- Ky McKeon
Sun Belt Preview
- Texas – Arlington
- Arkansas – Little Rock
- Georgia Southern
- Georgia State
- Louisiana – Lafayette
- South Alabama
- Coastal Carolina
- Louisiana – Monroe
- Arkansas State
- Texas State
- Appalachian State
All Conference Awards
POY: Kevin Hervey, UT-Arlington
Coach of the Year: Mark Byington, Georgia Southern
Newcomer of the Year: D’Marcus Simonds, Georgia State
1. Texas – Arlington
Key Returners: Kevin Hervey, Erick Neal, Drew Charles, Jalen Jones, Jorge Bilbao, Kaelon WIlson
Key Losses: Kennedy Eubanks
Key Newcomers: D.J. Bryant, Link Kabadyundi, Erkam Kiris
Postseason Projection: 12 - 14 Seed (Auto-Bid)
UT-Arlington took the nation by storm at the beginning of last season with enormous victories at Ohio State and at Memphis. When the Mavs sat at 13-2 (4-0), more than a couple pundits were discussing at-large bid possibilities – an unprecedented feat for a Sun Belt squad. Then tragedy struck when star player Kevin Hervey went down with an ACL tear. The Mavs weren’t quite the same after Hervey went down, but they still finished strong and managed to earn an invite to the CIT Tournament. This year, Scott Cross’s squad returns every starter from last season as well as sixth man turned starter Kaelon Wilson. With everyone healthy, the Mavs could be one of the best mid-majors in the country this season and should be a unanimous #1 preseason pick in the Sun Belt.
Kevin Hervey will be the key Arlington’s success this season. Hervey is a 6’9’’ versatile forward with NBA potential. He is ferocious on the boards and scores in just about every way you can imagine on offense. He’s even a great passer, averaging the second most assists on the team a season ago. There simply is not another player like Hervey in the Sun Belt – he should run away with Player of the Year honors and lead this team to the promise land. Jorge Bilbao will be Hervey’s running mate up front. Bilbao and Hervey (when healthy) helped make UTA a top 25 offensive rebounding team and top 50 defensive rebounding team in the country last season despite being a relatively undersized squad. The duo also protects the rim fairly well – a last line of defense for UTA’s aggressive pressure defense.
The backcourt boasts two of the best guards in the conference. Erick Neal returns to run the point for UTA; he led the SB in assist rate last season and ranked 18th nationally. Neal is also UTA’s best pressure defender, able to steal the ball from opposing handlers and passers with his quick hands. Neal’s aggressiveness and quickness was a major factor in UTA’s break-neck pace and excellent transition offense. Drew Charles returns as the resident sharpshooter. Charles connected on 38% of his threes last season in an offense that jacks a lot of threes. Jalen Jones is an extremely versatile wing who averaged over five boards per contest and even played some 4 despite standing only 6’2’’. Jones boasted the 2nd highest o-rating in the Sun Belt last season turning in a shooting slash of .536/.358/.814 while turning the ball over at the lowest rate in the conference. Kaelon Wilson, a guard who stepped into Hervey’s minutes last season, will resume his role as the sixth man in a deep backcourt. Wilson poured in 10 points per game last season and was also one of the Mavs’ best perimeter defenders. This backcourt is just solid as hell overall. Fun fact – none of the four aforementioned guards (all 6’2’’ and under) averaged less than 3 boards per game – a testament to Cross’s glass crashing philosophy.
Faith Pope and Nathan Hawkins will retain their same roles from last season as a reserve forward and wing, respectively. Newcomers D.J. Bryant (a sweet-shooting point guard), Erkam Kiris (a versatile Turkish import), and Link Kabadyundi (a 7-footer and former Horned Frog) should all see the floor in some fashion this season. Majority of the minutes, though, will go to the “power six”.
Scott Cross’s teams have had a distinct identity the past couple seasons: high-pressure defense (often full court), a focus on crashing the boards (on both ends), and a run-n-gun let-it-fly offensive attack. The Mavs played at the fastest pace in the SB last season and should continue that trend this year with similar personnel. Top to bottom this is the most talented roster in the conference and could very well be a top five mid-major in the country. The Mavs are must-watch television this season if you get the chance.
2. Arkansas – Little Rock
Key Returners: Marcus Johnson, Jr., Jalen Jackson, Lis Shoshi
Key Losses: Josh Hagins, Roger Woods, Jermaine Ruttley, Mareik Isom
Key Newcomers: Oliver Black, Andre Jones, Kanaan Jackson, Dayshawn Watkins, Shandon Goldman
Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI/CIT
Chris Beard took the Sun Belt conference by storm last season leading the formerly inept Little Rock Trojans to an unprecedented 30 wins and an NCAA Tourney berth. Beard’s stay in Arkansas’s capital was a short one (1 season) as he leveraged his fantastic season to land the UNLV head coaching job… and then a few days later, the Texas Tech head coaching job. Replacing Beard will be Wes Flanigan, a former Little Rock assistant. An interesting thing to watch this season will be if Flanigan continues playing the same type of style that Beard implemented in his one season. Beard preached a pack-line defense focused on not allowing anything in the paint (think Virginia) coupled with a focus on shutting down transition opportunities. On offense, the Trojans were methodical in working the ball around the half court, shooting a lot of threes, and above all not turning the ball over. Team MVP and PG Josh Hagins is gone, as is combo forward Roger Woods, so predicting another 30 wins for this team is more than a stretch. However, they should still be a competitive Sun Belt squad.
With Hagins gone, Marcus Johnson, Jr. steps into the alpha dog role. Johnson played off the ball almost exclusively last season, but will definitely be called upon to shoulder some of the ball handling load this year. Johnson’s main strength is his shooting – he ranked 49th in the country with a 44% three-point shooting clip, and shot 49% in conference play (2nd in the league). The increase in ball duties could hinder his efficiency this season. Kemy Osse, another sharpshooter natural 2-guard, should also assist in the point guard role. On the other side of the ball, Osse represents one of the team’s best perimeter defenders. Dayshawn Watkins, a Florida State transfer, is a true point guard who should also contribute at the 1-spot.
The wing and forward positions will need to be a source of greater offense this season. Jalen Jackson, a 6’6’’ senior, has tremendous breakout potential this year. He’s a source of instant offense pouring in nearly nine points per contest despite playing only 15 minutes per game. Lis Shoshi is the team’s only returning rebounder and shot blocker. He’ll retain his role as the team center in the middle of the pack line and is a finesse offensive player capable of shooting out past the three-point line. Oliver Black, a big 6’9’’ forward from Mississippi State, should help improve on Little Rock’s putrid rebounding numbers from a season ago. Maurius Hill will also play a major role and could start at the four over Black. Hill is a good rebounder for his size (6’5’’) and can knick down the deep ball.
Andre Jones is the jewel of UALR’s limited recruiting class. He’s a 3-star from Little Rock and ranked as one of the best five players in the state. Jones is an athletic combo guard who excels in transition. He should carve out a rotation spot during his rookie campaign.
We’re going to see regression from Little Rock’s ridiculous season a year ago. Beard leaving is a blow and it will be interesting to see if Flanigan can repeat the magic of the pack line D. No more Hagins means Little Rock has a weakness at point guard as Johnson and Osse are not natural fits there. Watkins could do well in his first year in the Sun Belt, but he’s a major downgrade from Hagins. Woods was UALR’s main source of inside scoring – without him, the undersized Trojans may struggle to score in the paint. Rebounding will likely still be an issue, though it should improve slightly with Black and a potential emergence from Hill. There’s simply too much turnover and uncertainty to pick UALR as the top Sun Belt contender. Defending their belt in “the Belt” will prove to be a difficult task.
3. Georgia Southern
Key Returners: Tookie Brown, Mike Hughes, Ike Smith, Jake Allsmiller, Coye Simmons, etc.
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: B.J. Gladden, Quan Jackson, David Georgiev
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Look out for the soaring Eagles this year kids. Georgia Southern returns literally everybody of importance from a 10-10 5th place Sub Belt squad a year ago and boasts arguably the best backcourt in the conference. Mark Byington’s squad was the second youngest team in the nation last season but still managed to hold their own and turn in a competitive year. Expectations will be high this season with all the returning talent – I’ll try to control my giddiness.
On offense, Georgia Southern plays at a fast pace, shoots a ton of threes, and does not turn the ball over. A primary factor in all three of these areas is All-Conference point guard Tookie Brown. Brown took the Sun Belt by storm as a rookie last season, picking up Freshman of the Year honors and ranking 8th amongst all frosh in the country in scoring. He was mighty efficient scoring the ball, shooting 36.5% from deep and 81.8% from the line (where he often was, thanks to drawing fouls at the 5th highest rate in the conference). Brown’s poise with the ball as a freshman was almost unheard of; he used 28.3% of GSU’s possessions (4th in the SB) and posted an assist rate of 24.4 (8th in the SB), but only turned the ball over 14.3% of the time (13th in the SB). He will have massive expectations this season as a Player of the Year candidate on a potential top three conference squad – let’s hope he holds up under pressure.
Brown’s running mates in the backcourt also turned in good young seasons in 2015-16. Ike Smith, a rising sophomore, should probably focus on reeling it in a bit this year as his percentages were a little out of line with his high usage (.418/.326/.720 on 25.1% usage). The talent is certainly there for Smith, but he had a tendency to get a little reckless last season (as most freshman not named Tookie Brown do). Mike Hughes was simply terrific on both ends of the floor last season; he led GSU in three-point attempts (169) and percentage (38.5%) on offense and ranked 19th in the country in steal percentage (4.0%) on defense. His two-way ability makes him an invaluable member of this Eagle squad, especially when you consider the GSU defense overall was a bit of a dumpster fire even with Hughes last year. Jake Allsmiller offers another three-point option on the wing and Devontae Boykins is a great defensive option off the pine. GSU likely starts four guards this season (they kind of punt defensive rebounding), which works well with their 1-3-1 zone full court press, falling back into a matchup zone or man, tendency.
Size is the major weakness of this squad, as it is for a lot of Sun Belt teams, but GSU has the personnel to throw out a more traditional two forward lineup. Coye Simmons, a 6’8’’ junior, will likely start majority of games. He is a fantastic per minute rebounder but really struggles with fouling (this is primarily a result of the porous GSU defense – it was so easy for opponents to slice them up last season after getting past their initial pressure). Two other bigs who will surely see ample playing time are sophomores Montae Glenn and Shawn O’Connell. Glenn has tremendous potential and is a big body at 6’8’’ 250 lbs. He’s able to eat space in the middle of the zone and provide better rim protection than Simmons can. He’s also a strong rebounder and pretty good finisher. O’Connell is the best rim protector out of the bunch, but not much of a threat on offense (which GSU doesn’t really need considering they implement a three-point focused attack).
JUCO transfer B.J. Gladden could be an X-factor for GSU this season. Gladden fills a niche role that the Eagles don’t really have – a strong combo forward capable of banging down low and stepping out past the three-point line. He played for Akron his freshman campaign before JUCO, so he’s seen D1 competition. I think Byington will find a way to use him this year, whether as a 3 or a small-ball 4.
It’s difficult not to be high on Georgia Southern’s potential this season with so many returning pieces and a budding superstar running the point. But, as always, offense isn’t the only thing that wins games. The Eagles will need to significantly improve their defense to be a true contender this season. They were pretty good at getting hands in faces out on the three-point line, but they were Swiss cheese in the middle. I think another year in Byington’s system does them wonders, and they make a large leap in D efficiency in 2016-17.
4. Georgia State
Key Returners: Jeremy Hollowell, Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Williams
Key Losses: Kevin Ware, Markus Crider, T.J. Shipes
Key Newcomers: Willie Clayton, Devin Mitchell, D’Marcus Simonds, Chris Clerkley, Justin Seymour
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT/Vegas 16
It’s safe to safe Ron Hunter misses his son. R.J. Hunter and fellow backcourt mate Ryan Harrow lifted Georgia State basketball to new heights in 2013-14 and 2014-15, ranking 23rd and 53rd in offense, respectively. Last season, the Panthers’ once killer offense plummeted to 262nd nationally and near dead last in the Sun Belt. Despite the loss of former Louisville guard (and broken leg YouTube star) Kevin Ware, the Panthers look poised to reverse their trajectory from a down year in 2015-16. They bring in a talented class of newcomers to complement one of the better players in the conference. While Georgia State likely doesn’t make it back to their Hunter/Harrow hay day this season, Ron Hunter’s coaching ability plus the talent on this roster can make some noise in the Sun Belt.
Georgia State was a good defensive squad last season nearly cracking the national top 100 and ranking 4th in the Sun Belt. The Panthers like to put on a full court zone press and fall back into a matchup zone where they dare opposing units to take unwanted contested threes. Ware’s graduation hurts as he was arguably the Panthers’ best defender and was a major factor in their 23rd ranked turnover rate. The downsides of this high pressure zone defense were the Panthers fouled a ton and got roasted on the boards. Offensively, GSU was simply brutal. They settled for mid-range jump shots far too often and did not have the personnel to facilitate a consistent three-point attack. Hunter teams usually don’t shoot too many threes anyway (focusing instead on getting the ball to the rim) but it’s a nice luxury to have.
Jeremy Hollowell was really the only reliable source of offense the Panthers had last season. The former Hoosier plays like a wing but is often slotted at the 4 position. He ranked in the top ten in the conference in usage rate, a stat that shouldn’t change this season, and has a knack for drawing fouls setting up FT opportunities (where he cashed 81.9% of his attempts last season). His shooting percentages were a tad low, but that was mainly due to poor shot selection at times. The guy has a smooth release and great looking jumper – I think we’ll see an uptick in efficiency from him this season.
Hollowell is going to need some help shouldering the load this season, which could come in the form of ESPN Top 100 recruit D’Marcus Simonds, a 6’3 combo guard gushing with potential. Simonds, originally a Mississippi State recruit, has a D1-ready body and all the aspects you could ask for in a guard – shooting, handles, power, athleticism, passion. The biggest question for the Panthers this season will be at their point guard slot. Returning PG candidates Isaiah Williams, Isaiah Dennis, and Austin Donaldson were all inconsistent last season particularly in the realm of shot-making and turnovers. Williams really picked up his level of play over the final six games or so suggesting he’s ready to make a leap in production this season. Jeff Thomas, an incumbent semi-starter on the wing, and Murray State grad transfer Justin Seymour should fill out the backcourt rotation. Both players serve as deep ball threats (Thomas: 39.4%; Seymour: 37.3%) which is not the most important thing in a Ron Hunter offense, but certainly can’t hurt. Alabama transfer Devin Mitchell could also carve out a role as a reserve 2-guard.
The Panthers got absolutely eaten alive on the glass last season thanks to an undersized frontcourt with subpar rebounding ability. Willie Clayton, a Charlotte transfer, will look to right the ship in that department. Clayton ranked 9th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage two seasons ago at Charlotte – his presence alone should vault this Panther team from an awful rebounding team to a decent one. Hollowell isn’t really a help on the boards, but Clayton shouldn’t require too much assistance in the Sun Belt. Chris Clerkley, a 6’9’’ freshman, could also assist in the frontcourt this season.
Georgia State wasn’t an awful team overall last season, but they were wildly inconsistent. They beat Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee early in the season, but lost to lesser conference opponents such as Troy, Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and South Alabama. Their player additions this season outweigh their losses. I think Hollowell becomes one of the best players in the Sun Belt and Simonds emerges as a freshman star. The Panthers have a legitimate shot at a top 4 or 5 finish in the conference this year.
5. Louisiana – Lafayette
Key Returners: Johnathan Stove, Jay Wright, Bryce Washington
Key Losses: Shawn Long, Kasey Shepherd
Key Newcomers: Roydell Brown, P.J. Hardy, Larenz Stalcup, Frank Bartley IV
Postseason Projection: None
Woooo weeeee the Rajin’ Cajuns sure have lived up to their name under Head Coach Bob Marlin. UL Lafayette has consistently played at one of the fastest paces in the country relying on their potent transition offense for scoring. Kasey Shepherd, ULL’s best transition player from last season, has graduated leaving a hole in one of the strongest pieces of ULL’s offense. Shawn Long, one of the best players in the Sun Belt ever, is also gone. His absence too leaves a giant hole in one of the strongest facets of ULL’s offense – it’s inside scoring.
Without Long inside, ULL (a predominantly rim attacking team) may need to shift their style a bit in favor of a perimeter slashing and kicking game. Returning wing Johnathan Stove was one of the best players in the Sun Belt at getting to the foul line last season, ranking 8th in free throw rate and converting on 77.1% of his throws. Without Long and Shepherd, Stove becomes scoring option number one for Marlins squad. While he is a slasher by trade, Stove made small improvements in his shooting last season and could continue that trajectory as a junior. He also is one of the better rebounding guards in the conference. Jay Wright (not the Villanova coach) will be option 1B to Stove’s 1A in the backcourt. Wright is the point guard and a former All-Conference selection. Wright’s style leans towards a true pass-first point guard, but he proved he could knock down perimeter shots a year ago. The Cajuns were a poor shooting team last season, and likely will be even worse this year without Shepherd, leaving major responsibility on Wright’s shoulders.
The third backcourt spot in the starting five is yet unknown (at least to this casual hoops writer), but my money is on redshirt freshman Jerekius Davis. Davis was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school two years ago and possesses one of the rarest assets on the Ragin’ Cajun roster – a jump shot. Yes sir, Davis can shoot threes – Hallelujah, praise be! He also runs the floor extremely well, something that is very important to a Bob Marlin team. Frank Bartley, a BYU transfer, can also shoot. He’s a big guard at 200 pounds but doesn’t possess quite the athleticism or versatility that Davis does. Either way, he should earn big minutes. Roydell Brown and P.J. Hardy also should see their fair share of time this season off the bench. Brown is super athletic (he can absolutely fly), but is limited to slashing. Hardy is an incredibly quick combo guard that holds tremendous potential as a high-pressure on-ball defender and pilferer.
The Shawn Long departure is a big deal. It represents perhaps the biggest loss of any one player in the Sun Belt. Bryce Washington will return to his starting forward role. Washington is a strong rebounder despite his height and a deft finisher around the basket. His running mate up front is anyone’s guess. It could be Scott Plaisance, a seldom-used 6’9’’ sophomore. Plaisance was extremely effective in the rebounding department and on the rim protection front in his limited time, but the sample size was so small it’s a bit tough to extrapolate over an entire season. Freshman Justin Miller and JUCO transfer Larenz Stalcup should also play a role. Miller is a versatile power forward and a strong rebounder. Stalcup has potential to be a defensive enforcer in the post.
The Cajuns won’t be nearly the team they were last season. Long and Shepherd were simply too important to their success. However, Bob Marlin is a great coach and ULL is still going to play its game of running, crashing the boards, and attacking the rim. You don’t have to be the most talented team to be competitive in a system like that. Look for Stove and Wright to have huge years in the backcourt; if another forward can step up alongside Washington and give ULL a second post presence, the Cajuns could weasel their way into a top four conference finish once again.
6. South Alabama
Key Returners: Ken Williams. Georgi Boyanov, Nick Stover, Shaq Calhoun
Key Losses: Taishaun Johnson, Barrington Stevens
Key Newcomers: John Pettway, Herb McGee, Dederick Lee, Trhae Mitchell
Postseason Projection: None
This may finally be the year Matthew Graves gets his South Alabama Jaguar squad over the .500 mark both overall and in conference play. In Graves’ three years as head coach, the USA offense has never been pretty to watch, but their defense has steadily improved (went from dead last in the Sun Belt in 2014-15 to 7th in 2015-16) and should continue on that trajectory this season. This year’s team is also by far the most experienced Graves has ever had – the Jags will look to start four seniors and a junior this season. With the vast experience, ever-improving defense, and nearly every player of relevance returning from a 14-19 (8-12) squad a season ago, the Jags could make a case for a middle-tier finish in the Sun Belt in 2016-17.
Like I said, the Jags offense isn’t pretty to look at, and that’s mainly due to the style Coach Graves chooses to play. The entire offense revolves around senior guard Ken Williams. Majority of possessions involves a pick and roll where Williams is the ball handler or an away/down screen where Williams is the benefactor. The sole focus is to get Williams open in space to score the basketball. It should come to no surprise then that Williams took 30.1% of his team’s available shots while on the hardwood last season (66th nationally; 2nd in the SB) and used 28% of the available possessions (96th nationally; 3rd in the SB). Williams is a volume scorer meaning he scores a ton points but that’s heavily a result of him taking a ton of shots. I 100% believe he’s a better shooter than his .403/.310/.787 shooting slash showed last year, but his shot selection isn’t always the best – a consequence perhaps of Graves’ offensive strategy.
Despite Williams’s ball dominance, two other players, Nick Stover and Georgi Boyanov, managed to average scoring in double-figures last season and one player, Shaq Calhoun, came pretty close as well. Stover is an athletic wing but is an extremely inefficient offensive player. He’s at his best driving to the cup instead of settling for outside jumpers, where he converted only 30.8% of his three attempts last season. Boyanov was the benefactor of a lot of Williams and Stover’s misses last season as 23.1% of his shots at the rim came from offensive put-backs. USA ranked 4th in offensive rebounding in the Sun Belt last season thanks mostly to Boyanov’s 5th ranked OR%. Boyanov is a unique offensive player that can score in the post, rebound, and step out for a three-pointer. Calhoun will see his minutes spike this year with the departure of Barrington Stevens. Like Williams, Calhoun likes to take a lot of shots, and like Williams, he’s a noted volume scorer (.474/.346/.742). Calhoun really started to play well at the end of last season; I’d expect him to make a significant improvement this season on the offensive end where he can assist Williams in the scoring load. His real value comes on the defensive side of the ball where he posted a 4.0% steal percentage which ranked 21st in the country and 1st in the Sun Belt.
Boyanov’s mate in the frontcourt will be a combination of senior Don MuepoKelly, sophomore Nikola Marijan, and freshman Kevin Morris. MuepoKelly is NOT a good offensive player but he’s one of the best shot blockers in the conference and represents the only competent offensive rebounding force returning for USA outside of Boyanov. Marijan is 7’1’’. How a 7’1’’ guy doesn’t dominate the Sun Belt is beyond me. His bio says he has aspirations to play in the NBA. Maybe he should focus on being a starter in the 18th best conference in the country first. He’s only a sophomore, so perhaps he evolves in his final three years in Mobile. Morris is a rookie ready to play right away. He is physically imposing, incredibly strong, and has a solid post game with three-point range. He should be a big contributor on the defensive end and in the rebounding game.
Outside of Marijan and junior Nick Davis, a potentially solid defender/rebounder, USA’s bench will consist entirely of newcomers. One of the point guard trio of John Pettway, Herb McGee, and Dederick Lee could play a key role all season, but which one is uncertain at this point. My money would be on Pettway after seeing his incredible athleticism and quickness, but McGee, a highly recruited football player, is as physically strong a point guard as you can get. Trhae Mitchell (yup that’s spelled correctly) fills a void on the wing for USA; he was very raw offensively coming out of high school a year ago, but perhaps a redshirt season has done him some good. He has the potential to guard four positions.
Defensively, USA puts on a bit of a full court press and usually falls back into a zone. They are highly focused on not allowing anything in transition and are very good at slowing down opposing teams. The Jags are effective closing out on three-point shooters but oftentimes were exposed on defensive rebounds (consequence of playing zone) and opportunities at the rim. The addition of Morris should help solve the D rebounding issue at least a tad. Overall, I’d expect a similar, if not, better defensive team than we saw last season with a significant increase in offensive production. A 6th place finish wouldn’t be shocking for South Alabama this year.
Key Returners: Wesley Person, Jordon Varnado, Jeremy Hollimon, Daniel Peace
Key Losses: John Walton III
Key Newcomers: Devon Walker, Juan Davis, Jr., Kevin Baker, Joshua Boykin
Postseason Projection: None
It’s easy to see all the returning pieces for Troy and become giddy at the thought of them vaulting into conference competency this season. Before going hog wild, let’s temper any high expectations. Troy was one of the worst offensive teams last season thanks to their 311th ranked effective field goal percentage and ungodly 63.4% free throw shooting performance. The Trojans were also a bottom 100 defensive team last year. They were exposed in transition and gashed at the basket. With John Walton III, the Trojans’ top inside presence, gone, interior defense isn’t likely to improve. However, the offense could be due for a major uptick thanks to increased experience (Troy ranked 300th in experience last season). Continuity should allow the Trojans to achieve more than 9 wins this season, but they still likely fall short of conference relevance.
Wesley Person is exempt from any criticism about the Troy Trojan offense. Person was one of only two Trojans of relevance to achieve over a 110.0 o-rating… and also a 100.0 o-rating. Person, a crafty, quick shooting guard was able to create his own offense via penetration and was the only Trojan to shoot better than 35% from deep (he shot 36.6%). With him at the helm, Troy has a legitimate go-to scorer and player able to bail them out of failed offensive situations. Joining Person the backcourt will be Jeremy Hollimon and Daniel Peace. Hollimon and Peace turned in brutally ineffective offensive seasons – Hollimon turned in a shooting slash of.379/.295/.691 and Peace achieved a .383/.000/.439. Yes, the point guard of the Troy Trojans, Daniel Peace, shot 43.9% from the free throw line and made 0 three-pointers last season. That’s like Rajon Rondo on super steroids. Both Peace and Hollimon bring value to the team as perimeter steal threats on the defensive end, but they will have to dramatically improve their offensive efficiency in their senior campaigns for the Trojans to achieve mediocrity this season.
Jordon Varnado was the other Trojan to turn in an above 100.0 o-rating. Varnado had an objectively great freshman year ranking second on the team in scoring and rebounding. In the Sun Belt, Varnado ranked 5th in block percentage and 16th in FG%. Varnado could break out this season in his second year and has serious All-Conference aspirations. The frontcourt slot next to Varnado is anything but certain. Jaro Moravek, a 6’8’’ junior, will compete for the starting center role with fellow junior Aaron Ariri. Ariri is the far better rebounder and defender, but Moravek is the better scorer and shooter. Neither should be terribly relevant in the Sun Belt. Redshirt sophomore Alex Hicks and freshman Whit Moreman could contribute as well.
Coach Phil Cunningham brings in a pretty talented group of transfers to help Troy’s ineptitude. DeVon Walker, a former ESPN 3-star recruit and Florida player, could make a huge splash on the Trojan roster this season. Walker could be Troy’s best defender this season – at 6’6’’ he’s capable of defending both guards and forwards. He has a solid jump shot and is athletic enough to create shots attacking the rim. An intriguing lineup could be putting him at the 4 and shifting Varnado at the 5. Juan Davis, Jr., Kevin Baker, and Joshua Boykin are all JUCO transfers capable of making an impact this season. Davis is a strong rebounder and shot-blocker, two things heavily needed by this Troy team. Baker adds a three-point threat to a poor shooting roster and can also play point guard. Boykin is a versatile two-way combo forward.
While we shouldn’t expect Troy to be a great team this season, Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado are both terrific players capable of winning games. If Hollimon and Peace improve their efficiency, Walker becomes what is was projected to be at Florida, and someone steps up in the interior alongside Varnado, this team could possibly finish in the top half of the conference.
8. Coastal Carolina
Key Returners: Elijah Wilson, Jaylen Shaw, Colton Ray-St Cyr
Key Losses: Badou Diagne, Tristian Curtis, Shivaughn Wiggins (Note: return uncertain – possibly 2nd semester)
Key Newcomers: Amidou Bamba, Demario Beck, Jaylan Robertson, Joseph Williams-Powell
After a successful long-term stay in the Big South, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers join the Sun Belt this season in Cliff Ellis’s 10th season as head coach. The Chants have been to two Tourneys in the past three years, but the Sun Belt is a significantly better conference than the Big South overall, so Coastal is going to be challenged trying to get back to the Promised Land. The Chants lose a lot from last year’s squad, particularly in the frontcourt, but the biggest blow comes from the uncertain status of Shivaughn Wiggins. Wiggins was charged with third degree assault back in March and though Ellis is hoping to add the point guard leader to his roster after the first semester, his status is very much up in the air. The Chants have a talented returning guard group even with the loss of Wiggins, but the uncertainty inside and the increase in competition could make for a bumpy year one in the Sun Belt.
The Chants were a good defensive team last year thanks to the multiple zone looks Ellis likes to throw at opponents. Wiggins was hands down Coastal’s best defender last season, so his absence is going to be noticed on that end. The Chants’ D focuses on making opponents take bad jump shots as evidenced by their 30th ranked eFG% defense. While the philosophy and overall goal of the D shouldn’t change, the loss of Wiggins hurts. On the other end, Wiggins was the best scorer and playmaker on a subpar offense. The return of Jaylen Shaw and Elijah Wilson should help though. Shaw was the Cleers’ other point guard next to Wiggins last season; he’s a skilled playmaker and shooter (.500/.387/.625) who should take on a much bigger role this year. Wilson was Coastal’s leading scorer last season, but he’s volume shooter (read: takes and misses a lot of shots). The Chants take a fair amount of three-pointers, most of them come from Wilson and Shaw.
Two other major cogs to the backcourt this season will be returning senior Colton Ray-St Cyr and JUCO transfer Jaylan Robertson. If Ellis wants to revive the two point guard system that brought him success in the prior year, Robertson may start alongside Shaw. If not, Ray-St Cyr should get the starting nod. Ray-St Cyr is a brawny guard with good rebounding ability and he’s one of the Chants’ best overall defenders. With Ray-St Cyr’s rebounding ability, the Chants could even play him at a small ball 4 and start Robertson as well.
The interior may be a cause of concern for Ellis this season. 3-star freshman Amidou Bamba and JUCO transfer Demario Beck are two likely candidates to see majority of the inside action. Bamba was ranked the #3 prospect from Ontario; he’s a long athletic body capable of providing rim protection behind the top of the Coastal zone. Beck should be a double-double threat every time he touches the floor. He’ll help make up for the rebounding production left on the table by the Diagne and Curtis departures. Sophomores Kevin Holmes and Josh Coleman could also see time in the frontcourt in reserve roles, and Michael Enanga will certainly contribute if healthy (he’ll miss first 5-6 weeks).
It’s tough to tell how the Chants’ Big South game will translate to the Sun Belt. They play a brutal non-conference schedule, so they’ll hopefully be ready to take on the uptick in competition. A middle of the pack finish feels about right.
9. Louisiana – Monroe
Key Returners: Nick Coppola, Travis Munnings
Key Losses: Majok Deng, Justin Roberson, Jamaal Samuel, DeMondre Harvey
Key Newcomers: Kiir Deng, Marvin Jean-Pierre, Jordon Harris, Sam McDaniel
Keith Richard has done an admirable job at the helm of the UL Monroe basketball program bringing the once dreadful Warhawks into Sun Belt relevance. After a rough 6-11 start to the season, UL Monroe finished the year on a scorching 14-1 run before ultimately succumbing to Little Rock in the Sun Belt Tourney and Furman in the CIT (side note – UL Monroe went 13-0 at home last season versus just 6-11 on the road). The Warhawks were a very good team last year – they were also very senior and junior heavy (10th in the country in experience). Richard loses four key players from last year’s roster including his two leading scorers in Majok Deng and Justin Roberson. With such high turnover and uncertainty surrounding the returning cast, UL Monroe’s seat on the cusp of the Sun Belt top-tier looks quite precarious.
The Warhawks didn’t necessarily carve out a specific style of play that really jumps out to the average viewer. Richard was fantastic at tailoring his game plan to his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. On offense, ULM prefers to get the ball to the rim versus settling for threes and that tendency will be even more pronounced this season with the loss of three of their most prolific three-point shooters. The Warhawks were a strong offensive rebounding team, but poor on the defensive side. On D, ULM was good at contesting outside shots and defending the paint without fouling.
The one certainty Coach Richard and ULM have this season is at their point guard position, which is the first spot any coach would tell you they’d want a certainty. Nick Coppola, already the all-time assist leader in school history, returns to man the ball handling duties for the Warhawks. Coppola led the conference in minutes played (25th nationally) and ranked 5th in assist rate. His floor vision and facilitating ability was crucial to ULM’s success last season. This year, his leadership will be even more crucial as the once experienced Warhawks turn a bit green in 2016-17. Also – Coppola is the only returning Warhawk who attempted more than 42 threes last season (he actually made 48). He may not be the best player in the Sun Belt conference, but he may be the most valuable to his team.
Coppola’s mates in the backcourt are unknown commodities. Two seniors, Marcus Washington and Prince Cooper, likely join Coppola in the starting five (at least for now). Neither player saw much floor time last season but Washington is potentially a good shooter, and Cooper could be a solid two-way wing player. JUCO transfers such as Marvin Jean-Pierre and Jordon Harris will need to step up if ULM is to be successful. Jean-Pierre is an uber-athletic slasher from the off-guard spot while Harris shades more towards the point guard position. Jean-Pierre could compete for a starting spot; Harris comes off the pine. Sam McDaniel, yet another JUCO transfer could compete for PT on the wing.
Travis Munnings is the staple of the frontcourt for UL Monroe. Munnings is an excellent rebounder, particularly on the offensive side of the ball and finishes well around the bucket (63.1% at the rim). He could flirt with double-double territory this season. Slotting in alongside Munnings will be a combination of JUCO transfer Kiir Deng, redshirt frosh Ramses Sandifer (yes, that is a great name), redshirt soph Roderick Taylor. Deng is a super thin forward with nice ball handling skills and a silky touch. His length makes him a great asset in the shot-blocking department, but his strength is an issue. Sandifer is an athletic true power forward with considerably more meat on his bones than Deng. Taylor is another athletic forward. Yes this will be an at-the-rim, brutish offense.
The Warhawks’ turnover may prove to be too much for Richard to overcome in search for his third straight 20-win season. Without the scoring ability of Majok Deng and Justin Roberson, ULM’s offense may grow stagnant. Defensively, ULM should still be good enough to compete in the Sun Belt, but without more offensive fire power they’ll be on the outside of the top 5 looking in.
10. Arkansas State
Key Returners: Devin Carter, Donte Thomas
Key Losses: Anthony Livingston, Sean Gardner, Frederic Dure, Nouhoum Bocoum
Key Newcomers: Devin Simms, Nelson Nweke, Tamas Bruce, Rashad Lindsey, Jake Scoggins
Postseason Projection: None
The John Brady era has come to an end in Jonesboro as Arkansas State welcomes in former Baylor assistant Grant McCasland. McCasland experienced wild success as a JUCO and D2 head coach winning games at an 81.9% clip. The bar won’t be set too high at Arkansas State, so a competitive season in the Sun Belt would be considered a success. A competitive year will be challenging with the loss of post-man Anthony Livingston, the only good rebounder on a terrible rebounding team. His absence leaves a giant hole to plug inside.
The Red Wolves boast one of the better backcourts in the Sun Belt with returning seniors Donte Thomas and Devin Carter and JUCO import Deven Simms. Thomas is a jack of all trades at the point guard position. He ranked second in the conference in assist rate last season and is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the floor (averaged over 5 assists and 5 board per game last year). Thomas is a fantastic penetrator and rim attacker whether in the half court or in transition; he ranked 8th in the nation in free throw rate, but sadly only connected on 65% of his attempts (his one weakness is his shooting ability). Carter is a high scoring off-guard capable of lighting the place on fire from downtown (42.1%) or on pull-up J’s. He’s also great in transition where he scored 1.157 points per possession (70th percentile). Simms was a JUCO 1st Team All-American last season averaging 20 points and 10 board per game to go along with 4 assists. His versatility suggests he’ll be a player in the mold of Thomas and just like Thomas he can’t hit the broad side of a barn from behind the arc. The lack of shooting ability from Thomas and Simms suggests we’re going to see a similar style of play from the Wolves this season – an offense focused on driving hard to the rack in transition and in the half court, with Carter spotting up for a kick out.
ASU’s interior is weak. Christian Davis, an inexperienced sophomore likely gets a crack at the starting 4 spot alongside JUCO transfer Nelson Nweke. The only other two options for frontcourt production on this roster are freshmen Jake Scoggins and Salif Boudie. Nweke is a true post player with outstanding rebounding and finishing potential. He could make up for a good chunk of the production Livingston left behind. Davis really hasn’t played enough to get a read on how effective he will be. I don’t see him being a great rebounder but he could offer versatility on the offensive end. Scoggins needs to get stronger if he’s going to contribute as a viable frontcourt player, but he has a nice stroke out to 18 feet. Boudie is a combo forward who could be an asset guarding multiple spots on the defensive end. Tamas Bruce, an undersized power forward at 6’7’’, could also impact the lineup. He’s another JUCO product who could impact the boards on both ends and provide defensive toughness so sorely lacked by this squad last season.
It’s uncertain what type of style McCasland will implement in Jonesboro this season. The Wolves preferred an up-tempo style of offense last season focused on transition and forcing the ball to the rim. On the defensive end, ASU keyed in on not allowing anything in the paint, which opened up far too many looks for shooters beyond the arc. With similar personnel and a limited number of shooters, the offense likely won’t change too much. On defense, rebounding should improve with the strong guard presence and potential of Nweke and the other JUCO newcomers. McCasland’s team is probably a few years away from legitimately contending in the Sun Belt.
11. Texas State
Key Returners: Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, Ojai Black
Key Losses: Emani Grant, Ethan Montalvo, Cameron Naylor, Anthony Roberson
Key Newcomers: Tyler Blount, Deris Duncan, Maxwell Starwood, Nijal Pearson, Immanuel King, Eric Terry, Nedeljko Prijovic
Postseason Projection: None
After turning Stephen F. Austin into a perennial Southland dominating force, Danny Kaspar came to San Marcos, Texas in 2014. In his three seasons at Texas State, Kaspar has improved both the overall record and conference record of the Bobcats each season. Last year, Texas State finished tied for 7th in the Sun Belt with an 8-12 record. Will this trend continue? I tell ya what, it’s going to be pretty darn tough.The Bobcats lose a ton of production from last year’s mediocre Sun Belt squad including best player Emani Gant, sharp shooter Ethan Montalvo, and rebounding big men Cameron Naylor and Anthony Roberson. All these losses greatly hurt the Bobcats chances this season at improving on their 8-win 2015-16.
On offense last season, the Bobcats focused on pounding the ball inside. They didn’t shoot many threes mainly because they didn’t have many shooters – only two Bobcats attempted more than 35 three-pointers last and one, Montalvo is gone. Texas State plays slow half-court basketball, as is the Danny Kaspar way – they aren’t looking to get out in transition. So yes, if you like high octane, razzle dazzle basketball, you probably shouldn’t watch Texas State games. The Bobcats are better on the defensive end where they limit transition opportunities effectively, pressure ball handlers, and force turnovers. Their weaknesses were rebounding and closing out on shooters. Looking at this year’s roster, it’s hard to make the case how the Bobcats improve on either side of the basketball. They will be heavily reliant on unproven vets, freshmen, and JUCO transfers.
With Gant gone this is now Kavin Gilder-Tilbury’s team. The 6’7’’ senior is a smooth wing capable of stepping outside the arc and hitting the three or creating his shot inside the arc. Gilder-Tilbury is the only proven deep ball threat on this year’s squad, but the jury is still out on whether the crafty wing is capable of carrying an offense. Ojai Black will start at point for Kaspar; he ranked 4th in the Sun Belt in assist rate last season and 8th in the conference in steal percentage of the defensive end. Black has a real shot at breaking out this season, as he will be a top three option on offense. His scoring ability relies heavily on attacking the rim and getting to the foul line, so he’ll be able to create open shots for KGT on the perimeter as defenses start to collapse on his drives.
Kaspar has a couple options at the 2-guard. He could throw out senior Bobby Conley, a combo-guard who doesn’t light the world on fire. Or he could start freshman Nijal Pearson who could be a terrific product out of Beaumont, Texas. Pearson’s size and strength are D1-level already and he has proven to have excellent court vision in the open floor. His shooting form suggests he likely won’t be too effective of an outside threat – perfect for Texas State! Courtney Julien, a sophomore wing, likely sees an increase in playing time this year in a reserve role.
The frontcourt is full of question marks. Maljhum McCrea and Maxwell Starwood look to have the greatest claim at the starting lineup. McCrea was a brutally awful offensive player in his limited minutes last season but he has excellent rebounding ability and could serve as a rim protector on defense. Starwood is an ESPN 3-star recruit with a prototypical power forward frame (6’8’’ 225 lbs.). Starwood is super long making him a great candidate to anchor the Bobcat defense and, get this; the guy can shoot from the outside. In fact, Starwood can score from just about everywhere on the floor. His versatility gives the Bobcats a unique offensive option up front. JUCO transfers Eric Terry and Immanuel King likely fill in the forward reserve roles off the pine.
A lot of Texas State’s success depends on how well the inexperienced frontcourt plays, as the Bobcats are a paint-focused team on offense. KGT will need to prove he’s able to serve as a go-to-guy when the offense breaks down, and Ojai Black will need to show poise as a senior point guard. The Bobcats likely won’t be better than last season, but they may not be too much worse either.
12. Appalachian State
Key Returners: Ronshad Shabazz, Griffin Kinney
Key Losses: Frank Eaves, Chris Burgess, Michael Obacha
Key Newcomers: Zach Cottrell, Patrick Good, Craig Hinton, Isaac Johnson, Kelvin Robinson, Jake Wilson
Appalachian State was not a good team last season finishing 9-22 overall and 7-13 in the Sun Belt. This year, Jim Fox, a Bob McKillop disciple, loses his two primary ball handlers and most prolific shooters with the graduations of Frank Evaes and Chris Burgess. The good news is Fox played a lot of bodies last season (App State ranked 7th in bench minutes) so the rising sophomore class should be well prepped to make a leap this year. Fox also brings in a few promising freshman and transfers to put around his returning core which may help App State maintain their performance from last season but likely won’t vault them to conference mediocrity.
With Eaves gone, Ronshad Shabazz becomes the center piece of the Mountaineer offense. Shabazz is able to score in a multitude of ways including from the three-point line and in transition. He and Eaves took the lion’s share of App State’s shots last season begging the question who else can step up in the scoring department. Fox runs a motion offense focused on shooting three-pointers – Shabazz is the only payer returning who attempted over 100 thress last season. Emarius Logan is due for big spike in minutes and production. Logan will likely take the reigns at the point guard spot, a role he struggled in last season as a freshman (27.7% TO Rate). Logan is a capable outside shooter, but he’ll need to stabilize his ball handling in order for this offense to run the way it’s supposed to. Guards Matt O’Boyle and Jake Babic will both see plenty of PT this season – they each shot terribly last season but will be relied upon to provide outside shooting. Freshman Zach Cottrell can play multiple positions and should play a vital role off the pine for the Mountaineers in his first season.
One interesting stat about App State – they ranked 63rd in offensive rebounding but 293rd in defensive rebounding. The Mountaineers lose Michael Obacha, their best o-boarder from last year, but Griffin Kinney and Tyrell Johnson do return to form a relatively strong rebounding duo. The difference in rebounding on the two sides could be due to the Mountaineers’ affinity for crashing the glass on offense while focusing on not allowing threes on the other end so much so that it allowed for easier o-boarding for opposing units (the App State interior D was brutal in 2015-16). The o-board crashing factored in App State’s futility defending in transition. Kinney, Johnson, and sophomore Bennett Holley are all so-so defenders but offer potential on offense. Holley in particular fits well into Fox’s system as he’s able to take his game outside the three-point line. Craig Hinton, a VMI transfer, also projects as a Jim Fox type of forward – Hinton connected on 33% of his threes as a sophomore two years ago.
Fox’s Mountaineers should play in a similar manner this season as they did the year prior. They’ll run, they’ll shoot threes, they won’t allow threes on defense, and they’ll get exposed in transition and in the paint. App State projects as a bottom tier Sun Belt squad – perhaps they’ll improve in a few years once Fox establishes his Davidson-esque system and personnel.