(SportsNetwork.com) - The Sun Belt Conference Championship is set to get underway at Lakefront Arena, beginning on Thursday, March 12 and wrapping up with the title game on Sunday, March 15.
The top two seeds get a double-bye into Saturday's semifinal round, while seeds No. 3 and 4 receive a bye into Friday's quarterfinals.
Georgia State and Georgia Southern faced each other in Atlanta this past Saturday to determine the regular-season champion. The Panthers cruised to a 72-55 win to secure the No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season as they finished 22-9 overall and 15-5 in league play. R.J. Hunter headlined that victory with 35 points as he set a school record by going 16-of-16 at the free-throw line. Winners of three straight and seven of their last eight contests, the Panthers boast the top two scorers in the Sun Belt in Ryan Harrow (20.2 ppg) and Hunter (19.7 ppg). GSU shoots 48.4 percent as a team and has held opponents to 38.2-percent shooting.
The Eagles (21-8, 14-6) have the league's third-leading scorer in Jelani Hewitt, who averages 18.2 ppg to go with 4.2 rebounds. Trent Wiedeman is next in line with 11.8 points and is one of three Eagles players averaging at least five rebounds per tilt. However, Georgia Southern dropped two of its last three contests to wrap up the regular season, with both losses coming by double digits.
The No. 3 seed belongs to the UL Monroe Warhawks (20-11, 14-6), who posted their first 20-win season since 2001-02. They will await the winner of an opening round game between No. 6 seed South Alabama (12-19, 9-11) and No. 7 seed UALR (13-17, 8-12) on Friday night. Tylor Ongwae (13.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Majok Deng (9.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) lead the way for the defensive-minded Warhawks, who have limited foes to 38-percent shooting from the field this season.
No team enters this tournament hotter than the defending Sun Belt Conference Tournament champion Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns (19-12, 13-7), who clinched the No. 4 seed thanks to six straight wins to close out the regular season. Shawn Long is a handful in the paint and averages a double-double with 17.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, although second-leading scorer Brian Williams (10.1 ppg) is considered questionable with a bruised shoulder. Louisiana faces the winner between No. 5 seed UT Arlington (16-14, 10-10) and No. 8 seed Texas State (13-16, 7-13) on Friday night.
Kicking things off in Thursday's opening round is UT Arlington versus Texas State. UTA won both meetings during the regular season, although the Mavericks enter the league tourney having dropped four of their last five games. The Mavs are headlined by Lonnie McClanahan (11.6 ppg) and Greg Gainey (10.0 ppg), although second-leading scorer Johnny Hill (10.1 ppg) underwent season-ending wrist surgery last month.
For Texas State, Emani Gant leads the way with 12.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per tilt, but he is the team's only double-digit scorer on the season. The Bobcats, after winning two straight, dropped their final two games at Appalachian State and at UL Monroe by three points each.
The nightcap of Thursday's opening round pits South Alabama against UALR in the 6-7 game for the chance to face No. 3 seed ULM. South Alabama swept both regular-season meetings, but only by a combined five points. The Jaguars enter the tilt riding a two-game win streak and are led by Ken Williams (15.9 ppg). Taishaun Johnson (12.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Dionte Ferguson (11.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg) have also made steady contributions.
On the other end of the floor, UALR is looking to rebound after ending its schedule with back-to-back losses. Josh Hagins (12.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Roger Woods (11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) are the headliners. However, the Trojans lost top rebounder James White (11.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) to a stress fracture in his left leg back in January and have continued to struggle defensively, particularly along the perimeter where they have allowed foes to shoot 38 percent.
Georgia State erased any doubt as to who is the class of the Sun Belt with Saturday's drubbing of Georgia Southern in the de facto regular-season title game. Still, the Panthers know that anything can happen in a tournament setting. ULM, with its stifling defense, will be a tough out as the No. 3 seed. Don't sleep on the Ragin' Cajuns either, who won the Sun Belt Championship a year ago and have gotten hot at the right time.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Georgia State