2020-21 32×32: Sun Belt Preview

Six days out! Today we dive into the Sun Belt, a league that has raised its profile in recent years as a basketball league after a few rough seasons following widespread realignment. The league has been KenPom’s 14th-ranked conference in back-to-back years, not good enough to get an at-large bid but well-positioned to move up in seeding and in turn hire better coaches. Can that trend continue? Let’s dive in:

  1. Georgia State – This league is wide open at the top, but I’m bullish on what Rob Lanier’s club brings to the table in 2020-21 thanks to a veteran backcourt and some key transfer adds. Lanier inherited a program from Ron Hunter that had lost a superstar in D’Marcus Simonds, and to win 19 games and have his team positioned to compete for a conference title in year two says a lot about how much he has grown as a coach in his second crack at a head coaching job. It starts with the Panthers’ three terrific guards in Justin Roberts, Kane Williams, and Corey Allen, each of whom are capable ballhandlers and shooters who averaged in double figures last season. Roberts was a revelation after transferring in from DePaul, bringing high-level shot-making (41% from 3) and steady PG play for a team that needed it. Memphis transfer Ryan Boyce could make this guard group even more special – once a highly-regarded commitment at UAB, Boyce chose late to go to Memphis given his relationship with Penny Hardaway and didn’t play much, but could be an impact guy in the Sun Belt. I’m also excited about the Panthers’ young frontcourt duo of Jalen Thomas and Cincinnati transfer Eliel Nsoseme. Thomas was productive as a freshman, blocking shots at a high level and finishing well at the rim. Meanwhile, Nsoseme may be a raw offensive player, but he has a chance to be one of the better rebounders in the conference. With a new arena on the way and the fertile recruiting grounds of Atlanta to pluck talent from, the future remains very bright the Panthers.

  2. South Alabama – Richie Riley’s veteran-heavy club in 2019-20 had quite the roller-coaster of a season, nearly beating Auburn in the season’s first week before starting 1-3 and 5-7 in Sun Belt play despite having the league’s most talented roster. But the Jags finally clicked in the month of February, and I don’t think anyone was beating them in March had COVID not cancelled the season. It’s a new-look club this season after tons of graduations, but Riley continues to bring talent to Mobile and is one of the sharpest young coaches in America, so I’m excited about this group for 2020-21. The long-awaited (and contested) waiver for Michael Flowers (Western Michigan) finally came, giving this group the experienced piece at PG they desperately needed. Flowers fits in perfectly as a scoring PG who can make outside shots and operate in ball screens, and he should be perhaps the league’s best newcomer. Incredibly talented JUCO import David Walker also buoys the backcourt: Walker is a high-major talent out of Casper College who can flat-out light it up from deep and is wired to score. Riley’s club will be benefitted by having two big men who can really space the floor in San Iorio (American) and Kayo Goncalves (D2 Southeastern Oklahoma State) – Goncalves shot 47% from deep on 100 makes last season and will be hard to guard. The Jags have a chance to be special if all these pieces can click together.

  3. Little Rock – Little Rock was dealt a big blow late in the offseason when talented 4-man Kamani Johnson transferred out of the program to Arkansas. Johnson was so key to Little Rock’s magic a season about because of his propensity for drawing fouls – no player in America got to the line at a higher rate than Johnson, who took more free throws than field goal attempts last season and made them at a 73.4% clip. Johnson’s aggressiveness keyed a team that was second nationally in free throw rate, per KenPom, and he’ll be missed dearly by Darrell Walker’s club. Still, Walker didn’t get enough credit for winning a conference championship in his second season after inheriting a 7-25 team from Wes Flanagan, and Walker CLEARLY has this program on the right path. The PG/Center duo of Markquis Nowell and Ruot Monyyong is such a good place to start a team: Nowell’s shooting, scrappy defensive work, and willingness to distribute really helps, and Monyyong cleans the glass, collects blocks, and finishes well at the rim. Getting back talented forward Kris Bankston helps – Bankston actually let the country in field goal percentage in 2018-19 before missing most of last season, and should be a decent plug-and-play option to help replace Johnson. The Trojans should once again be in the mix for a conference title and certainly are a program on the rise under Walker.

  4. Coastal Carolina – Cliff Ellis and the Chants can’t quite seem to get over the hump since making the move to the Sun Belt, but have enough backcourt talent to be super interesting this season if they can put it all together. It all starts with DeVante Jones, the engine that makes this team go thanks to his speed, passing ability, and aggressiveness attacking the rim. Jones shot just 24% from downtown in conference play, but his relentlessness with the ball makes him one of the conference’s best. CCU has plenty of good guards to surround him – a healthy Ebrima Dibba is huge given how valuable his versatile game is, while newcomers Tyrik Dixon (Missouri State via Middle Tennessee) and DeAnthony Tipler (JUCO) also should be factors in that unit. Where questions pop up are up front, where the Chants graduate Tommy Burton. LSU transfer DeShawn Thomas never played in Baton Rouge and isn’t likely to be a big scorer, but he blocked almost 2 shots per game in just over 15 minutes per game at the JUCO level and could boost a defense that really struggled last season. Development from youngsters like Tim Ceaser and Isaac Hippolyte could also help up there.

  5. UT-Arlington – As our friends over at Three Man Weave allude to in their preview of the Mavs, UTA didn’t catch many breaks last season. After overachieving in year one with an undersized roster that found ways to win, Chris Ogden’s club finished 14-18 last season BUT were 349th in KenPom’s luck metric. The metrics still had the Mavs 130th in KenPom, just one spot behind the conference champs in Little Rock and one spot ahead of a team that finished over .500 in the SEC in Texas A&M. So will the real UTA stand up this season? We shall see. A pair of top-100 JUCO imports per JUCORecruiting.com in Shahada Wells and Fredelin De La Cruz should give this group a boost: Wells was ranked in the top 15 nationally among all JUCO imports and posted incredible numbers at Tyler JC this past season. Wells averaged over 21 points, shot 47% from downtown, and posted 6 assists per game with a strong A/TO. Those types of numbers spell game-changer at the MM level, and he should give a massive boost to an offense that simply didn’t have enough shot creators last season. Wells pairs nicely with David Azore, a tough slashing guard whose game aligns well with Ogden’s vision for this UTA program. I’ll also be tracking Georgetown transfer Grayson Carter, a big with good size who can space the floor and should have benefited from sitting out last season. The bottom line: If Wells lives up to the considerable hype, the Mavs have legitimate Sun Belt title chances.

  6. Louisiana – Bob Marlin is too good a coach to have back-to-back seasons like last season, and I’m buying into a strong core of returners getting the Ragin’ Cajuns back into the top half of the conference. A major reason for my excitement is the return of sophomore standout Mylik Wilson in the backcourt: Wilson won Sun Belt ROY honors last season and has star potential with his ability to hit shots, attack the rim, and wreak havoc on the defensive end. Wilson’s top KenPom statistical comparison is former Valpo guard Javon Freeman, who went from excellent as a freshman to superstar as a sophomore. If the in-state product is on a similar development arc, watch out. Meanwhile, Wilson has a solid running mate in the backcourt in shot-making combo guard Cedric Russell, as well as an intriguing piece at combo forward in Kobe Julien. Cal transfer Jacobi Gordon is immediately eligible per Josh Parrott and should make an impact immediately as well. Meanwhile, don’t sleep on talented freshman big man Isaiah Richards. Prior to last season, Marlin’s clubs had won 19 or more games in six straight seasons, with all but one of those teams finishing in the top 150 in KenPom. I expect the Cajuns to get back closer to that level of play and compete for a top half finish in the crowded middle tier of the conference.

  7. Appalachian State – This is definitely a relatively young Appalachian State team, but with a talented backcourt and a terrific coach in Dustin Kerns, they should be competitive. It all starts with Justin Forrest, the incredibly gifted scoring guard who can pull up from pretty much anywhere on the court. Forrest could join the 2,000-point club for the Mountaineers with a strong senior season and should compete for all kinds of conference honors. Kerns and staff added a D2 transfer to take some pressure off Forrest in Michael Almonacy (SNHU) – he’s a sharpshooter who operates well in ball screens and is shifty with the ball. A pair of freshmen in Xavion Brown and Michael Eads are also worth watching: Kerns has a great eye for guards (see Adam Flagler) and Brown in particular seems well-positioned for a great career in Boone. Where my concern jumps in is up front, where the Mountaineers have virtually no experience. Top-75 JUCO forward RJ Duhart could help there after averaging 12 points and 8 boards at Northwest Mississippi CC, but the only three other options are a veteran in James Lewis who didn’t show much last season and a pair of raw freshmen in CJ Huntley & Sasha Glushkov.

  8. Georgia Southern – Chris Beard disciple Brian Burg takes over at Georgia Southern following a run of sustained success under Mark Byington. Burg’s fingerprints are all over the roster immediately: five transfers departed the program and six new ones joined the fray. In fact, just two players who played a game for the Eagles return in talented guard Elijah McCadden and little-used David Viti are back. Piecing together a new roster during times like this without normal practice time is without a doubt a challenge, but in some ways I think everyone starting at the same level of understanding of a system helps. There are so many intriguing pieces here – Zack Bryant was a star at UAB and will be awesome in a high-intensity defense like Burg will run if he keeps his head on straight, while talented JUCO PG Eric Boone also figures to be a critical piece. A pair of high-upside unproven big men are also worth tracking – Prince Toyambi couldn’t play at Cincinnati due to health issues, but is a great athlete who could be an impact mid-major guy, while Andrei Savrasov is familiar with Burg from his time at Texas Tech and is without a doubt worth the gamble. It’s obvious that Burg will bring in talent consistently here, and I’m excited to see how he tries to build on the groundwork Byington laid. They are probably the highest-variance team in the league for this season, but a top-five finish doesn’t seem out of the question if Burg gets complete buy-in from the get-go.

  9. Texas State – Danny Kaspar did a great job winning basketball games at a place that isn’t super easy to win at in Texas State, but stepped down following allegations of racial insensitivity. The Texas State job will likely be sought-after among the many excellent assistants at bigger programs in the state this spring, but Kaspar assistant Terrence Johnson will have a shot to earn the job with a strong interim season, Johnson has a good reputation in the business, but will have a tough job taking over amid turmoil and having to replace a star in Nijal Pearson. Pearson was a high-usage scorer who the entire offense was built around, and the Bobcats don’t have a guy on the roster who you can create offense like that. It seems likely that Johnson will play slow like Kaspar, but it wouldn’t stunning if he picked up the pace a bit to try to get some easier buckets. Caleb Asberry and Mason Harrell have to step up to create offense, and Broward (JUCO) import seems likely to have a key scoring role after shooting close to 40% from deep at the JUCO level. The uncertainty with a new coach and lack of a star brought me down to ninth for the Bobcats, but climbing the ladder wouldn’t be surprising.

  10. Louisiana-Monroe – This doesn’t feel like your typical bottom-feeder, with two top-50 JUCO recruits in the country and a good D1 transfer in Koreem Ozier joining the fray. Much will be dictated by newcomers (not ideal in a pandemic) but the talent level is high enough to move up the ranks. Russell Harrison (#7 JUCO recruit nationally per JUCORecruiting) is the big coup, a dynamic combo forward from Clarendon JC who can hit outside shots, slash, and defend multiple positions. He has all-conference potential for the Warhawks. A pair of JUCO guys will also be key at the point guard spot: Elijah Gonzales played with Harrison at Clarendon and is a high-assist PG who does a terrific job taking care of the ball, while Marco Morency gives them a different look as a high-level scorer who can handle the ball. Add in Ozier, who averaged 14 points per game, and you have a pretty interesting nucleus to build around if guys adapt well to Division 1 basketball.

  11. Arkansas State – Mike Balado comes from the extensive Rick Pitino coaching tree, and his teams are VERY distinct stylistically. I commented in last year’s preview that ASU needed to get better on defense, and that would start by fouling less in their aggressive defense. The Red Wolves found a way to fix their fouling issues, but not the way you’d think: they just drew more fouls and gained an edge that way. No team spent more time at the line last season than Balado’s bunch, relying on incredibly talented freshman guard Caleb Fields’ aggressive mindset to get downhill and get easy shots at the stripe. Fields is a major reason for long-term excitement – he has his flaws as a shooter and decision-maker at times, but but it’s rare to have a freshman who wants to drive and draw contact as much as he does. But the roster around Fields and veteran guard Marquis Eaton is very unproven. Balado could start three JUCO guys from 3-5 in Markise Davis, Keyon Wesley, and Tim Holland – I’m particularly excited about Holland, an athletic big man with a nose for the ball on the boards who should be an impact add for the Red Wolves.

  12. Troy – It’s going to take awhile for Scott Cross to really get the train rolling at Troy, though I think most agree he’s a good enough coach that it’s more a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ he gets it rolling. This season’s group is newcomer-heavy, with five freshmen and three newcomers from the JUCO world joining a group that returns a pair of double-figure scorers in Desmond Williams and Zay Williams. Desmond Williams showed lots of promise as a freshman, getting thrown into the fire midway through the season as the starting PG and faring admirably, Zay Williams is good around the rim and rebounds well. But what can they get from this incoming group. JUCO import Kieffer Punter (Tyler JC) should bring shooting on the wing, while big man Rory Pantophlet also comes in from Tyler with a reputation as a big, athletic forward who should help spell Zay Williams up front. If Cross can hit on a few of these freshmen, this program will be on the right track.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Markquis Nowell (Little Rock)
  • Justin Roberts (Georgia State)
  • Michael Flowers (South Alabama)
  • Justin Forrest (Appalachian State)
  • Ruot Monyyong (Little Rock)

Player of the Year: Markquis Nowell (Little Rock) – The diminutive point guard has proven to be a program-changing recruit after heading to Little Rock at the same time as Darrell Walker. In many ways, the Little Rock program has taken on Nowell’s identity, with that New York City toughness and willingness to compete no matter the odds. He’s an awesome floor general who made huge strides from his freshman to sophomore season. I can’t wait to see what he does in his third year for the Trojans.

Breakout Player: Jalen Thomas (Georgia State) – Thomas was quite the late addition for Rob Lanier after taking the job at GSU. The 6-10 big man showed plenty of promise as a freshman, finishing well around the rim and blocking shots with regularity as one of the only interior presences for the Panthers a season ago. Thomas needs to continue to improve with using contact to his advantage in the post and getting to the free throw line with more regularity, but he’s clearly on the path to being a heck of a big man in this conference.

Newcomer of the Year: David Walker (South Alabama) – The battle was tight here between a lot of incredibly talented newcomers in this league, but I eventually decided on Walker over UTA’s Shahada Wells and many other great options. Walker is going to be so good in this league and in Richie Riley’s system, a guy who can score in so many ways and brings such explosiveness at the guard spot. If the shooting numbers he put up at Casper hold up at the D1 level, watch out.

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