By Kevin Sweeney
The Sun Belt has quietly become one of the best mid-major leagues in college basketball, with the conference’s champion winning an NCAA Tournament game in back-to-back seasons.
Now, with every team having played 1/3 of their conference games, it’s a great time to step back and power-rank the Sun Belt.
1. Georgia Southern (13-6, 6-0)- The Eagles played a tough non-conference slate with a few close losses, but are playing their best basketball of the season as conference play has gotten into full swing. They are finally winning some close games, with each of their past 5 wins decided by 5 points or less after going 1-3 in such games in the non-conference. The sophomore guard duo of Ike Smith and Tookie Brown has combined to average 44.8 points per game in conference play, with each of them legitimate challengers to UT-Arlington’s Kevin Hervey for conference player of the year honors.
2. UT-Arlington (14-5, 4-2)– It appeared early in the year that the Mavericks would be in consideration for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, with wins over St. Mary’s and Texas. However, those expectations have been dampened by back-to-back conference losses to Texas St and Troy. While they were without Hervey, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, against Troy, it was still surprising to see the Mavericks lose by 22. They certainly have the talent to be a dangerous mid-major in March, but have to put together a string of wins if they want the top seed in the conference tournament.
3. Georgia State (11-7, 4-2)– Ron Hunter’s squad is getting healthy and hot at the right time. Highly-touted freshman D’Marcus Simonds is back from a bruised knee and has played well in his last two games, averaging 20 points per game in the past 2 games. Those two games have been blowout victories, so if Simonds continues to play well, more wins should be in order for the Panthers.
4. Arkansas State (13-6, 4-2)– One of the most underrated head coaching hires of the offseason has been Grant McCasland, who has already led the Red Wolves to 2 more wins than they had all of last season. A pair of JUCO transfers in Deven Simms and Rashad Lindsey have provided a strong supporting cast to Devin Carter the team’s leading scorer. The Red Wolves are as competitive as any team in the conference, and are on track for their first 20-win season since the 1997-98 season.
5. UL-Lafayette (13-6, 3-3)– The Ragin Cajuns have overachieved in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, thanks in no small part to the introduction of BYU transfer Frank Bartley IV, who leads the team in scoring at over 15 points per game. With a very difficult stretch coming up (@ UT-A, vs UALR, vs ARKST, @ Georgia St, @ GASO), we’ll soon know whether the Cajuns are pretenders or contenders.
6. Coastal Carolina (9-10, 4-2)– It was a very rough 2016 for the Chanticleers, who went just 5-9 in November and December. Since the start of the new year, CCU has turned things around, winning 4 of 5 going into tomorrow’s big showdown with Georgia Southern. It’s certainly a step up from the Big South to the Sun Belt, but the Chants and longtime head coach Cliff Ellis have handled the transition nicely.
7. Little Rock (12-7, 3-3)- The Trojans started 9-2 this season, but have stumbled to a 3-5 mark since. More concerning is the health of Lis Shoshi, who has missed the last 2 games with a toe injury. His status is unknown going forward, and an extended absence would be crippling to a Little Rock team without much frontcourt depth.
8. Troy (10-10, 2-4)– Troy is a few bounces here and there from being at the top of the standings in the Sun Belt. The Trojans’ four conference losses have been by a combined 11 points. Sophomore forward Jordon Varnado has had a great year, averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting over 40% from three. If they can win a couple of close games, the Trojans will be a dangerous team come conference tournament time.
9. Texas State (10-8, 3-3)– The veteran Bobcats, who start 4 seniors, are playing well of late, winning 5 of 8 with 3 close conference losses. One of those wins, a huge comeback victory over UT-Arlington, saw the Bobcats shoot over 55% from the field. With a manageable 3 game stretch coming up, look for Texas State to try and put together a few wins in a row.
10. South Alabama (9-10, 2-4)– Early in the season, it appeared that the Jags could be contenders in the Sun Belt. However, after a blowout loss to Little Rock on Saturday, they are just 2-4 in conference play, and don’t look like the team that started the season 5-0 with a win over UNLV. With some tough games coming up on the schedule, things could get ugly fast if the Jags don’t turn things around soon.
11. Appalachian State (6-11, 1-5)– The one positive for the Mountaineers in an otherwise frustrating season is that the team is very young. The team’s top 10 scorers should return for next season, so look for he rest of the season to serve as valuable learning experience as Jim Fox looks to build a winner.
12. Louisiana-Monroe (6-13, 0-6)– Looking replace 4 of their top 5 scorers from last season, the Warhawks went the JUCO route to look for replacements. It hasn’t gone as well as head coach Keith Richard might have hoped, as ULM seems on their way to a 20 loss season. On the bright side for ULM, sophomore forward Travis Munnings looks like a star in the making, averaging 12.4 points and 8.7 rebounds.