By Kevin Sweeney
The Sun Belt has as much star power, if not more, than any mid-major conference. A pair of NBA prospects in Tookie Brown and D’Marcus Simonds headline things, but guys like Jordon Varnado, Travis Munnings, Ronshad Shabazz, and Jakeenan Gant are all star-level players. This top-end talent should make this league incredibly fun to watch this season.
#1. Georgia State
Three years ago, Ron Hunter went into a crowd of high-major programs to land D’Marcus Simonds, capitalizing off the momentum of their incredible upset victory over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament that March. Simonds became a star, a potential NBA Draft prospect, and the biggest reason the Panthers have a chance to repeat in the Sun Belt this season. Now, Hunter does it again, landing top-200 guard Nelson Phillips to join a returning core that features Simonds, Devin Mitchell, and Malik Benlevi. GSU also adds Pitt transfer Damon Wilson to what should be one of the best backcourts in mid-major basketball.
After dominating the Sun Belt regular season last year, the Ragin’ Cajuns stumbled in the conference tournament with a loss to UT-Arlington. While they lose a few key cogs, plenty of talent returns for Bob Marlin’s group, including athletic big man Jakeenan Gant and a solid backcourt pairing in Malik Marquetti and Marcus Stroman. Additional scoring help could be on the way in top-75 JUCO guard Jeremy Hayes, who averaged over 16 points per game for Howard (TX) last season.
#3. Georgia Southern
Development for this Georgia Southern group that has heavily featured the backcourt pairing of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith since they stepped onto campus as freshmen has somewhat stagnated, with back-to-back 11-7 SBC finishes. Mark Byington gets one last re-shuffle of the proverbial deck of cards to try to find the players around Brown and Smith to vault themselves to the top of the conference. The Eagles get bigger, with Iowa State transfer Simeon Carter and JUCO product Isaiah Crawley both possessing high upside and give Byington to option to go bigger next to incumbent center Montae Glenn and perhaps solve some of GSU’s rebounding struggles. Some solid incoming guards should help as well.
#4. South Alabama
Richie Riley takes over for the Jags after a wildly-successful 2 year stint as the head man at Nicholls State, and appears to be embracing a similar transfer-heavy recruiting approach to what he did so successfully at Nicholls. A pair of grad transfers in Kory Holden and Tashombe Riley should provide big-time production in their only seasons in Mobile, while a trio of talented sit-out transfers wait in the wings in Don Coleman, Andre Fox, and Josh Ayeni. This screams of another quick flip for Riley as he rapidly rising the coaching ladder, with immediate success possible thanks to some solid returning talent along with a former CAA star in Holden, followed by an even-bigger year two with a pair of all-SBC talents in Fox and Coleman joining the fray.
With a strong core in place in likely first-teamer Travis Munnings and rising star Michael Ertel, Keith Richard’s club has legit dark horse potential this season. The add of Wichita State transfer Daishon Smith is one of the most underrated transfer coups in the country, adding an experienced playmaker with explosive athleticism who should be excellent in his only season at ULM. A big group of JUCO imports will be important for depth, but the core of this team is impressive and has a chance to make some noise.
The Trojans have without a doubt the conference’s best frontcourt, with Jordon Varnado and Alex Hicks both clear all-conference talents and Varnado poised to top 2,000 career points in his storied Troy career. The backcourt presents far too many concerns for me to trust them for much more than a mid-pack finish, with PG BJ Miller the only proven option.
#7. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have yet to build much momentum under Jim Fox, but this year presents their best chance yet to make headway in the Sun Belt. Ronshad Shabazz returns for one more year after impressing on the summer camp circuit, and Fox also gets talented sophomore Justin Forrest back. Add in USF transfer Mike Bibby Jr, and you’ve got one heck of a backcourt. Shabazz has to be more efficient to help the Mountaineers up their offensive productivity overall, but if he can make those strides, a top-4 finish is more than attainable.
#8. Arkansas State
Year one under Mike Balado was a disappointment in Jonesboro, as the Rick Pitino disciple saw his ASU club have major struggles on the defensive end and drop 21 games after an outstanding 2016-17 under Grant McCasland. Fixing the defense should be the primary challenge in year 2, but the Red Wolves have plenty of returning offensive talent. JUCO import Canberk Kus could be a majorly impactful piece– a versatile wing athlete who should be a high-level player on defense.
#9. Texas State
Texas State’s snail-like tempo under Danny Kaspar should continue into 2018-19, leaning on high-usage wing star Nijal Pearson to get them enough buckets to win close games. The Bobcats should be excellent on defense once again, but will need to find a way to consistently put the ball in the basket to move up the standings.
UTA made the unfathomable decision to fire head coach Scott Cross after winning 72 games in the last 3 seasons, with their athletic director lamenting Cross’s inability to turn the Maverick program into the next Gonzaga. Cross, an alum of the university and a universally respected name in the coaching business, indubitably got a raw deal, and will make some program very happy when he gets another crack at a head coaching job. UTA made a strong hire in Chris Ogden, an accomplished recruiter at a number of big jobs, but he inherits almost nothing in terms of proven production. Look for Jackson State transfer Edric Dennis to have a big season.
#11. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers return just one player who averaged more than 5.7 points per game last season and have 6 freshmen on the roster. Everything about this feels like a rebuilding year for Cliff Ellis and company, though they do have a star in Zac Cuthbertson who should make this one sting less.
#12. Little Rock
Darrell Walker inherits a brutally tough rebuilding job at Little Rock, a program just 2 years removed from winning an NCAA Tournament game under Chris Beard. There’s just no high-end talent on this roster as of now, though Walker has shown some early recruiting prowess that should serve him well as he tackles this rebuilding job. Diminutive freshman PG Markquis Nowell was a once-well-regarded recruit who slipped through the cracks and could put up big numbers from the get-go for the Trojans, while FGCU transfer Rayjon Tucker has high upside on the wing.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tookie Brown– Georgia Southern (18.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.3 apg, .532/.471/.753)
- D’Marcus Simonds– Georgia State (21.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, .461/.292/.702)
- Ronshad Shabazz– Appalachian State (18.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, .400/.343/.688)
- Jordon Varnado– Troy (18.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, .478/.289/.738)
- Jakeenan Gant– Louisiana (13.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.9 apg, .553/.319/.696)
Player of the Year: D’Marcus Simonds (Georgia State)
Brown, Simonds, Shabazz, and Varnado would all have significant momentum for POY in most one-bid leagues, but the star power in the SBC only allows me to pick one. Simonds is the choice here, coming off winning this honor as a sophomore. He should only get better as a junior as he improves as a shooter and decision-maker.
Breakout Player: Justin Miller (Louisiana)
Miller was incredibly productive on a per-minute basis last season behind Gant and since-graduated Bryce Washington, averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes. The big-bodied forward can play inside out and should help the Cajuns not miss much of a beat on offense.
Newcomer of the Year: Daishon Smith (Louisiana-Monroe)
Smith is critical to this ULM team’s success. In theory, he provides a dynamic open-floor athlete who can run the show, and his experience playing under Gregg Marshall certainly should help him. I’m expecting big things.