Despite the shocking death of starting point guard Danny Rumph, who died suddenly during a summer pickup game, the Hilltoppers are poised to return to the top of the hill behind versatile scorer Anthony Winchester, the league’s top 3-point shooter (.453), and 2005 Freshman of the Year Courtney Lee, a slasher with outside range. Lee was the team’s second-leading scorer with a 14.9-point average. Solid big man Elgrace Wilborn provides an inside presence. A transfer from Tennessee, Wilborn was responsible for 83 of the Hilltoppers’ 121 blocked shots.
2. FIU (13–17, 4–10)
At a deceiving 6'6", senior forward Ivan Almonte is the league’s best rebounder — he led the Sun Belt with 9.9 per game last year — and a double-double machine, but there is more to his game than swiping the boards. Almonte was only the fifth Golden Panther ever to score 500 points in a single season. The play of junior point guard Alan Guyton, who missed last season after knee surgery, is crucial for a team hoping to make a big leap in the league standings.
3. Middle Tennessee (19–12, 7–7)
Winning has become a habit for the Blue Raiders, but the loss of four players who averaged over 24 minutes per game will be tough to overcome for coach Kermit Davis & Co. Senior forward Marcus Morrison, senior point guard Fats Cuyler and junior post Kyle Young provide a nice base. Hosting the league tournament provides an advantage and time for new faces, including forwards Brian Lake and Tim Blue, to blend in.
4. UALR (18–10, 10–4)
Back-to-back division titles and Coach of the Year honors for Steve Shields will be hard to repeat with the loss of nearly every player of consequence. The Trojans only proven commodity is junior guard Zach Wright, who averaged 11.1 points per game and shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range. UALR became just the second university ever to graduate eight members of a men’s basketball team in one calendar year. That does not bode well for the upcoming season.
5. Arkansas State (16–13, 7–7)
The dean of Sun Belt coaches, Dickey Nutt has 150-plus career victories, and the ASU program needs 14 wins to reach 1,000 all-time. Deep scoring threat Jerry Nichols is among the league’s best shooters, while 6'8" inside force Kitus Witherspoon was a finalist for National Comeback Player of the Year honors after returning to action after getting hit by a car before last season.
1. Denver (20–11, 12–3)
Not only did 6'10" post player Jemi Nicholson come out of nowhere to earn league Player of the Year honors, but he also drew the attention of NBA scouts. After flirting with turning pro, Nicholson returns for his senior year to make the Pioneers among the league favorites. Expectations are at an all-time high for fifth-year coach Terry Carroll after a record 20 wins overall, including 12 in league play. Nicholson’s inside presence allowed the Pioneers to use a three-guard offense, but only one of them returns — 6'2" senior Andrew Carpenter.
2. New Orleans (13–17, 7–8)
Five returning starters, including league Player of the Year candidate Bo McCalebb, will have the Privateers in the hunt for the league title. McCalebb topped the team in scoring in 26 of 30 games, and his 22.6 points per game led the league and ranked fifth in nation. He also led the team in assists and steals. Offseason foot surgery for a stress fracture won’t be a hindrance. Joining the starters is 6'8" senior Nathaniel Parker, a former starter who battled injuries last season.
3. Louisiana-Lafayette (20–11, 11–4)
No team lost as much backcourt talent as Louisiana-Lafayette. Gone are guards Orien Greene, the league’s top defender who was drafted by the Boston Celtics, and Tiras Wade, a first-team all-league pick who departed school early to play professionally overseas. Still, the Ragin’ Cajuns will be talented and should be competitive in Robert Lee’s second season. Dwayne Mitchell, an athletic 6'6" swingman, can single-handedly take over a game. He will need to do so often to get the Cajuns back to the NCAA Tournament.
4. South Alabama (10–18, 6–9)
The pressure is on fourth-year coach John Pelphrey, the former Kentucky standout and Florida assistant whose team only won 10 games (six in the league) last season. Leading the way for the Jags will be a trio of seniors, including one of the league’s more exciting players, 6'3" guard Mario Jointer. Richard Law, a 6'6" forward, needs to add to a career season that saw him average nearly 10 points per game, while Michael Phillips, also a 6'6" forward, returns after missing last season due to academics.
5. North Texas (14–14, 6–9)
It may not sound like much, but last year’s 14 wins tied for the highest total at North Texas since the Mean Green won 17 games back in 1990-91. While leading scorer Leonard Hopkins departs, six players return from a balanced offense that had 10 players score at least 100 points. Six newcomers, including Arkansas transfer Kendrick Davis, need to blend into the mix. Leading the way will be 6'5" senior guard Calvin Watson, who made 40 percent of his 3-pointers last season.
6. Troy (12–18, 10–10 A-Sun)
After seven seasons of competing consistently near the top of the Atlantic Sun Conference — including four league titles in the last six seasons — the Trojans join the Sun Belt in all sports for the 2005-06 academic year. Veteran coach Don Maestri, who’s entering his 23rd season at the helm, guided the program from Division II to an NCAA Tournament team. While the frontcourt is lean on experience, the backcourt is proven, with the return of seniors Bobby Dixon, a 5'10" point guard who is the Trojans’ top returning scorer, and his running mate, 6'3" veteran Jacob Hazouri.