December 18, 2008 10:50 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
Western Kentucky at South Alabama (Sun Belt)
Mitchell Center - Mobile, AL
8:05 PM EST
The teams in the Sun Belt may not have scheduled well (coming off a two-bid year, the conference RPI is 22 and the noncon record is 49-55), but the league office sure did. Nothing like a mid-December matchup of the two NCAA schools from last season to bring the interest level up.
Few will remember the particulars (because the Jaguars rolled over and died in the NCAA first round), but Sun Belt regular-season champion South Alabama had such a strong season last year that its rÃ©sumÃ© withstood a nine-point semifinal loss to Middle Tennessee in the 2008 conference tourney. The basis of Team USA's argument for skipping the NIT was its strong nonconference play, which included a win over Mississippi State and close losses to Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Unfortunately, that's not really happening this year. Aside from a minor RLU over Southern Miss, the 6-4 team hasn't grabbed opportunities against Louisville, Arkansas, and the two SEC Mississippi clubs. There's a good three-headed senior scoring machine (former Cincinnati Bearcat Domonic Tilford is averaging 16.6 ppg) and the team shoots and rebounds well, all attributes that will help in defending the regular-season title belt.
The Hilltoppers (5-3), on the other hand, took advantage of USA's fall and took the tourney title before climbing to the Sweet 16. They never had to test the "hard to lose to a team three times" maxim after losing the home-and-home to the Jaguars, so the last time the teams played was the tight 69-64 contest on Feb. 21 at Diddle Arena. Sun Belt player of the year Courtney Lee is off getting minutes with the Orlando Magic, so A.J. Slaughter has assumed the scoring mantle (14 ppg) -- but the junior guard went 1-for-10 in a stunning 72-40 loss to Evansville last weekend, and the offense has been prone to complete blackouts. The Tops have a whole Belt season to figure themselves out, and if it comes down to a split-decision at Tournament time, there are always those wins over Louisville and Georgia they can point to.
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