Sun Belt 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Nijal Pearson, Sr., Texas State
Coach of the Year:
Danny Kaspar, Texas State
Newcomer of the Year:
Corey Allen, R Jr., Georgia State
Freshman of the Year:
J.C. Tharrington, Appalachian State


Tier 1

1. Texas State

Key Returners: Nijal Pearson, Eric Terry, Mason Harrell, Alonzo Sule, Marlin Davis (from injury)
Key Losses:
Tre’Larenz Nottingham, Alex Peacock, Jaylen Shead (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
DeShawn Davidson (JUCO), Isiah Small (JUCO), Caleb Asberry (JUCO), Drew Tennial

Lineup:

Outlook: Known around the 3MW offices as the man who got the Stephen F. Austin freight train rolling (his final team there went 27-5, paving the way for Brad Underwood’s juggernauts), Danny Kaspar hasn’t quite reached the same heights San Marcos. Though he has won 22+ games in two of the past three years, the Bobcats have yet to reach the NCAA Tournament under Kaspar. Last year was his best team, and returns the best player from that group – dynamic wing Nijal Pearson – while adding several promising players, opening the door to hope for this coming season.

Kaspar’s teams have developed a clear identity on both ends. Defensively, he runs almost exclusively man-to-man, extending in the half court with quick athletes. His teams show superb discipline, playing physically and rotating largely as one unit. Pearson’s length fits into the scheme well, giving Kaspar some switchable versatility, and rising junior Quentin Scott and JUCO transfer Isiah Small should add to that. Senior big man Eric Terry isn’t quite the same athlete, but he will influence shots at the rim with his size and positioning, helping to embolden the guards as they pressure on the perimeter.

The battle for point guard minutes will be one to watch, mainly because each of the three candidates brings a different kind of game to the table. Sophomore Mason Harrell was a steady presence as a freshman, a decent passer with plenty of quickness, but he’s tiny and couldn’t shoot last year. Redshirt junior Marlin Davis missed all of last year and the second half of 2017-18 to injury, but he started all 15 games that year prior to going down, and he’s a bigger, stouter version of Harrell (if more erratic with his decision-making). Barring major progress from either player, the Bobcats won’t get much scoring out of the point guard position, instead relying on the two for passing and defense.

Regardless of who wins the job, though, Kaspar will continue with the motion principles that have served him well over the past three years. Pearson is the primary weapon, a skilled scorer who can get boiling hot from the perimeter, as well. And if the offense breaks down, he’s shown the ability to hit tough shots:

If Thomas is playing point guard, he’ll be another dynamic threat, but if it’s Harrell or Davis, the Bobcats will need scoring (particularly shooting) from junior college transfers DeShawn Davidson and Caleb Asberry. Players not named Nijal Pearson shot a dismal 164/537 (30.5%) from deep, limiting the entire team’s efficiency. Davidson seems the more likely to score based on his prior production (18ppg at Des Moines Area), but he struggled from beyond the arc himself. Asberry cracked double figures under ol’ Billy Gillispie at Ranger College, who lost in the NJCAA National Championship to Vincennes. Asberry hit 43.6% of his threes on a medium volume for Ranger, and he will almost certainly be a strong Sun Belt defender, as well. One other candidate to break out offensively is sophomore Alonzo Sule; the 6’7 forward was a mismatch thanks to his effort and bounce, scoring efficiently out of the post and on the offensive glass.

Bottom Line: The defense should once again be formidable after being the best in the conference last year, but replacing TreLarenz Nottingham’s scoring will be a difficult task. A lot depends on the readiness of the junior college group – if two or three of them are ready right away, Texas State is fully capable of justifying this pick to win the league (the frosh Thomas can help too). If it’s just the Pearson Show offensively and the rest of the roster is again mega-bricky from downtown, then one of the other contenders will be able to seize the crown.

2. South Alabama

Key Returners: Trhae Mitchell, Josh Ayayi, Herb McGee, John Pettway
Key Losses:
Rodrick Sikes, Kory Holden, RJ Kelly
Key Newcomers:
Andre Fox (High Point), Don Coleman (Cal), Chad Lott (Howard), Josh Ayeni (St. Bonaventure), Tyreke Locure, KK Curry

Lineup:

Outlook: Richie Riley’s first season in Mobile wasn’t much to brag about: 17-17 overall (two non-D1 wins), 8-10 in the Sun Belt, played a grand total of two (2) top 100 teams as part of one of the country’s softest non-conference schedules. But last year was always a transition year, by design. Riley had three transfers sitting out for the year, loading up for a 2019-20 run at the Sun Belt title. Riley has become something of a mid-major Mussleman or Hoiberg in the way he works the transfer portal (two more will be sitting this year), and his talent accumulation has led to arguably the best roster in the Sun Belt. But the question of whether he can build a cohesive unit will plague the Jaguars until he’s proven it can work.

That concern stems from the surplus of scorers Riley has assembled. It’s a good problem to have, to be sure, but balancing the shot distribution between at least five players who will demand the ball will be an issue. Wings Don Coleman and Andre Fox were the clear offensive alphas at their prior stops, but they join a team that already has one of those in big man Josh Ajayi, a thick post player who overwhelms opponents with his strength and persistence. Grad transfer Chad Lott was technically the second or third banana at Howard, but that team only had three bananas, so he used a large share of possessions himself. And veteran Trhae Mitchell excelled in a much bigger role last season, seeing his usage incrase by almost 150% (14.9 to 22.9 – 25.7 in Sun Belt play). To put it all in one compact graphic:

I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’m pretty sure a combined five-man usage rate of 127.2% does not work, mathematically. And that doesn’t even include returning guard Herb McGee, a double-digit scorer himself who may object to becoming invisible. Riley’s chief responsibility will be getting all of these egos to coexist and accept more niche roles for the betterment of the team. Mitchell is probably the most likely to cede possessions, especially considering that he’s been already proven to be a highly effective role player with limited touches.

Riley’s system will aid this endeavor, as he runs a pro style spread pick-and-roll attack that can rotate ball-handlers and feed the hungriest mouths when necessary. He’ll also probably crank the pace to maximize the number of possessions the Jaguars have, as he did in his second year at Nicholls State (12th nationally in adjusted tempo, per KenPom). Ayayi will have a new, nearly-identically-named running mate up front in St. Bonaventure import Josh Ayeni, which is sure to confuse me constantly (and maybe opponents, too). Riley will utilize both bigs as roll men and as cutters/finishers playing off the driving guards.

Riley will also need to convince all of those scorers to play defense, which is a sneaky-big challenge, as well. He’s been all over the place with his man vs. zone usage in his three years as a head coach (last year at South Alabama, prior two years at Nicholls State):

I think 2017-18 is the best representation of his ideal style (once he had gotten more of his own players in the fold), and with the level of athletes he has now, man-to-man makes sense. That would also help the Jaguars’ dismal defensive rebounding, which ranked 306th in the country and ninth in the conference last year. Plus, Mitchell is one of the best and most versatile defenders in all of mid-majordom, so Riley already has a clear stopper on the roster. Freshman KK Curry has plenty of potential on this end, also.

Bottom Line: It’s hard to take issue with the talent here – if you want to pick South Alabama as the Sun Belt favorite on that alone, I will have no qualms. But I am concerned enough about the roster fit and shot selection to hesitate from placing the Jaguars atop the league standings (Coleman, in particular, is someone we razzed a lot for his decision-making on an admittedly horrendous Cal team). Consider USA a high-ceiling team with some real chemistry/defensive question marks.

3. UT Arlington

Key Returners: Brian Warren, David Azore, Radshad Davis, Tiandre Jackson-Young, Jabari Narcis
Key Losses:
Edric Dennis (transfer), Andres Ibarguen (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Coleman Sparling (JUCO), Tre Jones, Sam Griffin, Nicolas Elame

Lineup:

Outlook: Last offseason’s stunning firing of Scott Cross baffled us, even spurring a few sarcastic digs on our podcast. And honestly, it’s still deserved! Athletic Director Jim Baker wanting to be “the next Gonzaga” – despite spending roughly $7M less per year, per a Mid-Major Madness report from a year ago – is one of the most outrageous things I’ve heard. It’s one thing to have lofty long-term goals, but if you aren’t going to be realistic, you will end up creating a powerful enemy within your own conference.

All of that said, we must admit that Chris Ogden, Baker’s prized new hire, did an excellent job in his first season at the helm. The Mavericks graduated a decorated senior class, but Ogden built a Sun Belt contender *Jeff Bridges voice* “in a cave! With a box of scraps!! Despite ranking dead last in the country in minutes continuity (KenPom has them 351st, but D1 neophytes North Alabama and Cal Baptist were automatically assigned zeroes), Ogden’s resourceful assembly of transfers and freshmen managed a 12-6 league record and an appearance in the conference tournament championship game. He fell short of an NCAA berth, though, which had to infuriate his delusional boss, Mr. Baker.

Arlington’s defense spearheaded its success, a stingy unit that ranked in the top 100 in the country and second in the Sun Belt. Per KenPom, the Mavericks ranked dead last in the country in Average Height, which I guess is what happens when you start 5’9/6’0 in the backcourt and a 6’5 center. Despite that, opponents struggled mightily to score inside, largely due to Ogden’s scheme. A longtime Rick Barnes assistant (plus a two-year stint under Chris Beard), Ogden employed a conservative, “wall off the paint” approach, mixing in some compact zone looks to help combat his team’s lack of size. Jabari Narcis was the only rotation player over 6’6, and he proved to be an excellent shot-blocker, helping to boost the Mavs’ 2-point defense.

It’s crucial to note, though, that despite largely encouraging opponents to shoot jumpers over their smaller lineup, Mavericks benefited massively from their opponents exhibiting dismal perimeter shooting.  Every other aspect of Arlington’s defense was average or worse, but when opponents shoot 29.9% from deep (340th in the country), it helps mask a lot of other deficiencies. Research has shown that teams have little control over their opponents’ 3FG%, so regression to the mean (or worse) could have a disastrous impact on Arlington’s outlook this year.

Offensively, the Mavericks were highly dependent on guards Brian Warren and Edric Dennis to generate shots. The two combined for a massive 57.5% usage rate; with Dennis grad transferring out of the program, Ogden has a massive hole to fill on the perimeter. The Maverick offense did not have a ton of nuance to it, instead allowing the two guards to break down their defenders via isolation and slash-and-kick to the rest of the roster. Warren is terrific, a 5’9 jolt of bearded electricity in an otherwise neutral offense who can get into the lane at will and score or distribute, but candidates to be his running mate are not overly encouraging.

Sophomore David Azore was an actively harmful offensive player, shooting 32.2% from the field, 19.1% from 3, and recording 83 turnovers to just 51 assists. He has some upside, but it would take sweeping development across the board for him to even be average, meaning Ogden will need more from seniors Radshad Davis, a physically imposing guard, and Tiandre Jackson-Young, strictly a spot-up shooter last year. The freshman class offers some promising additions, especially guard Sam Griffin. Griffin, a dynamic combo guard from the Miami area, could be the plug-and-play option Ogden needs to replace Dennis.

Also concerning is the departure of Andres Ibarguen, a berserker on the offensive boards who nearly single-handedly made the glass a strength of the team. Narcis and Davis will help, but JUCO transfer Coleman Sparling and freshman Tre Jones will be tasked with replacing a lot of Ibarguen’s production on the glass. Sparling hails from the prestigious College of Southern Idaho, so despite mediocre production, he should be instantly impactful, and Jones is a phenomenal athlete with sky-high defensive potential.

Bottom Line: I was all set to pick the Mavericks to win the league before I dove into the research for this preview, but I’m scared enough of defensive regression to back off that pick. The offense desperately needs a second banana to emerge to replace Dennis, and if opponents actually knock down perimeter jumpers, Ogden won’t be able to bank on the defense saving them. Warren and a cadre of capable role players provide upside, but Arlington is not a lock to be in the Sun Belt’s top tier the way I initially suspected.

4.  Coastal Carolina

Key Returners: Devante Jones, Tyrell Gumbs-Frater, Ebrima Dibba, Tommy Burton
Key Losses:
Zac Cuthbertson, Amidou Bamba, Ajay Sanders
Key Newcomers:
Keishawn Brewton (JUCO), Essam Mostafa, Garrick Green (JUCO), Ahmard Harvey, Levi Cook (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: The Cliff Ellis era at Coastal Carolina enters its 13th year this season, as the 73-year-old, longtime Division I head coach continues to resist the pull of retirement in Conway, SC (apologies to Conway residents – my aunt and uncle retired there; therefore, it’s a retirement town in my eyes). The Chanticleers are perfectly fine with that, though, as it may be a looooong time before another Sun Belt school can claim a coach with 800+ career D1 victories. That’s right – people forget that Ellis ranks fifth among all active coaches in D1 wins (and ninth all time), trailing only some clowns named Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, and Bob Huggins.

Ellis has won at multiple levels (South Alabama, Clemson, Auburn, though not to the same degree at every stop) while slowly morphing his style to fit his current position, an excellent measure of the true value of a coach. At Clemson and Auburn, he employed a variety of zone press looks, even authoring a book entitled Zone Press Variations for Winning Basketball in 1989. But at Coastal Carolina, he’s reeled back the pressure significantly, instead daring his opponents to beat him with a barrage of perimeter jumpers. He’s even become a predominantly man-to-man team during his time at Coastal as he’s brought in more versatile athletes (though he’ll never fully abandon his junk zones):

Losing Zac Cuthbertson’s tremendous versatility is a blow, but Tommy Burton is fairly switchable at center, and forwards Garrick Green (JUCO) and Ahmard Harvey (freshman) can replicate some of what Cuthbertson brought as a lanky forwards that can affect the game with their athleticism and guard multiple positions. The Chanticleers also have some length on the perimeter with Ebrima Dibba, a unique talent who can play some point guard while also guarding bigger players thanks to his 6’6, 200-pound frame. Coastal’s glaring flaw defensively was throwing endless parades to the free throw line for their all-too-willing opponents, and while Burton was the most egregious violator, the entire roster could do well to avoid hacking.

The Chants’ offense will also miss Cuthbertson as a matchup nightmare; they scored 1.08ppp with him on the floor compared to just 1.01ppp without him. That’s not an egregious drop-off, though, and with two clear perimeter weapons returning to anchor the attack plus Henry, Green, and JUCO scoring guard Keishawn Brewton around, scoring can still be a strength. Ellis smartly unleashed redshirt freshman point guard DeVante Jones in transition, and he blossomed into a skilled scorer and distributor; he’s a potential Sun Belt POY if he sticks around his entire career. Tyrell Gumbs-Frater is a perfect complement as a lethal gunner from deep, though he may continue to come off the bench thanks to the addition of Brewton, an offensive lightning rod from Chipola College who will thrive in a transition-heavy attack. He’s also devastating perimeter shooting, burying a staggeringly efficient 46.8% of his 222 attempts last year. With Jones and the multi-skilled Dibba pulling the strings and Gumbs-Frater and Brewton scalding nets from all over, the offense has immense potential on the perimeter.

Henry and Green will hope to create some of the same defensive issues that Cuthbertson caused, though neither can hope to be the same individual weapon that he was. Burton is used primarily as an offensive rebounder and cutter, and he’ll have to hold off touted freshman Essam Mostafa for playing time. The Egyptian backed up high-major recruits Ismael Massoud (Wake Forest) and Richie Springs (UConn) for the PSA Cardinals on the EBYL circuit, but he oozes potential in the Sun Belt.

Bottom Line: To contrast how the trepidation that built as I previewed UT Arlington (see below), I really warmed up to the Chants the more I dug in. Jones is a star at point guard, and the rest of the roster has a tantalizing mix of experienced production and high-upside newcomers. Ellis has managed only a middling 27-27 conference record through Coastal’s first three years in the Sun Belt, but this could be the year the Chanticleers truly announce their presence in a relatively new league.

5. Georgia Southern

Key Returners: Quan Jackson, Isaiah Crawley, Simeon Carter, David-Lee Jones, Calvin Wishart, Elijah McCadden, Ike Smith (injury)
Key Losses:
Tookie Brown, Montae Glenn
Key Newcomers:
Trevion Lamar (JUCO), Will Dillard (redshirt), Jalen Cincore, Mackenzie McFatten

Lineup:

Outlook: Last year was supposed to be the glorious culmination of the Tookie Brown/Ike Smith backcourt, in which Coach Mark Byington had invested so much over the last four seasons. The two had started a combined 165 of the 176 games they’d appeared in, steadily improving along with the program each season. Instead, a back injury sidelined Smith for the year after 10 games, and despite Brown’s brilliant efforts, the Eagles fell in the Sun Belt semifinals to UT Arlington. Without Brown, Byington & Co. face a bit of a reset, but Smith was granted a medical hardship waiver, and a talented roster returns to prevent the Eagles from falling far in the standings.

With Brown at the helm, Georgia Southern was one of the most pick-and-roll-dominant offenses in the country in recent years, though that tapered off some last year as the Eagles found more balance. David-Lee Jones is the most likely candidate to take over lead ball-handling duties, but he won’t be given the same kind of scoring and creation burden that Brown shouldered. Throughout Byington’s tenure, the Eagles have ranked near the bottom of the country in assist rate, instead emphasizing getting out in transition and playing through individual perimeter scorers in the half court. Quan Jackson and Smith will have the ball in their hands frequently, as both can score inside and out.

Isaiah Crawley’s emergence as an interior scorer added a new element, as well. He was effective putting the ball on the floor off kickouts from the guards, and excelled at scoring hustle buckets – in transition or as an offensive rebounder. His sidekick down low, Montae Glenn, graduated, but former Iowa State forward Simeon Carter filled in admirably last year when Glenn missed a couple games (20pts, 9reb against Texas State; 7pts, 8reb, 2ast against UT Arlington), and fabulously named freshman Mackenzie McFatten should be able to contribute some as a freshman.

Due to roster composition, though, we’ll almost certainly see Byington return to the four-guard lineups he rolled out for most of 2016-17 and 2017-18. Calvin Wishart and Elijah McCadden both saw quality minutes as freshmen; Wishart might earn some point guard minutes, while McCadden needs to fix his broken shooting stroke to avoid losing time to the newcomers. Redshirt freshman David Viti has some Jake Allsmiller to his game, a shooting wing who played smallball four at GSU in the past, and JUCO transfer Trevion Lamar’s versatile game will warrant minutes, as well. If former three-star recruit Will Dillard and true freshman Jalen Cincore are game-ready, as well, then Byington will have an embarrassment of backcourt riches; he’ll just need to prudently determine how best to deploy them all.

The smaller lineups also probably mean more zone to cover for the lack of zone, and Byington will extend his defense and active guards in an effort to generate turnovers and easy run-out opportunities. Carter can protect the rim when he’s on the court, which will embolden the perimeter pressure even more, particularly Jackson, Wishart, and Dillard (reputationally an excellent defender in high school). The Eagles’ rebounding could be disastrous without Glenn around, so steals and deflections will be a necessity to avoid the defense tumbling after a strong year last year.  

Bottom Line: Byington is no stranger to backcourt reliant-teams, and he’ll enjoy having a more shooting-heavy lineup. In his first four seasons, the Eagles ranked in the top 100 in 3PA rate, but that crashed to 331st last year as he played a conventional four-man and Smith/Allsmiller were no longer around. It’s hard to see this year’s Eagles squad repeating last year’s successes (21 wins, T-2nd in the conference), but if some of the younger guards are better than advertised, it’s within the realm of possibility.

6. Louisiana

Key Returners: Cedric Russell, PJ Hardy, Trajan Wesley
Key Losses:
Jakeenan Gant, Marcus Stroman, Malik Marquetti, Jerekius Davis, Justin Miller (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Jalen Johnson (SLU), Doudou Gueye (JUCO), Mylik Wilson, Durey Cadwell (JUCO), Tirus Smith (JUCO), Kobe Julien (redshirt), Javonne Lowery

Lineup:

Outlook: A tremendous core’s chance at an NCAA Tournament bid was bitten by the dreaded injury bug last year, when former USC transfer and tremendous two-way threat Malik Marquetti tore his ACL right before the calendar turned to 2019. Marquetti and the rest of that core – ex-Missouri forward Jakeenan Gant and ex-South Carolina point guard Marcus Stroman (I wonder how often he and Marquetti debated who the real USC was) – had high hopes in their senior years, but coach Bob Marlin must now rebuild without them.

 To avoid a full transition year, Marlin brought in several junior college transfers, including Doudou Gueye, Tirus Smith, and Durey Cadwell, all of whom should see the court immediately. Gueye is the jewel of the trio though, a versatile forward who can play inside and out while competing on the glass. He’ll pair with Saint Louis transfer Jalen Johnson to reinforce a barren frontcourt; Johnson started 23 games for the Billikens in 2017-18, and he’ll bring a lot of what Marquetti offered as a two-way threat that can space the floor. Kobe Julien may also be able to help in that role after missing last year with an injury. Marlin has the choice of playing a hyper-versatile frontcourt with Gueye and Johnson manning the 4/5 spots, or he can use a more conventional center with either Smith, a widebody rebounding type, or Kristian Lafayette, a developing sophomore big who apparently stole the “Lafayette” moniker from the school. All of the Cajun bigs will be tasked with attacking the offensive glass, a staple of Bob Marlin teams.

Playing the Johnson/Gueye duo would fall in line with a change Marlin has exhibited recently – long a proponent of a downhill, rim-centric offense, he’s embraced the three-ball as he’s brought in more shooting, and this roster has the potential to be deadly from outside. Cedric Russell and PJ Hardy started a combined 43 games last year, both largely due to their floor-stretching abilities. Cadwell also carries a reputation as a shooter, and despite middling stats last year at Daytona State, he originally committed to Nate Oats at Buffalo, a strong testimonial to his talent.

The burning question on offense is shot creation, as Stroman and Gant did pretty much everything in that regard. Trajan Wesley is a blur who got to the rim and the free throw line at will, taking advantage of the spacing provided by the rest of the team, but he’s tiny and could get picked on defensively. Marlin will be tempted to hand the keys to freshman Mylik Wilson, one of the best prospects in the state of Louisiana. He ended up with offers from both Houston and Louisiana Tech, and his combination of scoring instincts, passing vision, and vertical explosion make him a potential star in the Sun Belt.

On the other end, Marlin will extend his defense to force turnovers and run opponents off the free throw line, aggressively trying to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm and push them into taking quick shots. He has the athletes to execute this scheme, but the Cajuns will be extremely vulnerable at the rim if foes can take care of the ball and attack off the dribble. When Gant sat last year, opponents shot a staggering 58.5% from two-point range, and none of the newcomers carry a “shot-blocker” reputation.  

Bottom Line: Without the standout trio of Gant, Stroman, and Marquetti, the Cajuns seem destined to regress. Still, Marlin hasn’t finished below .500 in Sun Belt play since 2012-13, and with this roster’s offensive upside, ninth could be far too bearish a prognostication. If Wilson is the real deal right away and the defense finds a way to get stops, the ceiling raises considerably, possibly even allowing them to challenge the league’s lukewarm top tier.


7. Georgia State

Key Returners: Kane Williams, Damon Wilson, Nelson Phillips
Key Losses:
D’Marcus Simonds (pro), Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas, Devin Mitchell
Key Newcomers:
Justin Roberts (DePaul), Corey Allen (Detroit), Joe Jones, Jalen Thomas

Lineup:

Outlook: It’s the end of an era in Atlanta. Ron Hunter departed for Tulane during the offseason after an eight-year tenure that included three of the program’s five NCAA Tournament appearances ever (and one of its two wins), and five of the team’s top seven players left with him. Most notable among those was star wing D’Marcus Simonds, the undisputed engine of the team’s back-to-back Sun Belt championships, who skipped his senior year to turn professional. New coach Rob Lanier now faces an uphill battle with a roster that returns only 33.3% of its minutes per barttorvik.com, 324th in the country.

Hunter had established a clear identity in Atlanta: constant zone pressure via a variety of trapping schemes, mixing between full and half court alignments, while spreading the floor with shooting for Simonds to attack on offense. Lanier’s primary background is at Texas and Tennessee with Rick Barnes, where he earned a reputation as a force on the recruiting trail, but he also spent four years under Billy Donovan. He will bring some full court pressure a la Donovan, but unlike Hunter, it will be of the man-to-man variety. Though they’ll need to adjust to that change, the returning trio of Kane Williams, Damon Wilson, and Nelson Phillips should all be excellent fits thanks to their quick feet and hands. Transfers Justin Roberts (DePaul) and Corey Allen (Detroit) likely offer more of a boost on the offensive end, but both played in more similar schemes at their previous stops, so the transition may be less stark.

The back line of defense is far more up in the air. With those question marks, Wilson may start as more of a smallball four, though Lanier’s mentors have both been proponents of two-big systems. The options are limited: Josh Linder and Chris Clerkley have barely seen the floor in their college careers, meaning the freshman duo of Joe Jones III (6’9, 245 lbs.) and Jalen Thomas (6’10, 230 lbs.) will battle for playing time right away. Lanier stresses the defensive abilities of both, and if either of them shows real impact on that end, that player could start. Lanier is the cousin of Hall of Fame big man Bob Lanier and has a strong track record with bigs like Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams, so there’s reason to believe he can mold the youngsters into potential stars. If Cincinnati transfer Eliel Nsoseme can get a waiver from the NCAA, that would be a gigantic boost, but that appears highly unlikely at this point.

The myriad of departures will have a major impact on the Panthers’ offense, too. Jeff Thomas, Devin Mitchell, and Malik Benlevi made a combined 229/552 three-pointers (41.5%), and without that incredibly prolific group of floor-spacers, Lanier’s guards won’t have the clean driving lanes that Simonds enjoyed. Roberts struggled in his time at DePaul, but he’ll benefit greatly from the step down in competition, as well as having scorers alongside him in Allen and Williams. Both players can get to the rim consistently, and Allen showed a perimeter stroke, as well. Phillips also has the upside to develop into a go-to guy, a top 200 recruit last year that excelled in a complementary role. Lanier has stated his plan to push the tempo and run a Barnes-esque motion offense once in the half court, and though he lacks the interior scorers to play through the post in the same way, his collection of guards at least provides a baseline of production on which the Panthers can rely.

Bottom Line: Lanier has actually been a head coach before, accumulating a 58-70 record over four seasons at Siena from 2001 to 2005. He made the NCAA Tournament in his first year, but a disastrous fourth year (6-24 overall) sent him back to the assistant ranks to continue his development. He feels more prepared to run the show this time around, but it may take some time to re-create the heights of the Hunter era given how much talent left town. Rebounding and perimeter shooting are both particularly concerning this year, with no clear answers to how the Panthers avoid being poor at both. Still, as long as Lanier can continue to flex his recruiting muscles – should not be a huge issue in a city like Atlanta – Georgia State should continue to be a Sun Belt contender into the 2020s.

8. Appalachian State

Key Returners: Justin Forrest, Isaac Johnson, Adrian Delph, Hunter Seacat, O’Showen Williams
Key Losses:
Ronshad Shabazz, Tyrell Johnson
Key Newcomers:
James Lewis (Chattanooga), Donovan Gregory, Kendall Lewis, RJ Wilson

Lineup:

Outlook: As much as it pains me to criticize a member of the Bob McKillop coaching tree, it was probably time for Jim Fox’s tenure at Appalachian State to end. His fifth season saw the Mountaineers regress back to a bottom-tier Sun Belt squad, and he was never able to drag them to an over .500 record, overall or in the league. As one might expect from a McKillop assistant, he ran crisp motion offense, but one terrible trend ultimately doomed him:

Multiple studies have shown that teams have little control over how well their opponents shoot from deep, and despite Fox’s efforts to take away perimeter shots (see the low 3PA%), the Mountaineers were consistently cooked from beyond the arc. Mathematically, Fox may have failed due to an extremely extended period of bad luck.

Enter Dustin Kerns, an apparent wizard who led Presbyterian to its highest KenPom rating in the program’s 12-year Division I history – by a whopping 72 spots. He took the Blue Hose to heights they hadn’t seen on the back of a deadly offense that weaponized the three-ball for itself, ranking 14th nationally in 3PA% and 25th in 3FG%. In simpler terms – they took a ton of threes and made a lot of them. He rolled out four-guard lineups where the worst shooter was the point guard, and with the other four players spacing the court and opening driving lanes, Davon Bell flourished. Justin Forrest is the clear best returning player and could fill that role, but it might make more sense to let him spend some time off the ball due to his shooting prowess and let O’Showen Williams attack with his quickness. Adrian Delph and Michael Bibby are obvious candidates to be “floor spacers” on the wing, and the freshman class adds two perimeter players who should contribute immediately: best friends Donovan Gregory and JC Tharrington, both from the Charlotte area. Gregory is a tremendous defender but will need to improve his perimeter jumper, while Tharrington is a steady point guard who hit 45% of his threes over his high school career, allowing him to play off the ball, too.

Finding a big that can shoot is the larger question. Isaac Johnson and Hunter Seacat are the team’s most experienced post players, but Johnson went 3/31 (9.7%) from deep last year and Seacat didn’t record a single attempt. That means Kerns will need to incorporate them more as roll men to avoid defenders sagging off, or he can give more playing time to Breki Gylfason, an Icelandic sophomore who profiles similarly to Lewis. His issue is that he’s nonexistent as a rebounder. Newcomers James Lewis Jr. (Chattanooga transfer) and Kendall Lewis (freshman, unrelated) may take some playing time from Johnson and Seacat, but they’re similar players and aren’t known as shooters.

Unfortunately, Kerns doesn’t bring much of an upgrade on defense. His emphasis on having multiple perimeter options up and down the lineup sacrificed athleticism and mobility on the other end; big man Francois Lewis hit 77 threes, but he was hardly a defensive presence despite being 6’9, 230 pounds. Having a deeper stable of conventional, physical big men could help Kerns’s man-to-man match up better, but he’ll need to make sure to the trade-off with a less efficient offense is worth it.

Bottom Line: This roster isn’t built the same as the one Kerns had so much success with at Presbyterian, but he has a bona fide star in Forrest, and he’s smart enough to adapt his approach to the rest of his players. It did take him a year to get things going in Clinton, but his first team was hampered by an injury to its star (Francois Lewis), which gives me hope that the turnaround in Boone may be quicker. The Mountaineers are a notch below the contenders, but the home run coaching hire will have them competitive all year.


Tier 2

9. Arkansas State

Key Returners: Marquis Eaton, Canberk Kus, JJ Matthews, Malik Brevard
Key Losses:
Ty Cockfield, Tristin Walley, Grantham Gilliard, Salif Boudie,
Key Newcomers:
Jerry Johnson (Chattanooga), Lony Francis (JUCO), Malcolm Farrington, Caleb Fields, Antwon Jackson, Avery Felts

Lineup:

Outlook: Mike Balado returns for year three in Jonesboro searching for some semblance of improvement after two tepid seasons. The former Rick Pitino assistant has brought his mentor’s intense, aggressive brand of basketball to his new gig, but it hasn’t translated to wins: he’s just 24-40 thus far, 13-23 in Sun Belt play. A promising group of newcomers joins the fold, but three of the Red Wolves’ best four players moved on, meaning those newbies (or old role players) will need to play key roles right away.

Unsurprisingly for a Pitino disciple, Balado mixes up his defenses, with plenty of varied zone pressure looks, both in the full court and the half court, intent on creating confusion and, ideally, turnovers. He’ll frequently roll out a kind of 2-1-2 scheme that can either softly retreat into a 2-3 zone, or trap hard and speed the defense up:

Last year’s team lacked major playmakers on the defensive end, leading Balado to play more of the “tempo-controlling” pressure, but with added quality depth to hurl at opponents, that may ramp up this year.

A strength of the roster will be a trio of 6’6-6’8 combo forward types, allowing the Red Wolves to play big or small and still disrupt opponents. Canberk Kus and Malik Brevard did not earn huge minutes last year, but they created “defensive events” with their length, and they’ll soak up some of the minutes vacated by Tristin Walley and Salif Boudie. Highly-touted JUCO transfer Lony Francis fits this mold as well, and given his prior production at national champion Vincennes College (15.8ppg, 7.0rpg), he likely starts right away and contends for the Sun Belt All-Newcomer team. Freshman Antwon Jackson was a productive, proven winner at Clark High School in Las Vegas, though he’s a 250-pound back-to-the-basket type and will need to prove he can play at Arkansas State’s pace. JJ Mathews is also more of a true center at 6’9, 240-pounds, but he was athletic enough to fit into Balado’s style.

The larger concerns are on offense, where walking bucket Ty Cockfield dominated, leading the conference in usage rate (and ranking 45th in the entire country) while scoring efficiently via his ability to get into the paint and to the free throw line. A greater responsibility now falls to junior Marquis Eaton and Chattanooga grad transfer Jerry Johnson: Balado runs a ton of pick-and-roll, both to score and to get the defense rotating, and those two will be relied on to generate scoring opportunities for the rest of the roster. Eaton lagged far behind Cockfield in the PnR las year (Cockfield was in the 84th percentile, per Synergy, while Eaton wallowed in the 23rd percentile), which makes Johnson’s addition as a proven scorer all the more important.

Christian Willis and Kobe Wilson are back after playing small complementary roles last year, but they’ll face intense competition for playing time from freshmen Caleb Fields and Malcolm Farrington, both of whom Balado is quite high on. Fields can shift Eaton back off the ball at times as a smart floor general, while Farrington could start and approach double-figures thanks to his scoring ability and feathery shooting touch.

Bottom Line: Though this may not be a banner year for the Red Wolves, Balado will hopefully show enough progress to get another swing at things in 2019-20. The freshman class looks like one to build on, and Francis could be a breakout star in the Sun Belt immediately given his pedigree. They’ll all still need to show the progress and promise that 2020-21 can be “the year,” and moving up in the standings should be a realistic goal with roster and coach turnover at programs like Troy, Georgia State, Louisiana, and UL Monroe.

10. Troy

Key Returners: Darian Adams, Charles Norman, Zay Williams
Key Losses:
Jordon Varnado, Alex Hicks, BJ Miller, Javan Johnson (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Khalyl Waters (JUCO), Nick Stampley (JUCO), Tahj Small (JUCO), Desmond Williams, Tyrek Williams, Jakevan Leftridge

Lineup:

Outlook: I’m going to let Ma$e start off this preview with a heartfelt message for Troy’s new head coach:

That’s right, Sun Belt – Scott Cross is BACK! Following one of the more confusing firings in recent memory (Cross won 72 games in his final three years in Arlington – also his alma mater), he returns to the league at the helm of the Troy Trojans, who jettisoned Phil Cunningham after the Trojans collapsed down the stretch. Cross is a sharp coaching mind, but the cupboard is pretty bare, meaning it will likely take him a couple years to get things turned around.

The aforementioned collapse came as a result of star forward Jordon Varnado missing the final nine games with concussion symptoms. Without Varnado on the court, Troy’s offense tumbled into the depths of hell (1.08ppp with him, 0.92ppp without him, per Hoop Lens), eventually dragging Cunningham with it. Cross brings a downhill attack that wants to get out and run and get to the rim via drives and offensive rebounds, and he’ll at least have a point guard in Darian Adams to coordinate it. He’s not much of an outside shooting threat, but he is strongly built and a solid passer.

The weapons around Adams – or lack thereof – are more concerning. Charles Norman and Zay Williams started two games each last year and hung around the fringes of the rotation, and Norman at least is a legitimate shooting threat. That’s about it for returning players, though, meaning Cross will rely heavily on his hastily assembled first class of newcomers.

He hit the JUCO ranks hard, likely pulling in four rotation players via that avenue. Jitaurious Gordon is a high-scoring combo guard who will thrive in Cross’s transition-heavy offense, and versatile 6’6 forwards Nick Stampley and Khalyl Waters may start right away. Tahj Small is the lone sophomore of the bunch, and he’ll provide depth behind Norman and Gordon as a lights-out shooter (40.6% on 229 threes at Moberly Area CC).

If Cross is to deploy his preferred defensive style as well (some full court pressure, mix up man-to-man and zone), he’ll need more depth from the freshmen class, too. Tyrek Williams is a load of a human at 6’8, 260 pounds, and he’ll rotate with veteran big Davion Thomas as a two-headed center combination. Thomas came on late in the year (11 points, 6 boards in the finale), and he’s probably a better fit for Cross’s system.  Jakevan Leftridge was Cross’s first freshman signing at Troy, and his length and bounce fit well; sophomore KJ Simon offers similar defensive skills but far less offensive upside.

Bottom Line: This is pretty close to a full rebuild, so as much as we love the Cross hire, Troy will almost certainly struggle in his first season back in the Sun Belt. He will need a year or two to fully bring in the depth and athletes necessary to properly run his system on both ends of the floor. This should be a transitional year of evaluation trying to determine who is a long term fit (I didn’t even mention freshman PG Desmond Williams); with only one senior, he won’t have much room to maneuver the roster next year unless some players transfer out. So again – welcome back Scott, may your revenge against Arlington be fulfilling (if not immediate).

11. Little Rock

Key Returners: Nikola Maric, Markquis Nowell, Jaizec Lottie, Kris Bankston, Ryan Pippins, Kamani Johnson
Key Losses:
Rayjon Tucker (transfer/pro), Deondre Burns (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Ben Coupet (UNLV), Ruot Monyyong (JUCO), Alsean Evans (JUCO), Isaiah Palermo, Admir Besovic (JUCO)

Lineup: 

Outlook: In the three years since Chris Beard went 30-5 at Little Rock, the program has gone 32-63, in case you needed any further evidence that he’s a basketball savant. Darrell Walker took over last year, basically starting over after two disastrous Wes Flanagan seasons. The Trojans ranked 323rd nationally in experience and 312th in minutes continuity, per KenPom.com, underlining just how much of a reset it was under the former NBA guard and assistant. With plenty of experienced pieces back from last year and a solid set of newcomers, there’s a clear expectation of progress this year – Little Rock doesn’t need to win the league, but Walker should at least dig them out of (tied for) the cellar.

Walker went the junior college route for three of his newcomers as he attempts to even out the classes on his roster. Alsean Evans and Ruot Monyyong were both top 100 players, per jucorecruiting.com, and Evans will be pivotal in replacing the explosive scoring of Rayjon Tucker on the wing. Walker sped the team up significantly after Flanagan had them playing at a grinding pace, and Evans should excel in such a downhill scheme. He’s a bouncy athlete with a quick trigger from deep, likely averaging double-figures in his first Division I season. Monyyong (and fellow JUCO big man Admir Besovic) is not joining such a position of need, but his activity level on the glass (10.4rpg) and protecting the rim (2.6bpg) will be welcome additions alongside the more offensive-minded Nikola Maric.

Part of why Walker felt comfortable cranking the pace was the presence of two promising young point guards in Markquis Nowell and Jaizec Lottie. The two have complementary skills, and those were reflected in the lineup data:

The defense was demonstrably worse when rising sophomore Nowell ran the team; listed at 5’7, his size deficiencies were evident, despite his quickness. On the other hand, his ability to get in the lane at will and threat of a perimeter jumper (36% on 111 attempts) helped boost the offense. Lottie, meanwhile, is a horrendous shooter (26.7% from deep, plus a hideous 36.4% from the FT line), but he did help stabilize the Trojans’ defense. Playing them together helped cover each player’s weaknesses, and I’d expect that Net Rating to be even better his year.

The team’s youth showed clearly in its biggest weakness: rampant turnover issues. Every freshman and sophomore in the rotation had a turnover rate over 23.6%, including both of the point guards. With so many empty possessions, the offense struggled to maintain respectability, despite having some skilled frontcourt players that proved to be difficult matchups. One of those freshman, Maric showed serious potential as a back-to-the-basket scorer; he just needs to make better reads against digs and double-teams. Two 6’8 forwards, Kamani Johnson and Kris Bankston, displayed similar games as high-energy, low-usage finishers. Bankston is particularly intriguing – he used his tremendous vertical abilities to lead the country in field goal percentage (81%), with 61 of his 98 field goals coming via dunk, per barttorvik.com.

The final puzzle pieces are UNLV transfer Ben Coupet Jr., a skilled 6’7 guard that is hoping to get a waiver to play this year, and freshman Isaiah Palermo, a 6’5 wing. Along with Evans, they’ll help fill in for the departures of Tucker and Deondre Burns, with Coupet being particularly tantalizing thanks to his high pedigree and potential to handle the ball at times at his size.

Bottom Line: Walker’s pro-style offense struggled last year with such clear turnover issues, and a congested court via lack of perimeter shooting may once again be a problem. Still, the talent level here is rising, and the predominantly man-to-man defense was solid. The Trojans should once again get to the line a ton; they’ll just need to take better advantage (65.5%, 327th nationally). With only one rotation senior (human bowling ball Ryan Pippins – listed at 6’0, 250 lbs.), this should be a season of progress, building to 2020-21 challenge atop the conference.

12. ULM

Key Returners: Michael Ertel, JD Williams, Tyree White
Key Losses:
Daishon Smith, Travis Munnings, Andre Washington
Key Newcomers:
DeAndre Bernard (ETSU), Erie Olonade (JUCO), Langston Powell (JUCO), Josh Nicholas (JUCO), Chris Efretuei (JUCO), Elijah Ifejeh (JUCO), Luke Phillips (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: The Warhawks are coming off steady, mediocre season, one that never saw them have a record worse than one game below .500 (3-4) or better than three games above (15-12); they even finished 9-9 in conference play as the perfect encapsulation of their middling status. ULM was one of the country’s most effective perimeter shooting teams, but a soft, conservative defense was the worst in the Sun Belt, undermining any efforts to outscore opponents.

Before last year, the highest a Keith Richard-coached ULM team had finished in KenPom’s AdjOE rankings during his nine-year tenure was 149th. The second-highest in that span was 251st. Last year’s team finished 40th, a jaw-dropping contrast for a coach who had a fairly well-established style. Easily the largest driver of that was Wichita State transfer Daishon Smith, a one-man wrecking crew offensively who shot 86% on 200 free throw attempts and 40% on a staggering 273 threes. He also led the team in assists by a wide margin, and his impact was massive per Hoop Lens on/off numbers:

Without him, Michael Ertel and JD Williams will rise to more prominent offensive roles, with Ertel and junior college transfer Erie Olonade likely stepping into the primary ball-handler role. Ertel thrived as a secondary creator last year and rarely left the floor; his shooting numbers narrowly edged even Smith’s (91% from FT, 44.6% from 3), though his volume was lower. As the above screenshot shows, the Warhawks struggled with turnovers when Smith sat, so both Ertel and Olonade will need to prove they can handle pressure from opposing guards.

Last year’s team relied heavily on Smith in iso settings to beat his man and dish to open shooters, meaning Richard may have to re-design the offense a bit to include more handoffs and off-ball motion. Depth will be tough to come by in the backcourt, as well. Indian Hills transfer Josh Nicholas is promising, though he was a bit player at the junior college stalwart; expect Ertel and Williams to continue playing heavy minutes loads unless redshirt freshman Jalen Hodge really emerges after looking solid in practice last year.

Elsewhere, Travis Munnings graduates, a perfect smallball big man who could battle on the boards and hit perimeter shots. Tyree White has shown some capacity for both of those, and he likely ascends into the a starting forward role at the 3 or 4 (probably the 3, as Richard has expressed a pointed desire to play bigger this year). Elijah Ijefeh and Youry White (unrelated) are more conventional options at power forward; Youry White actually started seven games late in the year after rarely seeing the court early on. That would leave ETSU grad transfer DeAndre Bernard as an undersized center, though his more natural position would be at PF; Richard also brought in three JUCO centers that may or may not be ready to play Division I. None of the three – Chris Efretui, Dadou Traore, Luke Phillips – were productive at their last stops, but I’d bet on Efretui if I had to pick one; he hails from powerhouse South Plains.

Bottom Line: After a one-year hiatus as an offensive juggernaut, Richard will likely need to re-visit his old blueprint: defense first, grind it out in a slow tempo game, still hoping that Ertel, Williams, and Tyree White can hit enough outside shots to win games. He’s a man-to-man coach through and through, and his deep stable of 6’7-6’8 forwards lends hope to building a sturdier defense. Even so, I don’t see a ton of upside for the Warhawks unless Ertel explodes in a much higher usage role.