by Joe Caputo
They don’t get much pub, they aren’t household names, but teams in the Sun Belt Conference are dangerous as ever. You may remember R.J. Hunter’s game-winning shot to take down 3-seeded Baylor as his father Ron fell off his chair. Or how about Arkansas-Little Rock’s epic last 2 minutes against Purdue 2 years ago? Yes, both out of the Sun Belt. Now, there’s a new team on the horizon that nobody wants to see next week in the big dance.
The Top Crawfish:
Louisiana Lafayette – a team that 4 and 5 seeds across the country will be hoping gets knocked out of this Sun Belt Tournament. The Ragin Cajuns have been flat-out dominant all year long. Take away their meaningless overtime loss to Little Rock a few days ago, and Louisiana Lafayette only had one other loss (at Georgia State) the entire conference season. This team is deep, deep, deep and loves to run. It will truly be a 40-minute track meet for any team that wants to beat the Cajuns. They rank #1 in the conference in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the conference, according to kenpom.com. They do nothing wrong. The only question is whether or not they will fall victim to the difficult Sun Belt tournament format. 3 wins in 3 days on a neutral site in their home state is all that separates Louisiana Lafayette from their first tournament bid since 2014.
Georgia State – as the only team to really take it to the Cajuns this year, the Panthers are their biggest threat. Ron Hunter has been there before, and has molded his team into a contender once again in 2018. Georgia State has historically been outstanding at taking care of the ball, but their rebounding leaves a lot to be desired. They live and die by the 3-point shot, which a dangerous game to play in a one and done setting, but if they get hot, are definitely capable of representing this conference. It’s going to take an absolutely perfect set of games, but the Panthers have the ability to pull this thing off if everything falls their way.
Texas-Arlington – the preseason favorite to win this conference, the Mavericks struggled early in the conference season. Dating back to last year, Scott Cross’ group entered the Sun Belt Tournament as the odds-on favorite and did not perform well, so maybe the underdog roll will be a better fit. This team plays at a lightning pace, which does not help them against a team like Louisiana Lafayette, who play the same way but are just simply better at doing so. The tough part about this tournament for the Mavs is they pulled the 4-seed, meaning if they want to get to the final, they most definitely need to go through Louisiana to do so. I don’t see it happening. If this squad was in a different part of the bracket, I’d give them hope, but they just simply do not match up well at all with Louisiana Lafayette.
Georgia Southern – now this is a team that no one is talking about and is legitimately dangerous. Mark Byington has done a tremendous job making Georgia Southern one of the most balanced teams in the conference. They are the best team in the league at taking care of the ball, while being one of the best at getting to the free-throw line as well. The Eagles get scoring from everywhere, making them a tough guard for any opponent. Injuries early and midway through the conference season have placed the Eagles a bit under the radar, but this team has won 4 of its last 5 and seems to be ready for the big stage in New Orleans. Do not sleep on Georgia Southern, I think they will play for the title Sunday afternoon.
The Sneaky Ones:
Troy – as last year’s champs, they need to be considered somewhat of a threat. Troy has pieced things together after a rough 3-6 start to the conference season, ending their year at 9-9 and earning the 7-seed in the tournament. Their draw is relatively favorable. In the first round, they get a team that simply will not be able to score with them in South Alabama. If they win there, they will then take on a Georgia State team who they have already beaten twice this year. Troy’s strength is their offense, and they like to fire away from downtown. They are not as talented as they were last year, but the Trojans remain a tough out in this conference tournament.
Appalachian State – credit Jim Fox for turning around what looked to be headed towards a lost season for these Mountaineers. On February 1, they sat at 4-7 and looked to be on their way to the basement. However, a strong close led by some above-average defense has earned Appalachian State the 5-seed and a very favorable first round matchup with Little Rock. The Mountaineers were picked to finish 11 of 12 teams in the conference this year, so they deserve tons of respect, however, I don’t see any way they get past Arlington in the second round. Their offense just simply has not gotten the job done this year, and in a fast-paced setting, Arlington’s offensive ability will just simply be too much for Fox’s bunch.
Louisiana Monroe – the biggest wild card in this year’s field are the Warhawks from Louisiana Monroe, who have won 6 of their last 8 games including games over Georgia Southern, Georgia State, and Texas-Arlington in the process. It’s tough to tell if this run was for real, as they closed their season with a home loss to a pretty bad Arkansas State team, so it is even more difficult to project what they will do in this week’s tournament. If there’s one team in the field that I would not be shocked to either see done in the first round or playing in the final, its Monroe, but the former still seems more likely. They’ll kick the tourney off with a rematch with that same Arkansas State team, with the winner getting Georgia Southern.
Texas State – it’s odd putting a team that has lost 9 straight in the sleeper category, but if there was an award for close losses Texas State would’ve won it about a month ago. Of the 9 straight losses, 7 of them were by single digits, two coming in overtime. What does this say? Well, a few things. Texas State’s style of play is unorthodox for the conference in which they play. While they are surrounded by teams that like to run up and down the floor, the Bobcats play at one of the slowest paces in all of the country. This has and will undoubtedly frustrate their opponents. They also defend the three-point line extremely well in a conference that loves to shoot the three. These unique abilities make Danny Kaspar’s team probably the most dangerous team playing on the first day of the tournament. The issue? Louisiana Lafayette is waiting for them on day 2.
Coastal Carolina – the Chanticleers can be considered an early round threat for one reason and one reason only – their defense. Their first round matchup against Texas State may not crack 100 points, but you can bet the winner will annoy the hell out of any future opponents, at least for a short while. After starting 1-6, Cliff Ellis has his squad playing decent ball down the stretch. It will take a strong effort to knock them out, but they are simply not talented enough, especially offensively, to be a threat to win this whole thing.
South Alabama – realistically, South Alabama is not winning this tournament, but they’ve had too competitive of a season to be thrown in with the bottom feeders. The problem with USA is they have been way too inconsistent on the road, and offensively they just do not have enough ability to beat the big boys in this tournament. Their defense is very good and they attack the basket at a high rate, which has kept them close and won them 7 games this year in the conference. Take them lightly and you will get burned, but I think their opening matchup against Troy is about the worst they could’ve drawn. The Trojans have beat them twice by double-digits, and I would not be shocked if they made it 3-in-a-row.
The Bottom Feeders:
Arkansas State – unfair or not, it’s been a putrid year for a team that was supposed to be middle of the pack in 2018. Not helped at all by the dismissal of star player Deven Simms in early February, the Red Wolves simply have not been able to get things together all year long. The defense is the biggest issue, ranking 330th in the nation in efficiency, and the #1 contributor to their 6-12 record that landed them one spot from the bottom of the Sun Belt regular season standings. It’s been a lost year for Arkansas State, and one that will likely not be found in New Orleans this week.
Arkansas-Little Rock – similar to their in-state counterparts, Little Rock lost their best player Andre Jones around the same time in early February. The Trojans have been the worst team in this conference all year long, posting a 4-14 record in the process. Their stats agree, as kenpom.com ranks them last in the conference in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency. This is simply not a good recipe for success, and I don’t expect Little Rock to make any noise in NOLA.