Among the “Under the Radar” conferences, the Sun Belt certainly garnered a lot of attention last season. Early in the year, it was mostly Texas-Arlington, as the Mavericks picked up surprising wins at Ohio State and Memphis and took Texas to overtime. A stretch of five losses in six games in late January Sun Belt play, however, knocked the team out of at-large bid discussions and, after a semifinal round lost in the conference tournament, relegated them to the CIT. As Arlington faltered, Arkansas-Little Rock asserted themselves, and built on non-conference wins at San Diego State and Tulsa to then go 17-3 in conference play and win the conference tournament. The Trojans weren’t done yet as they upended 5 seed Purdue in the Round of 64 before falling to Iowa State to end their season. Both Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe joined Arlington in the CIT to give the conference a total of four postseason bids.
This season, Texas-Arlington will look to complete the job and keep their momentum up through conference play. The Mavericks and Georgia Southern appear to be the top two teams in the league heading into the year as Little Rock has a new head coach with Chris Beard now at Texas Tech and some backcourt questions that need answering. A possible dark horse team exists in South Alabama as the Jaguars return a deep, veteran lineup. We will also be keeping an eye on the Sun Belt’s newest member, as head coach Cliff Ellis’ Coastal Carolina Chanticleers move over from the Big South where they won 21 games last year and advanced to the semifinals of the CIT.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Texas-Arlington – It is tough to find a weakness in this team with all five starters back, one of the Sun Belt’s best defensive units, strong three-point shooting, and star power from the likes of forward Kevin Hervey and point guard Erick Neal.
2. Georgia Southern – The Eagles return their top eight players from last season led by Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Tookie Brown, who is capable of 20 or more points every time he takes the court. If the team can improve its defense, they should be in contention for the conference title.
3. South Alabama – With Ken Williams and Shaq Calhoun in the backcourt, and Georgi Boyanov and Nick Stover in the frontcourt all returning, USA looks poised to make a run at the league’s upper division.
4. Georgia State – Jeremy Hollowell will need to step up his game even more than last year down low, but if he does and gets some perimeter help from the likes of Alabama transfer Devin Mitchell, Isaiah Williams and Jeff Thomas, this team could surprise.
5. Arkansas-Little Rock – Wes Flanigan takes over as head coach for a very strong defensive team. Marcus Johnson, Jr. will need to pick up even more of the scoring load this year, but questions at the point guard position need to be answered.
6. Arkansas State – A pair of double-digit averaging starters do return this year in Devin Carter and Donte Thomas for new head coach Grant McCasland. How well the two of them mesh with new freshmen and transfers will determines the Red Wolves’ success.
7. Coastal Carolina – The Sun Belt’s newest member brings in a strong backcourt led by Jaylen Shaw and Elijah Wilson, who should both help keep them competitive. The Chanticleers do have a lot of question marks down low which could make this first season in the league a lot tougher.
8. Troy – The Trojans have firepower led by Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado, but need to find some help inside. The good news is that improving on last year’s 9-22 record should not be difficult.
9. Texas State – Three of the Bobcats’ top four players are gone, so they will need to rely on newcomers like Tyler Blount and Maxwell Starwood to step up and help top returnee Kavin Gilder-Tilbury if they want to succeed.
10. Louisiana-Lafayette – Three starters do return from a CIT team, but it will be tough for the Ragin’ Cajuns to replace Shawn Long’s 18.9 points per game. Expect them to take a step back this year.
11. Louisiana-Monroe – With only one starter back from last year, this looks to be a rebuilding season for head coach Keith Richard’s squad.
12. Appalachian State – Sophomore guard Ronshad Shabazz appears poised to become a star, but replacing Frank Eaves’ 18.7 points per game from a 22 loss team will be very tough.