Sun Belt Preview 2017-18

-Jim Root

Projected Standings

All Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Kevin Hervey, Sr., F, UT Arlington
Coach of the Year: Bob Marlin, UL Lafayette
Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Gurley, R Jr., G/F, Texas St.
Freshman of the Year: Josh Linder, F, Georgia St

1.      UL Lafayette

Key Returners: Bryce Washington, Frank Bartley IV, Johnathan Stove, Justin Miller
Key Losses: Jay Wright
Key Newcomers: Marcus Stroman, Jakeenan Gant, Malik Marquetti, Cedric Russell, Elijah McCoy


Postseason Projection: NIT (This may seem dumb, but I think they win the regular season with all of their depth, but lose to Arlington in the Sun Belt tournament)

Outlook: Bob Marlin has been very successful in the Sun Belt by nearly any measure, putting together a 75-53 conference record and churning out two NBA players (Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long) in seven seasons. His teams play fast (usually top 25 in tempo) and aggressive, leading to an attractive style to watch. And yet, he’s never won a conference championship, and he has only made the NCAA Tournament once in Lafayette (in 2014). He may finally have the chance to win a title, though, as his Ragin’ Cajuns sport four returning starters to go with perhaps the conference’s best group of newcomers.

Despite the presence of such newcomers, though, the team’s two best returners may determine ULL’s ultimate success. As much publicity as the dynamic duos at UT Arlington, Georgia Southern, and Troy get (and deservedly so), none of them were as dominant together as the Ragin’ Cajuns inside-outside combo of Bryce Washington (double-double machine) and Frank Bartley IV (ex-BYU guard). Check out the lineup stats from Hoop Lens:

Both were very efficient despite a heavy minutes load (ranked 9th and 2nd, respectively, in percentage of Sun Belt minutes played), and with lessened playing time demands this season, chances seem high that they can maintain their strong shooting numbers.

The addition of three high major transfers and a talented freshman wing should help ease that minutes burden. Marcus Stroman from South Carolina may start at point guard (unless one of two sophomores, PJ Hardy or Kadavion Evans, seizes the job), and his physical style at lead guard should help create open shots and chances to drive for the other perimeter weapons. Those weapons include Malik Marquetti, a 6’6 athlete from USC, and Cedric Russell, a local recruit. Both can score in bunches; they’ll just need to do so within the offense and not chuck ill-advised shots. Finally, Jakeenan Gant offers a bushel of potential after a mostly-failed two year experiment at Mizzou, and his athleticism and burgeoning shooting stroke could make him a matchup nightmare on offense and an enforcer on D.

The biggest question mark in Lafayette will be getting all of the assembled talent to mesh. Almost the entire rotation returns, but all three high-major transfers will be expecting to play big minutes. Marlin’s advantage is that last year’s team was 337th in bench minutes – that means he can play a much deeper rotation this year while still placating everyone. If the collection of talent realizes how high their own ceiling is, the Cajuns can be an awesome Sun Belt squad, but if they clash, there’s serious downside risk for them, because the teams I have ranked 2-5 just behind them could all push overtake them in the league race.

Defensively, Marlin places a major emphasis on disrupting on the perimeter, taking away jump shot opportunities and passing lanes to force isolation opportunities. Gant and 6’11 senior Larenz Stalcup can both be intimidators at the rim, and if teams are forced to pull up and take tough two-point jumpers, that would be a boon to what was a pitiful interior D last year (returning forward Justin Miller simply doesn’t disrupt at the rim). They’ll mix in some zone when needed, but with the depth and high-level athleticism that this team possesses, I’d hope that Marlin will favor the man-to-man approach.

Bottom Line: With an intriguing blend of proven Sun Belt talent and high major additions, it’s easy to get seduced by the Cajuns this year. I hope I’m not ignoring chemistry too much, though, because the role allocation on a team like UT Arlington probably makes more sense. I’m trusting Marlin to correctly assemble those pieces and unseat the Mavericks at the top of the league, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this prediction blow up in my face.

2.      UT Arlington

Key Returners: Kevin Hervey, Erick Neal, Kaelon Wilson, Nathan Hawkins
Key Losses: Jalen Jones, Drew Charles, Jorge Bilbao
Key Newcomers: Davion Turner, David Azore, Johnny Hamilton, Tim Holland


Postseason Projection: 12-13 seed (As mentioned in UL Lafayette preview - I think they come up just short in the regular season, but win the conference tourney)

Outlook: Two seasons ago when I previewed UT Arlington, I said this embarrassing quote about the Mavericks: “they lack a true all-conference level returning talent like Emani Gant or Wesley Person to build around.” I also picked them last. Then, Kevin Hervey emerged into a destroyer of worlds, and UTA started off 13-3 (4-0) with wins at Ohio State and at Memphis. Only a heartbreaking torn ACL that ended Hervey’s season prevented me from quitting 3MW in its infant stages out of shame, although the Mavs still admirably finished third in the league at 13-7. That memory has me very wary of picking them second this year, despite losing some key rotation pieces.

Hervey is a star with an outside shot at an NBA career thanks to his versatility and athleticism. 

Strictly in a roster composition sense, UTA reminds me of this year’s Notre Dame squad. Both teams feature a dynamite undersized senior big man who dominates the glass (Hervey and Bonzie Colson), paired with a senior point guard floor general (Erick Neal and Matt Farrell). Both teams lost a ton of wing talent, but such obvious strengths at two crucial positions should allow them to maintain a high level of play.

Alright, that’s where the similarities end. Very unlike Notre Dame,  Arlington loves to push the ball in transition, as Neal is a blur with the ball and Hervey is adept at ripping down a defensive board and immediately attacking. As a senior, though, Neal needs to take far better care of the ball (3.5 turnovers per game, whoa there!).

As mentioned, the Mavs did lose a lot of talent, though. Drew Charles and Jalen Jones take with them a ton of made threes and big baskets, and Jorge Bilbao was one of the nation’s very best offensive rebounders. When Hervey plays his more natural four position, coach Scott Cross will likely turn to Link Kabadyundi, a strong offensive rebounder in his own right at 7’1, although he doesn’t fit quite as well into the team’s breakneck tempo. Johnny Hamilton, a transfer from Virginia Tech and another 7-footer, barely saw the court for the similarly-fast-paced Hokies, but he could be a contributor in the Sun Belt.

Kaelon Wilson and Nathan Hawkins are the most likely starters on the wings, two experienced seniors who thrive while getting to the basket in transition. They combined to shoot a gruesome 30/133 (23%) from deep, though, so Cross may need to find a way to get more shooting on the court. That means turning to Davion Turner and Mairega Clarke, two former JUCO players (Clarke missed last year with injury). Turner, the #84-ranked JUCO player per, is the rare 6’9 player who’s exclusively listed as a guard on the official team roster, but his length and shooting will be a great asset on both ends. Clarke is a decent shooter as well, although he’s barely played basketball since 2014-15 after limited minutes in 2015-16, his first year in Arlington. Finally, freshman David Azore filled it up in high school, and while he may not solve the perimeter shooting issues, he’ll be another transition weapon.

Defensively, Cross’s scheme is designed to limit penetration and post entries, forcing teams to operate from the perimeter (a good strategy in the shooting-starved Sun Belt). Neal and Wilson use their quickness to harass opposing ball-handlers and disrupt passing lanes, and the pair of 7-footers will certainly help the Mavericks’ interior defense. Those two need to give Hervey a boost on the defensive glass, too, as the team’s rebounding strategy was essentially, “you got this, Kevin!”  

Bottom Line: Behind Hervey and Neal, the Mavs have a strong chance to win the regular season title in back to back years. Cross hopes that finally leads to an NCAA Tournament bid, and if it does, he may be on to bigger and better things after interviewing at New Mexico this offseason (and losing a special senior class). Due to the team’s relative dearth of wing shooting and the slow-footed size, I have them falling just short of the regular season title, but I would bet a few (small fractions of) bitcoins on this senior-laden squad winning the conference tourney and finally making a trip to the Big Dance.

3.      Georgia Southern

Key Returners: Ike Smith, Tookie Brown, Mike Hughes, Jake Allsmiller, BJ Gladden, Montae Glenn
Key Losses: Devonte Boykins
Key Newcomers: Jared Hamilton, Quan Jackson


Postseason Projection: CBI

Outlook: Georgia Southern is the rare team that returns all five starters – for the second year in a row. After being one of the youngest teams in the country in 2015-16 (350th in KenPom’s experience rankings, to be exact), the freshman and sophomores exhibited significant growth last season, storming out to a 7-0 conference lead in late January before succumbing to a late season swoon. With the gang back together for another go-round, the Eagles are a prime contender in the Sun Belt.

Coach Mark Byington is very aware of where his team’s strengths lie (the guards), and he emphasizes those strengths by running a spaced-out, pro-style pick-and-roll system with shooters dotting the perimeter and skilled penetrators attacking off the dribble. Georgia Southern ran the highest share of pick-and-rolls in the country by a wide margin last season, per Synergy, with their PnR rate of 44.2% nearly doubling the national average of 22.9%. Tookie Brown, the 5’11 dynamo, is the primary initiator, but Mike Hughes and Ike Smith also get plenty of chances with the ball in their hands.

Brown is incredibly quick, able to break down the defense and force opponents to collapse onto his penetration (thus opening up perimeter shots for Smith, Hughes, and three-point bomber Jake Allsmiller). He struggles to finish over size, though, so defenses eventually learned to simply let Brown challenge taller players at the rim and live with the (usually inefficient) results. He also shot poorly from deep, but a lot of that is attribtued to how many shots he took off the bounce (over half of his attempts). Smith was more efficient, and he benefitted greatly from defenders constantly having to recover out to him after sagging to help on Brown.

The team’s “rollers” are a diverse group. Montae Glenn is purest form of the position, a catch-and-dunk type offensive player who crashes the offensive glass maniacally. He’s also the best interior defender according to Hoop Lens data, though Coye Simmons is also a useful paint presence. BJ Gladden and Shawn O’Connell are other options, though undersized.

For the Eagles to truly contend, they’ll need to shore up the defensive end. Hughes is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country per Jordan Majewski (the mid-major maestro - @jorcubsdan on Twitter), but he was limited by a knee injury last year. If he can guard the opponent’s best scorer effectively again, that will be a huge boost.

Byington will also mix in some trapping zones, attempting to help the Eagles get out in transition more via the turnover route. To that end, two lanky newcomers – Jacksonville State transfer Jared Hamilton and redshirt freshman Quan Jackson – will be excellent additions, helping to make life miserable for opposing guards. Hamilton has star potential in the future after a very effective freshman year in the Ohio Valley.

Bottom Line: As skilled as this team is, it can definitely stand to improve on both ends of the floor. At times last year, the offense felt too “my turn, your turn” with the guards rotating shooting possessions, and the defense needs significantly more physicality and intensity. Byington is a solid young coach, though, and with the plethora of pieces he has to work with, expect the Eagles to be in the thick of the conference title race.

4.      Troy

Key Returners: Jordon Varnado, Wesley Person Jr., Kevin Baker, Juan Davis
Key Losses: Jeremy Hollimon, Devon Walker
Key Newcomers: Javan Johnson, Darian Adams, Malik Burnett


Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT

Outlook: Troy spent the first 2/3 of last season playing mediocre basketball – as evidenced by their 12-12 (4-6) record through 24 games. After that, though, the team swept the Louisiana road trip (Lafayette and Monroe) and catapulted themselves to a 10-2 finish to the Sun Belt season (including four straight in the Sun Belt Tournament). They couldn’t compete with Duke in the NCAAs, but it was still a highly successful season for Phil Cunningham and crew – and the success may not stop there!

The return of dynamic duo Jordon Varnado and Wesley Person means that the Trojan offense will continue to be prolific, led by the exceptional versatility of both players. Person prefers to shoot and Varnado is a dynamic slasher, but both guys are perfectly capable of swapping those roles, making them very difficult to guard. Varnado also has an efficient post game – 84th percentile in the country – so you can’t just stick a wing on him.

Going along with Varnado and Person’s rim-attaking abilities, the offense thrives off the bounce. Kevin Baker is the primary ball-handler, and his ability to get in the lane and draw a second defender allows the wings to attack against recovering or rotating opponents. The drive-and-dish philosophy gets them a lot of open looks as well, and Juan Davis is a nice stretch big to space the floor. Darian Adams, a redshirt freshman, and Malik Burnett, a true freshman, will both be options on the perimeter as well.

Cunningham will miss the athleticism of DeVon Walker and Jeremy Hollimon, though, so he’ll need returners Alex Hicks and Shawn Hopkins plus freshman Javan Johnson will need to step into much larger roles. Hicks should be ready after getting solid minutes off the bench last year, and the defense yielded its lowest points per possession when he was on the floor, per Hoop Lens.  Johnson, although thin, could be the next great Troy wing – like Varnado, he’s long and can score in a variety of ways.

Defensively, Troy needs to do...something. Their lack of true size made it tough to match up last year, and opponents were able to score almost however they pleased – at the rim or from deep. Two-point jumpers made up only 17.8% of opponents’ shot selection, 3rd-lowest in the country, meaning they were almost exclusively taking the most efficient shots in the game. Troy’s D didn’t force turnovers, either, so they simply weren’t making anything difficult.   

Bottom Line: After such a successful close to last season coupled with the return of the team’s two stars, Troy has to be excited about the future. The Sun Belt is emerging as one of the country’s best mid-major conferences (ranked 15th per KenPom last season), so the talent around the Trojans is also growing, but the team’s potent offense will make them a consistent threat on a night-to-night basis.

5.      Georgia State

Key Returners: D’Marcus Simonds, Isaiah Williams, Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas, Devin Mitchell
Key Losses: Jeremy Hollowell, Willie Clayton
Key Newcomers: Jordan Tyson, Josh Linder, Kane Williams,


Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT

Outlook: I will never be able to think about Georgia State without picturing Ron Hunter falling off his little coaching stool during the 2015 NCAA Tournament. After Hunter had torn his Achilles celebrating making the NCAA Tournament (my absolute nightmare injury, I think), his son had just hit a game-winning three to boost the 14th-seeded Panthers past 3-seed Baylor, so it was a completely understandable reaction – but endlessly entertaining nonetheless.

Two and a half years later, RJ Hunter is in the G-League, Papa Hunter’s Achilles has recovered, and the coach continues to lead a strong program in Atlanta, built around his creative zone traps on defense. Georgia State has settled into zone (usually a halfcourt, extended 1-2-2 trapping scheme) at a top-10 rate every season over the last four years:

The Panthers rarely press full-court (less than 10% of the time), but their defense still revolves around forcing turnovers and making would-be scorers uncomfortable. Solid rim protectors on the back line complement that pressure, and although mainstays Willie Clayton and Jeremy Hollowell graduated, Jordan Session seems ready for a larger role, and Chris Clerkley has some shot-blocking potential. Jordan Tyson, a transfer from St. Bonaventure, could also turn out to be a monster in the paint.

Hunter cleverly rotates who’s at the point of his 1-2-2 trap – sometimes it’s a quick guard, like D’Marcus Simonds or Austin Donaldson, and sometimes he goes with more length – Devin Mitchell or Malik Benlevi are candidates this year. The combination of so many athletes constantly swarming the ball has a cumulative effect over the course of the game, as well.

That kind of defense does have its trade-offs, though. Georgia State gives up a massive share of threes, making them extremely prone to hot shooting teams that can move the ball against the traps. Oftentimes, teams aren’t skilled enough to punish the Panthers’ athletic defenders, but if you take care of the ball against them, you can feast.

Offensively, Hunter will build the offense around Simonds’s dynamic skill set. He’s a devastating driver that can get into the lane with ease (and finishes very efficiently when there – 66%, which would rank him about 30th in the country if he were a team. Several shooters emerged around him last year to help space the floor, chief among them Jeff Thomas and Benlevi. They’ll miss Hollowell’s ability to stretch the floor as a forward, but playing small with either Thomas or Benlevi at the four could alleviate those concerns (and both can block a few shots on D, too).

Isaiah Williams is another solid ball-handling piece, and a crucial one because he often allows Simonds to play off the ball, where he can attack closeouts and start his freight train drives to the bucket. Two freshmen, Josh Linder and Kane Williams, should augment the offense even further, with Linder having some guard skills after a late high school growth spurt.

Bottom Line: Hunter has another talented roster, and if Simonds blossoms into a conference player of the year candidate (very possible), Georgia State’s ceiling could be right up there with the other title challengers. The key is maintaining the interior defense (the perimeter pressure should be in good hands), so the big men will need to grow into their roles quickly. If all goes well, though, Hunter may be falling for joy again.

6.      Coastal Carolina

Key Returners: Jaylen Shaw, Demario Beck, Artur Labinowicz
Key Losses: Elijah Wilson, Colton Ray-St. Cyr, Shivaughn Wiggins
Key Newcomers:  Zac Cuthbertson, Ajay Sanders, Tony Jackson, Devante Jones


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: A thing I did not know about Coastal Carolina: their mascot, the Chanticleer, is actually pronounced “SHON-ti-clear” (or SHONTS, for short), per the school’s website. I’ve been calling them the “Chants” (rhymes with ants or dance) for years now! Always continue learning folks, for learning is truly the fountain of youth. Or something like that.

Anyways, Coastal Carolina had a very solid first season after making the transition from the Big South conference, finishing 10-8 in league play and tying for sixth. Cliff Ellis, in all of his 71-year-old glory, is back for another year on the sidelines, and his garbage zone defenses are here to give up 3-pointers galore.

Ellis’s schemes are renowned for how many perimeter shots they give up (they finished dead last in defensive three-point rate last year – 3-point attempts / total field goal attempts), and if opponents are hot from the outside, Coastal can get run off the court fairlyquickly. The flip side of giving up so many shots, though, is that the Chants own the paint – Demario Beck and Amidou Bamba are both solid shot-blockers and defensive rebounders, and Bamba could really blossom while making the traditional freshman-to-sophomore leap.

The changing defences also keep opponents on their toes, and solid perimeter length helps them to contest the shots that they do allow. Artur Labinowicz, JUCO transfer Ajay Sanders, and freshman Tony Jackson are all options on the wing, andthe team’s point guard, Jaylen Shaw, is also relatively long.

Offensively, Shaw will absorb an even larger burden after Elijah Wilson and Colton Ray-St Cyr graduated, and the former South Carolina Gamecock should be in line for a huge year. He’s great penetrator with a threatening outside shot, and he’s adept enough at finding open shooters to prevent defences from totally collapsing on him when he gets in the paint.

Here is Jaylen Shaw, contemplating the pronunciation of "Chanticleers."

Beck gives the team an interior threat, but his deranged tendency to launch threes despite his 23% success rate from deep is significant drain on the team’s overall offensive efficiency. If he “knows his role” better this year and focuses on dominating the glass/finishing inside like he’s capable of, it will be a major plus for the Chants. Zac Cuthbertson, a junior college transfer with a smooth outside stroke, could give Ellis an option as a stretch four, which would also force Beck to stay inside the paint more often.

Bottom Line: Coastal Carolina seems to have transitioned to a new league without much of a hitch, and with Shaw and Beck as the team leaders, they have enough talent to stay in the conference’s top half. I’m guessing Ellis is planning to make sure the program is stabilized in the Sun Belt before finally retiring (with 811 career wins!!), so I expect him to stick around for another year or two as the program gets acclimated to the new league. This isn’t a title-winning team, but it’s another solid entrant from a team that’s stepping up a weight class.

7.      Arkansas St.

Key Returners: Deven Simms, Rashad Lindsey, Tamas Bruce, Jahmiah Simmons, CJ Foster
Key Losses: Donte Thomas, Devin Carter
Key Newcomers: Ty Cockfield, Grantham Gillard, Marquis Eaton, Tristin Walley


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: I’m writing this on 9/27/17, and while Arkansas State itself has not been mentioned in any part of the FBI shitstorm hitting the sport, the Red Wolves may be a little squeamish right now. Why? Well, last offseason, the administration hit a home run with the hiring of Grant McCasland. Unfortunately, the out-of-the-ballpark bomb caugh the attention of North Texas, who hired him away after one season. In response, Arkansas State hired Mike Balado, who just spent four years coaching under – you guessed it – Rick Pitino at Louisville (and he “loves him like a father”)! Again, there’s no evidence yet that Balado has done anything wrong, but the entire Pitino coaching tree may be tainted fruit with all we’ve seen over the past few years.

With luck, I won’t have to rewrite this preview, so I’ll operate under the assumption that Balado is coaching the Red Wolves this season. Given that, Balado is a nice fit for a roster that fits decently into a Pitino-esque system.  McCasland didn’t press much last year, but this is a Rick Pitino disciple we’re talking about, and he has a guard-heavy roster led by Deven Simms (the team’s best player and excellent slasher), Rashad Lindsey, CJ Foster, and junior college transfer Ty Cockfield. There’s depth behind those guys, as well (mostly newcomers), so cranking up the pressure and playing a deeper rotation is a viable option.

 Another critical element of the Pitino system is paying players to attend (just kidding) dominating the glass on both ends – to that goal, Balado is going to love Tamas Bruce and undersized Jahmiah Simmons. Bruce would have been in the top 10 and top 50 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding rates, respectively, had he played a slightly higher percentage of minutes. Unfortunately, he committed 8.3 fouls per game and shot 37% from the free throw line, so the weaknesses in his game forced McCasland to bench him more than he’d prefer. If Balado can rein in the fouling, Bruce could have a breakout dominant year. Simmons, a sophomore, is a bowling ball-type player who started at “center” for a large portion of games, despite standing only 6’4. With Balado’s goal of playing bigger (Pitino almost always plays two true bigs), Simmons may play more at the 3, meaning a lot of minutes for freshman Morgan McKay and JUCO transfers Tristin Walley and Shaquillo Fritz. None of those guys project as a star, but they shouldn’t need to be.

Perhaps the biggest question for this team is shooting – the graduated Devin Carter made 100 threes last year, while the returning players made a combined 98. That means freshman guard Marquis Eaton and JUCO Grantham Gillard will get chances immediately. Balado is confident the returners can step up their production, but if he’s wrong, the two newbies appear ready to be contributors.

Bottom Line: Balado seems like a good fit in Jonesboro, but the administration will need to make sure his background is squeaky clean to avoid any NCAA sanctions. If he is, the roster has some nice fits for his system – Bruce should thrive in a more interior-focused offense, while the stable of guards can create havoc flying around in the pressure D. He may not be as successful as McCasland one in his first year, but if that means the Red Wolves aren’t facing another coaching search next spring, maybe that’s a good thing. 

8.      Texas State

Key Returners: Nijal Pearson, Immanuel King, Nedeljko Prijovic
Key Losses: Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, Ojai Black, Bobby Conley
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Gurley, Tre'Larenz Nottingham, Alex Peacock, Eric Terry, Shelby Adams, Reggie Miller


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: When thinking about the juggernaut Brad Underwood built at Stephen F. Austin, it’s easy to forget that the groundwork for his dominance (not to mention the guy who recruited Thomas Walkup) was laid by Danny Kaspar, a Texas legend who’s been coaching in the Lone Star State since 1979 – 38 years! Look at this resume:

That’s one hell of a run – crazy that he’s only made one NCAA Tournament (Incarnate Word was NAIA while he was there).

While many Sun Belt coaches come by their systems from the influence of an old boss, Kaspar has mostly blazed his own trail, probably due to the number of different mentors he’s had. Offensively, the Bobcats run a deliberate, patient motion offense with a lot of off-ball movement, often working the shot clock down into the last ten seconds before really attacking. This purposeful grind means Texas St. plays at one of the slowest tempos in the country, and unfortunately, being picky about which shots they take has not led to efficiency like it has for Wisconsin or Virginia.

Last year was the first season in San Marcos where the offense really started to resemble his better SFA teams – sharp ball movement and enough shooting to force the defense to spread out. The loss of Kavin Gilder-Tilbury (KGT) is a big blow, but between budding star Nijal Pearson and impact transfer Isaiah Gurley, the Bobcats should still have some weapons on the wing. A stretch four would be a difference-maker, but the likely starter there, Nedeljko Prijovic, shot a dismal 7/39 (18%) from deep last year. He entered with a decent reputation as a shooter, though, so expect some development there in his sophomore year. JUCO transfer Alex Peacock is a floor-spacing option if Prijovic continues to struggle.

While not reliant on one individual to break down the defense, Kaspar does rely on his PGs to set the unselfish tone for the offense, and of the three candidates – Marlin Davis and freshmen Reggie Miller and Shelby Adams - will be charged with running the show. Kaspar is concerned about their defensive ability, and Adams in particular should be a prolific scorer, but it remains to be seen which guy best fits the role for this team. 

Defensively, the man-to-man defense should be the real strength of the team. Kaspar favors an intense, physical-style man D that gets in opponents’ shorts and forces them to put the ball on the floor. That forces would-be scorers into the presence of Immanuel King and Prijovic, a capable shot-blocking duo. Prijovic is an especially versatile defender that will help replace KGT on that end, and the perimeter corps of Pearson, Gurley, Davis, Tre'Larenz Nottingham, and Shelby Adams should excel in the extended, switching scheme. If opponents take care of the ball and/or have big, dynamic driving guards, they can beat the stout man-to-man, but Kaspar’s scheme is a tough nut to crack.

Bottom Line: After just missing the NCAA Tournament last year (lost to Troy in the Sun Belt finals), Kaspar probably has a bitter taste in his mouth. It may be hard to get that close this year without KGT and their senior captain PG, Ojai Black, but Pearson and Gurley should be a dangerous wing duo who make the Bobcats a true Sun Belt contender in 2018-19.

9.      Little Rock

Key Returners: Deondre Burns, Oliver Black
Key Losses: Lis Shoshi, Marcus Johnson, Jalen Jackson, Kemy Osse, Maurius Hill
Key Newcomers:  Anthony Black, Camron Reedus, KJ Gilmore, Khari Harley, Wadly Mompremier, Kris Bankston, Cam Corcoran, Cezanne Carson


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: If we only ranked based off returning talent, Little Rock might somehow finish worse than last – they lost 6 of their top 7 scorers (including their top 5). Coach Wes Flanigan had a rough first year after succeeding Chris Beard’s one-hit wonder status, but with a massive influx of new talent and some familiarity with the head coachinb job, Flanigan should stabilize the program and begin to build the future.

The most distinguishable stylistic trait of Beard/Flanigan’s teams is the pack line defense. Built to slow down offenses, pack the paint, and prevent drives and post touches (double every time), it’s traditionally a consistent year-over-year system. Flanigan’s first squad struggled to force poor shots and turnovers at the rate of Beard’s Trojans, and the team’s defensive efficiency plummeted from 34th to 184th as a result. The team has several newcomers in the backcourt that should be able to ramp up the ball pressure (protected by sagging help defenders), and if that’s the case, the defense should progress back towards the top 130 or so.

The perimeter rotation will be almost entirely brand new, with only reserves Deondre Burns and Andre Jones returning to battle for minutes. Junior college transfer Anthony Black seems likely to start at point guard, and his willingness to harass opposing ball-handlers should be a great asset. JUCO transfers may also man the wing spots, as Camron Reedus is a pure scorer, KJ Gilmore has great defensive potential at 6’5, and Cezanne Carson arrives after a circuitous route that started at D-I bottom-feeder Alabama A&M. Freshman Cameron Corcoran and Ohio grad transfer Khari Harley are two other high-upside options, with Harley in particular a mismatch in the Sun Belt as a 6’9 wing who made 14 starts for the Bobcats back in 2015-16. If he can harness his athleticism and ball skills, he could be a breakout player on both ends of the court. 

Having two solid rim protectors on the back line should help the defense, as well: returner Oliver Black and Wadly Mompremier, the team’s other Ohio grad transfer (yes, they have two – I bet they’re buddies!). Kris Bankston is a physical presence who can fill the Roger Woods role as a banger and scrappy defender.

Offensively, the offense struggled with playing combo guards like Marcus Washington and Kemy Osse as nominal point guards, so the additions of Black and Gilmore could bring a new element to the flagging Flanigan offense. They often had to play through Lis Shoshi, a skilled shooter and passer as a big man, so a more perimeter-based offensive attack will be a welcome sight. Burns is a good shooter, as are newcomers Reedus and Black (both over 39% from deep on their JUCO stops), so floor spacing should also improve.

Bottom Line: Flanigan doesn’t have the Beard pedigree of winning as a head coach at all kinds of random stops, but he’s spent a lot of time as an assistant, and I expect him to grow into the head coaching gig. This year may be another transition year with a young team (aside from the grad transfers), but he can prove his potential if the team shows progress despite so much roster turnover.

10.   UL Monroe

Key Returners: Travis Munnings, Sam McDaniel, Marvin Jean-Pierre, Jordon Harris, Sam Alabakis
Key Losses: Nick Coppola, Marcus Washington
Key Newcomers: Brandon Newman, Michael Ertel, Calvin Anderson, Donovan Walker


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Much is often made about teams that experience massive turnarounds from season to season – whether it’s via coaching change or the addition of a bevy of new talent, most people love to see a team go from bad to good. The attention to the reversal of those fortunes, though, rarely gets the same kind of publicity (for good reason). Unfortunately for the Warhawks of UL Monroe, last season saw them tumble from 20-14 (15-5) in 2015-16 to 9-24 (2-16), a precipitous drop that also saw their KenPom rating nearly double from 133 to 262.

The primary reason for that drop was the anemic offense. ULM simply could not score points in coach Keith Richard’s slow, deliberate system, as a lack of shooting and inability to pierce the interior of defenses suffocated the team’s spacing and efficiency. Travis Munnings and Sam McDaniel give Richard a talented forward duo, and Munnings could grow into a star if he’s more thoroughly refined his shooting stroke. The 2015-16 team thrived by having mobile bigs who could stretch the floor, and though neither player is a true lights-out shooter, playing more lineups with those two manning the 4 & 5 spots could open things up offensively (despite both only standing 6’6).

For a team that drains the shot clock the way the Warhawks do, it’s vital to have someone who can create one-on-one. Graduated PG Nick Coppola was more of a steady hand than a dynamic initiator, but with his departure, one of the committee of Brandon Newman (JUCO), Michael Ertel (freshman), and Jordon Harris (returning senior) will need to emerge. My bet is on Newman, the biggest and best passer of the group, though Ertel’s scoring prowess could demand minutes too.

Traditionally, Richard teams are much more solid on the defensive end. He uses a mix of defenses, though he’s gone away from zone some over the last two seasons – see the percentages of each the Warhawks have played per Synergy over the last four years:

Part of that is due to the team having more mobile bigs – with Munnings and McDaniel manning the frontline, the team can switch most screens and recover to would-be shooters far more easily. Australian center Sam Alabakis deters that somewhat, but he and bit player Roderick Taylor are the only two shot-blocking presences, so he’ll see some time clogging the lane. Marvin Jean-Pierre is probably the team’s best perimeter defender, and at 6’3, he can match up with whoever the opponent’s best guard is.

Bottom Line: Monroe had one of the biggest drop-offs in the country last year compared to 2015-16 (11th worst, by KenPom Adjusted Efficiency Margin rank), and the Warhawks will try to claw their way back up the rankings this time around. Due to the continued lack of offensive game-breakers, though, that climb may be longer than they hope, particularly with a very strong crop of players/teams at the top of the Sun Belt.

11.   Appalachian State

Key Returners: Ronshad Shabazz, Griffin Kinney, Tyrell Johnson, Isaac Johnson
Key Losses: Emarius Logan, Jake Babic, Patrick Good
Key Newcomers:  O’Showen Williams, Hunter Seacat, Justin Forrest, Nick Hough


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Two years ago when I previewed the Sun Belt, I fell in love with the idea of a McKillop disciple (Jim Fox) building another small North Carolina program into a contender. I placed the Mountaineers third in the conference standings, a far cry from their actual 10th-place finish that year. The lesson? It’s pretty obvious: any time you begin a preview with “App State may not be the third best team in the league,” don’t predict that team to finish third!

I still love the McKillop motion offense that emphasizes ball movement, constant screening, and lights-out shooting – when run correctly and with the proper pieces, that motion can slice up nearly any defense. The problem is, this Mountaineer team does not have those pieces at all. McKillop’s best Davidson teams have four or five shooters on the floor, featuring versatile forwards that can step behind the three-point line (Will Archambault, Jake Cohen, Peyton Aldridge), and virtuoso passers (Jason Richards, one of Dell Curry’s kids, Jack Gibbs). This App State squad lacks both of those elements.

What it does have is Ronshad Shabazz, a star wing who could have one of the country’s highest usage rates this year following the departure of the rest of the backcourt. He actually took the 32nd-highest share of shots in the country while on the court last year, and his ability to score from all three levels (threes, midrange, at the rim) while also getting to the rim makes him a matchup nightmare. The mystery, then, is why App State was so much better without Shabazz:

One possibility is that the ball movement was actually better and teammates knew they couldn’t just lean on their star to go get a bucket. The problem is, this year’s squad doesn’t have the shooters to threaten the defense. Griffin Kinney, Tyrell Johnson, and Isaac Johnson are a nice frontcourt, and Isaac especially was a force when on the court as a freshman. Still, though, none of those guys can stretch the defense. Only Bennett Holley can do that of the Mountaineers’ bigs, and the offense excelled with him on the court – they scored 1.17 points per possession with him, and 0.99ppp without him. Unfortunately, he’s also a foul-prone, poor defender.

The other offensive issue I mentioned is the lack of creators/shooters on the perimeter – the backcourt is thin with only JUCO transfer O’Showen Williams, freshman Justin Forrest, and Division II transfer Nick Hough complementing Shabazz. Williams can play some point, and Forrest and Hough can score, but there just doesn’t seem to be a deep enough corps of guards to execute Fox’s system.

Defensively, App State can get destroyed by dribble penetration, and despite a lack of athletes, Fox has steadfastly refused to play more zone (which also echoes McKillop’s man-to-man tenets). They’ll extend outside the arc take away perimeter chances completely, but when that results in giving up lay-ups, that’s not advisable.

Bottom Line: McKillop has proven repeatedly in the Southern Conference and the A-10 that his offensive system can light it up. Fox simply hasn’t been able to find that same success in the Sun Belt, and the defensive scheme, while effective against the right team, simply isn’t a good fit against most conference opponents. Unless the Mountaineers show marked improvement this year (and that would shock me), Fox may be asking McKillop for an assistant job again soon.

12.   South Alabama

Key Returners: Josh Ajayi, Herb McGee, Dederick Lee
Key Losses: Ken Williams, Don MuepoKelly, Nick Stover, Georgi Boyanov, Shaq Calhoun
Key Newcomers: Rozelle Nix, Jordan Andrews, Rodrick Sikes, John Pettway, Joe Thompson


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: A promising 6-1 nonconference start that included wins @UNLV, @Southern Miss, and vs. Youngstown St. seemed to indicate big things on the horizon for South Alabama. But despite playing the 317th-ranked nonconference (per KenPom) and boasting four key seniors in the starting lineup, the Jaguars went 8-17 the rest of the way, including 7-11 in the Sun Belt. With that senior class moving on to work at Enterprise (or something else other than sports), the team with the best acronym in college sports (USA) will need a major overhaul.

Matthew Graves seemed like an outstanding hire in the spring of 2013. As Brad Stevens’s associate head coach, Graves helped build the program into a true national contender (including two trips to the title game); many thought he would just take over for Stevens when he inevitably took a bigger job. Unfortunately, he’s never had an offense rank better than 238th in his four seasons in Mobile, and that’s unlikely to change this year.

Due to a dearth of shooting and individual creative ability, the offense focuses on getting out in transition (usually off a forced turnover) and barreling to the rim. Two candidates to run the show, Herb McGee and Dederick Lee, barely shot the ball last year, but they’ll need to prove that they can put teammates in positions to score (and get to the tin themselves). The team’s best transition weapon will likely be Second-Team JUCO All-American Rodrick Sikes, a 6’1 speedster who can attack the basket or fire from deep. Youngstown State transfer Jordan Andrews, who surely enjoyed beating the Penguins last year despite sitting out, will immediately be the team’s best shooter, and he’ll be needed, given that USA was a disaster from deep in ’16-‘17.

When forced to slow down, though, the perimeter guys should feed sophomore Josh Ajayi early and often. Despite coming in behind a veteran frontcourt, Ajayi bullied his way to double-digit scoring in his first year, and with his strength and surprising shooting ability, he’ll be a load for Jaguar opponents. An even bigger load will be Pitt grad transfer Rozelle Nix, who may be the largest human in the conference (6’11, 330lbs.). An Ajayi-Nix frontcourt pairing might also help alleviate the team’s glaring rebounding concerns, given that they would have 575 lbs. of girth in the paint.

Defensively, Graves turned up the heat last year – all the way. USA ranked 14th in the country in forced turnover rate, and Lee and McGee should shine again in even bigger roles this year. Forward Nick Davis is an impact player on the perimeter and at the rim on D, and his abilities earned him greatly increased playing time towards the end of last season (I think he’ll start over Nix to give the opening lineup more speed and versatility). Trhae Mitchell, a sophomore wing, has similar defensive upside – he’s allergic to the basketball on offense (miniscule usage), but if he helps key the pressure on D, he’ll play plenty. Strangely enough, he had the second-best block rate in the entire Sun Belt last season (conference games only).

Bottom Line: Graves might be in trouble here. He’s been in Mobile for four years, and he just lost a talented class without ever having a winning record, overall or in conference, with them. Unless the newcomers play even better than expected and the team’s offense miraculously gains competence, the Jaguars will struggle mightily this year, a dark omen for the former Butler coach-in-waiting.