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OUTLOOK: This isn't your grandfather's Sun Belt. While high-profile conferences like the Big East and the Atlantic 10 were stripped and reworked, the Sun Belt has quietly been going through changes of its own. It seems no league in the nation has been immune to the sudden realignment craze. Gone are league bully Middle Tennessee as well as North Texas, FIU and FAU, who all made the move to Conference USA. In their place come Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington.
Losing the Blue Raiders might actually be seen as a positive around the league, at least from a competitive stand point. MT won three of the last four regular season crowns in the conference but now the Sun Belt crown is really up for grabs.
First in line to claim the throne is Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns weren't really in the thick of it last year but all five starters are back plus a few key reserves. With Shawn Long anchoring the team on the inside and Bryant Mbamalu and Elfrid Payton getting it done from the backcourt Louisiana has one of the most stacked lineups around. Expect a big step up from last year's 13-20 finish. The teams with the best chance to stand in Louisiana's way are Western Kentucky and newcomer Georgia State. The Hilltoppers represented the SBC in the NCAA Tournament last year after notching a 20-16 overall record. They were the only team in the league other than MT to have at least 20 victories and with the roster running four-deep in terms of returning starters, doing so again is within reach. The Panthers on the other hand had just 15 wins last season in the Colonial Athletic Association. However just like Louisiana and WKU, the Panthers have a ton of talent coming back, including R.J. Hunter and Manny Atkins, who should each be in the mix for all- conference honors when the year comes to a close.
While each of those three teams has plenty of talented players, the frontrunner for Player of the Year makes plays for South Alabama. Double- double machine Augustine Rubit is one of the most dominating forces in the mid-major ranks and he anchors a Jaguars' squad that will be difficult to beat thanks to their punishing frontcourt. Arkansas-Little Rock is another team that looks like it will be on the fringe of contention in the league, especially if Will Neighbour can improve in his senior year. Arkansas State differs from South Alabama and UALR in that its hopes for a big year rest on its talented trio of guards, led by Ed Townsel.
The teams in the bottom of the conference are made up of newcomers and under performing returning squads. Texas-Arlington was a strong defensive team that went 19-14 last season but three starters are gone. Texas State has a bunch of starters back (four) but that isn't really a good thing when none of them was very productive on a team that finished 12-22. Troy lost two of its best scorers and doesn't have much help for Hunter Williams, while ULM won just four games last year, so having all five starters back isn't really a positive.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Louisiana
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Louisiana 2. Western Kentucky 3. Georgia State 4. South Alabama 5. Arkansas-Little Rock 6. Arkansas State 7. Texas State 8. Texas-Arlington 9. Troy 10. ULM
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
LOUISIANA: In this era of college basketball it is rare for a team to bring back all five starters. Just having starting experience isn't enough though and the Ragin' Cajuns aren't just bringing the heat in that regard. Long (15.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg) is a threat to hang up a double-double every single time he steps on the floor. In fact last season Long tied for sixth nationally in double-doubles with 18. Flanking Long on the perimeter are Payton (15.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.4 spg) and Mbamalu (13.8 ppg). Payton is an incredibly gifted player that stuffs the stat sheet as he puts up impressive numbers in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Mbamalu is not as versatile as Payton, but he provides plenty of scoring punch. The trio helped the Ragin' Cajuns lead the Sun Belt in scoring (75.8 ppg) last year and now the onus will be on stepping up the defensive side, where they struggled.
WESTERN KENTUCKY: If Middle Tennessee was the bully of the Sun Belt over the last few years then WKU was the sidekick. The Hilltoppers have earned four of the last six NCAA Tournament bids for the Sun Belt, including the last two. Last year's run also ended with the seventh 20-win season in the last nine years. Even though the they don't have all of their starters back from last season, having four is plenty of firepower to expect a return to contention. Headlining the quartet are T.J. Price (15.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and George Fant (12.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Price isn't adept at getting to the rim to score, relying more heavily on his shot from 3-point range. Last season Price rattled in 35.8 percent of his shots from long distance and now that Jamal Crook (12.1 ppg, 4.0 apg) is no longer running the point, he may have the ball in his hands more often. Fant isn't the prototypical forward as he is a bit undersized (6- foot-6) but that doesn't stop him from finishing well around the basket and attacking the boards. Brandon Harris (8.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is an all-around contributor that might get a crack at the starting point guard spot in Crook's absence.
GEORGIA STATE: For the last eight years the Panthers have been cutting their teeth in the CAA, which is clearly not a pushover league considering it has featured such mid-major powers as VCU and George Mason. Last year the Panthers may have just been 15-16 overall, but that included a 10-8 mark in conference play. So the move to a new league doesn't seem like it is going to slow them in the slightest. That is especially true if R.J. Hunter (17.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) can replicate his impressive freshman campaign. As a rookie, Hunter led the Panthers in scoring, while also taking in all-conference honors. While Hunter will clearly be the primary scoring threat, the Panthers are lucky enough to have another pair of players that can take over at any time. Devonta White (14.8 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Manny Atkins (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) each produced at high levels as the only other two players, besides Hunter, to start in all 31 games last year. White is better at creating shots for teammates than anyone else on the roster, while Atkins led the team in rebounding, an area that still needs work for the Panthers to compete. Depth could also be a weakness with Rashaad Richardson (7.3 ppg) the only other player that averaged more than five points per game.
SOUTH ALABAMA: While Rubit will more than likely grab most of the headlines during the season, the big story in Mobile in the offseason was the hiring of Matthew Graves as head coach. Graves knows a thing or two about building a mid-major program into a national power as he was an assistant for the last 10 years at Butler. Now he gets his first chance at the top job for the Jaguars, which is not a terrible place to start. Graves will certainly make Rubit the centerpiece of the offensive attack after the 6-7 forward hoisted up 16 double-doubles last season. Rubit wasn't just getting 10 points and 10 rebounds though as he was second in the Sun Belt in scoring (19.4 ppg), while also averaging in double figures in rebounds (10.5 pg). Graves can count on what he will get from Rubit but it will be what he gets out of the rest of the roster that will determine his fate in year one. Antoine Allen (9.1 ppg) is a capable scorer but lacked consistency last season. Mychal Ammons (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is a nice complement to Rubit up front but isn't really a force down low. Finding a primary ball-handler will also be a challenge for Graves as he is trying to get the Jaguars to shake the turnover issues they had last year.
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK: Balance was the key for the Trojans last year and it should be again with four starters and a few key reserves back in the fold. Neighbour (10.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) was the only consistent double figure scorer but one of seven players to average at least six points per game. Being able to rely on just about everyone on the floor at any given time helped the Trojans put together a solid, if not exciting, season as they finished 17-15 overall and 11-9 against the Sun Belt. While balance is fine the Trojans could really use a breakout season from Neighbour, who has the ability to hang with some of the best frontcourt players in the league. Neighbour's production is also key because the rest of the proven commodities all take up space on the perimeter. Josh Hagins (8.1 ppg, 3.1 apg), Leroy Isler (7.4 ppg) and Ben Dillard (6.4 ppg) all bring something to the table. Dillard is a skilled 3-point shooter, netting better than 40 percent last year. Hagins can shoot and distribute and Isler provides size (6-5) in the backcourt. James White (7.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) should see more minutes as an alternative in the paint to Neighbour.
ARKANSAS STATE: The Red Wolves made a big step forward last season as they earned the most wins since 1999. That was also the last time they were able to get an invite to the NCAA Tournament, the only one in program history. Although last year's 19-12 finish certainly didn't warrant a bid, the Red Wolves made strides that few squads before it had. The Red Wolves will again be predicated on the play of the backcourt this time around. Edward Townsel (13.1 ppg) is at the forefront of the guard-heavy rotation. Townsel runs the point for the Red Wolves but still needs to find a way to be a better passer. In fact for a team that puts such a premium on guard play, the Red Wolves were rather weak in terms of ball movement, ranking ninth in the league with just 10.5 assists per game. Cameron Golden (7.4 ppg) and Rakeem Dickerson (4.9 ppg) are two others guards that should feature prominently. Each averaged more than two assists per game but also shot below 40 percent from the field. Improved shooting is a must considering the team is really thin down low after Brandon Peterson (10.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg) left.
TEXAS STATE: Despite one of the most formidable frontcourt duos in the league, the Bobcats did not have much success in their first and only year as a member of the Western Athletic Conference. Thanks to a year-long struggle on the defensive end the Bobcats went just 12-22, while having five wins in 18 tries against the rest of the WAC. That final record meant Texas State has gone a decade without a record above .500. A new league with a host of new challenges probably isn't the recipe to right that wrong. However the Bobcats should be able to hang around most nights if only because Joel Wright is patrolling the paint. Though frontcourt partner Matt Staff (11.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg) isn't around anymore, Wright (17.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg) has the offensive skill to carry the Bobcats by himself. Losing Staff will mean Wright will be keyed on more as there was no other double-figure scorer on the roster last year. Reid Koenen (8.1 ppg) and his 6-7 frame could help take some of the pressure off. Guards like Wesley Davis (6.5 ppg) and Phil Hawkins (6.4 ppg) really need to step up to force teams to guard the perimeter.
TEXAS-ARLINGTON: Like Texas State, the Mavericks also made the transition to the WAC from the Southland last year. Unlike the Bobcats, UTA enjoyed a successful campaign in its only season in the league. The Mavericks finished 19-14 overall and hung right in the top half of the league standings with a record of 11-7. They were able to do so thanks to one of the better defensive performances in the country as the Mavericks held teams to just 62.8 points per game on 39.1 percent shooting. In fact the Mavericks ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation in opponent field goal percentage. However, there are three starters lost from last year's team, including most of the leading scorers. Brandon Edwards (7.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg) must be a real leader now as he is the top returning scorer and rebounder. He won't be able to rely on teams defending Jordan Reves (8.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) anymore and it will be a real test to see if he can still produce with the added attention. Shaquille White- Miller (4.9 ppg), Greg Gainey (6.8 ppg) and Jamel Outler (6.7 ppg) must go from solid reserves to productive starters as well.
TROY: A regime change was in order for Troy after three years of disappointment under long-time coach Don Maestri. However, the Trojans didn't elect to bring in new blood, as assistant Phil Cunningham was given the job. The Trojans had a losing record in each of the last three seasons. During that time they lost twice as many games as they won (30-60). Cunningham does have the benefit of experience to work with as there are 10 different players that enter this year with junior or senior classification. Williams (10.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) will be the leader of the group. The senior guard is the best offensive weapon on the squad with the departure of Emil Jones. If Williams can improve on his poor shooting (.365) and be even better as a distributor, he could be in the mix for all-league honors. Individual triumphs may be the only ones the Trojans have a shot at, considering the rest of the squad is made up of players like Antoine Myers (8.0 ppg) and Deonata Jethroe (5.9 ppg), who have yet to prove they can be consistently productive.
ULM: Wins were a rarity for the Warhawks in 2013 as the team was able to collect only four victories all year. It was just another miserable chapter of the Keith Richard era. Under Richard the Warhawks have been a horrendous 14-73 in three seasons. It isn't all Richard's fault though. ULM has had just a single winning season in the last 10 years and just five in the last 20. There is not much evidence that anything more than a few more victories could be within reach this time around. All five starters are back but that doesn't mean much when the group managed so few victories last year. Amos Olatayo (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is a prolific scorer and a strong rebounder and is entering his senior season. Jayon James (9.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.1 apg) contributes across the board and was the most utilized player last season with a team-high 33 minutes per game. R.J. McCray (7.0 ppg) and Millaun Brown (6.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) were also stalwarts in the starting lineup. Marcelis Hansberry (7.5 ppg) played in 17 games last year and was solid in that time.