By Kevin Sweeney
The Sun Belt has been involved in some of the most memorable moments in the last 2 NCAA Tournaments. Two years ago, it was Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter draining a deep 3 in the closing seconds to beat Baylor, causing his dad & head coach Ron Hunter to fall off his stool, which he was sitting on due to a torn achilles tendon suffered during the celebration of winning the Sun Belt Championship. Last year, Josh Hagins capped Little Rock’s unbelievable comeback against Purdue with a clutch 3 to tie the game, and the Trojans eventually pulled it out in double overtime. The Sun Belt has become an excellent mid-major league, and it should be stacked again for the 2016-17 season.
- Georgia Southern
- Little Rock
- Georgia State
- South Alabama
- Arkansas State
- Coastal Carolina
- Texas State
- Appalachian State
Champions: UT-Arlington- It is always devastating to see a team with so much potential have its season derailed by an unfortunate injury, but that’s how last season unfolded for UT-Arlington. The Mavericks won true road games over Ohio State and Memphis and took Texas to overtime in the first month, appearing to be in position to have a truly special season. Then, superstar forward Kevin Hervey, who was averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, tore his ACL before a January showdown with Arkansas State, ending his season prematurely. Hervey has now recovered, and that’s bad news for the rest of the Sun Belt. The Mavericks bring back all 5 starters from Hervey’s absence, and should be one of the most talented mid-majors in all of college basketball this season. If they stay healthy, it could be a memorable season for the Mavericks.
Dark Horse: Georgia State- After the incredible 2015 NCAA Tournament run, expectations were high last season for the Panthers, as they were picked to finish 2nd in the Sun Belt. However, things didn’t go as planned, as GSU went just 16-14 en route to a 6th place finish in the Sun Belt. This year should be a much better one for the Panthers, with a talented group of newcomers hoping to supplement a solid core of returning players. Forward Jeremy Hollowell should compete for player of the year in the Sun Belt, while guard Isaiah Williams will look to build on an outstanding first season with the Panthers after beginning his career at Samford. Among the newcomers is Willie Clayton, a tenacious rebounder who averaged over 3 offensive rebounds per game in his 3 seasons at Charlotte, and D’Marcus Simonds, a 4-star prospect who is one of the most highly-touted recruits for any mid-major in the country. Simonds should provide an huge scoring punch from the guard position for the Panthers. The pieces are there for GSU, its just a matter of whether they will fit together.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Kevin Hervey- UT-Arlington
- F: Jeremy Hollowell- Georgia State
- G: Tookie Brown- Georgia Southern
- G: Mike Hughes- Georgia Southern
- G: Devin Carter- Arkansas State
Player of the Year: Kevin Hervey- Hervey has a skillset that isn’t typically seen at the mid-major level. Despite standing 6-9, Hervey knocked down nearly two 3-pointers per game in the 16 games he played. His ability to stretch the floor opens up the rest of his offensive game, while also creating space for his teammates to drive to the basket. Combine his outstanding offensive skill with strong rebounding, and you get a player who has the potential to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game this season, a very rare feat in college basketball. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Hervey get attention from NBA scouts throughout the season, as he certainly has enough talent to play at the next level. Meanwhile, UT-Arlington fans hope that Hervey can bring them to just their second NCAA Tournament in program history.
Newcomer of the Year: Coastal Carolina- Coastal Carolina enters the Sun Belt from the Big South this season as its football team moves up to the FBS level. They are truly the wild cards in the Sun Belt this season, as they enter the conference after a string of incredbly successful seasons in the Big South. Leading the way will be Elijah Wilson, a 6-4 guard who should compete for all-conference honors this season. The big question mark for the Chanticleers is Shivaughn Wiggins, who was arrested in March and suspended indefinitely from the team. Head Coach Cliff Ellis has indicated that it’s possible that Wiggins will return for the spring semester, around when the conference schedule would begin. Coastal likely won’t win the Sun Belt this season, but should be competitive in their first season in the Sun Belt.