By Kevin Sweeney
Yesterday was an impressive day for the Sun Belt, as a pair of teams expected to compete at the top of the conference took down a pair of high-major foes expected to be in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Georgia State took down Georgia Tech, with sophomore star D’Marcus Simonds the best player on the floor with 30 points. Meanwhile, Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal did their thing for UTA, leading them to an easy victory over Oklahoma by each posting double-doubles. These results just reinforce that whoever comes out of this league will be a very dangerous team to watch come March.
- UT-Arlington- This is the year for Scott Cross’s club to reach the NCAA Tournament. After being stunned in the conference tournament last season by Troy, the Mavs have 2 of the better players in program history as seniors and expectations are high. My concerns about floor-spacing were quelled by yesterday’s performance, as UTA shot a blistering 14-29 from beyond the arc.
- Georgia State- D’Marcus Simonds is going to be a star (if he isn’t already) and is going to win Ron Hunter’s team a lot of games. St. Bonaventure big man Jordan Tyson should provide some stability to a frontcourt that loses Jeremy Hollowell, but the backcourt should be so dangerous that they just need solid rebounding and defense from their bigs.
- Louisiana-Lafayette- The returning core of high-scoring guard Frank Bartley and double-double Bryce Washington are special, and ULL brings in a trio of high-level transfers that should make this team even more dangerous. I’m especially intrigued by Jakeenan Gant, an athletic big who could bring a shot-blocking element to the Ragin’ Cajuns.
- Troy- A team many are forgetting about as a contender in the Sun Belt, Troy stunned a lot of people with their run through the Sun Belt tournament to the NCAA Tournament last season. They have an outstanding do-it-all forward Jordon Varnado, as well as 2 other starters returning, and the Trojans have what it takes to be a factor in the Sun Belt.
- Coastal Carolina- Coming off a run to the CBI title game, Coastal Carolina looks like a dangerous sleeper in the Sun Belt. Star guard Jaylen Shaw combines with big man Demario Beck for a solid 1-2 punch. Combine that with a strong incoming recruiting class, and i think CCU could surprise.
- Georgia Southern- Pretty much everyone returns for Georgia Southern from last season, including the outstanding backcourt of Ike Smith, Tookie Brown, and Mike Hughes. However, they’ll have to improve significantly on the boards in order to contend for a league title.
- Arkansas State- For the second consecutive season, Arkansas State has a new coach, as Mike Balado replaces Grant McCasland, who left for North Texas after a 20-win season. The backcourt is talented, with Deven Simms, Rashad Lindsey, and talented JUCO transfer Ty Cockfield in tow. Balado has done an excellent job recruiting since he arrived in Jonesboro, and looks to be a strong hire for the future.
- Texas State- A lot of talent departs for the Bobcats, but they do have a star in the making in Nijal Pearson, who averaged over 13 points and 5 rebounds as a freshman a season ago.
- Little Rock- This is definitely a team in transition, with 5 of their top 6 scorers departing from last season. However, Wes Flanigan has brought in some intriguing newcomers, including some size in a pair of grad transfers from Ohio in Wadly Mompremier and Khari Harley who should step in as solid pieces right away.
- Louisiana-Monroe- A pair of versatile forwards in Travis Munnings and Sam McDaniel return for the Warhawks, but they’ll have to be more efficient on offense if they are going to make some noise this season.
- South Alabama- The jumbo frontcourt of sophomore Josh Ajayi and grad transfer Rozelle Nix will be tough to handle for opposing defenses, but may pose issues on the defensive end of the floor in dealing with pick-and-roll sets.
- Appalachian State- The Mountaineers have a talented volume scorer in Ronshad Shabazz, but he’ll need some help around him to take some pressure off and allow him to be more efficient.
While we shouldn’t take anything major away from preseason games, the UT-Arlington demolition of Oklahoma on Saturday demonstrated exactly why the Mavericks should be the favorite in the Sun Belt. Kevin Hervey posted 27 points and 13 rebounds, while Erick Neal compiled 25 points and 12 assists. Simply put, those two are more than capable of dominating games, and when they can space the floor and give Hervey and Neal space to operate, they are going to challenge any team in the country.
Dark Horse: Coastal Carolina
CCU has some intriguing pieces to contend. While they lost the commitment of grad transfer guard Donte Clark, they still have a very deep frontcourt and some talented pieces in the backcourt in Shaw, Artur Labinowicz, and JUCO prospects Ajay Sanders & Tyrell Gumbs-Frater. One breakout candidate is Amidou Bamba, who played solid minutes for a Canadian national team that won gold at the FIBA U19 World Cup.
First Team All-Conference
- G: Erick Neal (UT-Arlington)
- G: D’Marcus Simonds (Georgia State)
- F: Jordon Varnado (Troy)
- F: Bryce Washington (UL-Lafayette)
- F: Kevin Hervey (UT-Arlington)
Player of the Year: Kevin Hervey (UT-Arlington)- Hervey is a legitimate NBA prospect. At 6-9, his versatile offensive game and floor-spacing ability makes him impossible to stop. Remember, Hervey was still getting back to full health after an ACL tear suffered in 2015-16, yet still averaged over 17 points and 8 rebounds. Expect a huge year from Hervey for the Sun Belt favorites.
Breakout Player of the Year: Deondre Burns (Little Rock)- Burns will be needed to have a huge jump in production for Little Rock with 5 out of their top 6 scorers departing. He’s an excellent shooter who has the upside to have a big season for the Trojans.
Newcomer of the Year: Jakeenan Gant (Louisiana-Lafayette)- Gant is the perfect big to play next to Bryce Washington. He’s extremely mobile, can protect the rim, and will do the dirty work, a very useful glue guy who could help the Ragin’ Cajuns be a true contender in the Sun Belt.