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November 3, 2008

Preview: West expected to be wild

The Sun Belt's West Division is likely to be a wild race as several teams look like legitimate contenders for a division championship.

But will that be enough for the division to have a serious contender for the overall league championship?

We break down what to watch this year in the Sun Belt West and give our predictions for how it will finish.

Top three storylines

1) CROWDED AT THE TOP

It's hard to find a much closer preseason poll than the Sun Belt West predictions that were released at the league's preseason media day in October. Arkansas-Little Rock and North Texas tied at the top of the vote for the division title with Louisiana-Lafayette just a single point behind both. Preseason prognosticators expect the West to be split into pretty distinct upper and lower halves and that will be the case if the season plays out similar to last year, when UALR and UL-Lafayette tied at the top with 11-7 league records and North Texas finished a game back at 10-8. The division standings should be rather jumbled again throughout most of this year, making the West race one of the more intriguing division battles in college basketball.

2) RED WOLVES LURE BIG NAME

Florida Atlantic added a big name to the East division's coaching ranks by hiring Mike Jarvis in the offseason, while Arkansas State made a splash in the West with John Brady taking the gig in Jonesboro. Brady inherits a program that hit rock bottom last year and must replace several key contributors off a team that won just five Sun Belt games. The former LSU head coach does welcome the arrival of former Rivals150 prospect JeJuan Brown, who gives the Red Wolves an immediate impact player that can help Arkansas State potentially impact the league race with a couple of upsets.

3) CAN WEST CLOSE GAP WITH EAST?

The West division has been the East's whipping boy since the Sun Belt realigned two years ago. Since the realignment prior to the 2006-07 season, the West is cumulative 22 games under .500 against the East in regular season play. The West is again expected to be the weaker of the two sides this year, but the division is home to some of the best home court advantages in the league. UALR is still reaping the benefits of its new arena, UL-Lafayette has the always hostile Cajun Dome, Denver can count on its altitude affecting opponents, and Arkansas State should have a more unified fan base in Brady's first year. The West needs to hold serve against the East in home games to help narrow the gap.

Top three players

1) JOSH WHITE - NORTH TEXAS

White is the only player from the West division that was named to the Preseason All Sun Belt First Team. He is very dangerous in the open floor and also possesses a deadly outside shot. His court vision and ball handling skills give North Texas a chance to score every time the Mean Green gets a transition opportunity. If White plays well and manages the game, North Texas is very difficult to defend for 40 minutes because White can completely change a game in a short spurt.

2) COLLIN DENNIS - NORTH TEXAS

Dennis combines with White to give the Mean Green a potentially dynamic backcourt. Dennis has deep range behind the 3-point line and loves to spot up in transition when White pushes the tempo. Dennis has good size and also is the beneficiary of playing on a good offensive rebounding team. He typically gets an extra good look from behind the 3-point line off a kickout from an offensive rebound.

3) TONY HOOPER - LOUISIANA-MONROE

Hooper is one of the Sun Belt's most consistent players, but he labored in obscurity last year as the Warhawks struggled to post just four Sun Belt wins on the year. Hooper is solid in all facets of the game and is the initiator of his ULM's attack. He has to be good every night for his team to have a legitimate chances of competing in the division, but he is fully capable of showing that kind of consistency.

Three things that will decide the division

1) HOW GOOD WILL GEORGE ODUFUWA BE?

North Texas already has the best backcourt in the West, but if 6-foot-8 transfer George Odufuwa is as good as advertised the Mean Green will be terrific on the front line as well. Odufuwa is eligible after transferring from Arizona State and should help North Texas continue to be an excellent rebounding team while also sealing the paint area defensively. If he lives up to his billing, he'll help make North Texas a complete team and very difficult to defeat in the West.

2) CAN UALR FIND SOME OFFENSE?

UALR is always one of the best and toughest halfcourt defensive teams in the Sun Belt, but the Trojans have to find some offense in order to be a legitimate conference contender. UALR managed to win the West division last year despite ranking 10th in the league in scoring offense, which is a testament to the ability of head coach Steve Shields. But Shields will be the first to say his team needs more offensive pop. Leading scorer Steven Moore returns in the backcourt, but the Trojans need at least two players to be consistent double digit scorers. They didn't have a single player average double digits last year.

3) WHO CAN HOLD THEIR OWN AGAINST THE EAST'S TOP DOGS?

The West posted a cumulative 3-18 record against South Alabama, Western Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee last year, with not a single team winning more than one game against the East's top trio. If anybody in the West can figure out a way to steal a game or two from the East's best, they will likely have a big advantage in the league race. Louisiana-Lafayette may have a built in advantage from the schedule. The Ragin Cajuns draw predicted East cellar dweller Troy twice, while UALR must play Western Kentucky twice and North Texas draws Middle Tennessee twice.

How it will look at the end

1) North Texas-Mean Green has best backcourt in the division.
2) Arkansas-Little Rock-Always consistent and steady, the Trojans should be a little more offensive minded.
3) Louisiana-Lafayette-Young and talented, but must replace Elijah Millsap, who transferred.
4) Arkansas State-Brady's hire should help the Red Wolves build some positive momentum.
5) Denver-Pioneers are very tough to beat at home.
6) Louisiana-Monroe-Hooper will need some help to make the Warhawks a factor.
7) New Orleans-It's complete rebuilding mode for Joe Pasternack, who lost virtually all major contributors, including Bo McCalebb.

GoMiddle.com Countdown to Tipoff

40 days-October 6th: Schedule full of challenges, opportunities
39 days-October 7th: Sun Belt newcomers to watch
38 days-October 8th: Strong memory motivates Yates
37 days-October 9th: Kanaskie in position to leave a legacy
36 days-October 10th: Johnson driving force behind MT attack
35 days-October 11th: O'Neil hopes to pick up where he left off
34 days-October 12th: Boyd's long awaited debut getting closer
33 days-October 13th: Allen may be MT's missing piece
32 days-October 14th: Hudson aiming for quick recovery
31 days-October 15th: Williams can be a first year factor
30 days-October 16th: X-Factor Hair could push Raiders over top
29 days-October 17th: Green's contributions important for MT
28 days-October 18th: Lighter Haddock making big early impression
27 days-October 19th: Jones adjusting to new level
26 days-October 20th: Avery is a glue man for Blue Raiders
25 days-October 21st: Hopson brings plenty of value
24 days-October 22nd: Inside a scouting report with Artie Pepelea
23 days-October 23rd: Case has bright outlook in new post
22 days-October 24th: Top five wins of Kermit Davis era
21 days-October 25th: Top five near misses of Kermit Davis era
20 days-October 26th: Davis era: Top five individual performances
19 days-October 27th: Hoops facilities have come a long way at MT
18 days-October 28th: GoMiddle.com Preseason All Sun Belt-First Team
17 days-October 29th: GoMiddle.com Preseason All Sun Belt-Second Team
16 days-October 30th: GoMiddle.com Preseason All Sun Belt-Third Team
15 days-October 31st: MT strategy may be altered by 3-point line
14 days-November 1st: Sun Belt aims at multiple bids again
13 days-November 2nd: Preview: Sun Belt East remains strong
12 days-November 3rd: Preview: West expected to be wild



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