(SportsNetwork.com) - The 38th Sun Belt Conference Tournament will begin on Thursday, March 13, with the team that survives the weekend event claiming both the conference title and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Sun Belt welcomed in three new teams this season, with Georgia State coming over from the CAA, and Texas State and Texas-Arlington from the WAC. While the Bobcats and Mavericks struggled, with the former finishing dead last and outside of the eight-team tournament field, the Panthers transition was incredibly successful.
In just their first season in the league, the Panthers lost only one of their 18 league matchups, easily rolling to the regular-season title. Georgia State finished at 24-7 overall, its best record since 2001 when it went 29-5 and won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Atlantic Sun Conference. This is also just the second time in the last 10 years the Panthers have had a winning record.
Earning the second seed is two-time defending conference tournament champion Western Kentucky, which had a shaky end to the campaign, going 4-4 over the final eight games to finish at 20-11 overall and five games back of Georgia State in the conference standings at 12-6.
Both the Panthers and Hilltoppers received double-byes, and will not have to play until the semifinals on Saturday.
Louisiana and Arkansas State earned byes for the first round as the third and fourth seeds, respectively. The Ragin' Cajuns split their last four games of the season, but a six-game win streak to begin the month of February, as well as a 77-76 victory over the Red Wolves in the regular-season finale, helped them secure the No. 3 seed. Arkansas State lost three of its last four games of the campaign to fall to the fourth seed.
The first round commences on Thursday, with fifth-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock battling eighth-seeded Troy, and sixth-seeded Texas-Arlington taking on seventh-seeded ULM.
South Alabama and Texas State, which finished ninth and 10th in the league standings, respectively, did not qualify for the postseason.
Arkansas-Little Rock (14-16, 9-9) had an uneven year, rarely putting together long strings of wins, as it fought to even in league ledger. The Trojans struggled down the stretch, losing six of their final eight games, but leading scorer Will Neighbour (16.3 ppg, 7 rpg) missed five of those contests. He remains listed as questionable with a dislocated left shoulder. That is clearly not great news for the Trojans, who are seeking their second Sun Belt Conference title, with the first coming in 2011. If Neighbour remains sidelined, the pressure will fall mostly on Josh Hagins (12.2 ppg) and James White (11.2 ppg, 6 rpg).
Opposing UALR in the first round is Troy, a team with which it split the season series. UALR had the more recent victory, taking a 62-55 decision on the road on Feb. 27.
Troy, which has never won the Sun Belt Tournament and is just 5-8 in the event over the years, did win two of its last three games, but still had a mostly forgettable season. The Trojans logged an 11-19 overall record and just slipped into the tournament field at 6-12 in league play, a game ahead of ninth-place South Alabama. Luckily for the Trojans, they are currently at full health, with Hunter Williams (14 ppg), Antoine Myers (12.1 ppg) and Tevin Calhoun (10.4 ppg) set to attempt a surprise run.
Awaiting the victor between UALR and Troy is fourth-seeded Arkansas State. Of the six teams in the conference to have won this tournament, the Red Wolves have had the longest drought between titles, with its first and only one coming in 1999. They have had some strong seasons since, winning the regular season title three times, but they have only been to the title game once in that span (2007). This year they bring in an 18-12 overall mark, which included a 10-8 ledger against Sun Belt competition. Scoring has not been much of an issue for the Red Wolves, with Melvin Johnson III (15.2 ppg) and Kirk Van Slyke (14.9 ppg) each potent scorers on a team netting 75.7 ppg, good enough for fourth in the conference.
After UALR, Troy and Arkansas State decide things in their portion of the bracket, the winner will face top-seeded Georgia State in the semifinals. The Panthers never really found their footing in the CAA, totaling more than 15 wins just once in eight seasons, seven of which ended with losing records. The Sun Belt has not posed as much of a challenge, at least in their first season, with the team sporting impressive marks both overall (24-7) and against conference foes (17-1). Led by one of the strongest scoring trios in the country, the Panthers are totaling 78.1 ppg on 47.1 percent shooting, ranking first in the conference in the latter category. R.J. Hunter (18.5 ppg) paces the team, but Ryan Harrow (17.2 ppg, 4.4 apg) and Manny Atkins (14.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) fill it up frequently as well.
The other half of the bracket starts with Texas-Arlington and ULM facing off.
While a change of scenery aided Georgia State, it has not done the same for the sixth-seed Mavericks, who, after going 19-14 last year in the WAC, are just 14-16 heading into the tournament this year. They did win five of their final eight games, but still ended even against the rest of the conference (9-9). UTA last won a tournament title in 2008 when it ran the table in the Southland Conference. The Mavericks nearly claimed another trophy a year ago, before losing to New Mexico State in the title game during their one and only season in the WAC. Slowing opposing teams down has proven to be the real challenge for them this year, with opposing squads netting 77.7 ppg. Porous defense has largely wiped out the efforts of Reger Dowell (20.2 ppg), who leads the league in scoring, and Brandon Edwards (16.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg).
On the other side of the second first-round matchup is ULM. The Warhawks have won only three games since the beginning of February, although they did claim a 66-65 victory over UALR in the regular-season finale. Still, losses have been more common this year for ULM, which is currently 10-16 overall, 7-11 in conference. The Warhawks are used to being the door mat in the Sun Belt, a league they have been a part of for eight seasons. After winning the regular- season title in their first year, they have had no more than 12 wins in any one campaign, including a combined 14 victories in the three years prior to this one. Tylor Ongwae (16.1 ppg) is a strong scorer for the unit, but he has not had much help since Amos Olatayo (13.2 ppg) underwent right knee surgery at the end of January.
The winner between the Mavericks and Warhawks gets a chance to contend with Louisiana. Coming into the final month of the season, the Ragin' Cajuns were just 12-9 overall, including a disastrous start in conference play (3-5). However, that is long forgotten as they went 8-2 over their final 10 games to finish the year at 20-11 overall and 11-7 against the conference, just a game back of Western Kentucky for second place. Louisiana has won five Sun Belt titles before, the last of which came in 2005. That total is tied for the second-most among current league members, with South Alabama also having five. However, the Cajuns have only moved past the first round twice since that last title. With box score stuffers Elfrid Payton (19.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.3 spg) and Shawn Long (19.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 2.8 bpg) in the mix, they will be tough to stop.
Sitting in wait for Louisiana, UTA and ULM to settle things is second-seeded Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers have been the class of the Sun Belt since entering the league. They have won nine regular-season titles and as many tournament crowns, including victories in the last two years. If they can claim the championship this season it would mark the second time in program history they have won three straight, the other time coming from 2001-03. The chances at a three-peat are fairly strong for the Hilltoppers, who went 20-11 overall this season and 12-6 against the rest of the Sun Belt. Also helping the cause is the experience on the roster, as T.J. Price (15.4 ppg) and George Fant (13.2 ppg) are the last two players to win the conference tournament MVP award.