Can the Sun Belt Be a Two Bid League? – From the Bird’s Nest
There were a lot of high hopes for the Sun Belt Conference as the 2017 season began.
The 2016 National Champion, Coastal Carolina, was making its debut in the conference. South Alabama and Louisiana, both NCAA Regional teams in 2016, were expected to be solid again. And, there was Georgia Southern, who returned most of their key players and was tabbed to be the tournament hosts.
But it just hasn't worked out that way.
For the last few weeks, it appeared the Sun Belt would have a berth only for the tournament champion. But, after some good play in the last couple of weeks, especially in non-conference games, there may be room for a second team.
Realistically, there are only three schools with a chance for an at-large bid. Here is a look at their resumes entering the final weekend.
SOUTH ALABAMA (34-18, 20-7 Sun Belt)
THE GOOD: The Jaguars have the best league record and are in control of their fate as far as the regular season is concerned. Their RPI is 38 and that can go higher if they take care of their business against a 30-21 Troy club in Mobile this weekend. A recent win at LSU certainly helped the cause.
THE BAD: The Jaguars' record against the best teams on their schedule is not good. The Jags are just 2-7 vs. the RPI Top 25, 5-14 against the Top 50 and 7-16 against the Top 100. The fact they've played nine games against the Top 25 helps the Strengh of Schedule, but they haven't won many of those games. They also lost the series against both Coastal Carolina and Louisiana.
OUTLOOK: This weekend is big for the Jaguars. While they won't improve their record against the Top 100 with a successful weekend against Troy, they can help their RPI. That, combined with the #1 seed in the tournament, makes them attractive, provided they don't disappear when the tournament rolls around next week.
COASTAL CAROLINA 34-17-1, 19-7-1 Sun Belt)
THE GOOD: Coastal has a chance to finish first and, actually, has a good chance to do so. They host Appalachian State this weekend, while South Alabama will have its hands full with Troy. They won the season series vs. South Alabama and split with Louisiana. They have an opportunity for a marquee win tonight at Clemson. That would be huge as an RPI booster. The Chants are at 46 in the RPI.
THE BAD: Like South Alabama, their OOC resume isn't good. The Chants are 0-5 against the top 25 (which is why tonight is big), 3-8-1 vs. the top 50 and 8-10-1 against the top 100. And, even with a sweep this weekend, the Chanticleers RPI could slip with a series against 19-32 Appalachian State.
OUTLOOK: Coastal has the most to gain this week. While that record against the top 50 is a bummer, a win at Clemson and a potential #1 seed in the tournament would bolster their chances considerably. If both those things happen and the Chants are playing on Sunday in the tournament, they're going to be in decent shape.
LOUISIANA (32-20-1, 16-10-1 Sun Belt)
THE GOOD--The Cajuns have the best resume of the three contenders in non-conference games: They're 3-2 against the Top 25 and 10-8-1 against the Top 50, although they do slip to 14-15-1 against the Top 100. They've got some nice OOC wins and had better records against like opponents (Southern Miss, Southeastern LA) than the Jaguars, who were 0-5 against those teams.
THE BAD--Losing five out of six to Georgia Southern and UTA just killed that record against the Top 100. The biggest thing that hurts the Cajuns, though, is they're in fifth place in the overall standings and it's not likely they'll move up this weekend. Moreover, their RPI is going to take a hit this weekend against ULM and it could knock them out of the Top 50.
OUTLOOK: One of the great things about having five teams in the RPI Top 100 is a chance to help your resume and your RPI. That could be especially important for the Cajuns. An undefeated run in their bracket would put them over the .500 mark against the Top 100 and get their RPI into perhaps the Top 40. And, they'll have 32 games against the Top 100. That would present the committee with an intriguing decision. Will the committee even look at what the RPI could have been without Saint Peter's? Even with all that, they still finished fifth. That could be a killer if they don't win the tournament.
These three teams probably need to have the mindset that they need to win the tournament to get in, because that absolutely could be the case. But if two of these three teams are playing for the title, there's certainly a chance the runner up has a shot at an at large.