward MARCH MADNESS.



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