- Ky McKeon
3MW’s All Conference Team:
1. Magnificent Mavs
UT Arlington notched their first Sun Belt regular season title this year, finishing 14-4 in conference and 24-7 overall. If you recall, the Mavs were the talk of the town at the beginning of last season with early victories at Ohio State and Memphis, but floundered the second half of the year after stud forward Kevin Hervey went down with an injury. Hervey triumphantly returned this year to capture the Sun Belt POY award, and ranked in the top three in the Belt in both scoring (17.3ppg) and rebounding (8.4rpg).
Coach Scott Cross commanded an experienced team led by Hervey and steady point guard Erick Neal, the conference assist leader. UTA plays an up-and-down style of ball with an emphasis on transition scoring and three-point shooting. This style of play, combined with the #1 conference ranked defense and #2 ranked offense, propelled the Mavs to glory.
2. Arkansas State Wolfs Down the Competition
The Red Wolves were the Cinderella darling of the Sun Belt this season, knocking off Georgetown in D.C., and rolling to a 20-11 (11-7) record, their first 20-win season since 1998. First year Head Coach Grant McCasland did an admirable job instilling his style of play and leading his pack (wolf reference). ASU played at a much slower, more methodical tempo this year compared to the run-and-gun style of former head man John Brady. McCasland placed a premium on defense, particularly on the perimeter, and as a result the Wolves finished 2nd in the league in adjusted defense. ASU is on a 2-5 skid over their last seven games, but the Wolves are still a threat to steal the auto-bid from UTA.
3. Little Rock Stuck in a Hard Place
Yes, that is a forced title. After experiencing euphoria in 2016 under current Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard, the Little Rock Trojans came crashing down to Earth this season. This year’s squad was expected to be at the top of the league standings despite losing Beard and seniors Josh Hagins and Roger Woods. Alas, new coach Wes Flanagan and lead guard Marcus Johnson couldn’t repeat the magic of last season and the Trojans fell to a 6-12 conference record, good for the 10-seed in the postseason Roomba.
The tournament tips off Wednesday, March 8th, and concludes on March 12th. The entire tournament is played at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, home to the University of New Orleans.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
UT Arlington is the heavy favorite in this tournament, having the distinction of being the only Sun Belt squad ranked in KenPom’s top 100 this season. If the Mavs win the Tourney, they will all but certainly secure a 12-seed in the Big Dance, like their counterpart Little Rock last year. UTA is going to be one tough out for a 5-seed, having notched two “signature” wins this season at Texas and at Saint Mary’s, the latter being the best non-conference win by a mid-major school all season. The Mavs’ balanced roster, experience, and athleticism will allow them to compete with the Power Six schools – a Sweet 16 run wouldn’t be crazy.
If Georgia State or Georgia Southern come out of the Sun Belt, expect to see them fall into a 14 or 15-seed in the Big Dance.
Dark Horse Team
A few teams here have legitimate “dark horse” candidacy. Aside from Arkansas State, who we covered a bit above, the teams to key in on are Georgia State, Georgia Southern, and Louisiana Lafayette.
The Georgia State Panthers have one of the league’s best defenses with their matchup zone that forces opponents off the three-point line and into bad passing decisions. Former Indiana forward Jeremey Hollowell does everything on the floor, and burgeoning freshman star D’Marcus Simonds has served well as an off-guard / semi-point guard. GSU is a brutal free throw shooting team though, which could cause issues in tight contests.
Georgia Southern is one of the more exciting teams in the conference, and one that features two of the most beloved 3MW players – Tookie Brown and Ike Smith. Both guards can fill it up, ranking 2nd and 1st in the conference in scoring, respectively. Mike Hughes anchors a stout perimeter defense on the other end. GSU can shoot the shit out of the ball, but they’re a small team vulnerable to good rebounding and interior squads.
UL Lafayette may be the 7-seed, but they could steal this title. The Ragin’ Cajuns enter postseason play on a six game winning streak, including a win over UT Arlington. The Cajuns play at the second fastest tempo in the league and work to get the ball to the rim, creating foul line opportunities. Defensively, however, the Cajuns are severely lacking – they rank dead last in the conference adjusted defense per KenPom.
(8) Coastal Carolina defeats (9) South Alabama
(5) Arkansas State defeats (12) UL Monroe
(7) UL Lafayette defeats (10) Little Rock
(11) Appalachian State defeats (6) Troy
(1) UT Arlington defeats (8) Coastal Carolina
(4) Texas State defeats (5) Arkansas State
(2) Georgia State defeats (7) UL Lafayette
(3) Georgia Southern defeats (11) Appalachian State
(1) UT Arlington defeats (4) Texas State
(2) Georgia State defeats (3) Georgia Southern
(2) Georgia State defeats (1) UT Arlington
The Mavs tragically lose in the finals, robbing us of yet another mid-major 1-seed. Georgia State earns a 14-seed and gives a 3-seed a nice little scare before ultimately succumbing to defeat.