- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: D’Marcus Simonds, Jr., Georgia State
Coach of the Year: Richie Riley, South Alabama
Newcomer of the Year: Daishon Smith, R Sr., Louisiana Monroe
Freshman of the Year: Nelson Phillips, Georgia State
1. Georgia State
Key Returners: D’Marcus Simonds, Devin Mitchell, Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas
Key Losses: Jordan Session, Isaiah Williams
Key Newcomers: Damon Wilson Jr. (Pitt), Nelson Phillips, Kavonte Ivery
Outlook: Georgia State enters 2018-19 as the likely unanimous favorite to take home the Sun Belt crown and repeat as its auto-bid representative in the Big Dance. Ron Hunter has established himself as one of the premier coaches in the conference and has led his Panthers to a 65-29 (.691) mark during their 5-year stint in the Sun Belt (the best mark amongst any other SB team during that span). With the majority of its production returning, including the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year, plus the major departures amongst other conference foes, GSU looks to be the team to beat heading into the season.
Hunter’s defensive system is a known commodity at this point. His Panthers are always amongst the toughest defenses in the league thanks to an extended 1-2-2 zone that forces turnovers and keeps opponents away from the hoop. GSU ran zone last year at the 6th highest rate in the country, and Hunter’s defensive scheme helped make up for a relatively small Panther frontcourt. Despite the height, though, GSU was one of the elite shot-blocking teams in the country (11th in block rate, per KenPom) and held opponents to just 50.6% near the rim (7th best mark, per Hoop-Math). Plus, what GSU lacks in forward height, it more than makes up in perimeter size.
Georgia State’s offense can be summarized as follows: the D’Marcus Simonds show plus a bunch of three pointers. The Panthers run a ton of pick-n-roll to free Simonds up at the top of the key to create for himself or his teammates spotting up from deep. Last year, GSU was the best 3P shooting team in the conference, sporting three or four guys on the floor at all times that shot over 40% from deep, making its offense nearly impossible to stop when combined with the best scorer in the league.
Simonds, a 3MW Top 50 player, flirted with the NBA Draft this offseason, but ultimately decided to come back to Atlanta for his third and probably last season. If you happened to catch the first half of the NCAA Tournament game between GSU and Cincinnati, then you’ve seen what kind of player Simonds can be. The Bearcats’ defense last year was one of the best in the KenPom era (since 2002), and they still couldn’t stop the 6’3” point guard, as he lit them up for the Panthers’ first 16 points of the ball game (he finished with 32):
Simonds was the 4th highest used player in the country last season (1st in the Sun Belt) and is pretty much unstoppable within the conference – he gets to the basket at will using his superior size and strength and can step out and shoot the ball when needed. While he certainly has a tendency to force bad shots, particularly from downtown (made only 26.9% of his 130 3P attempts), Simonds is vital to GSU on both ends of the floor. Last year, the Panthers were a net +0.21ppp Simonds played versus when he sat (+0.11ppp offensively; +0.10ppp defensively), per Hoop Lens:
Every star player needs role players that, well, know their role. Simonds has just that in the form of deadeye shooters waiting to catch and punish a helping defender. Devin Mitchell, a 3rd Team All-Sun Belt member last year, is a good player in his own right, but he excels on spots ups from deep, shooting 45.3% on 203 attempts last season (32nd best in the nation). Likewise, wings Malik Benlevi (40.4%) and Jeff Thomas (39.9%) are money from outside the arc. Thomas led the Sun Belt in eFG% and TS% as a junior last season and doubled as GSU’s most impactful defender per Hoop Lens.
When Simonds is not in the game, look for backup PG Kane Williams to resume his off-the-bench role. Williams is one of the few guards on the roster that prefers to slash versus shoot, and he would’ve led the Sun Belt in FT Rate had he hit the minutes qualification.
Hunter once again has the best-looking incoming class in the Sun Belt, featuring 3-star freshmen Nelson Phillips and Keonte Ivery and former Pitt guard Damon Wilson Jr. Phillips, a 4-star prospect in some places, fits Hunter’s typical player mold to a tee – he’s athletic, long, and can shoot the three. Look for him to challenge for a starting spot in year one and be a key player for GSU down the road. Ivery passed up a few Power 6 offers to play for Hunter; the 6’7” wing is strong for his age and scores the ball well from all three levels of the floor. What Ivery lacks in athleticism he more than makes up in basketball IQ. Wilson, a combo guard, wasn’t given much of a chance at Pitt, but he’s a talented ball handler that could excel in Hunter’s system.
Hunter’s big men are unproven and raw, so if GSU had a weakness, it would be its frontcourt. Luckily, the Panthers don’t rely on post play to score the basketball and Jordan Tyson, a former Bonnie, fits the shot-blocking and rebounding role that the GSU defense requires. Backup bigs Chris Clerkley and Josh Linder will have to see more time this year, but Hunter really isn’t one to go deep into his bench.
Bottom Line: Georgia State is hands down the class of the Sun Belt this season. The Panthers have the best player in the league, a plethora of 3-and-D wings, and enough rim protection to be equally dangerous on both ends of the floor. March is always mad, but GSU has the best shot out of any Sun Belt school to represent the conference in the Tourney in 2019.
2. Georgia Southern
Key Returners: Tookie Brown, Ike Smith, Montae Glenn, Quan Jackson
Key Losses: Mike Hughes, Jake Allsmiller, Coye Simmons, BJ Gladden
Key Newcomers: Simeon Carter (Iowa State), Isaiah Crawley (JUCO), Elijah McCadden, Will Dillard, Calvin Wishart
Outlook: Georgia Southern hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1992 when it was a member of the now-extinct TAAC (Trans America Athletic Conference). Credit Mark Byington, though, for reviving the GSU program back to competiveness after it toiled in futility under Charlton Young for four seasons. The Eagles have never won less than 10 games while members of the Sun Belt, and this season promises to be yet another one in which they’ll compete for the conference crown. Byington loses a couple key pieces from a solid 2017-18 squad that upended Wake Forest in Winston-Salem the first game of the season, but brings in an impressive class of newcomers to join a good-looking crop of upperclassmen.
GSU’s offense under Byington can be classified as a pick-n-roll focused, 4-out / 1-in attack. Offense is ran from the capable hands of Tookie Brown, a fantastic 3-year starter that enters his senior year looking to make his mark as one of the best Eagles of all-time. GSU ranked 7th in the country last season in percentage of possessions finished from a ball handler coming off a pick-n-roll set, the primary beneficiary of which was Brown:
Aside from the PnR, the Eagles crash the glass and feast off second chance points and rely on basket attack via the drive to get to the foul line. Shooters dot the arc ready to launch off Brown drive-and-kicks.
Defensively, GSU ranked 1st in the Sun Belt last season, a result of its high-pressure style man-to-man and an occasional token 1-2-2 trapping press. Byington’s guard corps is an athletic bunch with quick hands to force steals and errant passes. GSU’s Achilles heel on this end under Byington has consistently been defensive rebounding, a consequence of running mostly 4-guard lineups.
Time to talk Tookie. Brown was a 1st Team All-SB selection last season after shooting a conference best 47.7% from behind the arc (48.5% for year, 8th in the country) and ranking 4th in assist rate, 8th in steal rate, 3rd in FT rate, and 2nd in TS% (incredibly impressive for a high-usage guard). Brown attacks pick-n-rolls with a fervor, using his superior quickness to split hedges and either get to the rack or kick to his teammates spotting up from three. A staggering 47% of Brown’s shot attempts came near the rim last season (per Hoop Lens), and he finished 64.1% of those attempts when not earning a trip to the foul line. Brown is essential to GSU’s success this season as evidenced by the Eagles performing a net +0.22ppp better when Brown played versus when he sat in 2017-18 (that’s enormous - compare to Simonds above).
Brown will be joined in the starting backcourt by a familiar face in senior Ike Smith and will welcome rising sophomore Quan Jackson, who replaces long-time starter Mike Hughes. Smith has historically been a solid two-way player over his GSU career, but last season his offensive efficiency tanked. The 6’4” senior posted an ugly 87.1 O-rating and his 3P% dropped from 39.6% in 2016-17 to 27.9% (one look at his shooting form and it’s not hard to see why that happened). Defensively, though, Smith is as good a perimeter defender as any in the Sun Belt; he forces steals, blocks shots, and rebounds well from the wing. Similarly, Jackson should be a lockdown perimeter defender this year after leading the conference in steal rate last season. Offensively, Jackson is a very good outside shooter and can also put the ball on the floor.
Montae Glenn will be the starting center for the Eagles, but Byington will have several options to fill in the final spot. Glenn was super-efficient last season and ranked 3rd in the country (1st in SB) in offensive rebounding percentage. His size and strength is an asset in the Sun Belt, and he’s an effective shot blocker on defense.
Byington usually rolls out a 4-guard lineup, opting for offensive spacing and shooting over interior defense. But this year, Byington has the incoming talent to play more of a traditional two-man frontcourt. One of Simeon Carter, an Iowa State transfer, or Isaiah Crawley, a JUCO import, could potentially start at the 4 next to Glenn. Carter has gobs of potential after being shelved during his two years at ISU; his 7’1.5” wingspan makes him an enticing option as a rim protector and rebounder in the frontcourt. Crawley is a top 50 JUCO recruit that looks more than ready to play D1 basketball. At 6’7” 210 lbs., Crawley has the size to bang on the glass, but he’s also skilled enough to space the floor on offense where he can shoot or drive from the perimeter. Another JUCO transfer, Trey Dawkins, and redshirt freshman Tyshaun Crawford could also provide depth at the 4 and 5 positions.
With Brown and Smith graduating this year, Byington knew he needed to reload the coffers. Enter a talented three-guard freshman group featuring Elijah McCadden, Will Dillard, and Calvin Wishart, the next great GSU Eagles. McCadden is a “positionless” player that can run the point or play out on the wing; he’s extremely athletic and Byington says he should make an immediate impact as a creator and shooter. Dillard is a 3-star prospect per ESPN and is primarily a slasher, able to use his length and physicality to get to the bucket. Look for Dillard to compete with David-Lee Jones Jr. for backup PG minutes. Wishart is an under-the-radar combo guard that could be a really good college player in a few years. He has the requisite ball skills and shooting ability to be a competent player in the Sun Belt. Freshman David Viti is an extra body that can come off the pine and provide outside shooting.
Bottom Line: Georgia Southern should be in the hunt to finally nab the Sun Belt auto-bid to the Big Dance. Brown is one of the best guards in the conference and Byington’s crop of newcomers complements his incumbent roster perfectly. An improvement in interior defense would go a long way to getting the Eagles back to the Tournament.
Key Returners: Jakeenan Gant, Marcus Stroman, Malik Marquetti, Justin Miller, Cedric Russell
Key Losses: Frank Bartley, Bryce Washington, Johnathan Stove
Key Newcomers: Jeremy Hayes (JUCO), Trajan Wesley, RJ Gladney
Outlook: The Ragin’ Cajuns won the Sun Belt last year by 4 games, yet failed to reach the NCAA Tournament after falling to UTA in the SB Conference Tourney. Last season was Bob Marlin’s best during his 8-year tenure in Lafayette, but the long-time head coach has consistently had his Cajuns near the top of the league standings year-in and year-out. This season Marlin returns quite a few bodies from his 2017-18 squad, but loses three enormous pieces in Frank Bartley, Bryce Washington, and Johnathan Stove. Bartley and Washington were each 1st Team All-SB members and Stove was 4th on the team in scoring at 10.1ppg. Replacing their production on both ends of the floor will be Marlin’s greatest challenge in 2018-19.
Louisiana absolutely dominated the Sun Belt regular season last year, ranking 1st in both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. Marlin’s offense emphasized ball movement, glass crashing, running, and basket attack. The Cajuns ranked 6th in the country in offensive rebounding rate last year (much of which was due to Washington), 9th in A/FGM (a testament to their unselfishness), and looked to score in transition at a top 30 rate. Defensively, tough interior defense, dominance on the glass, and an athletic shell of perimeter stoppers made it a nightly challenge for Sun Belt teams to score against UL.
With three of its top four scorers gone from season ago, senior forward Jakeenan Gant, a 2017-18 3rd Team All-SB member, will take on the role of go-to guy within the offense. The former Missouri Tiger was a beast on the offensive glass and finished at a ridiculous 75% clip near the rim last season. He also expanded his game to add a three-point shot, a tool that he used effectively to keep post defenders honest on offense. On the other side of the floor, Gant was arguably the best defender in the league, picking up Defensive Player of the Year honors and posting the 21st most blocks per game in the country. Gant’s ability to play bigger than his actual size and defend the rim will allow Marlin to maintain a strong post defense despite his roster’s overall lack of frontcourt height:
Marcus Stroman returns to resume his role as the team’s point guard and offensive catalyst. The pass-first table setter ranked 14th nationally in APG and 2nd in the Sun Belt in assist rate during his junior season. When not looking to set up his teammates, Stroman is looking to attack the rim – nearly all of his buckets last year came by way of dribble penetration or the free throw line; he ranked 4th in the country in FT rate last season, a testament to his ability to get to the rack. Defensively, the former South Carolina Gamecock is one of the best perimeter defenders in the SB, ranking 2nd in steal rate in 2017-18.
Marlin’s former backcourt role players will be counted on to step up this season in order to replace Bartley’s and Stove’s offensive production. Senior wing Malik Marquetti, one of the few shooting specialists on the roster (40.5% on 121 3P attempts), returns as a deadly spot-up threat. Likewise, sophomore Cedric Russell and junior PJ Hardy will look to get more run and contribute as all-around scoring threats. Russell had a brilliant freshman season in which he shot 42.7% from deep – he’ll be able to start and play alongside Stroman in the backcourt or play the point when the senior leader takes breather.
Newcomers Jeremy Hayes (JUCO) and Trajan Wesley (freshman) will push the incumbent guards for playing time in the backcourt. Marlin compares Hayes to Bartley and Stove in that he can score, handle, and defend at a high level. Hayes is ranked as the #67 JUCO prospect in the class of 2018 and should get at least a few cracks at the starting rotation in his junior year. Wesley is an electric point guard that plays fast, strong, and with confidence. He’ll be a fun dynamo off the bench this year and in the future. Freshman Kobe Julien, the #5 recruit in the state of Louisiana per 247 Sports, was supposed to make a huge impact this season, but a February ACL tear in high school will keep the 6’6” guard off the floor in 2018-19.
As alluded to above, UL doesn’t have a ton of depth or size inside. Aside from Gant, Marlin will turn to juniors Justin Miller and Jerekius Davis and freshman RJ Gladney for frontcourt production. Miller was Louisiana’s highest used player when he was on the floor last year (not always a good thing), but saw his minutes cut in half from 2016-17 with the arrival of Gant. Miller likes to shoot, but he also provides value as a post passer and rebounder. His 6’6” 250 lb. frame is hefty enough to play the 5 in the Sun Belt. Davis is mostly a rebounding forward, but he can step out and shoot a bit. Gladney was the #6 ranked recruit in Louisiana per 247 Sports and will bring athleticism to the 4-spot. 6’10” freshman Kristian Lafayette (an apt surname) is super skinny and raw, so he’s likely a year or two away from contributing. Down the road, he could be a good shot blocker for the Cajuns.
Bottom Line: Despite the major losses of Bartley, Washington, and Stove, UL figures to be in the hunt near the top of the Sun Belt standings all season. Gant and Stroman are two of the better players in the conference, but Marlin will need one of his returning or incoming guards to step up and provide scoring punch to take home the title.
4. South Alabama
Key Returners: Rodrick Sikes, Josh Ajayi, Herb McGee, Trhae Mitchell, Jordan Andrews
Key Losses: Nick Davis, Dederick Lee
Key Newcomers: Kory Holden (South Carolina), RJ Kelly (Savannah State), Tashombe Riley (South Carolina State)
Outlook: South Alabama has struggled over the past five years, failing to finish with an above-.500 conference record in each season since 2013. The Jaguars, once a competitive Sun Belt basketball school, have wallowed in the bottom tier of the conference recently and haven’t made an NCAA Tournament in ten years. Enter Richie Riley, the former Nicholls State coach, who looks to bring in a whole new culture to USA and turn around the program. Riley resurrected the Colonels last season, leading NSU to a 15-3 Southland record behind a talented group of transfers and now looks to do the same thing at South Alabama. Three impact transfers join a Jaguars team that returns the majority of its production from a season ago and three more major transfers will join the squad in 2019-20.
USA’s offense was terrible last season, ranking in the bottom 50 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. Riley will hope to change that by implementing a system predicated on running the floor. Nicholls State was the 12th fastest team in the country last season, something USA could certainly replicate with its excess of talented, quick guards. Similarly, defensively, look for Riley to ramp up the pressure this season. His Colonels squad pressed at the 21st highest rate in the nation in 2017-18, and USA returns most of the personnel that made it one of the better Sun Belt defensive teams.
The Jags will be led by their guards this season, specifically seniors Rodrick Sikes and Kory Holden and junior Herb McGee. Sikes, a 2nd Team All-SB member last year, took the league by storm in his first season out of JUCO. The 6’1” guard plays off the ball and takes the majority of USA’s shots, gunning from anywhere on the floor. Though he shoots a high volume, Sikes was pretty efficient last year, knocking down 37% of his 230 3P attempts and getting to the foul line with ease. He’s best when pushing the ball in transition or working his defender in isolation.
McGee played a lot of point guard last season but may move off the ball more with Holden coming in. The 6’1” junior improved tremendously last year over an inefficient freshman season, but was still prone to turnovers and taking bad shots. Holden is a grad transfer from South Carolina and should either start immediately at the PG spot or play significant minutes in a sixth man role. Most of his 2017-18 season was cut short by injury, but anyone who watched Holden play at Delaware his first two collegiate seasons knows what kind of talent he possesses. Holden was the Hens’ best player back in 2015-16, earning a spot on the All-CAA 2nd Team as a sophomore and could be one of the better players in the Sun Belt this season if fully healthy.
Riley has options in whom to put in his starting lineup. A backcourt of Sikes / McGee / Holden is likely too small to be sustainable on defense, but if USA plays fast and aggressive, it may work wonders. Returning wing Trhae Mitchell will almost certainly be in the starting five at either the 3 or 4 spot. Mitchell is a stereotypical “glue guy” and arguably the Jags’ best defender, able to block shots and rack up steals. Returning sharpshooter Jordan Andrews could also see a bump in his minutes on the wing after a disappointing first season in Mobile. Andrews came in from Youngstown State with the reputation as a knockdown three-point shooter, but converted only 23.7% of his 131 3P attempts last year. An 86.7% FT clip suggests last season was a fluke – look for Andrews to be a dangerous rotational piece in 2018-19.
Two MEAC transfers should also have immediate impacts on the Jags roster. RJ Kelly comes by way of Savannah State where he often played the 5 in the Tigers’ extreme run-n-gun offense. Kelly was as efficient player as anyone in the country his freshman year, ranking 1st in the MEAC in O-Rating in 2016-17 thanks to shooting blazing clips of 67.5% from 2 and 42.5% from 3. The 6’5” forward should also be an asset on defense and on the glass; his all-around versatility makes him a moldable piece in the USA lineup.
The other MEAC transfer, Tashombe Riley, comes by way of South Carolina State. Riley is a 4-man that grabbed a lot of rebounds at SC State, finished well, and proved to be a good defender. Like Kelly, Riley can be a floor spacer on offense, and he has a nice mid-range jumper to do face-up damage. Riley will complement Josh Ajayi in the frontcourt, an undersized 5-man that can step out and shoot or score in the post. Though only 6’7”, Ajayi has the girth to bang inside and the footwork to score effectively against most SB post defenders. As a bonus, the big man shoots about 75% from the FT line, key for a guy that gets to the line as frequently as he does. Kevin Morris, a big man that started a few games for the Jags last season, will round out the front court rotation.
Bottom Line: South Alabama has one of the largest ranges of potential Sun Belt finishes this season. The Jaguars are talented enough to win the league, especially under the tutelage of Richie Riley, who I believe to be a very good coach. But, USA also runs the risk of not gelling with the influx of transfers potentially throwing off what was a defined offensive pecking order. I’ll wager on the side of the former scenario and predict we see the Jags in the top five of the Sun Belt standings at year-end.
5. Appalachian State
Key Returners: Ronshad Shabazz, Justin Forrest, O’Showen Williams, Isaac Johnson, Tyrell Johnson
Key Losses: Griffin Kinney, Craig Hinton
Key Newcomers: Michael Bibby (South Florida), Joseph Battle (Tulsa), Adrian Delph, Breki Gylfason
Outlook: Jim Fox has slowly built the Appalachian State Mountaineers into a respectable basketball program over his 4-year tenure. 2018-19 appears to finally be the year that App State becomes a legitimate conference title contender. The Mountaineers will look to build off the momentum of a surprising T-5th place finish last season and use their considerable experience and minute continuity to make a run for the NCAA Tournament.
Fox is a Bob McKillop (Davidson coach) disciple, meaning his ideal offense is one that works the basketball with the pass, constantly moves off the ball, and shoots the three ball. This offensive scheme hasn’t ever quite clicked for the Mountaineers during Fox’s tenure, but hopefully a squad led by upperclassmen can improve upon past inefficiencies. One of the reasons that App State failed to embody the McKillop way last year was the fact that its two best scorers, Ronshad Shabazz and Justin Forrest, are volume shooters by nature. While both guards put up gaudy counting stats, neither is a model of efficiency and both are susceptible to taking ill-advised, low percentage two-point pull-ups. Secondly, App State was one of the worst transition offenses in the country on a points per possession basis, which is usually a key component of a McKillop / Fox offense.
Shabazz and Forrest both must be more efficient this season, especially with the loss of Griffin Kinney who was essentially App State’s only true post scoring threat and a player that the offense went through a considerable amount. Shabazz should have the experience by now to recognize what is and isn’t good basketball – he’s a 3-year starter and one of the best players to ever come through Boone, NC. The 6’5” guard is a major piece of App State’s offense – he brings up the ball on most occasions and scores by way of isolation, PnR, and getting to the foul line. His size and strength makes him a formidable matchup for any Sun Belt guard, and he should put up another high-scoring season in 2018-19. Shabazz currently ranks 11th on App State’s all-time scoring list and should finish his career as the 2nd all-time leading scorer if he continues his historical production.
Forrest was given a big ole green light during his freshman season, and his ability to score the basketball certainly helped take the pressure off Shabazz’s shoulders. However, a little less mindless gunning and a little more poise on offense would do wonders for both Forrest’s efficiency and App State’s winning hopes.
Starting alongside Shabazz and Forrest in the backcourt will either be junior O’Showen Williams or South Florida transfer Michael Bibby. Williams came off the bench in all 31 games last year but earned starter’s minutes. The 5’11” point guard handled the rock when in the ball game and was App State’s best three-point shooter. Bibby (Mike’s kid) started almost every game as a freshman at USF. He brings with him the ability to play either guard spot and gives Fox yet another shooting threat on the floor – Bibby knocked down 39.7% of his 3P tries in AAC play in 2016-17, the 11th best mark in the conference.
Look for Tulsa import Joseph Battle and freshman Adrian Delph to see some floor time as well in their first seasons under Fox. Battle barely played at Tulsa but was a big-time HS player, averaging 31ppg and being named South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball in 2016. Delph is a high flying point guard that should be a major transition scoring threat and good perimeter defender.
Replacing Kinney’s production inside won’t be easy. Isaac Johnson isn’t really a post-scoring threat, instead getting most of his buckets by crashing the offensive glass or getting to the foul line. Those traits are, of course, valuable, and Johnson ranked 3rd in the Sun Belt in RPG and 2nd in the country in FT rate in 2017-18. However, having a true back-to-the-basket scoring threat will be sorely missed in this offense. Tyrell Johnson will probably see a lot of time at the 4, but he’s more of a natural wing on offense. Defensively, T. Johnson is App State’s best rim protector. Reserves Hunter Seacat, Jake Wilson, and Bennett Holley will form the remainder of the frontcourt rotation. Seacat is the best “bruiser” out of the three, while Holley is the best outside shooter. Icelandic freshman Breki Gylfason could also get some run as a stretch 4 in his first season.
Defensively, App State was pretty good last year, ranking 4th in the SB in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. Fox’s squad focuses on taking away the three-pointer, which can sometimes lead to easy driving lanes and buckets inside. The Mountaineers’ elite defensive rebounding was a major driver of their defensive success, propelled by Isaac Johnson and the departed Kinney.
Bottom Line: I’m bullish on App State this season as a top five Sun Belt squad. Fox has one of the most experienced rosters in the conference and a bona fide mid-major star in Ronshad Shabazz. If the shot selection improves, ASU could see its first Big Dance since 2000.
Key Returners: Jordon Varnado, Alex Hicks, BJ Miller, Javan Johnson
Key Losses: Wesley Person, Kevin Baker, Juan Davis
Key Newcomers: Charles Norman (JUCO), Atakan Sahinkaya (Redshirt), KJ Simon
Outlook: The Troy Trojans were a better basketball team last season than their 16-17 (9-9) record suggests. Troy lost seven games by five or less points last season, knocked off a tough ETSU team on the road, and lost by just eight points at Rupp Arena against Kentucky. Phil Cunningham has built a respectable Sun Belt contender down in Alabama, even stealing the auto-bid to the Big Dance back in 2016-17. This season, Troy will be without all-time program great Wesley Person, who graduated last spring, but the Trojans still return a solid core of players led by forward Jordon Varnado.
Offensively, Troy employs a three-point focused attack, but nearly every possession is run through Varnado in the post. Varnado attempted nearly 1/3 of all the Trojans’ shots last season while he was on the floor, scoring from the block and from outside the arc. The three-point wrinkle of Cunningham’s offense will be interesting this season, as Person and departed guard Kevin Baker were by far the most prolific three-point shooters on the roster last season. Cunningham will need to find shooting from his crew of newcomers if he plans on continuing his high 3P attempt rate in 2018-19.
Varnado is essential to everything Troy does on both ends of the floor, Defensively, the Trojans allowed only 0.99ppp with the 6’6” forward on the floor (that’s good) versus 1.15ppp when he sat (that’s really bad) – info per Hoop Lens. The 2nd Team All-SB member is a good shot blocker in the paint and, offensively, gets to the line at a high rate and finishes well in the post and off offensive boards.
Alex Hicks teams up with Varnado in the frontcourt to form one of the best big-man tandems in the Sun Belt. Hicks is less of a scorer than Varnado, but he scored efficiently off post-ups and basket cuts in 2017-18, per Synergy. Hicks ranked 2nd in the Sun Belt last season in rebounds per game and uses his length to bother shooters on the defensive end. Troy is pretty thin up front past Hicks and Varnado, so either freshman Zay Williams or JUCO import Devante Foster will see some run in their first season. Otherwise, look for Varnado to get some minutes at the 5.
The backcourt has at least one consistent presence in point guard BJ Miller, who ranked 6th in the Sun Belt last season in assist per game and 9th in steals per game. The 6’1” senior PG is a good two-way player and table setter, and is at his best pushing the tempo in the open floor. He’ll be backed up by super talented freshman KJ Simon, an impressive lefty point guard prospect that can shoot and drive at a high level. His ability to play above the rim is rare for a guard his size, especially in the Sun Belt. Side note: I’m not buying he’s actually 6’3”, as Troy’s roster suggests.
Cunningham’s wing corps and remaining backcourt consists of returning sophomore Javan Johnson, redshirt freshman Atakan Sahinkaya, JUCO prospect Charles Norman, and redshirt sophomore Darian Adams. Johnson likely starts at the three with his ability to defend and knock down the three-ball (40.8% shooter as a freshman). He’s a prime candidate to break out in his second season with Troy’s need of outside shooting. Norman is my pick to start at the 2-spot and could end up being one of Troy’s leading scorers. He averaged 16.1ppg and shot 43.5% from downtown at his JUCO last season and is a very versatile offensive player, able to drive, shoot, and rise above lane defenders.
Sathinkaya is a versatile wing out of Turkey that can play multiple positions and provide rebounding with his physical style of play. Adams was unspectacular in his first season at Troy, but will definitely be a part of the rotation. Freshman guard Spencer Rodgers may also see some floor time in his inaugural collegiate season.
Bottom Line: Troy should be competitive once again in the Sun Belt this season. Varnado is a near-lock to finish on the All-Conference 1st Team and should see his usage spike even higher this year. If Norman can provide some scoring punch and Johnson steps up into a high-volume three-point threat, Cunningham’s crew will be right there in the top 4 or 5 conversation.
7. Louisiana Monroe
Key Returners: Travis Munnings, Michael Ertel
Key Losses: Sam McDaniel, Marvin Jean-Pierre, Jordon Harris,
Key Newcomers: Daishon Smith (Wichita State), Jontray Harris (Oral Roberts), Tyree White (JUCO), Andre Washington (JUCO), Youry White (JUCO), Jalen Hodge
Outlook: UL Monroe saw a significant improvement in its conference record last season, going 9-9 following an embarrassing 2-16 2016-17 performance. Keith Richard’s squad was chock full of experience and returned nearly everyone from that Sun Belt basement feeder, which helped the Warhawks achieve conference competitiveness once more. This year, Richard loses three seniors to graduation but returns his best player in Travis Munnings and the reigning SB Freshman of the Year, Michael Ertel. An influx of JUCO players and a couple D1 transfers should have ULM right back in the thick of things in 2018-19.
ULM was all about the long-ball last season, ranking 14th in the country in percentage of points scored from behind the arc (per KenPom). Richard consistently had four shooters on the floor at all times, and the Warhawks lacked a real post scoring threat outside of Munnings. Though ULM shot well from deep, it struggled overall offensively due to poor rebounding (the worst offensive rebounding team in the SB) and a lack of basket attackers. Richard likely maintains a slower tempo in 2018-19, but he might want to consider ratcheting up the pace, as ULM ranked 6th nationally in points scored per possession in transition last year (per Synergy).
Munnings, a 2nd Team All-SB member last season, is the Warhawks’ best scorer and shooter. The Bahamas native put up points in bunches last year, showing off his ability to score in the post, off the drive, or from behind the arc. The 6’6” wing has improved each year he’s been in college and should be one of the best players in the conference his senior season. Richard may hope some of his frontcourt JUCO newcomers can contribute right away to allow Munnings to play at his natural 3-spot.
Sam Alabakis, a 6’11” junior, should be the starting 5-man next to Munnings, but the Australian is currently not on the Warhawk roster as of this preview date. Truthfully, his absence isn’t really a crushing blow, as he barely contributes on offense and is an overall weak defender. Fun fact: Alabakis recorded a grand total of ZERO assists last season despite playing in 28 games and logging nearly 50% of ULM’s total minutes.
If Alabakis isn’t on the team when the season starts, it’ll be up to one of three JUCO imports to provide some sort of production in the frontcourt. Tyree White, Youry White (unrelated), and Andre Washington all come into Monroe after spending two seasons in the JUCO ranks. Tyree White is an athletic 4-man that can play out on the wing and beat him man off the bounce. Youry White averaged 13ppg and 9rpg as a sophomore in JUCO while shooting 39% from downtown. He’ll give Richard the opportunity to play five shooters on the floor at once with his ability to play the 5. Washington was a double-double machine in JUCO and particularly likes to feast on the offensive glass where the Warhawks struggled immensely last season.
ULM’s backcourt features Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Michael Ertel and two transfers in Daishon Smith (Wichita State) and Jontray Harris (Oral Roberts). Ertel ran the point for the Warhawks last season and handled the responsibilities tremendously, ranking 1st in the conference in turnover rate (very impressive considering his high usage). The 6’2” guard is a deadly shooter from beyond the arc and has a sneaky good pull-up game from the mid-range. In transition, Ertel can punish back-peddling defenders with his speed, shooting, and court vision.
Smith was a colossal signing for Richard. The 6’1” senior surprisingly transferred from Wichita after a successful season in which he started 12 games. Smith’s rare combination of shooting (38.9% from 3 in 2016-17) and athleticism (see dunk vs. Oklahoma) should allow him to be one of the better players in the Sun Belt, and his presence will allow Ertel to shift off the ball and become more of as spot-up shooter / wing attacker.
Harris was a regular contributor at Oral Roberts before grad transferring this offseason. He’s a solid wing rebounder and outside shooter and should compete for a starting spot in Richard’s rotation. Freshman Jalen Hodge may also see some time in the backcourt, but the Smith / Ertel combination may keep him mostly on the bench in his first year. JUCO transfer JD Williams is expected to be a key piece off the bench in the backcourt at the 2 or 3 spot.
Bottom Line: ULM seems to be flying under the radar a bit in the offseason. The Warhawks have one of the best trios in the conference in Munnings / Ertel / Smith and will once again be one of the better shooting teams in the league. If the JUCO newbies can provide rebounding and some sort of inside threat, ULM could improve upon its 9-9 2017-18 record.
8. Texas State
Key Returners: Nijal Pearson, Tre’Larenz Nottingham, Alex Peacock, Eric Terry, Marlin Davis
Key Losses: Immanuel King, Tyler Blount, Nedeljko Prijovic
Key Newcomers: Jaylen Shead (Cal Poly), Mason Harrell, Alonzo Sule (Redshirt), Akiem Daschner (JUCO)
Outlook: Texas State has been in the Sun Belt for five seasons, all under the leadership of head coach Danny Kaspar. The Bobcats surprised everyone with a trip to the Sun Belt Tournament Championship in 2016-17 but took a step back last season losing 9 straight games to end conference play after starting off 7-2. Kaspar returns a solid group of veterans and brings in some promising newcomers to help in his cause to bring the Bobcats back to the brink of the Big Dance.
Kaspar preaches a slow brand of basketball. Texas State played at the third slowest pace in the country last season, trading transition tries and quick shots for methodical ball movement and clock milking. The Bobcats’ offense consists of heavy motion off the ball with a barrage of screens and passes in an attempt to slow the game down and tire out the opposing defense. Offensive rebounding is key for the Bobcats’ in their attempt to put the ball in the basket, but otherwise, TSU incorporates a steady diet of drives, mid-range jumpers, and threes.
Defensively, Kaspar’s squads have always fared pretty well, limiting transition opportunities, taking away the three-point shot, forcing turnovers, and boxing out.
TSU’s most important player is Nijal Pearson, a 6’5” junior wing and member of last year’s 3rd Team All-SB squad. Pearson is a versatile player that touches every part of the game; he rebounds very well for a perimeter player, distributes the ball, racks up steals, and scores in a variety of ways. His strong stature allows him to bully opposing defenders to the bucket and he has a deadly pull-up in his offensive arsenal. The one knock on Pearson last year was his efficiency, as his shooting percentages went down across the board since his freshman season, most likely due to a heavier load on his shoulders. He’ll need to improve his consistency in 2018-19.
Lining up next to Pearson in the backcourt will be guards Tre'Larenz Nottingham (boss name) and Marlin Davis, both of whom can run the point. Davis started 16 games for the Bobcats before succumbing to an ACL tear in January; he’s a dynamic playmaker that plays with confidence. Nottingham took over ball handling duties when Davis went down and performed his responsibilities well. The 6’2” senior proved to be a good outside shooter, ranked 7th in the Sun Belt in assist rate, and showed he could be a secondary creator of offense outside of Pearson. Both guards should see plenty of playing time this season and could start together.
If not Davis or Nottingham in the starting five, expect Cal Poly transfer Jaylen Shead or freshman Mason Harrell to get some run at the point. Shead started nine games for Cal Poly in 2016-17 before opting to transfer. Before he did, Shead posted a ridiculously high assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio. Harrell scored 2,700 points in high school and averaged over 32ppg his senior year. Despite his small stature, Harrell is a dangerous scorer with the ball in his hands and has a quick release on his deadly outside jumper. Sophomore Shelby Adams and senior Isaiah Gurley will fill out the backcourt rotation.
Up front, Kaspar has some good options in returning big men Alex Peacock and Eric Terry, redshirt freshman Alonzo Sule, and JUCO import Akiem Daschner. Peacock does most of his damage from the wing, using his 215 lb. frame to barrel into the lane. The 6’7” 4-man can space the floor on the offensive end and was a solid rebounder for the Bobcats last season on both ends of the floor. Terry is a paint-bound 5-man, a big bruiser, a lumbering post. Sule is crazy athletic and a ridiculous leaper that should at least be good for a couple highlight reels in his first playing season in San Marcos. Daschner averaged 18ppg and 10rpg playing for Billy Gillepsie at Ranger College and should fill a niche off the bench for Kaspar.
Bottom Line: Texas State appears to be a middle-of-the-pack team this season in the Sun Belt similar to the past few years under Danny Kaspar. The Bobcats have a shot to win every game they play due to their slow-down style of play and tough defense, but lack firepower outside of Pearson. Expect another 7-11 or 8-10 year for TSU in 2018-19.
9. Coastal Carolina
Key Returners: Zac Cuthbertson, Ajay Sanders, Amidou Bamba, Josh Coleman
Key Losses: Jaylen Shaw, Art Labinowicz, Demario Beck
Key Newcomers: Tommy Burton (JUCO), DeVante Jones (Redshirt), Ebrima Dibba, David Pierce III, Malik LeGania, David Kralj
Outlook: Old Cliff Ellis enters his 12th season as head coach of the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, his 41st season of Division 1 basketball overall. Ellis built the Chants into a perennial Big South contender and kept his program competitive when it made the leap to the Sun Belt in 2016-17. This season promises to be a challenging one for Ellis, however, after losing three of his top four scorers from a year ago including floor leader Jaylen Shaw. The long-time coach will need a slew of talented newcomers to pick up the slack for the Chants to contend in the Sun Belt.
Last season, CCU’s offense was predicated on the creation ability of Jaylen Shaw. Through either isolation or the pick-n-roll, Shaw initiated the offense and looked to score or set his teammates up for success. Rim attack was CCU’s preferred method of scoring, driving the lane in an attempt to draw a foul and head to the charity stripe, or crash the boards and pick up easy second chance deuces. The three-ball was an afterthought, and most Chants players shot poorly from the beyond the arc. Turnovers also wreaked havoc on Ellis’s offense, as only nine teams in the country coughed up the rock more than CCU in 2017-18. With Shaw gone, the turnover issue may linger on into this season, unless either Tre Brown or one of the freshman lead guards develops into a reliable ball handler.
Brown should have ample opportunity to prove he can lead an offense in his sophomore season. He showed flashes of ability during his freshman campaign, posting a high assist rate and shooting the ball well from the outside. But, Brown was one of the biggest catalysts of CCU’s turnover issues, so that will need to be buckled down for the 6’2” guard to see consistent playing time. Freshman point guards David Kralj, DeVante Jones, and Ebrima Dibba each have the requisite talent to steal the starting PG spot from Brown. Kralj has valuable international experience leading the Slovenian U18 national team in scoring and is a crafty passer and masterful ball handler. Jones is an all-around player that Ellis appears to favor; he could turn into a good defender in addition to running the offense. Dibba is a big PG at 6’6”, unselfish, and a capable passer. His athleticism, size, and length makes him a juicy defensive prospect and will allow him to play as a 2 or 3 when Ellis wants multiple ball handlers on the floor.
Aside from the gaggle of point guards, junior shooting guard Tyrell Gumbs-Frater, senior wing Ajay Sanders, and freshmen Malik LeGania and David Pierce III will round out the backcourt rotation. Gumbs-Frater played only 12 games as a sophomore fresh out of JUCO, but he proved to be a knockdown three-point shooter, converting 51.4% of his 35 attempts last year. Sanders, too, is mostly a spot-up shooter but his turnover rate was also sky-high (25.4% on just 13.3% usage – very bad). Pierce comes in as Ellis’s top rated recruit per 247 Sports. He’s a strong, quick guard with a pretty good jumper and above average scoring ability. LeGania is an athletic wing with a smooth shot that comes from one of the best high schools in the country. Either froshie could outplay Gumbs-Frater and/or Sanders for PT.
Inside, Ellis brings back Zac Cuthbertson, the Chants’ returning leading scorer, and a pair of shot blocking big men in Amidou Bamba and Josh Coleman. Cuthbertson will be looked upon to be provide offensive scoring punch in his senior season. As a junior out of JUCO, Cuthbertson showed off his versatile game, playing both the 3 and 4 within Ellis’s schemes, and providing scoring, rebounding, and a little bit of stealing and shot blocking. The 6’7” senior was very good in transition, isolation, and rolling to the cup off ball screens last season. Oddly, though, CCU was a MUCH better defensive squad when Cuthbertson rode the pine (per Hoop Lens), a counter-intuitive fact when considering his immense athleticism and versatility.
Bamba came off the bench last season behind Coleman and likely does in 2018-19 as well. The 6’8” junior finished at a high level (#4 FG% in SB) and finished 6th in the Sun Belt in block rate and 8th in offensive rebounding rate. Coleman isn’t quite the offensive threat Bamba is (he shot just 27.3% from the FT line and 20% away from the rim), but he’s every bit as good a defender and rebounder. The returning frontcourt trio will be bolstered by JUCO transfer Tommy Burton, a rim runner that finishes off the break well with his athleticism.
CCU was the 2nd ranked defense in the Sun Belt last year, thanks primarily to excellent shot defense, both in the interior and on the perimeter. Coleman and Bamba were enforcers down low and Cliff Ellis’s junk zones (to steal a term from our friend Jordan Majewski) stymied opposing offenses when executed properly.
Bottom Line: 2018-19 is likely another season in which CCU floats somewhere in the middle of the Sun Belt regular season standings. The losses from last year are substantial for a team that went just 8-10 in 2017-18, but Ellis is one of the best coaches in the conference and brings in enough talent for the Chants to stay competitive.
10. Arkansas State
Key Returners: Ty Cockfield, Tristin Walley, Grantham Gillard, Marquis Eaton
Key Losses: Deven Simms, Tamas Bruce, Rashad Lindsey, Connor Kern
Key Newcomers: Canberk Kus (JUCO), Malik Brevard (JUCO), JJ Matthews (JUCO), Kobe Wilson
Outlook: Mike Balado couldn’t recreate the magic that Grant McCasland brought to Jonesboro in 2016-17 when the Red Wolves shocked the nation with a win at Georgetown and an unexpected 20-12 (11-7) record. McCasland cashed in on his successful season by becoming the new head coach of North Texas, while Balado was left to pick up the pieces. Last season, the Wolves were a bad basketball team, featuring one of the worst defenses in the country. However, Balado was once again very active on the JUCO transfer wire this offseason and will have another experienced team with which to try to improve on a disappointing 2017-18.
ASU’s offense was actually pretty good last season, ranking 5th in the Sun Belt in adjusted efficiency per KenPom. The Wolves try to beat opposing defenses with the dribble instead of the pass, using a variety of isolation and pick-n-roll sets to attack the basket or get on-ball defenders on an island so their talented guards can break them down. Floor leader Deven Simms is gone and will be tough to replace, but oddly enough, on a per possession basis, ASU actually performed better when Simms was off the floor despite just a 2-6 record in the 8 games he missed.
Defensively, the Wolves were by far the worst team in the Sun Belt, giving up an embarrassing 1.11ppp during the year. Balado likes to use his perimeter athletes to pressure ball-handlers full court and then drop back into a matchup-y 2-3 zone look. This defensive strategy is good in theory, but ASU was often destroyed in transition, near the rim, and on the glass, negating its relatively good offense.
The 2018-19 version of Arkansas State will still be a guard-oriented squad led by senior Ty Cockfield, a former Stetson Hatter and JUCO player. Cockfield is the best returning scorer and outside shooter on the team and should be much more ball dominant this season without Simms in the lineup. Last year when Simms sat, Cockfield’s usage skyrocketed corresponding with ASU’s need for playmaking and scoring. Though he played off the ball mostly in 2017-18, Cockfield may handle more PG duties this year with the departure of Rashad Lindsey.
Sophomore Marquis Eaton and senior Grantham Gillard will join Cockfield in the backcourt. Eaton, too, played mostly off the ball as a freshman, but he has the necessary ball-handling skills to run the point. Last year, Eaton shot poorly from everywhere on the floor (except the foul line), but showed flashes of offensive competency through his quickness and ability to get to the bucket off the bounce. Gillard was mostly a spot-up three-point shooter last season, but made only 30% of his 142 attempts – one look at his shooting form and anybody would immediately see why. With his strong build, Gillard should look to slash more in his final collegiate season.
Christian Willis returns in the backcourt to presumably take on another seldom-used bench role, and freshman Kobe Wilson, while he is quick and a creative finisher, looks to be a year or two away from truly contributing. But, wing reinforcements comes by way of Canberk Kus, a top 50 JUCO recruit who’s athletic, can shoot the three-ball, and block shots at a high level. Kus’s skill level is very high and he should compete for a starting spot on day one. With ASU’s lack of frontcourt size, Kus may be called upon to provide minutes at the 4-spot.
Inside, ASU will feature a combination of senior Tristin Walley, junior Salif Boudie, and JUCO imports Malik Brevard and JJ Matthews. Walley, an undersized PF, is a good offensive rebounder and can space the floor with his outside shooting. Boudie is one of the better shot-blockers in the conference and has shown to be a good finisher in his first two seasons. Brevard is an athletic forward that can put the ball on the floor, while Matthews is a big, strong, paint-bound post player. None of the foursome will be relied upon to provide much scoring, but each will be counted on to sure up a dismal defense.
Bottom Line: Arkansas State has some talented players, but we shouldn’t expect to see the Red Wolves near the top of the 2018-19 Sun Belt standings at the end of the year. It’ll likely be another year of pretty good offense and pretty poor defense in Jonesboro.
11. UT Arlington
Key Returners: DJ Bryant
Key Losses: Kevin Hervey, Erick Neal, Johnny Hamilton, Kaelon Wilson, Nathan Hawkins, Davion Turner
Key Newcomers: Edric Dennis (Jackson State), Tiandre Jackson-Young (JUCO), Brian Warren (JUCO), Jabari Narcis (JUCO), Andres Ibarguen (JUCO), Radshad Davis (JUCO), McKade Marquis, David Azore (Redshirt), Pedro Castro (Redshirt), Patrick Mwamba
Outlook: UT Arlington was the most experienced team in the nation last season, starting five seniors and playing three more heavily. Thus, this season may be a major rebuilding year. To make matters worse, UTA’s AD fired Scott Cross, a young head coach that had helmed the Mavericks since 2006-07. Sure, UTA only made one NCAA Tournament under Cross (2008), but all the coach did was succeed and build a competitive basketball program at a school not known for basketball. The AD was quoted as saying he wants UTA to be the Gonzaga of the south – the AD’s picture is also next to the word “delusional” in the dictionary. Whatever the AD’s actual motivations were of firing Cross, the fact remains he’s gone and UTA now must start from scratch with a brand new coach and brand new set of players.
Chris Ogden is the new head coach in Arlington, a long-time Rick Barnes assistant at Texas (he also played for him) and Tennessee. Ogden most recently served two seasons at Texas Tech under Chris Beard. On the surface, the hire is a good one – UTA gets a young head coach from a respectable coaching tree. How Ogden molds his new pieces remains to be seen.
We can really only guess at Ogden’s preferred offensive and defensive style, but both Barnes and Beard are known for playing more through their frontcourt, employing a slashing, post, glass crashing attack on offense with a goal of getting the ball near the hoop. Defensively, Beard is a major proponent of the pack-line philosophy, which worked wonders at Little Rock in 2016. We’ll see if Ogden carries that over in his first season at the helm.
The main returner from last season is guard DJ Bryant. Forward Davion Turner opted to transfer, which is yet another crushing blow to a team begging for some sort of continuity. Turner would have been a key part to the offensive attack with his ability to play the 3 or 4 and space the floor. Defensively, his length and athleticism made him a threat to guard multiple spots. Bryant is a pass-first combo guard that’s probably better off remaining in a supporting role off the bench.
Everyone else except for reserve wing Scott Muirhead is a newcomer. The main impact guys appear to be Jackson State transfer Edric Dennis, and JUCO imports Brian Warren and Andres Ibarguen. Dennis was JSU’s best player back in 2016-17 (keep in mind they sucked), he’s a high usage, volume shooter that connected on only 37.8% of his 2s, 30.8% of his 3s, and 65.3% of his FTs. At the very least, he’ll be a source of offensive creation. Warren is the #40 JUCO prospect in the country per JUCOrecruiting.com, a point guard that earned Honorable Mention All-American honors last season. He’ll immediately provide leadership and scoring to the Mavericks, and should find success in the Sun Belt with his smooth, crafty, and quick style of play. The lefty guard passed on interest from the likes of Colorado, Oklahoma, Washington, Texas Tech, and Georgetown, so he may actually be the real deal.
Ibarguen is the #36 JUCO prospect in the country per JUCOrecruiting.com, a big center / forward that averaged a double-double last season. He’ll team up with fellow JUCO newbie Jabari Narcis and freshman Patrick Mwamba to form the core frontcourt rotation. Narcis will be most valuable for his rebounding ability, particularly on the offensive end.
In the backcourt, Ogden brings in JUCO transfer Tiandre Jackson-Young, JUCO transfer Radshad Davis, and freshman McKade Marquis. Jackson-Young went to the same JUCO as Warren (Tyler JC) and the coach of that program is Marquis’s dad – fun! The 6’4” guard is an athletic leaper that shot 34% from deep in 2017-18. Davis is a quick, athletic scorer and a bolt in transition. He’ll provide value as a slshing wing scorer in Ogden’s offense. Marquis is a three-point specialist with serious range.
Rounding out the UTA roster are two redshirt freshmen, David Azore and Pedro Castro. Azore is a do-it-all wing that can drive, shoot, and score. He should see major minutes in his first true season in Arlington. Castro, another wing, is a feel-good story after successfully overcoming open-heart surgery when he was 16. He could crack the rotation in what should be a trial-and-error approach in 2018-19.
Bottom Line: The Mavs are a complete mystery this season. Every single part of this roster is brand new including the head coach. Ogden certainly has some talented incoming JUCO pieces, but it would be unfair to expect a competitive Sun Belt season given the circumstances.
12. Little Rock
Key Returners: Jaizec Lottie, Ryan Pippins, Deondre Burns, Damir Hadzic, Kris Bankston
Key Losses: Andre Jones, Anthony Black, Cameron Corcoran, Oliver Black, Ben Marcus, Camron Reedus
Key Newcomers: Rayjon Tucker (Florida Gulf Coast), Markquis Nowell, Kamani Johnson, Horace Wyatt Jr., Dani Koljanin (Marshall)
Outlook: Yes, listed above is a ridiculous amount of “key returners” and “key losses”. Little Rock played the most bench minutes in the country last season, 47.7% to be exact, and 13 guys saw meaningful / regular playing time (and it wasn’t’ because the team was deep with talent). The Trojans were an absolute disaster under Wes Flanagan the past two seasons, going a combined 22-42 (10-26) following Chris Beard’s miraculous 30-5 (17-3) 2015-16 season. Now, Darrell Walker, who coached in the NBA from 1995 – 2014, takes the reins down in Little Rock. He’ll inherit an incomplete roster full of turnover, so he’ll have his work cut out for him.
We don’t know what type of offensive and defensive system Walker will implement, but whatever he chooses is bound to be more successful than last year’s train wreck. The Trojans were one of the worst offensive teams in the country last year (dead last in the Sun Belt), a combination of poor ball protection and poor shooting from 2, 3, and the FT line. Little Rock ranked 11th in the Sun Belt in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom, unable to make consistent stops despite achieving a relatively high turnover rate.
Walker’s returning backcourt consists of sophomore point guard Jaizec Lottie, and junior 2-guards Ryan Pippins and Deondre Burns. Lottie was inefficient during his freshman season, shooting poorly from everywhere on the floor including the foul line (.408/.290/.578 (2P/3P/FT)). The 6’1” lead guard is clearly talented, and he played the second most minutes on the squad last year, but his tendency to force tough shots and over-dribble tanked his ability to be a good player in 2017-18.
Pippins is a knock-down three-point shooter, ranking third in 3P% in the Sun Belt in conference play (45.5%); he’s a thick, bowling ball-like guard that can use his strength on drives to the hoop. Burns missed last season due to injury, but he had a productive 2016-17, proving to be an excellent outside shooter (42.7%) and a reliable ball handler. Burns and Pippins will compete for starting shooting guard honors.
Up front, Walker brings back forwards Damir Hadzic and Kris Bankston. Hazdic, a 6’8” sophomore, is a skilled passer and plays like a stretch-4 on the offensive end. Bangston turned in a good freshman season in which he posted sky-high rebounding rates (#3 in the Sun Belt in DR%), the 3rd best block rate in the league, and the 2nd highest 2PFG%. If you were to peg a breakout candidate on this team, Bankston would be it; his playing time skyrocketed late last season as Flanagan finally realized he was the best big on his squad. Here’s hoping Walker can utilize and develop him properly.
Rayjon Tucker, a former Florida Gulf Coast Eagle, leads a talented incoming pack of newcomers. Tucker may already be the best player on this team – he’s an elite three-point shooter (43% in 2016-17), very athletic (see numerous dunk highlights), and a solid wing defender. FGCU under-utilized Tucker during his first two collegiate seasons – he should be a much larger piece to Little Rock’s rotation. Fellow transfer Dani Koljanin out of Marshall should also see regular minutes in the frontcourt. Koljanin’s game is similar to Hadzic’s in that he’s primarily a stretch-4 on offense.
Walker’s freshmen, Markquis Nowell, Kamani Johnson, and Horace Wyatt Jr., come in with fairly high recruiting pedigrees. Nowell is a lightning quick point guard with sticky handles, a good-looking shooting stroke, and high-level passing ability. He’ll push Lottie immediately for PG PT. Johnson, an ESPN 3-star prospect, can shoot, pass, and drive and play either the 3 or 4 on both ends of the floor. Like Nowell, Johnson should be in the running early for a starting gig. Wyatt, another 3/4 tweener, is a good athlete and passer that should function mostly as a slashing wing.
Bottom Line: Darrell Walker has a lot of work to do in order to lift the Trojans back to Sun Belt relevance. This season will likely be a challenge for the first-time D1 coach, but if Walker continues bringing in mid-to-high level recruits to UALR, the rebuild may be quicker than expected.