A Look Around the Sun Belt Conference – From the Bird’s Nest
Happy New Year, everyone.
It's time for conference play to start in Sun Belt basketball.
While the Cajuns don't open until Saturday vs. Louisiana-Monroe, league play actually begins tonight with four games on tap: Western Kentucky at South Alabama, Troy at Georgia State, UALR at Texas State and Arkansas State at UT Arlington.
Since everyone has been in football mode, here's a look around the league as to how the teams have done so far.
ARKANSAS STATE (7-4) Home: 4-1, Road: 3-3: Despite losing players like Trey Finn, Brandon Peterson and Marcus Hooten, ASU was still picked third in the league in the preseason. And, the reason is evident. John Brady has brought in a talented group of transfers who are making a difference in the Red Wolves. Kirk Van Slyke (Houston) is leading the team in scoring (16.8) and field goal percentage (.596) and is second in rebounding (5.5) and three point percentage (.441). And, at 6-10, he's a tough matchup. Melvin Johnson III (UTSA) is shooting 56% (35-62) from beyond the arc. And, former SBC Freshman of the Year Brandon Reed (Georgia Tech) has returned and averaged double figures as well. This is a deep, experienced basketball team that has no one averaging 30 minutes played per game. ASU is third in the league in FG Pct. (.449) first in 3 pt. Pct. (.381) and third in FT Pct. (.711). Rebounding has really been their only issue (-3.0). Their home loss was to a good Toledo team, and they've won at Jackson State, Marshall and Lamar. This might be Brady's best team at ASU.
UALR (5-7) Home: 3-1, Road: 1-5, Neutral 1-1--Steve Shields, as usual, has challenged his team with an aggressive non-conference schedule. The Trojans have losses to Florida, Middle Tennessee, Oklahoma, Tulsa, Memphis and Southern Miss. The bad news is all of those losses were by double digits. UALR opened at home with a loss to North Florida. They have a road win at Southern (not easy) and a neutral court win vs. Jacksonville State. Will Neighbour, as expected, leads the team in scoring (16.6) and rebounding (7.3). Returnees Josh Hagins and James White also average in double figures. The best newcomer is JUCO transfer DeVonte Smith, who doesn't score a lot, but has nearly a 3:1 assist/turnover ratio. UALR is a very good free throw shooting team (.713). Their biggest issue statistically is taking care of the basketball. They are next to last in turnover margin in the league. But Shields is a very good coach and this is a team with some experience, although they only have two seniors. Because of their schedule, they're a better team than their record.
GEORGIA STATE (7-6) Home: 4-0 Road: 2-5, Neutral: 1-1 Don't know about the Panthers? You will. This is a very, very good offensive basketball team. Guards R. J. Hunter (son of the head coach), Ryan Harrow and wingman Manny Atkins can all score the basketball. This team is first in the Sun Belt in assist/turnover ratio, blocked shots, steals and turnover margin. They're second in FG Pct., 3 PT Pct and FT Pct. Five of their six losses have been by single digits. They've picked up road wins at UTSA and East Carolina in their last two outings. The Panthers might have the best home court advantage in the league. Halfcourt defense has been a weakness and this team is last in the Sun Belt in rebound margin. But when they come to the Cajundome, make sure you're there. This team is fun to watch.
LOUISIANA-MONROE (3-5) Home: 2-1, Road 1-4--There is no question Keith Richard's team is improved. They came back from a 16 point deficit to beat Northwestern State in Natchitoches and played LSU to a seven point game. But consistency has been an issue, as ULM has lost to La. Tech at home by 20, and only scored 31 points in a loss at Ohio State. Returnees Amos Olatayo and Jayon James are the leaders on this team, but ULM is much deeper this year and much less dependent on perimeter shooting. Junior College transfers Marvin Williams and Tylor Ongwae have given ULM an inside presence they've not had in Richard's tenure and they've made the Warhawks considerably better. But this team still has deficiencies. ULM is last in the league in turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio. They're seventh in FG pct, ninth in 3 pt. percentage and eighth in FT percentage. This team, however, is going to jump up and bite a few people this year. The Cajuns hope it's not this Saturday.
SOUTH ALABAMA (6-7) Home: 6-1, Road 0-4, Neutral 0-2--Matthew Graves is in his first season with the Jaguars after spending ten years as an assistant under Brad Stevens at Butler. He did not inherit a team whose cupboard is bare. Sun Belt Player of the Year Augustine Rubit is averaging 17 points and 9.5 rebounds. A solid player and rebounder, Rubit has added the three point shot to his arsenal. Returnees Antoine Allen and Mychal Ammons are averaging double figures. All three shoot 40 percent or better from beyond the arc. The Jags have played a tough schedule and haven't been easy prey for anyone. They have losses to Texas, Southern Miss, Rice, Gonzaga and New Mexico State...all by single digits. And, that's despite being last in the league in FG percentage (.404). Getting quality support from the other players on this team besides the three mentioned earlier will be paramount for USA if they're going to live up to their expectations in the league. They were picked to finish second. Rubit covers up a lot of sins. Just his presence alone makes the Jaguars a contender.
TEXAS-ARLINGTON (5-7) Home 4-1 Road: 1-6--Another team whose squad is probably better than the numbers indicate. Among UTA's road losses are a two point loss at Oklahoma and a three point loss at Texas Their only home loss was against a good Cleveland State club. This team has talent. Roger Dowell (22.3) is the league's leading scorer. Brandon Edwards is second in the league in rebounding and averages a double double. Lonnie McClanahan is third in the league in assists. UTA puts it up from beyond the arc 26 times per game and while they are just sixth in the league in three point percentage, their 9.2 makes per game lead the league. This team is second in the league in scoring, but has given up the most points in the Sun Belt. This is one of those "on any given night" teams. They're capable of beating anyone in this league....when they shoot it well.
TEXAS STATE (5-9) Home, 2-3, Road 0-5, Neutral 2-1--Traditionally, this program hasn't been very good. But the Bobcats are looking to change that and have hired one of Texas' most successful coaches as an indicator they're serious about playing good basketball in San Marcos. Danny Kaspar takes over the program after great success in the Southland Conference with Stephen F. Austin. But the moustachioed Kaspar has some work ahead of him. Even with the deliberate style Kaspar embraces, Texas State is last in the league in FG defense, 3 pt. defense and FT percentage. Those numbers have to make the veteran coach have some sleepless nights, as defensive minded as he's been. They've scored fewer points than anyone in the league. Joel Wright and Emani Grant average in double figures and, to the Bobcats' credit, they lead the Sun Belt in rebound margin. Louisiana coach Bob Marlin knows Kaspar and his style well. They've hooked up many, many times over the years. And, I don't think they're on each others' Christmas card list.
TROY (5-7) Home 5-0, Away 0-5, Neutral 0-2--For the first time in over three decades there's a new head coach at Troy as long time Mississippi State assistant Phil Cunningham takes over for Don Maestri, who won 500 games as the head coach of the Trojans. Cunningham's philosophy is considerably different from the perimeter oriented play of Maestri. Troy is averaging fewer than twenty three-point attempts on the season. Newcomer Kevin Williams (6-8) gives Troy and inside presence to go with returning players Antoine Myers and Hunter Williams. The Trojans lead the league in FG defense, but have struggled to score the basketball. They are eighth in FG percentage and dead last in three point percentage. It's a different style of basketball than Trojan fans are used to. And, it may take a couple of recruiting classes before Cunningham gets the players he needs to fit his system.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (8-5) Home 7-1 Away 1-4--The Hilltoppers are the favorites to win the league this year and they've played well against a tough schedule. WKU has home wins over Southern MIss and Murray State and a home loss to Ole Miss (79-74) Road losses include Wichita State and Louisville. The Hilltoppers have added some pieces to the puzzle, with Texas Tech transfer Trency Jackson leading the way. But this team still starts with T. J. Price and George Fant. WKU is playing good basketball despite not shooting it all that well.(ninth in FG pct and 7th in three point percent.) They're hard to score against and are willing to play games in the 60's. They do a very good job of making you play at their pace. They're the favorites again. There's a reason why.
Now that the non-conference games are out of the way, here's my predicted order of finish in the league.
2. Arkansas State
4. South Alabama
5. Georgia State
10. Texas State