Sun Belt Preview: Middle Tennessee State vies for the NCAA bid it narrowly missed last year

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 21 league, the Sun Belt.

Middle Tennessee State won 27 games last season, toppled UCLA, Ole Miss and Belmont in non-league play and dominated the Sun Belt from start to finish.

It was a near-perfect season for the Blue Raiders with one noteworthy exception: They fell in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament and had to settle for an NIT bid rather than an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

The sting of that shocking loss to ninth-seeded Arkansas State will still be fresh for Middle Tennessee State when it begins the 2012-13 season next month. The graduation of top scorer and rebounder LaRon Dendy leaves a huge hole in the paint for the Blue Raiders, but four other starters return from last year's 27-7 squad.

No Sun Belt team besides perhaps North Texas has more perimeter depth than Middle Tennessee State, which returns three starting guards and several key backups. Marcos Knight is a slashing off guard, Raymond Cintron is the team's best shooter and Bruce Massey is a distributing point guard and dogged defender.

In the froncourt, the Blue Raiders will try to replace Dendy's 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game by committee.

Senior forward J.T. Sulton is a double-digit scorer who can increase his output now that he can become the primary back-to-the-basket option in the paint. And junior Shawn Jones figures to be a shot-blocking presence and capable rebounder once he goes from third big man to starter this year.

Despite all the players Middle Tennessee State returns, the Blue Raiders are far from a clear-cut favorite in the Sun Belt next season.

North Texas has the most talent in the league thanks to the return of potential NBA lottery pick Tony Mitchell and an explosive supporting cast. And rapidly improving South Alabama is capable of overtaking Middle Tennessee State in the Eastern Division if it can find some guards to help complement league player of the year candidate Augustine Rubit and a formidable interior defense.

Best shooter: Trey Finn, Arkansas State
Best playmaker: Bruce Massey, Middle Tennessee State
Best defender: Tony Mitchell, North Texas
Coach on the rise: Tony Benford, North Texas
Coach on the hot seat: None
Three must-see games: 1. North Texas at Creighton, Nov. 9 (Matchup of two of the nation's best players in Tony Mitchell and Doug McDermott); 2. Florida State at South Alabama, Nov. 9 (Seminoles pounded the Jaguars last season); 3. Ole Miss at Middle Tennessee State, Dec. 8 (The Blue Raiders can beat the Rebels for a second straight year.)

New coaches: Tony Benford, North Texas (Had been assistant at Marquette); Richard Pitino, Florida International (Had been assistant at Louisville)
Regular-season winner last season: Middle Tennessee State (East); Arkansas Little Rock (West)
Tourney winner last season: Western Kentucky
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 19th; 2010-11: 23rd, 2009-10: 23rd
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2012, Western Kentucky beat Mississippi Valley State in First Four game

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Summit League (No. 22): In the small town of Brookings, S.D., Nate Wolters is a reluctant superstar; South Dakota State looks like the clear favorite

NEC (No. 23): Oft-overlooked Shane Gibson hopes to go from hidden gem to stardom; NEC Capsule Preview: Three-way battle for league title could hinge on LIU Brooklyn suspensions

Big Sky (No. 24): New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard; Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury

Big West (No. 25): With San Diego State on its way, Big West teams are investing in hoops to avoid being left behind; Revamped Long Beach State takes aim at another Big West title

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgence; Which team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgence; Coastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for Lamar; Oral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series run; Early departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk State; Savannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year off; Balanced league will crown new champ this year

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