With basketball season coming, the Sun Belt Conference is gearing up for what could be a very competitive season with a new team coming in and possibly three teams that could win the conference title.
Little Rock came out of nowhere last winter to win the regular-season title and the conference tournament to get the NCAA bid. Then-coach Chris Beard guided his team to an upset win over Purdue in the first round. While the Trojans have gone through some changes, they and Georgia State will be chasing one team for the lone NCAA bid.
The preseason favorite, Texas-Arlington, was on its way to a winning season and a possible SBC title, as forward Kevin Hervey was averaging 18.1 points per game and 9.8 rebounds per game. The Mavericks had already knocked off powerhouse teams like Ohio State and Memphis.
Then Hervey suffered a season-ending injury in January and the Mavs fell off in the race for the Sun Belt title. Now Hervey, a junior, is healthy. UTA has its other four starters back (including junior guard Erick Neal) and is the overwhelming favorite to win the Sun Belt.
Hervey was named the preseason player of the year, while Neal (12.7 points, 6.2 assists) was named to the preseason first-team All-Sun Belt. The Mavs will be tested early with a tough non-conference slate: at Arkansas, St. Mary’s, Texas and Minnesota. As long as Hervey stays healthy, this Mav team looks tough to beat for anyone in the SBC or beyond it.
While UTA fell off and made a decent run in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament last season, Little Rock rode a fun ride that included a Sun Belt title and a March Madness moment. After the season, the Trojans saw their leading scorer and head coach both leave. New head coach Wes Flanigan takes over a team with three starters back and eight lettermen. Guards Marcus Johnson Jr. and Kenny Osse are expected to score often, while forward Liz Shoshi will patrol the paint.
The Trojans will not go 17-5 in conference play as they did last year, but Little Rock will still be a gritty, gutty team that will play hard defense and make clutch plays when it needs to.
Another Sun Belt team with a prized March Madness moment is Georgia State. In 2015, GSU got a buzzer-beater to knock off Baylor, sending head coach Ron Hunter into GIF lore.
The Panthers struggled in SBC play last season, finishing sixth in the league and quickly tumbling out of the SBC tourney. This season, GSU will try to get back to the top tier of the conference led by All-SBC pick Jeremy Hollowell. The senior forward will need more help from an experienced but untested group to lead the Panthers back.
Hunter is a good coach who will have a tough team to match up against. The Panthers will also have a young team that must learn to play together before it can be a player in the SBC.
Staying in the Peach State, Georgia Southern hopes to break out this season after winning 22 games last season and being bounced out of the SBC tourney by rival Georgia State. Sophomore guard Tookie Brown looks like a possible player of the year candidate after scoring 17.8 points per game in his freshman year. Brown is a first-team preseason All-SBC pick, with junior guard Mike Hughes picked on the second team.
If there is a real dark horse team in this conference, it’s Georgia Southern. The Eagles have a deep bench and a favorable schedule that could give them confidence heading into conference play.
The newest member of the #FunBelt family is Coastal Carolina, which has had some postseason success in the last few seasons. The Chanticleers won 21 games last season and made it to the CIT semifinals in 2015, but CCU has only two starters back, including second-team All-SBC pick, senior guard Elijah Wilson, who averaged 13.7 points last season.
Expect CCU to knock off a few teams in conference play. The Chants, led by former Auburn and Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, have enough depth to be competitive, but have to find a second scoring threat to help out Wilson.
Other teams to keep an eye on are South Alabama, which has a veteran team led by sharpshooting guard Ken Williams; Louisiana-Lafayette, which is in rebuilding mode but is still a talented team; and Louisiana-Monroe, which made a big run in the SBC last season, but lost four starters.