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Sun Belt announces scheduling tweaks to bolster NCAA tournament resumes

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Add the Sun Belt to the list of conferences getting creative with its schedule in order to boost its NCAA tournament profile.

The league is shifting to a 20-game “smart schedule” with the final four games of each team’s conference schedule determined by how they fared in the first 16 in order to pit the top three teams against each other for an extra home-and-away series to finish the year.

It will work like this:

After 16 games, the league will be broken up into four pods – Pod A (#1, #2, #3), Pod B (#4, #5, #6), Pod C (#7, #8, #9) and Pod D (#10, #11, #12). Then each team will play the other two teams in its pod twice, once at home and once away. That away the top teams will get an RPI (or whatever metric you prefer) boost by playing the best competition the conference has to offer, rather than some sub-300 team that will be a drag on its profile regardless of the final score.

The Sun Belt is also tweaking its conference tournament format. The pods will essentially dictate seeding. A team from Pod A cannot be seeded lower than third, for instance. The tournament will also feature what the league is calling a “Final Four” starting in 2020. The top two seeds will earn byes into the semifinals, which will be played at the home of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Smoothie King Center. Seeds three and four receive byes into the quarterfinals and will host whichever two teams emerge from the tournament’s opening two rounds before moving to Smoothie King Center for the semis and championship.

“I applaud the commitment of our president and chancellors, athletic directors, and basketball coaches for their willingness to accept the unique concepts that were approved today,” Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said in a statement.  “Not only will these initiatives push our men’s and women’s basketball success to the next level, but our student-athlete and fan experience will be elevated with our new tournament format and host site at the Smoothie King Center.”

While a little quirky, these changes make a lot of sense, and you have to give the Sun Belt – and Conference USA and the WCC – credit for being willing to experiment and innovate in order to bolster its members’ resumes. Given that the scales are weighted so much toward teams from power conferences, it’s almost essential for mid-majors to try to game the system a little themselves in order to put itself in the best position possible.

These changes may be a little gimmicky and will almost certainly confuse fans for the first year or two, but they almost certainly will be an unmitigated success for helping the conference’s national profile come Selection Sunday.

Little Rock promotes Wes Flanigan to head coach

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Just days after announcing the departure of head coach Chris Beard to UNLV, Little Rock didn’t go outside of the program to hire the next leader of its basketball program.

Thursday morning the school introduced Wes Flanigan as its new head coach, promoting Flanigan from the associate head coaching position he held under Beard. Flanigan, who is a Little Rock native, was an assistant at the Sun Belt school from 2004-08 before moving on to assistant coaching stints at UAB, Nebraska and Mississippi State.

Little Rock has five seniors to replace from this season’s team, which won 30 games and beat No. 5 seed Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Among those players moving on are guard Josh Hagins, who scored 31 points in that double-overtime victory, and forward Roger Woods.

Guard Marcus Johnson Jr., who averaged 12.5 points per game this season, is due to be the Trojans’ leading returning scorer in 2016-17.

No. 4 Iowa State rolls to second Sweet 16 in three years

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With Midwest No. 12 Little Rock flying high following their double overtime win over No. 5 Purdue, the Trojans appeared to pose a serious threat to No. 4 Iowa State Saturday evening. With a red-hot guard in Josh Hagins and one of the best defenses in the country, maybe Chris Beard’s team had enough to slow down the Cyclones.

However it became quite clear early that Little Rock had no answer for senior forward Georges Niang, and as the game rolled on his teammates got going as well. Iowa State executed very well on both ends of the floor, resulting in a comfortable 78-61 victory in Denver. Next up for Iowa State is their second Sweet 16 appearance in three years, and they’ll play either No. 1 Virginia or No. 9 Butler next week in Chicago.

One of the best players in the country, Niang scored a game-high 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting from the field while also grabbing six rebounds. With his ability to not only score inside and out but also get the ball to open teammates, Niang was a very tough matchup for the Trojans to deal with. Doubling down into the post when he was there didn’t work because of the passing ability, and Niang’s being able to go out onto the perimeter and make plays posed a problem for Little Rock as well.

Iowa State turned the ball over just four times on the day against a Little Rock team that feasted off of turnovers in their win over Purdue Thursday, with Monté Morris being one reason why. The junior point guard didn’t commit a single turnover Saturday, and as a team the Cyclones finished with 15 assists. The passing and player movement resulted in 11 three-pointers and 56.6 percent shooting from the field.

Morris was also a factor defensively, as he served as the primary defender on Hagins, who finished with eight points on 3-for-8 shooting after lighting up Purdue for 31 on Thursday.

Iowa State had some issues in Big 12 play, with the combination of a lack of depth and the competition they were facing on a nightly basis being the biggest reasons why. But this group displayed a greater commitment to the defensive end in Denver this weekend, and the offense is still potent. Viewed as a Final Four contender during the preseason, the Cyclones have begun to look like the team many expected to see during conference play.

Josh Hagins, No. 12 Little Rock knock off No. 5 Purdue in 2OT

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Leading by 13 with 3:19 remaining, No. 5 seed Purdue looked to be well on its way to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The problem for the Boilermakers: they took their foot off the gas too early.

No. 12 Little Rock ramped up the defensive pressure, forcing multiple turnovers while doing enough offensively to get themselves in position tie the game in the final seconds of regulation. Josh Hagins delivered, hitting a three-pointer with 6.8 seconds remaining to force overtime. From there the Trojans and Boilermakers traded punches through two overtimes, with Little Rock ultimately winning in double overtime 85-83.

Essentially the difference was Hagins, who ran the point well for the Trojans and finished with 31 points, seven rebounds, six assists and five steals. Little Rock’s been one of the best stories in college basketball thanks to the work of first-year head coach Chris Beard, and the presence of a point guard as good as Hagins has certainly helped the Sun Belt champions.

As for Purdue, the questions about their perimeter play and whether or not they had enough to be a factor in the NCAA tournament have been asked all season long. And down the stretch against the Trojans it was easy to see why many remained concerned.

Purdue struggled to take care of the basketball against the Little Rock defense, committing 18 turnovers with many of those coming as they were trying to put the game away. Just as bad for the Boilermakers was their inability to get A.J. Hammons the ball, thus failing to take advantage of the one matchup that was in their favor. Hammons finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks, but after scoring with 16:28 remaining in regulation he didn’t score again until the second overtime.

Hammons got the occasional touch, with Little Rock doubling down to get the ball out of his hands, but far too often Purdue’s offense consisted of wasted motion followed by a challenged shot late in the shot clock. That kind of execution won’t get it done in March, especially against a team that defends as well as Little Rock.

Next up for the Trojans is No. 4 Iowa State, which took care of No. 13 Iona in the first game of the day. And after picking up the program’s first NCAA tournament victory in 30 years, Little Rock has designs on their first-ever Sweet 16 appearance.

UT Arlington loses leading scorer, rebounder to torn ACL

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For the second straight season UT Arlington head coach Scott Cross will have to deal with his most productive player being lost for the season due to injury.

Friday afternoon the school announced that sophomore forward Kevin Hervey will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee, with the injury being suffered just before the Mavericks’ win over Arkansas State Thursday night. Hervey currently leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest, so it goes without saying that this is a big hit for UT Arlington to take.

Without Hervey Thursday night the Mavericks started four guards in a 91-64 win over Arkansas State. Jorge Bilbao, the lone starting front court player, finished with 11 points, ten rebounds and seven assists. 6-foot-7 guard Nathan Hawkins and 6-foot-7 forward Faith Pope combined to play 26 minutes in the win, contributing a total of six points and three rebounds with Pope responsible for all three boards.

Chipping in on the glass were Kennedy Eubanks and Kaelon Wilson, with the former grabbing a team-high 11 boards and Wilson adding ten. They’ll have to continue to help on the glass moving forward with the team’s best rebounder lost for the season. Next up for UT Arlington is another Sun Belt team that made waves in non-conference play in Little Rock, which at 6-1 in league play is a half-game ahead of the 5-1 Mavericks atop the league standings.

Last season, UT Arlington lost Johnny Hill to a season-ending injury. Hill is using his final season of college eligibility at Purdue.

Kevin Ware had a close call during Georgia State’s trip to Costa Rica

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Kevin Ware played a grand total of 53 minutes over nine games with Louisville this past season. Following a Dec. 17 win over Missouri State, Ware was shut down for the season, as he was continuing to recover from a gruesome compound leg fracture he suffered during the 2013 Elite 8 game against Duke.

In April, Ware transferred to Georgia State, citing the need for a fresh start. This summer, Ware received word that he would receive a waiver making him eligible to play immediately for one of the top mid-major programs in the country. The transfer guard was able to suit up for the Panthers during their foreign trip to Costa Rico, though, his debut with his new school did come with a brief scare, as Georgia State head coach told  Jeff Goodman of ESPN that Ware was clipped from behind during the team’s first game.

“He hit the wall, went down, stayed down for a little bit, and the entire team froze,” Hunter told Goodman. “I was scared to death when he didn’t move at first — but then he got up and sprinted back.”

The 6-foot-2 Ware will be part of a very talented perimeter for Georgia State, along with R.J. Hunter — 18.3 points per game, 40 percent 3-point shooting — and Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow — 17.8 points and 4.2 assists per game. The high-scoring duo led the Panthers to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game, only to have their NCAA tournament title hopes dashed by an upset delivered by Elfrid Payton and Louisiana-Lafayette.

The Ragin’ Cajuns do return forward Shawn Long, but the Panthers should be heavy favorites to top the conference standings once again.

Georgia State opens its season against Tennessee Temple on Nov. 14, three days before an early season test against Iowa State in Ames.

[h/t Jonathan Lintner, Courier-Journal]