For the rest of our conference tournament previews, go here.
When and Where: Friday through Monday, Summit Arena, Hot Springs Arkansas
Last year: Western Kentucky made one of the most improbably tourney runs in recent memory. Entering the Sun Belt tournament, the Hilltoppers were 11-18 (7-9), and they proceeded to sweep through the tournament with victory margins of 4, 5, 4, and 4 points. Then they won the 12-seed play-in game before becoming the sacrificial opening lamb for eventual National Champion Kentucky.
This year: As expected, the East was dominated by Middle Tennessee. The only Sun Belt game they dropped all season was an overtime road game vs Arkansas State. The West side was crazy, as preseason favorite North Texas finished fourth, and Arkansas State finished a game ahead of Arkansas Little Rock.
The favorite: Who knows if Middle Tennessee will earn an at large bid if they don't win this tournament, but they certainly deserve one. Had they won at Akron back in December then they'd certainly be in. And considering that was a road game, and it went to overtime, any system that depends on that game is dumb. Not that we didn't already know that about the Selection Committee.
The Blue Raiders get it done with defense. They have the 13th best defense in the nation (defensive efficiency). They force turnovers (18th), they're solid on the defensive glass (65th), and they defend the arc (10th in 3-pt% defense). Also helping is a statistical oddity: opponents only make 62.9% of their free throws vs MTSU, which is the lowest in the nation. Free throw defense!
The contender: Can anyone figure out Arkansas State? They had a series of questionable losses early in the season, but beginning in late January they won 7 of 8 to take control of their division. And then they got rolled at North Texas and lost at Arkansas Little Rock, but to be fair, they already had the top seed on that side locked up.
The Red Wolves are another defense-first team which causes havoc for the opponents. They're 24th in the nation at forcing turnovers, and have three of the top nine Sun Belt players in steal%. Offensively they attack the rim. Only 13 Division I teams score more from the line that Arkansas State.
The dark horse: Six-seed Western Kentucky has to win four to survive and advance, but they did it last year with a team of similar talent. They've won three of four to finish the year, with their only loss coming against powerful MTSU. The Hilltoppers have severe turnover issues, but if senior Jamal Crook can keep them settled, they have a chance once again.
5 players to watch:
1. Marcos Knight, 6-2 senior, Middle Tennessee State
Knight doesn't have gaudy numbers because of MTSU's tempo and depth, but he's the only player in double figures (12.6 per game) and he leads the team in rebounding (5.6). In their four losses Knight made just 38% of his 2s and 22% of his 3s. In their wins he made 49% of his 2s and 37% of his 3s. If he's efficient, they win.
2. Raymond Cintron, 6-0 senior, Middle Tennessee State
MTSU only scores 23% of their points from beyond the arc, which is 285th nationally. In attempts, they are 311th. The player to watch is Cinton who has taken twice as many 3s as any other Blue Raider and made 44% of his attempts. 79% of his shots are 3s, and he enters having made 55% in the past six games.
3. Augustine Rubit, 6-7 junior, South Alabama
Rubit is a player who lives at the line. He draws 7.0 fouls/40 which leads the conference and is 11th nationally. And he makes 78% of his free throws. He attempted at least seven free throws in 68% of his games, and attempted 10 or more eight times. He averages a double-double (18.9 ppg and 10.8 rpg) and grabbed at least 15 boards four times.
4. Tymell Murphy, 6-5 junior, Florida International
The Brooklyn native took the long road to Division I hoops, and it's paying off. He's the most efficient player for the Panthers largely because he makes 62% of his 2s. He's also a stat stuffer who is in the top 16 in the conference in OR%, DR%, block% and steal%. He has season highs of 28 points, 20 rebounds, 5 blocks and 6 steals.
5. Gregg Gantt, 6-2 senior, Florida Atlantic
If you want to see someone put up shots, then tune into a FAU game. Gantt takes 35.2% of his team's shots when he's on the floor, which is more than all but 8 Division I players. He's scored in double digits in every game this season but one, and scored 25 or more nine times.