Sun Belt Preview 2015-16

1.      UL Lafayette
2.      Georgia St.
3.      Appalachian St.
4.      South Alabama
5.      UL Monroe
6.      Arkansas-Little Rock
7.      Arkansas St.
8.      Troy
9.      Georgia Southern
10.   UT-Arlington
11.   Texas St.

All Conference:

POY: Shawn Long, Senior, UL Lafayette
Coach of the Year: Jim Fox, Appalachian State
Newcomer of the Year: Jeremy Hollowell, R-Junior, Georgia St.

 First team
G – Frank Eaves, Senior, Appalachian St.
G/F – Wesley Person, Sophomore, Troy
G/F – Jeremy Hollowell, R-Junior, Georgia St.
F – Anthony Livingston, Junior, Arkansas St.
C – Shawn Long, Senior, UL Lafayette

Second team
G – Cameron Golden, Senior, Arkansas St.
G – Kevin Ware, Senior, Georgia St.
G – Mike Hughes, Sophomore, Georgia Southern
G – Ken Williams, Junior, South Alabama
F – Majok Deng, Senior, UL Monroe

Third team
G – Josh Hagins, Senior, Arkansas-Little Rock
G – Jay Wright, Junior, UL Lafayette
G – Kasey Shepherd, Senior, UL Lafayette
F – Dionte Ferguson, Senior, South Alabama
F – Emani Gant, Senior, Texas St. 

1.      UL Lafayette

C – Shawn Long, 6’11, R-Senior
F – Bryce Washington, 6‘6, Sophomore
G – Kasey Shepherd, 6‘3, Senior
G – Hayward Register, 6‘2, Junior
PG – Jay Wright, 6‘1, Junior
Reserves: Devonta Walker, 6‘7, Sr.; Jonathan Stove, 6‘4, So.; Steven Wronkowski, 6‘5, Sr.; Tyrone Wooten, 6‘4, Jr.; Jerekius Davis, 6‘6, Fr.
Postseason Prediction: 14 seed
After falling to regular season and eventual tourney champ Georgia State last year, UL Lafayette is my pick to win this year, returning a plethora of talent from a 13-7 squad. Coach Bob Marlin is in his 6th year at the school, and after being competitive but not elite previously, there’s a sense that it’s the Ragin Cajuns‘ year (Ragin Cajuns!! More school nicknames should have an adjective, it’s a great touch).

A good place to start for a conference champ pick is with the best player in the league, and 6’11 redshirt senior Shawn Long is just that. A legit NBA big man prospect, Long passed up the draft this year and returns to terrorize the Sun Belt for one last campaign. Both his raw numbers and his efficiency numbers are impressive: he averaged 16.2ppg, 10.2rpg, and 1.6bpg last year in 28mpg last year, and he put up a 112 O-rtg on 27% of his team’s possessions. He has led the conference in defensive rebounding rate all 3 years he’s been at ULL (and was 7th nationally last year), was 4th in the conference in block rate, and, maybe most impressively, maintained all this production even without NBA point guard Elfrid Payton setting him up. He started to show a one-on-one post game last year, and he’ll again be a terror for the 6‘7-6‘8 post men in this league. He even hit 25 threes at a 35% clip last year (drool away, NBA scouts).

The pieces around him really started to come together later in the year, as ULL surged from 7-7 in the conference to a six-game winning streak to close the year. Fellow post men Devonta Walker (senior) and Bryce Washington (sophomore) are both strong rebounders in their own right, particularly offensively, as that was a strength of the entire team. They will form a formidable 3-man rotation with Long down low – Washington took the starting spot as the team started to play well at the end of the year, but Walker will play a bunch as well. Junior college transfer Jay Hedgeman is intriguing for his ability to both rebound and shoot, which could give Long further space to operate at times.

In the backcourt, a huge adjustment that opened up the offense was starting rising junior Hayward Register. Register is what he is – a standstill gunner – but he’s extremely effective at it, and he created more spacing on the floor. He only turned it over on 7.1% of his possessions, a rate indicative of his role, and he shot 40% while hitting 56 threes in only 14 minutes per game. He was playing about 20mpg at the end of the year, and in a bigger role, could easily hit 100 threes – perfect to have as Long dominates the paint. Point guard Jay Wright and wing Kasey Shepherd are also back, and both are very good passers (24.1% and 23.5% assist rates, respectively) and solid shooters (Shepherd hit 48 threes at 34%, Wright hit 29 at 41%). Sophomore Jonathan Stove provides some depth and athleticism, and Steve Wronkowski is another efficient perimeter shooter.

This offense is built perfectly – some very good shooters and passers surrounding an elite inside presence who can draw double teams. Between Long’s rim presence and the team’s collectively strong rebounding, the defense should stay stout as well, and all of that could add up to Marlin’s first Sun Belt conference title.

2.      Georgia St.

C – Markus Crider, 6‘6, Senior
F – Jeremy Hollowell, 6‘7, R-Junior
G – Jeff Thomas, 6‘5, R-Freshman
G – Kevin Ware, 6‘2, Senior
PG – Isaiah Williams, 6‘1, R-Sophomore
Reserves: TJ Shipes, 6‘7, Sr.; Isaiah Dennis, 6‘0, Jr.; Jordan Session, 6‘7, So.; Jalen Brown, 6‘8, Sr.; Malik Benlevi, 6‘5, Fr.
Postseason Prediction:
Georgia State has to overcome some serious losses from the conference’s best team last year, but the Panthers bring in 2 of the best newcomers in the entire conference in tweener forward Jeremy Hollowell (transfer from Indiana) and point guard Isaiah Williams (transfer from Samford, freshman of the year in the OVC two years ago). Both practiced with the team last year, and should be familiar with the scheme and will likely step right into the starting lineup.

Hollowell is a big, athletic forward who can get on the glass and get to the rim, and will probably be even better as he steps down to the Sun Belt. He has a good shooting stroke, but it remains to be seen if it will lead to hitting threes this year. With his versatility, Ron Hunter can go a number of different ways with the starting lineup. The main lock to start up front with Hollowell is 6‘6 senior Markus Crider, a very good defensive rebounder and finisher. If Hunter wants a little more interior defense, he could move Hollowell to the 3 and start 6‘7 senior TJ Shipes in a bigger lineup. Shipes is a strong athlete and finisher in his own right, and also gives opponents real problems on the offensive glass. Another candidate is 6‘6 redshirt freshman Jeff Thomas, who failed to qualify last year but can give the team an injecton of skill up front.

The backcourt is led by senior Kevin Ware, he of the most vomit-inducing injury I’ve ever seen live. Seriously, I didn’t go play pick-up basketball for at least a week after, because who’s to say my leg can’t arbitrarily snap in half too?! Well anyways, Ware isn’t an elite scorer, but he does bring his sticky hands from his Louisville days (3.5% steal rate, 9th in the conference). Williams, the transfer, will probably start next to him, with only light competition from junior Isaiah Dennis, a horrific shooter (0 threes made, 43% from the line) and underwhelming passer. Freshmen Austin Donaldson and Malik Benlevi will attempt to provide some depth, but I’m not sure they are quite ready for Sun Belt basketball.

The losses of RJ Hunter, Ryann Green and Ryan Harrow take away basically all of the team’s perimeter shooting (no returner made more than Ware’s 13), and that will need to be replaced somewhat for the offense to remain a strength. They were 47th nationally in efficiency last year; with a lot less shooting (and without an NBA-level player in Hunter), top-100 is probably a lofty goal. Williams is a decent shooter, but he’ll need some help – where it comes from is unclear though. The effective bigs could find the floor a little bit cramped.

Georgia State probably doesn’t have the talent to win a game in the NCAA tournament and be top-100 in Kenpom like in 2014-15, but they’re still upper-tier Sun Belt with the additions of Hollowell and Williams. They should ride their defense to conference title contention this year.

3.      Appalachian St.

F – Michael Obacha, 6‘8, Senior
F – Jacob Lawson, 6‘8, Senior
G – Jake Babic, 6‘5, Sophomore
G – Frank Eaves, 6‘2, Senior
PG – Chris Burgess, 5‘8, Senior
Reserves: Dustin Clarke, 6‘3, Sr.; Ronshad Allen-Shabazz, 6‘5, Fr.; Griffin Kinney, 6‘8, So.; Matt O’Boyle, 6‘5, Jr.; Landon Goesling, 6‘2, So.; Tyrell Johnson, 6‘8, Fr.
Postseason Prediction:
App State may not be the third best team in the league, but I am super intrigued by their combination of returners and impact newcomers and that win over Michigan in football was awesome a few years back, so here they are. That’s not to say Jim Fox’s team isn’t capable of being in the top 3 – just that it’s one of my more bold claims in this preview section. The strongest part of the team is its talented, experienced backcourt, which quite often can lead to success at the smaller conference level.

Starters Chris Burgess and Frank Eaves return as the core at the point and the 2, respectively. Burgess is in his third year as a starter, and last year he was solid in both passing (9th in conference in assist rate, 21.6%) and shooting (40% from deep, 5th in the conference). Eaves is the dynamic wing scorer, displaying good in-conference efficiency (107.4, 22nd) while using a high volume of possessions (25.9%, 8th) and playing a big share of minutes (84.1%, 11th). He got to the line at an effective rate and also shot 37% from deep on a good chunk of attempts. Eaves actually might be the best guard in the entire conference – at the very least, he’s in the discussion. The third starter should be between a senior (Dustin Clarke), sophomore (Jake Babic), and a dynamic freshman (Ronshad Allen-Shabazz). Babic was playing the most at the 3 towards the end of last year, and Clarke is the most experienced of the bunch, but they will be pushed hard by the amazingly-named Allen-Shabazz. Allen-Shabazz was the 5th starter at national powerhouse Huntington Prep, playing alongside 4 other D1 recruits, including 2016 studs Miles Bridges and Curtis Jones. He’s a long athlete who can defend and get to the rim, and it will be tough to keep him off the floor. There’s plenty of depth as well, with JuCo transfer Matt O’Boyle, seasoned walk-on Landon Goesling, and freshman Emarius Logan. With that depth, don’t be surprised to see some 4 guard lineups with Babic or Allen-Shabazz playing the nominal 4-man.

Up front, there’s more experience, but the talent isn’t quite as high as the backcourt. Seniors Michael Obacha and Jacob Lawson and sophomore Griffin Kinney should be the primary rotation. They are nearly carbon copies of each other – good-not-great defensive rebounders, turn it over too much for their roles, and are blah finishers. The one differentiating skill is Lawson’s shot-blocking – that should earn him some extra playing time. Junior Mike Kobani adds another 6‘8 veteran (barely played last year), and freshmen Tyrell Johnson and Bennett Holley add 2 more 6‘8 bodies. Holley is more likely to crack the rotation with his perimeter shooting, giving the Mountaineers an element they have not previously had.

I expect App State to surprise a bit, improving both on offense due to the efficient backcourt and on defense with increased continuity and Fox having his coaching feet under him. If everything breaks right, a top 3 finish could be in the cards.

4.      South Alabama

F – Georgi Boyanov, 6‘7, Junior
F – Dionte Ferguson, 6‘6, Senior
G – Ken Williams, 6‘3, Junior
G – Taishaun Johnson, 6‘0, Sophomore
PG – Barrington Stevens, 5’10, Senior
Reserves: John Brown, 6‘3, Sr.; Shaq Calhoun, 6‘4, So.; Tafari Whittingham, 6‘8, Jr.; Josh Ajayi, 6‘6, Fr.; Devin Epps, 5’11, So.; Nick Stover, 6‘6, R-Jr.
Postseason Prediction:
South Alabama struggled mightily last year, especially early with an inexperienced squad, bottoming out at 2-10 (0-2) to open the year. They closed relatively strongly, though, finishing the regular season 9-10 (9-9) and knocking out Arkansas Little Rock in the conference tournament. They return 5 of 7 rotation players from that team that grew as the year went on, including two now-sophomores and one now-junior. They also bring in a few possible impact newcomers, strengthening the depth, and giving Coach Matthew Graves more options for an already-promising team.

The starting lineup is led by junior guard Ken Williams, the team’s leading scorer and a candidate to lead the Sun Belt in three-pointers made. He uses a sizable chunk of possessions, and if he improves his shooting inside the arc (39%, gross), he can take a leap to first-team all-conference. He is joined by mainstay point guard Barrington Stevens, a steady player who didn’t use many possessions but also needs to shoot better when he does. He isn’t a great passer though, which leads to one of the Jaguars biggest weaknesses – despite playing at the 21st-fastest tempo in the country, they only assisted on 46% of their field goals made (316th in the nation). A faster tempo should usually lead to more transition opportunities (and theoretically, easier baskets), but no one on the team registered an assist rate higher than Stevens‘ 18.5%. Taishaun Johnson could play a little bit of point after being solid off the ball last year, but it’s not his natural spot. Unfortunately, no new candidates come in at the point guard spot (a transfer from UMass-Lowell, Lance Crawford, will sit out this year), so the team will need to improve from within.

The team returns only one post player, 6‘7 junior Georgi Boyanov. Boyanov could be a great complementary big man, posting excellent rebounding rates while also offering the slightest hint of three point shooting (9/35, 26%). If he can make the shooting an actual weapon, South Alabama’s offense could leap from 230th to the top 175 (would put them in the top 3-4 in the league). Next to him, redshirt freshman Tafari Whittingham was on track for a strong year when he got hurt during the 4th game of the year and eventually succumbed to a medical redshirt. Whittingham will be the best rim protector and a strong finisher down low. The team also has transfer Nick Stover from Loyola Marymount, who can swing between the 3 and the 4 and will give the team a versatile option who can play both inside and out.

Along with Stover, the newcomers include freshman Josh Ajayi and junior college transfers Shaq Calhoun and Don MuepoKelly. Calhoun will provide wing depth, while Ajayi and MuepoKelly will probably fight for minutes down low.

South Alabama’s glaring flaws revolved around turnovers and defensive rebounding. They turned it over too much and didn’t force any (344th in turnover rate despite playing super fast!); they will need to find a way to swing that margin in their favor this year. Whittingham will help the rebounding, as will more minutes for Boyanov and the newcomers. The experience gained in last year’s trying campaign should lead to a solid improvement this year.

5.      UL Monroe

C – Majok Deng, 6’10, Senior
F – Jamaal Samuel, 6‘9, Senior
G – Mack Foster, 6‘2, Senior
G – Justin Roberson, 6‘1, Senior
PG – Nick Coppola, 5’11, Junior
Reserves: DeMondre Harvey, 6‘7, Sr.; Prince Cooper, 6‘4, Jr.; Marcus Washington, 6‘2, Jr.; Ramses Sandifer, 6‘8, Fr.; Travis Munnings, 6‘6, Fr.
Postseason Prediction:
Monroe was in the NCAA Tournament in most of my February projections last year as they surged to a 12-3 start in the conference, mostly behind the strength of their #3 Sun Belt defense and a disciplined offense. Although they struggled to end the regular season, they made a run to the CBI final, ultimately losing to Loyola (IL). With 4 starters and 2 other contributors back, the Warhawks have the roster consistency and experience to carry that momentum into this year.

Monroe should start four seniors, but the most experienced player might be point guard Nick Coppola. He played 83% of minutes as a freshman and a staggering 92.2% last year, good for 17th in the country. Coppola had a stretch of 6 games last year where he played every minute, including an overtime win over Georgia Southern. He’s not an elite passer, but he’s a steady influence and a good shooter who commands the team’s deliberate offense effectively.

The reason that deliberate offense lagged so far behind the defense was a total lack of free points. Monroe was somehow last in the entire country in free throw rate, shooting about 1 free throw for every 4 shot attempts. Majok Deng, the team’s 6’10 center, took 115 threes last year and isn’t a true interior threat, and none of the team’s wings are much in the way of dynamic slashers. WIthout any threats to get to the line, Monroe really has to labor to score. And another issue – a lack of any outside shooting besides Coppola and Deng (neither of whom was high volume) – means they can’t space the floor.  With a few more shooters on the floor, maybe Deng or Jamaal Samuel could have more space to operate. BUT...the only newcomer in the backcourt, junior college transfer Marcus Washington, shot 19.2% from deep last year, so I don’t expect the shooting issues to get any better.

Although the continuity doesn’t bode well for better shooting, it’s fair to expect the defense to be just as good or even improve. Samuel and Deng are both solid rim protectors, Coppola is solid on the ball, and Justin Roberson is a pest on whoever he guards. Incoming freshmen Ramses Sandifer, Travis Munnings, and Wade Martin all offer good size for their positions as well, giving Monroe even more defensive potential if they can grasp the scheme and the speed of the game.

The skill and experience of the lineup should help Coach Keith Richard keep the Warhawks near the top of the conference, but losing first-team all-conference swingman Tylor Ongwae and a lack of defense or aggressive slashing will make it difficult. Look for them to be good but not championship-level good this year.

6.      Arkansas-Little Rock

C – Daniel Green, 6’10, Senior
F – Roger Woods, 6‘5, Senior
G – Ben Dillard, 6‘2, Senior
G – Jermaine Ruttley, 6‘2, R-Senior
PG – Josh Hagins, 6‘1, Senior
Reserves:. JT Thomas, 6‘1, Sr.; Jalen Jackson, 6‘6, Jr.; Mareik Isom, 6‘9, R-Jr.; Maurius Hill, 6‘5, Jr.; Deondre Burns, 6‘2, Fr.; Stetson Billings, 6‘5, R-Jr.; Kemy Osee, 6‘1, R-Jr.
Postseason Prediction:
Little Rock might be the most experienced team in the league, featuring 4 returning senior starters, two grad transfers, three redshirt juniors, a true junior, and a JuCo transfer junior among it’s potential rotation players. Though not all of that experience is within the UALR system, it will be a valuable tool as the Trojans attempt to climb the standings.

Dividing minutes among all of these veterans, though, could be a problem. Three starting guards come back, but Florida A&M transfer Jermaine Ruttley could force one of those players to the bench (or necessitate the team playing a tiny four-guard lineup like they did much of last year). Ruttley was the lone bright spot on a terrible Rattlers team last year, averaging 17.4ppg while using 30% of the team’s possessions (and posting a surprisingly-ok O-rtg of 101.1). Ruttley led the team in rebounds, assists, and steals. It will be interesting to see what role he earns here – he could be the leading scorer and shot-taker, or he could be negated to a bench role behind the returning starters if new coach Chris Beard opts to go with a more conventional, bigger lineup.

Among the returning guards, Josh Hagins was the most important – he was the most efficient (108.5 O-rtg), hit the most threes (41), and was 99th in the country in assist rate (29.2). He used a sizable chunk of the teams possessions last year, but with Ruttley chucking, that could drop slightly. JT Thomas and Ben Dillard combined to go an ugly 60/197 from downtown (30.4%), though they both did a solid job of taking care of the ball. I would guess Ruttley beats one of them out to start given his more dynamic abilities (sorry JT). Freshman Deondre Burns and redshirt junior Kemy Osee provide plenty of depth in the backcourt.

Up front, 6‘5 Roger Woods returns to start after being the team’s most frequently used post player last year. A stout 230 pounds, Woods is a great rebounder who can get to the line and block a shot every now and then. Who starts next to him is up for debate – towards the end of last year, 6‘7 redshirt junior Mareik Isom had mostly seized the role, but 6’10 Wake Forest grad transfer Daniel Green is a former highly-regarded recruit who could provide a completely new dimension of rim protection and inside scoring – if he can stay healthy and on the floor. Burly junior Maurius Hill and ultra-athletic redshirt junior Stetson Billings, both 6‘5, provide even more experienced depth, along with junior college transfer Jalen Jackson.

Little Rock has the depth and experience to be a threat this year, but I worry a little about the chemistry with so many veterans, both new and old, and a new coach getting his first D1 head job. He worked under Bobby Knight for 10 years, eventually rising to associate head coach (must have proved he could effectively berate players), so he should know his stuff, but I’m adopting more of a wait-and-see approach. I’m aware I could end up proven way wrong here though. 

7.      Arkansas St.

F – Anthony Livingston, 6‘8, Junior
F – Kelvin Downs, 6‘9, Senior
G – Frederic Dure, 6‘5, Senior
G – Cameron Golden, 6‘0, Senior
PG – PJ Hardwick, 5’10, Junior
Reserves: CJ Foster, 6‘3, Jr.; Sean Gardner, 6‘5, Sr.; Nouhoum Bocoum, 6’10, Sr.; Devin Carter, 6‘4, R-Jr.; Charles Waters, 6‘6, Sr.; Donte Thomas, 6‘3, Sr.
Postseason Prediction:
Arkansas State is a difficult team to figure out. They return nine players who were solid parts of the rotation (some of whom missed time due to injuries), but the offense was so incredibly bad last year that it’s had to determine if that’s a good thing. Injuries hampered the continuity, though, forcing the players to adjust to constantly changing roles and rotations. With better health luck, Arkansas State has the potential to be much higher than this.

As for that offense...well, it wasn’t pretty. None of the returning 9 players had over a 100 O-rtg (nobody!), and the team as a whole wasn’t good at a single offensive category. The best of the bunch is Anthony Livingston, a double-double machine who can get to the line and dominate the defensive glass. He’s mildly effective at protecting the rim, but that is still a team weakness as well. Alongside Livingston, either Kelvin Downs or Nouhoum Bocoum (both seniors) should start, with Downs being kind of a disaster offensively (39% from the field without shooting threes) and Bocoum being more of a rebounding beast. Both players mustered just a 1.7% assist rate, truly a pathetic number. Charles Waters is a smaller option, but he’s actually the team’s best shot-blocker and a comparable rebounder (rate-wise) to the much taller Bocoum.

The backcourt is a more intriguing jumble. PJ Hardwick is the conference’s best passer, averaging nearly 5 apg and tops in assist rate, but he was mostly terrible offensively outside of that. Cameron Golden was the team’s best all-around guard, but he, too, was a grossly inefficient shooter (sensing a theme here?). He’ll handle point guard duties when Hardwick is getting a break (or his shooting renders him unplayable). Frederic Dure could be a real boon for the team offensively, as he shot 15/30 from deep in the 12 games he was able to play. He may start at the 3 despite the vast experience of Sean Gardner, as Gardner was (guess what!) a poor outside shooter – 32% on 143 attempts against D1 opponents. Gardner is very solid and doesn’t turn the ball over, though, so he will still play plenty, especially if his jumper progresses. Kent State transfer Devin Carter and returning junior CJ Foster will be the depth pieces, but Foster was the worst shooter on the team last year (truly a sobering feat on this impotent team). Junior college transfer Donte Thomas is not a good shooter either, but he will compete with Hardwick for minutes – he averaged 5 apg at San Jacinto JC.

Unless a group of the Red Wolves collectively improve their shooting, they won’t improve much offensively, but the defense could be better given more roster continuity. Rim protection is scarce, but Coach John Brady is a good defensive teacher and will find ways around that. ASU finished the year on a disappointing 2-8 stretch, though, giving me pause in getting optimistic about this year’s nearly identical roster.

8.      Troy

C – John Walton, 6‘7, Senior
F – Jordon Varnado, 6‘6, Freshman
G – Wesley Person, 6‘3, Sophomore
G – Kelton Ford, 6‘0, Junior
PG – Daniel Peace, 6‘1, Junior
Reserves: Aaron Ariri, 6‘8, So.; Shawn Hopkins, 6‘5, Fr.; Jeremy Hollimon, 6‘3, Jr.; BJ Miller, 6‘1, Fr.; Christian Harrison, 6‘5, So.; Alex Hicks, 6‘8, So.
Postseason Prediction:
Lots of other outlets are extremely low on this squad (Blue Ribbon ranks them last in the Sun Belt, CBS’s top 351 ranks them last of the Sun Belt teams as well), but I’m not quite on board with that assessment. It will certainly be a young team, but many of them gained valuable experience in a trying 2014-15 campaign, and injuries shouldn’t impact the squad to the extent they did last year.

The team has a developing star in sophomore Wesley Person, yet another son of an NBA player making a name for himself at a smaller school. Person was in the top 5 in the entire country in % of minutes played by a freshman, and he rewarded the coaching staff’s faith with a very efficient first season. He hit 71 threes at a 38% clip, and I would expect him to add an even better attacking-the-basket game as he gets more experienced. The rest of the returners don’t quite have that upside: senior center John Walton posted decent rebounding numbers but shot a blah 43% from the field and 59% from the line, guard Kelton Ford was underwhelming at point guard (18.7/25.1 assist/turnover rates) but could see improvement as he moves to the wing, and sophomore post Aaron Ariri was a disaster on the offensive end despite strong rebounding numbers. All three of those guys will play, but Person’s best running mates will likely be newcomers.

Junior college transfers Daniel Peace (the presumed starting point guard) and Jeremy Hollimon (redshirted with an injury last year) will play a lot of minutes in the backcourt. Peace averaged an impressive 7.4apg last year in JuCo while also shooting 44% from deep – he should be a significant improvement as the maestro of the offense over the Ford and inefficent Chris Bilbo (graduated) both playing out of position. Hollimon will challenge Ford for the starting spot at the 2 and provides a strong and versatile option on the wing. Shawn Hopkins, a freshman wing from Finland, will also challenge for minutes, especially since he can give them some perimeter size. Up front, sophomore Alex Hicks is a JuCo forward who will provide depth, but my favorite candidate to be a stud newcomer is Jordon Varnado, Jarvis’s younger brother (from Mississippi State). Though not as good of a shot-blocker as his brother, he is still a decent rim protector, and he is much more refined offensively already. I expect him to jump into the starting lineup at the 4 spot and be one of the conference’s best freshman right away.

Troy’s worst areas last year were turning the ball over offensively and defensive rebounding. Turnovers should be better with a true point guard running the squad (and more experience for Ford, Person, etc.), and Hicks and Varnado should help the rebounding issues. I’m also optimistic the team can make incremental improvements in other areas. With those improvements and Person making more of a leap into first-team all-conference territory, I think Troy will avoid a spot among the dregs of the Sun Belt.

9.      Texas St.

C – Emani Gant, 6‘8, Senior
F – Cameron Naylor, 6‘7, Senior
F – Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, 6‘7, Junior
G – Ojai Black, 6‘1, Junior
PG – Ethan Montalvo, 6‘0, Senior
Reserves: Maljhum McCrea, 6‘7, Jr.; Kendell Ramlal, 6‘7, Jr.; Bobby Conley, 6‘1, Jr.; Courtney Julien, 6‘4, Fr.; KJ Malveau, 5’10, Fr.; D’Angelo West, 6‘2, Fr.; Anthony Roberson, 6‘5, So.
Postseason Prediction:
I feel bad for Emani Gant. He’s a mildly effective center on both ends of the floor, but he’s drowning in one of the country’s worst offenses. The Bobcats finished a brutal 331st in offensive efficiency last year, easily dead last in the conference, and that anemic offense dragged them down to 9th in the standings despite having the 2nd-best defense.

That strong defense was led by an impressive ability to force a lot of turnovers despite playing at the 316th slowest tempo in the country last year. Steal-master Wesley Davis has graduated, though, and the team will miss his 4.3% steal rate (16th in the country). Gant and forward Kavin Gilder-Tilbury were both surprisingly effective in that department (2.6% rate for both), but without Davis harassing opponents, that category could suffer as a whole. Coach Danny Kaspar has a fairly strong history as a defensive coach (mostly at Stephen F. Austin), though, so they shouldn’t fall off too much.

The offense, on the other hand, likely won’t get any better – and could get worse. The team loses their most efficient player and best passer (DJ Brown) and their 4th-most efficient player (Davis). The returners turned the ball over a lot and, as a group, were pretty terrible shooters. It’s hard to see the offense improving much without those two. If it does, it will likely be through senior guard Ethan Montalvo (best returning shooter and passer), more growth from Gant inside, and progress from upperclassmen forwards Cameron Naylor and the aforementioned Gilder-Tilbury, although the incoming players offer some hope of immediate impact as well.  Ojai Black and Kendell Ramlal return after playing small roles last year, but both were very inefficient as sophomores and could (should?) lose playing time.

Three junior college transfers and three freshman will have their chances, especially the perimeter players. Freshman guards KJ Malveau, D’Angelo West, and Courtney Julien all averaged over 20ppg in their final high school campaigns (Malveau missed his senior year with an injury), and if one of them can provide scoring pop (and efficient outside shooting), they will find time. JuCo players Bobby Conley and Anthony Roberson are more defensively-centered, but that should please Kaspar just fine. Conley especially could help fill the void that Davis left. Finally, Mahljum McCrea is the lone interior newcomer, and despite the crowd of returners, should play some due to his rim protection abilities.

If Kaspar can get some perimeter scoring (and efficiency) out of his new guards, Texas State has a chance to be competitive. They should play very solid defense, and they do have enough experience for it to have an impact. Kaspar is a good coach, but I’m just not sure there’s enough offensive punch here.

10.   Georgia Southern

C – Coye Simmons, 6‘8, Sophomore
F – Montae Glenn, 6‘8, Freshman
G – Jake Allsmiller, 6‘5, Sophomore
G – Mike Hughes, 6‘3, Sophomore
PG – DeVince Boykins, 6‘2, R-Senior
Reserves: Devonte Boykins, 6‘2, So.; Shawn O’Connell, 6‘8, R-Fr.; Tookie Brown, 5’11, Fr.; Ike Smith, 6‘4, Fr.; Jason Burnell, 6‘7, Fr.; Aubrey McRae, 6‘3, R-Fr.
Postseason Prediction:
Very few teams in the country lose more than Georgia Southern did after last year, and as a result Coach Mark Byington’s team will be one of the youngest in the country this year. From last year’s rotation, only two rising sophomores return, although both were starting by the end of the year. Guards Mike Hughes and Jake Allsmiller both turned in efficient freshman years as low-usage perimeter shooters (Allsmiller especially), and thanks to the arrival of graduate transfer DeVince Boykins, they should be able to continue to do that. Boykins is a tall point guard who comes to Statesboro from Marshall, where he was very inefficient against better competition in Conference USA (81.1 O-rtg). Now in the Sun Belt and re-united with his younger brother (sophomore Devonte), DeVince should be able to take advantage of his size and slashing ability and feed the young wing shooters. Brother Devonte played sparingly last year, and he will compete with several freshman for playing time in the backcourt.

True freshmen Tookie Brown and Ike Smith and redshirt freshman Aubrey McRae will compete for minutes, and if one can prove to be a solid weapon attacking from the perimeter, he will see time in an offense that needs that. Hughes is the only returning player to use over 10.8% of possessions last year (and he only used 15.0 himself), so there are a TON of possessions to be distributed. Brown lit it up in high school and actually had committed to Mississippi State, so seeing him get minutes and shots would not be surprising despite his lack of size.

Up front, though, the experience is basically nonexistent. Sophomore Coye Simmons played 5.2 minutes per game in only 19 games last year...and that’s it. True freshmen Montae Glenn and Jason Burnell and redshirt freshman Shawn O’Connell will all likely play, and one among them should start. They’re the only four forwards on the entire roster, and thus Byington really won’t have a choice but to give them all a chance. Glenn is a sturdy 6‘8 and probably the most likely to start, while O’Connell provides a little more length and shooting.

Last year’s team excelled on defense, but part of that was the experience and discipline of the roster. Whether Byington can instill that this year in a very young squad remains to be seen, but in comparison to some of the other teams, it’s hard to see them being anywhere but in the bottom third of the conference standings. The future looks bright, though.

11.   UT-Arlington

C – Kevin Hervey, 6‘7, Sophomore
F – Faith Pope, 6‘7, Junior
G – Kennedy Eubanks, 6‘6, R-Senior
G – Kaelon Wilson, 6‘2, Sophomore
PG – Erick Neal, 5’11, Sophomore
Reserves: Nathan Hawkins, 6‘7, R-Jr.; Drew Charles, 6‘2, Jr.; Nick Pallas, 6‘8, Fr.; Jorge Bilbao, 6‘8, Jr.; Brandon Williams, 6’10, Jr.; Jalen Jones, 6‘3, Jr.
Postseason Prediction:

UT-Arlington is comparable to many of the other bottom-half of the conference teams you’ll find in this preview – some promising sophomores, possibly-impactful newcomers – but they lack a true all-conference level returning talent like Emani Gant or Wesley Person to build around. So while they have the potential to be higher than this (especially due to an intriguing backcourt), I settled on having them last.

Coach Scott Cross returns for his 10th year, heading up a system that is traditionally high-tempo – and last year was no different, as they finished 8th in the entire country at 70.2 possessions per game. Arlington finished 4th and 5th, respectively, on offense and defense within the Sun Belt, but that was with Lonnie McClanahan, Johnny Hill, Jamel Outler, and Greg Gainey. Sophomores Erick Neal, Kaelon Wilson, and Kevin Hervey are the most experienced in Cross’s system, though Tennessee State transfer Kennedy Eubanks will also bring three years of previous D1 experience as well. Neal, Wilson, and Eubanks are three parts of the aforementioned intriguing backcourt, along with junior Drew Charles, JuCo transfer Jalen Jones, and 6’7 transfer Nathan Hawkins. Neal took over at point guard after Johnny Hill got hurt last year, and although he took his lumps, he took advantage of the team’s quick pace to post a very impressive 32.2% assist rate (#58 nationally, #2 in the conference). He should only get better with experience at the position. The rest of the players are more comfortable on the wing, starting with Wilson, a good athlete who surprisingly posted a 3.4% block rate.  Eubanks and Hawkins are both big wings who impressed on the practice squad last year and will push for a starting spot, though neither was terribly effective on their previous stops. Charles was actually the team’s most efficient guard last year until he got hurt, shooting a very impressive 42% from deep while making a three per game. Minutes will be tough to divide, and it remains to be seen if any of the players will actually emerge as a go-to threat, but at least the Mavericks have options.

Up front, things are a little more limited. Kevin Hervey is the team’s best rebounder and actually played the most minutes of the returners, but he seems to think he’s an outside shooter when he’s really not (26% on 110 3-pt attempts). He also doesn’t deter opponents at the rim at all. JuCo transfer Faith Pope has an extremely religious name and might be a better version of a stretch 4 than Hervey after knocking down 40 treys last year. Juniors Jorge Bilbao and Brandon Williams are the more physical threats of the frontcourt options, and the 6’10 Williams especially will have to play as the team’s only true rim protector.

A lack of Sun Belt experience will certainly hinder UT-Arlington this year, but I’m most worried about the lack of elite players at this level. There are some nice pieces here, but I don’t know if there’s enough to be truly competitive.