Jim Harris: A-State Basketball Has Huge Opportunity

Middle Tennessee Will Be Focused, But Arkansas State Basketball Has Huge Opportunity

Five years ago, the other Sun Belt Conference teams feared that the two Arkansas-based men’s teams would have a huge advantage over the rest of the league with its conference tournament moving to the quaint resort town of Hot Springs.

That didn’t prove to be the case.

Two seasons back, UALR got hot over four days to win the league’s bid to the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight, considering the Trojans possessed the league’s player of the year in what was a rather mediocre Sun Belt season overall without a dominant team, it’s not a complete shock that UALR could run the table, even if they were below .500 for the regular season.

Otherwise, neither Arkansas State nor UALR has made the tourney final in the previous four seasons it’s been held at Summit Arena and the next-door Hot Springs Convention Center, a setup for both men’s and women’s games that has been terrific for the college basketball fan.

This marks the last chance for the Arkansas teams — particularly ASU with its strong traveling contingent of fans and a team that won the Sun Belt West Division — to take advantage of the perceived home court and perhaps land the NCAA berth.

Middle Tennessee, the East Division champ and runaway overall winner of the league, isn’t a shoo-in to make the championship game, but the Blue Raiders are a certainty to be focused for the tournament, which opens Friday. Last year, Middle Tennessee had a strong RPI (ratings percentage index, one of the factors the NCAA Tournament selection committee used to choose the 68-team field) and a great overall record (25-5 coming into Hot Springs), and was clearly the best team in the league over the course of 16 games, finishing 14-2.

However, in the quarterfinal round the Blue Raiders ran into typical March Madness and a mediocre Arkansas State team that suddenly was clicking — similar to the way UALR played the year before. Middle was ousted in a 64-61 loss, then disappointingly shoved into the NIT while Western Kentucky, a seventh seed but ultimately the tourney winner, received the Sun Belt’s lone NCAA bid. The good news for leagues like the Sun Belt is that the regular season winner is guaranteed postseason if it doesn’t win its tournament, but Middle wasn’t thrilled with its consolation prize.

The NIT was nice enough to keep Middle Tennessee home for round one, and five Middle credit for winning two NIT games, including a statement win at Knoxville against Tennessee, before falling to Minnesota, the eventual NIT runner-up.

The NCAA selection committee, while cramming dozens of at-large teams into the tournament from these-called “power” conferences, has graciously accorded the league an at-large bid just twice, the last time in 2007.

Middle Tennessee has the resume again, a Top 25 RPI, and a 19-1 league mark. The Blue Raiders won the league by five games. They were rarely challenged, though Arkansas State did dump them in overtime at Jonesboro on Jan. 3 for their only league defeat.

Surely it won’t take much for Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis Jr. to have his squad focused on business for all three days this time — Middle doesn’t play until Saturday’s quarterfinals again. Anything else might happen in Hot Springs, but it’s hard to imagine an early exit for Middle Tennessee this time.

The good news for ASU, with the No. 2 seed, is that the Red Wolves won’t see Middle until Monday night’s championship game, if the Red Wolves get that far. ASU also won’t see in-state rival UALR on its side of the bracket either.

The road is open for ASU, with its guard depth, to handle the first two rounds of the tournament. It’s only against the Blue Raiders that the Red Wolves’ lack of inside depth and might come into play, but ASU can match up well with its first seven players.

However, the top seeds have struggled in Hot Springs, and not just beginning with Middle Tennessee. In 2011, the year UALR won on Bozeman’s 23-foot buzzer beater to down North Texas 64-63, Florida Atlantic rolled in as the No. 1 and left after its quarterfinal appearance. UALR, which staggered in fifth in the Sun Belt West during the regular season, dumped one of John Brady’s better ASU teams in the quarters, 59-52, ousted the second-seeded Middle Tennessee and beat the fourth-place finisher in its division, North Texas, for the NCAA trip.

On in 2010 did the No. 1 and 2 seeds at Hot Springs reach the final, when second-seeded North Texas beat top seed Troy 66-63. The local flavor was already half wiped out in round 1 when ASU eliminated UALR, then the Red Wolves dropped a 65-64 quarterfinal decision to Western Kentucky. Only a huge crowd from Denton kept Summit Arena from being desolate over the last two days.

The Sun Belt wasn’t bringing everyone to Hot Springs for the first round in 2009, and ASU didn’t make the Spa City cut for the final eight that season. One of Steve Shields’ best UALR squads was sent packing in the semifinals by sixth-seeded South Alabama, which was then no match for No. 1 seed Western Kentucky in the final. Again, a final with no Arkansas team was a tough draw; but Hot Springs fans began to warm to the tournament in succeeding years.

Next year, the Sun Belt takes the fun to New Orleans and the campus of the University of New Orleans. No longer is UNO part of the Sun Belt, but the league maintains its offices in the Crescent City.

And, as much as we like the short drive and all that Hot Springs has to offer, New Orleans as a tournament host for four days does have a different level of excitement.

Hot Springs has played host well, and the local crowd has come to support the event in good numbers in the past three seasons. Sure, it helps when the UALR women are in the title game, or when the ASU and UALR men have success.

Except for UALR’s one stunning, miracle run through the 2011 tourney, however, the home state’s success has been far less than many would have thought when the Sun Belt leaders surprised everyone and chose Hot Springs as the tourney destination.

See if that changes Monday. And here’s hoping the league returns here again soon.

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