Vanderbilt v Middle Tennessee

Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview

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Middle Tennessee State is far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference.

Let’s start with the obvious: they went 19-1 in league play. Their only loss came to Arkansas State on the road in overtime. Arkansas State won the Sun Belt’s Western Division with a 12-8 record. South Alabama, who finished second to MTSU in the Eastern Division, had a 14-6 record.

The Blue Raiders, in other words, won their league — which was a true, double round-robin, meaning they played every team in the league at home and on the road — by a full five games. That’s incredible. But there are two problems here:

A) It may not be enough to get the Blue Raiders an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, as their impressive RPI is overshadowed by the fact that their only top 100 win came against Ole miss.

B) They now have to extend that dominance for three more games in order to earn the automatic bid for the conference.

As much as we all love upsets and excitement during Championship Week, you really should be rooting for the Blue Raiders to get that automatic bid. They are good enough to make a run in the Big Dance.

(CLICK HERE to browse through all of our conference tournament previews)


Where: Hot Springs, Arkansas

When: March 8-11

Final: March 11th, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Favorite: Middle Tennessee State

To expand on what we wrote above, the Blue Raiders are a deep, balanced and veteran group that has experienced both regular season dominance and postseason disappointment. After running through the Sun Belt last season, they dropped a couple games down the stretch and lost in the conference tournament, winding up in the NIT. To get an idea of what this team is all about, think about this stat: MTSU dominated the league as thoroughly as a league can be dominated, yet they had just one player — Marcos Knight — get named to one of the two all-conference teams. Knight averaged 12.6 points and 5.4 boards. Six other players in the ten man rotation average between 6.3 points and 8.6 points.

And if they lose?: South Alabama has the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year on their roster and nearly took MTSU out at home back in January. But the Jaguars also lost by 35 to the Blue Raiders on the road. Arkansas State is the one team that has beaten the Blue Raiders this year, and Kenpom has then as the second-most likely team to win the tournament.

Sleepers: North Texas has been beat-up all season and as disappointing as any team in the country, but they may actually be the most talented team in the Sun Belt. Florida Atlantic lost eight out of ten at one point this season, but they have a dynamic back court that can put up points in a hurry when they get hot.


– Tony Mitchell, North Texas: He’s a lottery pick, even if he hasn’t played like one since last March.

– Augustine Rubit, South Alabama: Rubit averaged 18.9 points and 10.0 boards this season and notched 16 double-doubles.

– TJ Price, Western Kentucky: Price is a big-time scorer that dealt with some injuries during the season but seemed to hit his stride down the stretch.

CBT Prediction: Middle Tennessee State will roll. They’re not going to want a repeat of last year’s disappointment.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Denzel Valentine claims the top spot

Denzel Valentine
AP Photo
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1. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: I mean, is this really a surprise for anyone at this point?The kid is averaging 19.9 points, 8.9 boards and 8.6 assists and shooting 42.6 percent from three. He has two triple-doubles where he scored 29 points. His “off night” came when he went for 17 points, six boards and five assists in a win over Providence. And he’s doing all this as Michigan State has climbed their way into the top three. This decision was not difficult.

2. Kris Dunn, Providence: He was the best player in the country entering the season. He’s probably still the best player in the country at this point in the season; his fall from No. 1 has less to do with him than it does what the other guy has done this season. Dunn’s number are about what you would have expected this season — 19.0 points, 6.7 assists, 6.1 boards, 3.7 steals — but what solidified him in this spot was what he did down the stretch in the win over Arizona, notching 11 points and two assists as the Frairs used a 15-7 run in the final 4:30 to win.

3. Michael Gbinije, Syracuse: There hasn’t been a more surprising team in the country than Syracuse this season, and their best player has been the former Duke transfer, Gbinije. Through the 6-0 start for the Orange, he is averaging 19.7 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.6 percent from three on a team that is relying on the three-ball to win them games. He played his best ball last week during the Battle 4 Atlantis, where he led the Orange to the title with wins over UConn and Texas A&M. The Orange look like they are the real deal this year, and Gbinije’s emergence as a full-fledged star at the point guard spot is the biggest reason why.

4. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: We saw how good Ulis is when he went for 18 points, six assists, four boards, two steals and no turnovers in the win over Duke in the Champions Classic. But we saw just how valuable he is to this Kentucky team on Monday night when he sat out with an elbow injury. The Wildcats and 15 turnovers and eight assists while struggling to put away Illinois State at home. With point guards, you don’t usually understand their impact until they aren’t available..

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen cooled off a bit last week after his torrid start to the season, “only” averaging 18.0 points, 5.0 boards and 3.5 assists as the Blue Devils rolled over Utah State and Yale. On the season, he’s posting numbers that are positively J.J. Redick-ian: 22.5 points while shooting 48.6 percent from three. If he wasn’t atrocious when Duke lost to Kentucky at the Champions Classic — their biggest game of the season — he might actually be the Player of the Year at this point.

6. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield has lived up to the hype that he had entering the season, averaging 22.0 points and 5.5 boards while shooting 52.4 percent from three to start the season. The Oklahoma star struggled in the win over Wisconsin, but he went for 30 points as the Sooners went into Memphis and knocked off the Tigers earlier this season.

7. Wayne Selden, Kansas: Is Wayne Selden — dare I say it — starting to live up to his potential? Through six games this season, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. He’s averaging 17.0 points, 3.0 assists and 3.0 boards. He’s shooting 58.6 percent from three. He was the best player for the Jayhawks in their come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt in the Maui Invitational. He’s playing with confidence. He’s playing like a go-to guy. He’s playing like the Wayne Selden that was supposed to show up on campus two years ago. If he can do this consistently, the Jayhawks are a different team.

8. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Iowa State is in a bit of an interesting situation. They’re rolling over their opponents, having beaten three high-major teams in their first five games, but their best win is probably over Chattanooga of the SoCon. In other words, they really haven’t been tested like, say, Kansas or Michigan has been. That said, Niang’s numbers under new head coach Steve Prohm are as good as they ever were under Fred Hoiberg: 16.8 points, 5.6 boards, 4.0 assists, 2.0 turnovers with shooting splits of 51.6/41/2/92.9. We should still be in a holding pattern with Niang — and the Cyclones in general — until we see them play some stronger competition, but the early returns on the Prohm era have been terrific.

9. Ben Simmons, LSU: Look. I get it. The Simmons hype train was out of control in the first week or two of the season. And while the numbers that he’s putting up are insane — 16.8 points, 15.0 boards, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks — he’s doing it on a team that hasn’t beaten anyone, lost to two middle-of-the-pack power conference foes and just fell at Charleston on Monday night in a game that Simmons shot 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers. That said, he’s still one of the three best players in college basketball and he’s going to be the first college player taken in the draft. He still deserves to be on this list, but that will eventually change if his — and LSU’s performances — don’t.

10. Isaac Haas, Purdue: Haas may be a strange name to have on this list because so few people have heard of him. He’s a 7-foot-2 sophomore that only stepped into the starting lineup this season because A.J. Hammons was in Matt Painter’s doghouse, but he embraced the role and made it his own. On a team that’s winning because of their dominating front line, he’s been the best of the bunch: 15.0 points and 6.5 boards while shooting 75.6 percent from the floor and 73.7 percent from the foul line. Here’s the kicker: he’s doing all of that in just 19 minutes per game! He’s averaging an insane 31.6 points-per-40 minutes! He’s going to come back to earth eventually, but for now, let’s celebrate how utterly dominant the big man has been.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Maryland/North Carolina highlights ACC/Big Ten games

Marcus Paige
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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Marcus Paige makes his season debut as these former ACC rivals match up as top-ten ranked opponents for the first time since 1999. The return of the senior guard for the Tar Heels gives them more consistency when it comes to perimeter shooting and Paige should help North Carolina’s spacing. Maryland gets a great early-season road test as they’ve had to come from behind late in a handful of games early this season. The Terps remain unbeaten at 6-0 as Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon has looked good and sophomore point guard Melo Trimble has played well.

CBT’s Rob Dauster is covering this game and will have more on it tonight.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 11 Purdue at Pitt, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

Both teams enter this one undefeated as the tough and balanced Boilermakers give the Panthers a legitimate test. Sophomore center Isaac Haas has been tremendous for Purdue and he’s complimented by senior center A.J. Hammons and freshman power forward Caleb Swanigan. Michael Young and Jamel Artis are off to big starts for Pitt, who hasn’t been tested much in their 4-0 start. This home game gives Jamie Dixon’s team a chance to prove they’re for real before ACC play begins. Purdue will likely be without senior guard Rapheal Davis, who is recovering from a sprained MCL.


  • No. 8 Villanova stays within Philadelphia and travels to Saint Joseph’s as they try to stay unbeaten against the 4-1 Hawks. Josh Hart is having a great season and the Wildcats look good early.
  • Ohio State has really struggled early this season with three losses, but they have a big chance to correct things at home against No. 10 Virginia. The Cavaliers are playing at a faster pace this season, but their defense has still been very good. The Buckeyes have lost three straight games, including home games to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech.
  • It will also be the season debut for Cheick Diallo tonight as No. 4 Kansas hosts Loyola (MD) in their return home from a title at the Maui Invitational. Wayne Selden is playing tremendously and we’ll have to see if his hot shooting continues.
  • No. 5 Iowa State is trying to remain unbeaten as they play at home against North Dakota State. The Cyclones return as champions from the Emerald Coast Classic as their offense is rolling.
  • After an impressive showing at the Puerto Rico Classic, No. 21 Miami lost at home to Northeastern and has a tough road game against Nebraska. Pinnacle Bank Arena will be load and the Huskers are unbeaten at home this season as Andrew White has stepped up nicely.
  • Other ACC/Big Ten Challenge games going on include Michigan visiting N.C. State and Northwestern playing at Virginia Tech.


  • Wofford at Georgia Tech, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
  • Richmond at Florida, 7:00 p.m. (SEC)
  • Oakland at Georgia, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
  • UMES at Georgetown, 7:00 p.m.
  • UT-Arlington at Texas, 8:00 p.m. (Longhorn)
  • Northwestern State at Arkansas, 9:00 p.m. (SEC)
  • Louisiana Tech at Memphis, 9:00 p.m. (CBSSN)
  • Arkansas State at Missouri, 9:00 p.m. (SEC)
  • Seattle at Cal, 10:00 p.m. (PAC12)