Sun Belt Preview

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

EVENLY MATCHED SUN BELT TOURNAMENT MAY START GEYSER IN HOT SPRINGS!

It is definitely the least publicized of this week's mid major tournaments. It's arguably the least relevant of ANY tournament on the main board because nobody expects the winner to do anything in the Big Dance. But, because so many teams have legitimate chances to win the event, the Sun Belt tournament could easily be the most exciting postseason showcase until the big boys get rolling next week.

Why so interesting?

  • Nobody in the Sun Belt is great. Nobody's head and shoulders above everyone else. You'll see in a moment that FOUR teams grade out within 1.2 points of each other in conference margin averages. This isn't like the Colonial with George Mason and Old Dominion in dominant roles, or the West Coast with St. Mary's and Gonzaga.
  • Only one team is really bad (Louisiana Monroe). It might be a surprise if one of the other cellar dwellers went the distance, but not a true shocker. It's a competitive league, and anything can happen on a neutral court.
  • To the degree the court isn't neutral in Hot Springs Arkansas, that brings a fifth logical contender into the mix with Arkansas Little Rock. Arkansas State is one of the top four in margin averages as you'll see in a moment. Pencil in something for "The Rock" and they're certainly a possibility to string together some wins.
  • Oh, speaking of the home site...games are actually going to be played at TWO different locations! This is the only tournament that lets the host city split up games like that. Some places do that with the men's games at one place and the women's at another. Hot Springs has an arena and a convocation center. Anything that creates a weird environment helps randomize results.
  • The conference mostly emphasizes inside play. That creates the potential for evenly matched chess games that go right down to the wire.

We can't say it's quite like pulling a name out of a hat. But, it's as close as we're likely to see until the Big East tournament next week when so many really good teams will battle in New York that anyone could win.

We start as always with the schedule...

Tonight's Schedule
North Texas (W4) vs. Troy (E5)
Denver (W3) vs. Florida International (E6)
Western Kentucky (E3) vs. Louisiana Monroe (W6)
South Alabama (E4) vs. Arkansas Little Rock (W5)

The brackets in this conference can get confusing because the order of games played doesn't always line up the way you'd expect. We've been to the league's website to get the right matchups. And, we double and triple checked as best we could to make sure the next round is right.

Sunday's Schedule
Louisiana Lafayette (W2) vs. WK/La. Monroe winner
Florida Atlantic (E1) vs. Troy/N. Texas winner
Arkansas State (W1) vs. USA/UALR winner
Middle Tennessee (E2) vs. Denver/FIU winner

Monday's semifinals will follow that order above (meaning, if the seeds hold, E1 plays W2 and W1 plays E2). If we explain it any further we'll sink your battleship.

Many of the names may not mean much to you casual fans. So, let's dig a little deeper. Here are the margin averages from conference play, where everyone played very similar schedules. In fact, with so many relatively even teams, strengths of schedules were VERY even.

SUN BELT MARGIN AVERAGES
Middle Tennessee: +4.9
Denver: +4.7
Florida Atlantic: +4.4
Arkansas State: +3.7
Louisiana Lafayette: +1.1
North Texas: +1.1
Western Kentucky: +0.8
Arkansas Little Rock: -0.4
Troy: -1.6
Florida International: -3.0
South Alabama: -3.8
Louisiana Monroe: -10.2

You see clear clusters there, but not so far apart that the groups matter as much as in other places:

BEST FOUR: Middle Tennessee, Denver, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State

GOOD ENOUGH TO MAKE A RUN: Louisiana Lafayette, North Texas, Western Kentucky, Arkansas Little Rock, Troy

MORE COMPETITIVE THAN MOST 10TH AND 11TH TEAMS: South Alabama and Florida International.

The margin averages suggest fans are in for a lot of fun. Let's see who plays the best internal defense...

SUN BELT TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Florida Atlantic: 46%
Arkansas State: 46%
Denver: 47%
Louisiana Lafayette: 47%
Western Kentucky: 47%
Middle Tennessee: 48%
North Texas: 49%
Troy: 50%
South Alabama: 50%
Arkansas Little Rock: 51%
Florida International: 51%
Louisiana Monroe: 53%

That largely lines up with the numbers in the first group. Middle Tennessee takes a bit of a hit, but not one that disqualifies them from potentially cutting down the nets. Probably the biggest news is Arkansas Little Rock ranking so poorly. That may cancel out any home state boost they get from crowd support. You have to guard people in tournament basketball!

The Sun Belt is know for extremes in pace. Let's see if that element provides any additional clues to who will play best when every possession matters.

SUN BELT ADJUSTED PACE FACTORS (slowest to fastest)
Denver: 57.9
Louisiana Monroe: 63.0
Florida Atlantic: 64.3
Arkansas State: 65.6
Arkansas Little Rock: 65.9
Middle Tennessee: 67.1
South Alabama: 68.4
Western Kentucky: 68.6
North Texas: 68.8
Louisiana Lafayette: 69.1
Florida International: 69.5
Troy: 71.4

Wow...Denver is about as slow as slow gets...and Troy represents racehorse basketball the likes of which we haven't seen much yet in our previews.

It's a good sign for Florida Atlantic that they're used to slower than average play. We'd be more excited about Denver but they enjoy a nice home edge at altitude that won't be helping them much outside of state. Their margin averages are a big inflated as a result. To this point, Florida Atlantic has put together the best cocktail in our view of important indicators. Let's look at the last one, percentage of points from treys. 

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS FROM TREYS (from low to high)
Denver: 38.7
Troy: 37.4
Arkansas Little Rock: 32.1
Louisiana Monroe: 25.4
Western Kentucky: 24.5
Florida Atlantic: 24.1
South Alabama 24.1
Florida International: 23.5
Middle Tennessee: 22.5
Arkansas State: 22.2
Louisiana Lafayette: 22.0
North Texas 21.1

Denver is your classic Princeton/Air Force type team that slows way down and hopes to win with three-pointers. It's very hard to win a tournament by winning four games in a row from long range. Troy is more like the New York Knicks before the Carmelo trade or the Phoenix Suns...run and shoot a lot of treys. Same thing, except fatigue steps in to play a big role in so many consecutive back-to-backs.

The best bets for tourney success stylistically are at the bottom, where many of the top nominees from the other categories reside.

BEST CHAMPIONSHIP POTENTIAL

  • Florida Atlantic by a smidge
  • Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, and Louisiana Lafayette all have byes into the quarterfinals, and all have decent profiles for a tourney. Lafayette's pace if possibly a bit fast, meaning they might wear down if they do keep winning.
  • This is the only mid major though where almost ANYONE in the field could win a few coin flips, or get hot and go the distance. Since the Sun Belt will only get one bid to the Dance no matter who wins, that creates the potential for a lot of drama...and a lot of handicapping potential if you believe you've got a good read on the teams.

JIM HURLEY may or may not get involved this weekend. We do have our Arkansas source from the SEC on location because the Hogs are playing at Ole Miss in a relatively low profile game. If news breaks, our clients will be there to cash in!

NETWORK'S exclusive TEAM HANDICAPPING approach WILL be very strongly focused on these marquee games:

Duke at North Carolina on CBS in prime time
Texas at Baylor on ESPN's prime time "GameDay" showcase
Louisville at West Virginia
Notre Dame at Connecticut
Villanova at Pittsburgh (what a day in the Big East!)
Michigan State at Michigan (rivalry with bubble overtones)
Kansas at Missouri (border war)
Florida at Vanderbilt (big game in the SEC)

Hey, March Madness doesn't start next week. That's championship level competition right there!

And, we the mid majors we've been previewing for you all week will be progressing towards their championships today and tonight. NETWORK will try to find you BIG JUICY TOURNAMENT WINNERS in the Colonial, Missouri Valley, Horizon, Sun Belt, and West Coast events.

Selections are up right now here at the website because there are so many early starts. You can also sign up for the full season with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back tomorrow to run the key boxscore numbers from many of those marquee matchups we just listed. We'll star previewing the MAJOR tournaments Monday with the Big East. Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK for handicapping coverage of the college season and postseason that you just can't get anywhere else!

17
Nov

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