By Kevin Sweeney
One of college basketball’s best personalities is no longer in the Sun Belt, as the always-entertaining Ron Hunter departed in March for Tulane. In addition to being a terrific basketball coach, Hunter was always good for a few moments of internet gold per season, and him heading to Bourbon Street should be all kinds of fun. The only people who may not miss seeing Hunter roam Sun Belt sidelines are the rest of the coaches in the league.
#1. South Alabama— Richie Riley appears to have the blueprint for the quick flip down: show improvement in year one with a transition roster, then bring in a talented group of transfers that can win you the league in year two. The pieces Riley has brought in at USA make this roster clearly the most talented group in the Sun Belt– a strong, veteran-laden group loaded with guards who can create their own shot. Don Coleman (Cal), Andre Fox (High Point) and Chad Lott (Howard) were all double-digit scorers at their last stop and give this team all kinds of firepower, while a veteran frontcourt of do-it-all forward Trhae Mitchell and Josh Ajayi is one of the best in mid-major basketball. Meshing all the talented pieces together could be a challenge, especially without a true point guard on the floor at all times. That said, Riley did it before with a similarly loaded roster at Nicholls State, and if he can get full buy-in from this supremely gifted group, watch out.
#2. UT-Arlington– As ridiculous as it was to fire Scott Cross last offseason, the Mavs did make a terrific hire in Chris Ogden who has things heading in the right direction. Ogden instilled a chippy, defensive-minded attitude that allowed UTA to exceed expectations in what was widely expected to be a rebuilding year. Meanwhile, Ogden has recruited at a high level– the highest-profile addition being Arkansas transfer Jordan Phillips. Phillips couldn’t crack the rotation in Fayetteville, but seems to fit perfectly into the ethos of Ogden’s program, potentially playing as a small-ball four at times. Finding ways to get easier buckets besides just handing the ball to Brian Warren will be critical, but this team is loaded with athletes who can really defend and pound the glass.
#3. Georgia Southern– Perhaps last year could have been the breakthrough year for Georgia Southern in an otherwise-wide-open Sun Belt, but an injury to star wing Ike Smith took some wind out of the Eagles’ collective sails. Credit should be given to Mark Byington for keeping things rolling despite that huge loss, and the emergence of Quan Jackson in the second scorer role certainly helped. Now, Jackson can pair with Smith as the Eagles begin the post-Tookie Brown era in Statesboro. A Smith/Jackson/Isaiah Crawley/Simeon Carter core is a pretty great place to start, but point guard issues could be a concern. Brown rarely if ever left the floor a season, and neither David-Lee Jones nor Calvin Wishart looked like true PGs in their limited backup reps last season.
#4. Coastal Carolina– Cliff Ellis has been doing this whole college basketball coaching thing for over 40 years, but he has never had a team that played as fast as his 2018-19 group. Dynamic combo guard DeVante Jones was a menace in transition and looked the part of a star in the making, showcasing his ability to pass, get to the rim, and create shots during a terrific freshman campaign. He gets help in the backcourt in the form of JUCO flamethrower Keishawn Brewton, who shot a blistering 47% from downtown on over 100 makes a season ago at JUCO power Chipola. Between Brewton and fellow sharpshooter Tyrell Gumbs-Frater, the Chants have more than enough shooting to surround Jones and unique playmaking wing Ebrima Dibba. Defense could be a concern though, especially with the loss of Amidou Bamba (Charlotte) on the inside.
#5. Texas State– Danny Kaspar’s clubs aren’t the most visually appealing teams in college hoops, but they are effective: winning 24 games at a fairly tough gig like Texas State like Kaspar did last season is impressive. Returning a star on the wing in Nijal Pearson certainly helps, but a lot of Pearson’s supporting cast is gone from last year’s bunch. Most discussed will be the loss of Tre’Larenz Nottingham, the “Robin” to Pearson’s “Batman” who served as one of the few players on this roster capable of creating his own shot in late-clock situations. However, I’ll be tracking how this offense fares without Jaylen Shead. Shead departed with little fanfare for Washington State this offseason, but was a pretty steady hand at the point guard spot. Shead wasn’t a great shooter, but he was a very good passer, took care of the ball, and was good at knifing his way into the teeth of opposing defenses.
#6. Georgia State– 15 years since he last had his own program, Rob Lanier gets a second crack at the whole head coaching thing at Georgia State. Lanier was once a young star, leading Siena to the NCAA Tournament in his first year in a miracle run that only occurred after the Saints finished a disappointing 7th in the MAAC regular season. Lanier earned a reputation as a strong recruiter, but the wheels fell off in Loudonville. After spending time under Billy Donovan at Florida and Rick Barnes at both Texas and Tennessee, Lanier now takes over one of the better mid-major jobs in the southeast. Ron Hunter left behind a few parting gifts: namely a pair of transfers fresh off sitting out last season in Justin Roberts (DePaul) and Corey Allen (Detroit). Roberts in particular intrigues me: DePaul fans begged Dave Leitao to let Roberts play more his freshman season, and he showed flashes during his time in Chicago as a shifty point guard who can score or facilitate. A backcourt featuring him, Kane Williams, and Allen could be very dangerous. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Nelson Phillips break out in his second season in Atlanta– the former well-regarded recruit brings high-major athleticism to the table.
#7. Appalachian State– The 2017-18 season was a brief sign of life, but things never really got going in Boone for Jim Fox, and a 21-loss 2018-19 spelled the end for his tenure at Appalachian State. The Mountaineers made about a good a hire as could have been reasonably expected in Presbyterian head coach Dustin Kerns. Going 20-16 in year two is a nice step for most coaches, but for a job as difficult as Presbyterian, winning 20 is the equivalent of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. A member of the Mike Young coaching tree, Kerns is a very sharp offensive mind and a tactful recruiter who will indubitably get things rolling in no time. Inheriting a star in the backcourt like Justin Forrest should expedite things, and he could be paired with sharpshooting freshman JC Tharrington in some dual-PG looks from the jump.
#8. Louisiana– This feels low for a Bob Marlin-coached team, consider Marlin has had exactly two seasons under .500 since 2004. Still, this group is very much a team in transition– just 22 teams return fewer “possession minutes” per T-Rank. This roster seems short on two-way difference-makers: Cedric Russell and PJ Hardy are both bucket-getters, but they aren’t the type of complete players you need to win. Saint Louis transfer Jalen Johnson is an interesting add: he can hit outside shots and has great size– if he can has expanded his all-around game, he could be the impact guy this group desperately needs.
#9. Little Rock– Losing a fringe NBA player in Rayjon Tucker a year early is a crusher for Darrell Walker’s bunch. Still, the Trojans do bring a fair amount of talent back. Walker seems to build his roster with shifty ball-handlers (see Nowell, Markquis) and active rim-running bigs– JUCO import Ruot Monyyong is a good example, as is sophomore Lasani Johnson. Walker desperately needs top-100 JUCO prospect Alsean Evans to shoulder some of the scoring burden left behind by Tucker for this team to stay out of the bottom tier of the Sun Belt.
#10. Louisiana-Monroe– Anecdotally at least, the sit one, play one transfer has more winners than losers. ULM got the biggest winners in Daishon Smith, as the Wichita State transfer turned into one of the best point guards in the nation in his lone season of eligibility at ULM. Replacing him will be a massive challenge: Smith averaged over 1.5 points per shot and boosted the Warhawks to a top-50 offense after Keith Richard had only been in the top 200 in offense once in his nine years at ULM. Major regression in that area will likely lead to major regression in the win column.
#11. Arkansas State– Mike Balado’s attacking style has led ASU to get to the line plenty in his two seasons as head man. The problem: that advantage has been turned into a weakness by the Red Wolves fouling like its their job. It’s very, very difficult to win games when you give up as many free points as this team did a season ago, and that task gets even more difficult when you take dynamic scoring point guard Ty Cockfield out of the equation. Balado brings in a strong recruiting class that will be critical in defining the future of his tenure in Jonesboro.
#12. Troy– Troy made one of the best hires of the 2019 coaching carousel in landing former UT-Arlington head coach Scott Cross. While Cross never got UTA over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament, he earned a strong track record as both a recruiter and developer of talent and should do well in time for the Trojans. He inherits a multi-year rebuilding job though, and losing Javan Johnson to Iowa State certainly did no favors to Cross’ hopes of winning early. Look for a JUCO-heavy first class to get significant early run.
All-Conference First Team:
- Brian Warren (UT-Arlington)
- DeVante Jones (Coastal Carolina)
- Nijal Pearson (Texas State)
- Trhae Mitchell (South Alabama)
- Josh Ajayi (South Alabama)
Player of the Year: Nijal Pearson (Texas State)
If you thought Pearson’s usage couldn’t go up any more, watch what happens this season. The aforementioned departures of Nottingham and Shead leaves an unbelievable scoring burden on the shoulders of Pearson. I think he can handle it, and the senior should put up huge numbers this season. 2,000 career points are in sight.
Breakout Player: Nelson Phillips (Georgia State)
Phillips isn’t much of a shooter, but profiles as a dynamic slasher at this level. His path to minutes was obstructed by an absurdly deep Panther backcourt in 2018-19, but he should get plenty of opportunities on the wing in Rob Lanier’s first season. A big year would be huge for GSU’s hopes of competing yet again for a conference title.
Newcomer of the Year: Don Coleman (South Alabama)
I could have just written “Insert South Alabama guard here” but decided to make a pick. Coleman, Andre Fox, and Chad Lott are all legit contenders for this award, but I think Coleman has the most upside of this group. He was horrifically inefficient at Cal, but those struggles can hardly be blamed on him– the Bears had far less talent on the roster than South Alabama does now and were playing against much better competition. He could have a big year.