The Sun Belt's East Division is one of the most underappreciated divisions in college basketball's non-BCS leagues.
Both of the league's NCAA Tournament bids last year came from the East and the division will be very high caliber basketball again this year despite some top talent departing.
We break down what to watch this year in the Sun Belt East and how we see it playing out in the end.
Top three storylines
1) TOP TEAMS REBUILDING
South Alabama and Western Kentucky have finished 1-2 each of the last two years in the Sun Belt East, but both programs face a big challenge this year replacing some of their all time greatest players. Both bring back enough talent and experience to still be very competitive in the conference race, and you have to expect both to play with a strong sense of pride in more of an underdog role than they are accustomed to. The Hilltoppers won't be the same without Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton, just as the Jaguars won't be the same without Daon Merritt and Demetric Bennett. But each team has two players named Preseason All-Sun Belt as well as strong home court advantages. Don't expect either to surrender their lofty perches easily.
2) FAMOUS FACE
For the third time in four years, Florida Atlantic opens a basketball season with a new head coach. But also for the third time in four years, the Owls have put a well recognized face on the sideline. Former George Washington and St. John's head coach Mike Jarvis takes over a program previously coached by Matt Doherty (now at SMU) and Rex Walters (now at University of San Fransisco). Jarvis inherits a team that finished in the middle of the pack last year with an 8-10 regular season conference record, but the pieces are there to be a potential sleeper contender. Based on some comments Rex Walters has made this preseason, it seems as though the chemistry between coaching staff and players was not very strong last year. Jarvis brings new blood into a program that touts a player of the year candidate in Carlos Monroe, and the new head coach's track record of success figures to immediately command respect in the locker room.
3) RAIDERS IN UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY
Middle Tennessee has been in the mix for the Sun Belt championship every year under head coach Kermit Davis, but the Blue Raiders have not had the type of preseason expectations that have been placed on them this year. MT is the fourth winningest program in the conference over the last six seasons but this is the first year the Blue Raiders are a consensus pick to win the league. How will this veteran team respond to those expectations? The Blue Raiders will try to get a few monkeys off the program's back: 1) They have not won 20 games since 1991 2) They haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 1989 3) They haven't won a regular season game at Western Kentucky since 1976. The potential is there for this team to be a special one, but how will it handle being the target of the rest of the league?
Top three players
1) DESMOND YATES - MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Yates is the Sun Belt's Preseason Player of the Year and possesses arguably the league's most efficient offensive skills. Yates can score at several different spots on the floor and can make the 3-pointer even from the increased distance. If Yates develops more of a mean streak as a rebounder, he can make his team very difficult to beat on a nightly basis.
2) CARLOS MONROE - FLORIDA ATLANTIC
Monroe is considered Yates' prime competition for postseason Player of the Year honors. Possibly the league's best and most intimidating rebounder, Monroe owns the paint most games for the Owls. He led his team in points, rebounds, and steals last season. He does a good job avoiding foul trouble defensively and drawing fouls offensively, but he needs to be better when he does get to the free throw line.
3) BRANDON DAVIS - SOUTH ALABAMA
Davis is one of the best and most intelligent players in the conference. Though undersized, he can be a devastating shot blocker. On offense, he ranked second in the Sun Belt in field goal percentage and his quick footwork in the post makes him very difficult to defend without fouling. He's a terror on the offensive glass, where he racks up more scoring on second chance points.
Three things that will decide the division
1) WHAT WILL MT GET FROM THERYN HUDSON?
The Blue Raiders need a healthy and strong Hudson in the post to have the best chance of meeting their lofty preseason expectations. Offseason foot surgery has prevented Hudson from participating in preseason practice, and the senior big man will certainly have to work his way back into playing shape as the season gets started. MT played a couple of games without him last year, but Hudson has to be a consistent presence in the paint throughout the conference schedule to take some of the interior defensive load off of Desmond Yates.
2) LOOKING WEST
The East division was 14 games over .500 against the West division in head to head matchups last year and is again expected to be the stronger of the two sides. East division teams may decide their fate in the title chase by how they perform against West division opponents. Western Kentucky and South Alabama combined only lost one game to a West division opponent last year, which means to win the East you have to pretty much run the table against the West. Two of Middle Tennessee's conference losses last year came against West Division teams that finished under .500 in conference play. Those are the kind of losses that will kill any East Division squad's championship hopes. Of the teams picked to finish in the top three in the East, South Alabama has the most favorable schedule against the West. The Jaguars play Louisiana-Monroe (4-14 SBC) twice, while Western Kentucky draws Arkansas-Little Rock (11-7 SBC) twice and Middle Tennessee will play North Texas (10-8) twice.
3) FIRST YEAR IMPACTS
Which East division teams will get the biggest and best impact from highly touted newcomers? The answer may swing the title chase. Middle Tennessee needs a big year from junior college transfers Eric Allen and Montarrio Haddock; Western Kentucky will be counting on first year players Sergio Kerusch and Anthony Sally; Florida International will be very dangerous if point guard transfer Josue Soto is as good as advertised; Troy's Richard Delk may be one of the Sun Belt's top five scorers in his first season of eligibility after transferring from Mississippi State. The coach that most quickly and efficiently mixes in these new talents will have a leg up on the competition.
How it will look at the end
1) Middle Tennessee-The table is set for a breakthrough year.
2) Western Kentucky-The Hilltoppers have the best home court advantage and still have good talent.
3) South Alabama-Jaguars have all league talent, but need a leader to replace Daon Merritt.
4) Florida Atlantic-Owls would probably be title contender in the West.
5) Florida International-Alex Galindo should return from injury in January and FIU will be a tough out.
6) Troy-Count on the Trojans still being entertaining with their fast paced style.
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