Despite being an FBS football conference, and having a fairly lengthy basketball history, the Sun Belt Conference sometimes seems to slip below the national attention it deserves. One reason for that may be a lack of coverage for their games, though that is improving as more and more become available for streaming on espn3. It is a real shame that this conference does not get more attention, because it has certainly produced some very good teams capable of winning games in March the last few years. This season will be more of the same as the league may be one of the most wide-open in all of Division I, and should live up to its hashtag of being the #FunBelt.
The pick to win the conference is Texas-Arlington, but the Mavs are by no means even close to being a lock. Georgia Southern, Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State and Coastal Carolina all have legitimate aspirations towards the conference title, and it wouldn’t be a shock if a team picked even lower than those ended up in the thick of the conference race. Unlike a lot of Under the Radar conferences, the Sun Belt does not simply sit back and wait for conference play before it starts making noise too. SBC teams have accounted for far more than their share of November and December upsets, and we fully expect to see a few more of those this year.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Texas-Arlington – The Mavericks have come up with some huge non-conference road wins the past two seasons but faltered in conference play and failed to capture an automatic bid either year. Despite only having two starters back, those two are their top two players, forward Kevin Hervey and point guard Erick Neal. Hervey is a double-double threat that may find himself cashing an NBA paycheck in the future. With the two of them back, it is hard to pick against the Mavs — and their non-conference foes better watch out as well (did you hear us Alabama? Creighton?).
- Georgia Southern – Ike Smith led the Sun Belt in scoring with 19.6 points per game last year. His teammate Tookie Brown finished second with 17.1. The two are among five returning starters for the Eagles, who have a great chance to claim the league crown, especially if they can shore up their interior defense a bit.
- Troy – The defending Sun Belt tournament champions should be right in the hunt for the league title again this season with double-double threat Jordon Varnado down low and three-point weapon Wesley Person in the backcourt. The only question mark may be depth down low; but, if they can solve that issue, the Trojans could find themselves back in the Big Dance again.
- Louisiana-Lafayette – The Ragin’ Cajuns return four starters, three of whom averaged double-digits in scoring last season. The combination of Bryce Washington and Justin Miller may be the best frontcourt in the entire conference. If they can improve defensively, this team is good enough to capture the league title.
- Texas State – Despite only returning two starters, the Bobcats should still be right in the thick of things with sophomore guard Nijal Pearson looking to improve on his over 13 points per game. Losing Kavin Gilder-Tilbury in the frontcourt hurts a bit, but between Immanuel King and Nedeljko Prijovic, they should have enough talent to compensate.
- Coastal Carolina – Cliff Ellis’ teams can never be counted out, and there is no reason why the Chanticleers will not be right in the thick of the race in this year’s Sun Belt. Guard Jaylen Shaw averaged over 14 points per game while shooting almost 40% from beyond the arc last year.
- Appalachian State – The Mountaineers lost 21 games last season, but have a chance to improve this year thanks to three returning starters and potentially more playing time for sophomore forward Isaac Johnson. Guard Ronshad Shabazz will be relied upon to produce even more than the 16.7 points per game he scored last year.
- Georgia State – Ron Hunter’s Panthers return last season’s Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in guard D’Marcus Simonds, who should only improve on his 13.4 points per game. The problems will be in the frontcourt where both starting forwards are gone. If they can’t fill those gaps down low, this team will struggle to finish in the upper division.
- Arkansas State – The Red Wolves will have to find more offense now that Devin Carter and his 16.4 point per game are gone. Sixth man Deven Simms averaged over 13 points off the bench, but this team may not have enough depth to contend in a very tough conference, plus they have to adjust to a new head coach in Mike Balado.
- Louisiana-Monroe – The Warhawks should be better than last season’s 9-24 record with a pair of double-digit scorers returning and three key seniors to lead the way. However, the talent level is not here for too much of an improvement and it could again end up being a long season for ULM.
- South Alabama – The Jaguars struggled to rebound and shoot three-pointers last season, and with only two returning starters, it is hard to see how either of those areas will improve. Head coach Matthew Graves will need to find a way to get his team to finish much higher than this if he wants to get off of the hot seat.
- Arkansas-Little Rock – Little Rock does not return a single starter and the Trojans top returning bench player averaged only 3.5 points per game. Unless head coach Wes Flanigan can work magic with a bunch of transfers and freshmen, this team is likely to finish at or near the very bottom of the conference standings.