As we make the shift from the end of football season and turn our attention to basketball, there are some very quiet storylines going on in the Sun Belt Conference.
The two SBC schools that don’t have football – Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington – each have seen early success with hoops so far this year. The Trojans won their first 10 games of the season, while the Mavericks beat two powerhouse programs to start the season.
So I’m putting it out there: I really think that there could be two Sun Belt teams that go dancing in the NCAA tournament this year.
Now I know that is pretty much a longshot since the Sun Belt has been a one-bid league, although the conference has sent two teams to the NCAAs in 2013 (Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky) and in 2008 (South Alabama and WKU). But with the strength of those wins by Little Rock and UTA this season, that should be a boost to both teams’ RPI, as well as the whole conference.
From the start of the season to its first loss on Dec. 22 to Texas Tech, Little Rock has been nothing but amazing. The Trojans have used defense to beat teams this year, holding opponents to a national low 53.7 points per game and 36 percent shooting from the field, eighth-best in the nation. The offense is led by senior guard Josh Hagins, who is second in the SBC in assists (5.1 per game) while averaging 11.5 points per game. He had a season-high 19 points in the Trojans’ road win over DePaul earlier this month.
Meanwhile, UTA started the season with wins at Memphis and Ohio State, and hasn’t slowed down too much since then. The Mavs have won eight of their last nine games, with the lone loss coming in an overtime loss at Texas. Sophomore forward Kevin Hervey leads UTA with 17.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
It was pretty much a forgone conclusion that the best team coming into the Sun Belt for the 2015-16 men’s basketball season was Louisiana-Lafayette, but a brutal non-conference schedule has the Ragin’ Cajuns at 4-6. But as long as sophomore forward Shawn Long (18.2 PPG, 11.9 RPG) is on the floor, ULL will be a contender for the conference title.
You also can’t ignore last season’s Cinderella darlings in Georgia State. The Panthers may be without sharpshooter R.J. Hunter, but they do have guard Kevin Ware and forward Markus Crider, and can still make a run for another NCAA berth.
These four teams are the most likely to make a strong run in conference play, but keep your eye on Louisiana-Monroe and Texas State as well. Both the Warhawks and Bobcats have talent to stay in the mix in the conference, but struggled at times in the early part of the season.
If Little Rock and UTA can keep playing strong basketball, and Georgia State and ULL remain at the top of the standings, the conference tournament in New Orleans will be interesting, as one team will get a NCAA bid.
A second team may as well.