The Sun Belt Conference Tournament begins Friday in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  It is the final time the tournament will be held at the Summit Arena as the tournament will move to New Orleans beginning next year.  Here is a look at bracket #2 for the tournament.

#2 SEED  ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (18-11, 12-8)  Coach:  John Brady

STRENGTHS—Very solid defensive team, which is a staple of John Brady’s philosophy.  Team forces turnovers without committing a lot themselves. (+3.2).  Brandon Peterson has played to an all-conference level.  Senior Trey Finn gives them great leadership.  Very good guard depth with Finn, Dickerson, Golden, Townsell and Marcus Hooten.  Gator Worsham has a chance to be really really good before his time in Jonesboro is done.

WEAKNESSES—Not a very good shooting team.  Only Hooten shoots over 35% from three point range.  Hit and miss at the free throw line with Worsham, Peterson and Kelvin Downs anything but automatic.  Inside depth is a question, especially if Peterson gets into foul trouble.  Inconsistent point guard play at times, although Golden will be a good one.

OUTLOOK—Which Arkansas State team to we see?  The one that won seven out of eight down the stretch, or the one that got blown out at North Texas then lost at UALR in the final week.  Brady gets the most out of this team he possibly can, but there’s not a lot of room for error, especially if they have a tough shooting night.  Their defense keeps them in every game, but they have to make shots if they’re going to get to Monday night.

#3 SEED—SOUTH ALABAMA (17-11, 14-6)  Coach:  Jeff Price (Interim)

STRENGTHS:  The best overall front line in the conference, led by Sun Belt Player of the Year Augustine Rubit.  Javier Carter is an excellent shot blocker and Mychal Ammons poses matchup problems with his size and quickness at the small forward position.  Rubit gets to the free throw line more than anyone in the league and when he gets there, he makes them (.787).  Good rebounding team.

WEAKNESSES:  Guard play.  Dre Connor does a credible job at the point, but the Jaguars turn it over too often.  With Freddie Goldstein injured, their best outside threat in the backcourt is gone.  Ammons (.375) is a threat from beyond the arc but the others are hit and miss.  Team doesn’t have a lot of depth, with only five players (eliminating Goldstein) averaging 20 minutes per game.

OUTLOOK:  Jeff Price has done a nice job in tough circumstances after taking over as the interim head coach following the sudden retirement of Ronnie Arrow.  The team has responded well to his leadership.  I really like the way South Alabama poses matchup problems for so many teams in the league.  Their guard play is shaky and their depth is questionable, which makes them vulnerable.  But Rubit covers up a lot of sins.  Don’t be surprised if this team is playing on Monday night.

#6 SEED—WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (16-15, 10-10)—Coach:  Ray Harper

STRENGTHS:  George Fant is the best little big man in the Sun Belt conference.  He frequently outduels players who are bigger with strength and pure want-to.  T. J. Price has turned into an all-conference caliber guard.  Now healthy, Jamal Crook makes this team a lot better at the guard position.  Teeng Akol and Alex Rostov add good depth inside.  O’Karo Akamune and Kene Anyigbo provide more depth inside and on the wing.  Brandon Harris is one of the league’s more underrated players.  Solid rebounding team.

WEAKNESSES—WKU will shoot a lot of threes but on some nights they don’t make them.  Fant and Price shoot the bulk of the free throws, but both are under 70 percent.  Team doesn’t force a lot of turnovers.  While they have depth, the depth is inconsistent.

OUTLOOK—Don’t judge this team by its record.  With Crook missing a lot of games, among others, it’s easy to fall into the trip of thinking they’re only average.  They are better than that.  They won three in a row before falling by eight to Middle Tennessee in their season finale.  And, assuming they get past ULM, their quarterfinal draw against South Alabama is a good matchup.  There are a few teams that could make a run through this bracket.  WKU is one of them.

#7 SEED—FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS  (14-17, 9-11)  Coach:  Mike Jarvis

STRENGTHS:  When you have guys like Greg Gantt and Stephan Moody and their scoring ability, you always have a chance.  Gantt lost weight from last season and has become a complete player, not just a shooter.  Moody is capable of getting twenty on any given night.  Pablo Bertone gives them a solid wing player to compliment the two.  Jordan McCoy is an excellent rebounder, although he doesn’t score much.  And Kelvin Penn can block some shots.  Gantt and Moody shoot the bulk of the free throws and both are solid at the line.

WEAKNESSES—Lack of a pure point guard makes this team prone to turning the ball over.  Jarvis is big on assist/turnover ratio and FAU is the worst in the Sun Belt.  Their inside game can rebound, but scoring is a chore.  And, there’s not much depth there either.  Not a very good perimeter defensive team.

OUTLOOK—While everyone (including me) talks about Gantt and Moody, Bertone is really the X factor on this team.  When he becomes a real third scoring option, FAU has a chance to win.  There’s not much to get excited about their inside game, but those three guards can cover up a lot of sins.  Their ability to guard the perimeter in their first round game against Troy will be interesting.  The fact the Owls won both regular season games doesn’t mean they’ll win this one.

#10 SEED—TROY TROJANS  (11-20, 6-14)  Coach:  Don Maestri

STRENGTHS:  Multiple players who are capable of shooting the three point shot, making them tough to defend.  Team  has a positive assist/turnover ratio, rare for a Sun Belt team.  This team takes very good care of the basketball, ranking among the nation’s leaders in fewest turnovers per game.  Emil Jones is a very unselfish player who can score, rebound and dish.  Hunter Williams is a solid scorer.  Most of their players are good free throw shooters.    This team is good at making the opposition play at their place.

WEAKNESSES:  Not a good rebounding team.  Opponents have shot 160 free throws more than the Trojans have.  While Troy has a lot of players who like to shoot it from the perimeter, their three point FG percentage is the lowest in recent memory for this program.  Troy needs to get scoring consistency from multiple players in a game to be successful and it hasn’t happened nearly enough.  Team comes into the tournament on a five game losing streak.

OUTLOOK:  The Trojans have lost twenty games this season, but twelve have been by ten points or less.  Maestri is as good as anyone in the league adapting style of play to his personnel.  His teams can be run and gun or deliberate and he’s an excellent game planner.  To be successful in their first round game, they need to shoot it well against an FAU team that isn’t great defensively, especially on the perimeter.  They’ve also got to find a way to slow FAU’s guards.  But their inability to get to the free throw line will eventually be their downfall at some point in this tournament.

#11  LOUISIANA-MONROE WARHAWKS  (4-22, 3-17)  Coach:  Keith Richard

STRENGTHS:  Trent Mackey might just be the best pure shooter in the league.  The Warhawks do a good job of getting him open and he doesn’t need much room to get a shot off.  Kyle Koszuta and Trey Lindsay are capable beyond the arc as well.  Amos Olatayo can score the basketball, whether it be slashing to the basket, hitting a mid range jumper or getting a putback.  Jayon James is a tough matchup because he’s a post player who leads the team in assists.  Richard demands his players play hard, and this team does.

WEAKNESSES:  Oh, gosh, where to start.  Team has absolutely no depth, playing only seven players most nights.  A brutal free throw shooting team.  A poor rebounding team.  Not very good defensively at all.  Team can go cold from the field and give up huge scoring runs at any given time.   If they get in foul trouble at any position, they’re in deep trouble.

OUTLOOK:  You’ve got to feel for Richard, an excellent coach who is still trying to clean up the APR mess left by Orlando Early.  Already thin in numbers, he had to dismiss a player and lost Marcelis Hansberry to injury.  This team will play hard, but unless they get a huge scoring night on the perimeter from multiple players, they won’t be in Hot Springs long.