Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: For anyone who thinks realignment only affects the major conferences, a look at the new lineup in the Sun Belt should change that opinion.
The Sun Belt has undergone several transitions over the past few seasons, and this features another. Gone is perennial power Western Kentucky, which will be replaced by former Southern Conference squads Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
As much change as there may be, there won't be a huge shake-up at the top of the league standings. That is assuming Georgia State, which won the regular season championship in its first season in the league, and Louisiana, which claimed the conference tourney crown, maintain the same level of success.
The Panthers should have no trouble doing so, as defending Sun Belt Player of the Year R.J. Hunter and fellow scoring guard Ryan Harrow both return. The backcourt gets even deeper with former Louisville guard Kevin Ware in the mix as well. It is an almost unfair grouping for a team that won 17 of 18 league tests last season.
For the Ragin' Cajuns, there is a bit more roster upheaval to deal with as point guard Elfrid Payton decided to enter the NBA Draft early, and was rewarded by being selected 10th overall. Xavian Rimmer will be called on to fill in the gap that Payton leaves behind, while Shawn Long will attempt to add to his own NBA Draft resume' following a spectacular 2013-14 campaign.
While the Panthers and Cajuns are the preseason favorites, the Sun Belt has a few other teams that are ready to stand in the way.
Arkansas-Little Rock has three starters back, including forward James White and reserve Josh Hagins, who will likely move into the starting lineup. It's been a long time since ULM was actually competitive in the league, but four returning starters led by Tylor Ongwae give hope that a return to contention is on the horizon. Texas-Arlington should factor into things as well, after earning a 9-9 split of its league games last season. The only problem is the Mavericks no longer have offensive force Reger Dowell to lean upon.
Arkansas State won 19 games last season and was the only team besides Georgia State, Louisiana and Western Kentucky to post a record above .500 in league play (10-8). However, the Red Wolves are going through a complete overhaul, with all five starters gone. Defensively-minded Texas State should benefit from a step back by teams such as the Red Wolves.
In their first season in the league, both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are intriguing teams. The Mountaineers have four starters back, and the Eagles boast skilled scorers in Jelani Hewitt (19.4 ppg) and Eric Ferguson (13.5 ppg). Both squads need to turn experience into success quickly, but doing so outside of the more diluted Southern Conference won't be easy. The Mountaineers' prospects are brighter than those of the Eagles, who will likely finish behind South Alabama and Troy, even though the Jaguars and Trojans combined for 22 total wins last season and have only three returning starters between them.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Georgia State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Georgia State 2. Louisiana 3. Arkansas-Little Rock 4. ULM 5. Texas-Arlington 6. Arkansas State 7. Texas State 8. Appalachian State 9. South Alabama 10. Troy 11. Georgia Southern
GEORGIA STATE: Guard play is always heralded as a major advantage, and the Panthers have it in spades. First, there is Hunter, a prolific scorer and playmaker, who should easily pick up Player of the Year honors once again. The 6-foot-6 guard led the Panthers in scoring (18.3 ppg) and steals (1.9 spg) in 2013-14, proving he is dangerous at both ends of the floor. Harrow (17.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) may not get the publicity that Hunter does, but his ability to shoot and pass is an important part of the Panthers' offensive gameplan, which resulted in a league-leading .468 field goal percentage last season. Ware was just not the same in Louisville following the horrific injury he suffered in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. He is healthy now and a change of scenery may be just what he needs to blossom. At the very least, Ware's postseason experience will be an asset. The strength at guard is not matched with an imposing frontcourt, although Curtis Washington (7.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg) is an excellent defender and finishes well around the rim. He is the top returning rebounder for a squad that ranked 10th in the league on the glass a year ago (31.6 pg). All in all, the pieces are there for the Panthers to not only win the SBC regular-season title, but to also finish the job and make it to the NCAA Tournament.
LOUISIANA: Payton was a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft in 2014. In 2015, Long could join him. Long's name is fitting, as the junior forward stands at 6- foot-9, with an impressive wingspan that is estimated to be nearly seven feet. Size alone isn't what makes Long special. He is also extremely productive, as the league's top returning scorer (18.6 ppg), rebounder (10.4 rpg) and shot- blocker (2.7 bpg). Replacing Payton's all-around play will be more of a challenge for coach Bob Marlin. Rimmer (8.8 ppg) started 24 games last season and was a solid complementary scorer, ranking third in the conference in offensive rating (122.9). Now he has to prove that he can handle added pressure. Kasey Shepherd (8.2 ppg) provided a spark off the bench in 20 games before suffering a knee injury. He was actually Payton's backup at point guard, so he will also be looked upon to pick up his level of play. If Rimmer and Shepherd jell in the backcourt, the Ragin' Cajuns should maintain their spot as the Sun Belt's top offensive team. Last season, they led the league in scoring (81 ppg), rebounds (38 rpg) and assists (13.5 apg), while finishing second in field goal percentage (.465).
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK: Experience is a valuable commodity, and something the Trojans will not be short on this season. They return three starters and a number of important bench players. However, the team lost their top player in Will Neighbour (16.3 ppg, 7 rpg). James White is the best candidate to make up for Neighbour's departure. White scored 11.6 points per game last season, while finishing on 54.3 percent of his shots from the floor. The 6-foot-8 forward is also the top returning rebounder for the squad (6.1 rpg). Josh Hagins (12.4 ppg, 3.7 apg) will also score plenty, while setting up teammates for easy buckets. DeVonte Smith (5.4 ppg, 3 apg) is a skilled passer as well, but he needs to be more consistent with his shot after hitting on just 39.6 percent from the field last season. Ben Dillard (7.3 ppg) and J.T. Thomas, who returns after missing most of last season with an injury, gives coach Steve Shields even more options in the backcourt. Gus Leeper (4.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg) is a 6-foot-10 redshirt senior, who will provide experience and could become a factor in the frontcourt. With his height and White's help, the Trojans should be able to continue to protect the paint, after allowing foes to shoot just 42.8 percent from the field in 2013-14.
ULM: Keith Richard seems to finally have the Warhawks rolling in the right direction. After winning a total of 14 games in his first three years, ULM finished at 10-17 overall last season. The Warhawks also put up a fight in league play (7-11). If they are going to prove last season was a sign of things to come and not a fluke, Tylor Ongwae will need to be even better than the All-Sun Belt Third-Team honor he received last season. It shouldn't be all that difficult, considering he led the team in scoring (16.1 ppg), while pulling down 5.7 rebounds per game. He did a large portion of that work without running mate Amos Olatayo (13.2 ppg), who suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Jayon James (9.6 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.6 apg) is also gone for this season, meaning Ongwae has to continue to play well and get a lot of help from the rest of the roster. Nick Coppola (6.9 ppg, 3.3 apg) led the team in assists and started all 27 games in 2013-14. Improved shooting (.374 FG percentage) could make him more of a threat. Marvin Williams (8.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Chinedu Amajoyi (4.1 ppg, 3 rpg) are returning starters as well.
TEXAS-ARLINGTON: The Mavericks have had a rocky few seasons, at least in terms of conference affiliation. They moved from their home in the Southland to the Western Athletic Conference in 2012, and then transitioned to the Sun Belt last season. The new league proved to be a challenge, as they finished 15-17 overall. However, working their way to a .500 finish in conference play is a commendable accomplishment. Offensive success was the key, as the Mavericks ranked third in the Sun Belt in scoring (76.4 ppg). It will be difficult to keep up that pace now that Dowell and his league-leading 20.3 ppg are no longer in Arlington. Also absent is Brandon Edwards (16.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg), who may be even more of a loss considering his fantastic work on the glass. Lonnie McClanahan (14 ppg, 3.5 apg) will take up the mantle of go-to scorer. He is also the top returning player in assists. Jamel Outler (11.2 ppg) should expect a jump in his scoring responsibilities as well.
ARKANSAS STATE: Winning 19 games in back-to-back seasons makes for heightened expectations. Unfortunately for coach John Brady, the Red Wolves do not appear to be positioned to post a third. Last season's squad ranked fourth in the Sun Belt in scoring (76 ppg), second in assists (13.3 apg) and third in field goal percentage (.444). However, that was with Kirk Van Slyke (14.9 ppg), Melvin Johnson (15.2 ppg), Kendrick Washington (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Ed Townsel (9.7 ppg) and Brandon Reed (9.6 ppg) on the roster. All five are gone, which means Brady will need to rely on a host of unproven players, especially considering how small a rotation he employed last season. Cameron Golden (7.6 ppg) and Kelvin Downs (2.2 ppg) are the only returning players to have seen action in more than 10 games last season. Golden will be given the keys to the offense and is expected to build upon his assist and scoring numbers as a reserve. Downs played a little more than 13 minutes per game last season, but he is considered a veteran on this squad. Of the newcomers, PJ Hardwick is the most intriguing, as he is eligible after sitting out a year following a transfer from North Texas.
TEXAS STATE: Like Texas-Arlington, the Bobcats went from the Southland to the WAC, and finally ended up in the Sun Belt last season. They were not given a warm welcome, finishing a dismal 8-23 overall and just 4-14 in conference. Those were both the worst marks in the league. It was also the first time since 2007 that they had finished with less than 10 wins. The turnaround begins now for Danny Kaspar, who was in his year guiding the Bobcats last season. Defensively, Kaspar's squad was solid, allowing 66 ppg. However, finding offense proved to be an ordeal, with the team finishing last in the Sun Belt in scoring (61.4 ppg). Texas State was also next-to-last in rebounds (32.4 rpg) and assists (11.1 apg). It may be difficult to make huge strides in the scoring and rebounding departments this season, considering Joel Wright (14.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is gone. Wright was the only player on the team to average in double figures last season. However, Emani Gant (8.9 ppg, 5 rpg) has some skill and Wesley Davis (8.4 ppg) has shown promise as well. One or both of them will need to take the next step as a scorer if Texas State hopes to climb the Sun Belt ladder.
APPALACHIAN STATE: The good news is Appalachian State has four returning starters back. The bad news is those starters are from a team that went just 9-21 overall while playing in the Southern Conference. The nine wins were the fewest for the Mountaineers since 2004, and marked just the third time in the last 20 seasons they have had not reached 10 wins. Still, experience is nothing to scoff at. Tab Hamilton (12.7 ppg) is clearly the most important player on the roster. The 6-foot-3 guard was the only player to average double figures in scoring last season, despite shooting just 36.4 percent from the field. Increased efficiency could go a long way in helping him raise his scoring average. Also returning to the fold is Michael Obacha (5.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg), who doesn't score all that much, but is a force on the inside. He helped the Mountaineers rank third in the SoCon in rebounds (36.4 rpg) last season. Tommy Spagnolo (8.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg) can clean the glass as well, and Chris Burgess (7.1 ppg) can be a decent scorer. The Mountaineers still need to improve their shot selection, after shooting just 41.6 percent from the floor last season.
SOUTH ALABAMA: Matthews Graves' second year in Mobile could be even worse than his first. Graves' Jaguars were the second-worst team in the Sun Belt last season, finishing at just 11-20 overall and 5-13 in league play, while failing to make the conference tournament, although they did win four of their final seven contests. The Jaguars' only real strength was on the boards, as they ranked second in the league in rebounds (37.3 rpg), which was good since they shot the worst percentage in the conference (.403). This season, without Augustine Rubit (17 ppg, 9.4 rpg), Mychal Ammons (9.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Antoine Allen, South Alabama may not have a single thing to hang its hat on. Ken Williams (9.1 ppg) and Barrington Stevens (7.2 ppg, 2.8 apg) are returning starters at least. while Georgi Boyanov (6-8), Austin Karazsia (6-8) and freshman Abdul Lewis (6-9) have size and will need to grow into prominent frontcourt performers rather quickly. Boyanov (2.8 ppg) and Karazsia (1.5 ppg) played sparingly last season behind Rubit and Ammons.
TROY: The Trojans also employed a new mentor last season, as Phil Cunningham made his head coaching debut. As might be expected, Cunningham did not enjoy as much success as he had hoped, as Troy finished just 11-20 overall. The team also had twice as many losses (12) as wins (six) in conference action. The Trojans' offensive execution hurt the overall cause, as they only shot 41.6 percent from the floor and averaged 68.4 points per game, ranking eighth in the league in each category. Hunter Williams (13.9 ppg), Antoine Myers (12.1 ppg) and Tevin Calhoun (10.5 ppg) were the only double-digit scorers on the roster, while Jeff Mullahey (9.2 ppg) supplied additional punch. None of the four is back, leaving Kevin Thomas (9.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who can't simply be a rebounder any longer, as the club's top offensive option. Kelton Ford (3.8 ppg) appeared in all 31 games last season, but in a limited role. His minutes will increase, along with the rest of the roster which features mostly raw talent.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN: There hasn't been a winning team in Statesboro in some time. The Eagles did record 15 victories last season, but that was compared to 19 losses. It was the sixth straight year they had failed to move above the .500 mark. Obviously, Mark Byington has a lot of work to do in his second season on the sidelines. Moving to a new conference isn't likely to help matters, unless the Eagles continue to put forth solid offensive performances like they did last season (70.8 ppg). Far too often those points came off one-on-one plays, however, with the team averaging only 9.6 assists per game. Jelani Hewitt (19.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.2 spg) does it all for the Eagles, as he led the team in scoring, assists and steals last season. While Hewitt is as close to a sure thing as there is in the Sun Belt right now, Tre Bussey's (16.2 ppg) absence creates a major void. Eric Ferguson could step in after he sat out last season, while College of Charleston transfer Trent Wiedeman could also provide a steady presence in the frontcourt.