- Ky McKeon
(check out the Sun Belt preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Tookie Brown, Sr., Georgia Southern
Coach of the Year: Chris Ogden, UT Arlington
Newcomer of the Year: Daishon Smith, R Sr., Louisiana Monroe
Freshman of the Year: Markquis Nowell, Fr., Little Rock
1. The Cream of the Crop
After a competitive conference season and the dust settled, four teams stood above the rest. Surprise Sun Belt contender Texas State controlled the league for much the year behind a pair of skilled guards in Nijal Pearson and Tre’Larenz Nottingham. The Bobcats jumped out to a 12-4 conference start but stumbled in their last two contests, relinquishing their stranglehold over first place. UT Arlington came on like a freight train at the end of the year, winning its last four and finishing 12-6. Georgia Southern, the top rated Sun Belt team per KenPom, was its usual steady self under the direction of Mark Byington and the brilliant Tookie Brown. But ultimately, it was Georgia State, the preseason favorite, that captured the outright conference title, winning in dramatic fashion on the road against rival Georgia Southern in the last game of the year.
2. Chris Ogden Steps In
If Texas State was a surprise conference contender, UTA was full on horror movie jump scare. The Mavericks lost nearly every player from last year’s competitive squad and, for some odd reason, head coach Scott Cross was fired for apparently bringing the program to prominence. The AD, who looked like a total bonehead at the time of the firing, must feel pretty good about himself right now. Chris Ogden turned out to be an absolute homerun hire after coming over from Chris Beard’s staff at Texas Tech. The Mavericks were 351st in the country in minutes continuity and 353rd in height (shortest team), yet managed to finish 12-6 in a tough conference behind a collaboration of JUCO transfers and freshmen. The program appears to be in good hands with Ogden, but how long will he remain at the mid-major level if he continues this unexpected success?
3. Troy in Trouble and Farewell Tookie
Jordon Varnado is apparently worth about 10 points of value, because once Troy’s talented big man went down with a concussion with nine games to play in the regular season, the Trojans tanked hard. Troy was seen as a fringe Sun Belt title contender heading into the year, but finished a measly 5-13 in league play, 2-7 without Varnado.
Tookie Brown, the 5’11'“ senior PG for Georgia Southern, is one of 3MW’s all-time favorite players and he will be sorely missed. We started the site 4 years ago during Tookie’s freshman season, so we’ve been lucky to see him grow throughout his career and dominate the Sun Belt. Tookie has a shot to graduate as the Sun Belt’s 2nd all-time leader in scoring, 6th all-time leader in assists, 10th all-time leader in steals, and all-time leader in free throws made.
The First Rounds are held at the campus site of the higher seed, then all come together to play in New Orleans. Only the top 10 of the 12 conference teams are eligible for the tournament (bye bye Troy and Little Rock). The 3rd and 4th place teams receive a double bye to the quarterfinals of the tournament, while the top 2 teams receive a triple bye to the semifinals.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
Georgia State has been a frustrating team from a gambling perspective this season. Ron Hunter’s bunch is one that can hang with just about any team in the country, but also one that tends to let inferior opponents keep games close. In a tournament setting, where Hunter has enjoyed success previously, I like the Panthers to bring their A game and lock up the auto-bid. It also helps having the best player in the league in D’Marcus Simonds. Tookie Brown won the Player of the Year, but Simonds is a guy that can (and often does) put an entire team on his back and win a basketball game. I will personally be rooting for Tookie and Georgia Southern to win the title.
If either GSU wins the conference tourney, a 13 or 14 seed is likely in their future. Either team in capable of winning a game in the Big Dance. Texas State would likely also secure a 13 or 14 seed if they take home the hardware, while any other squad is likely looking at a 15.
Dark Horse Team
The Sun Belt tourney is set up, rightly so, to give the top two seeds a giant advantage. Georgia State and UT Arlington need to only win two games to clinch the auto-bid, while a team like Louisiana Monroe needs to win five. The deck is stacked against them, but the Warhawks have the talent in the backcourt to make some noise in the tourney. Also look for their in-state cohort, Louisiana, to make a little run. The Ragin’ Cajuns have been down this year but still feature two of the best players in the league in Jakeenan Gant and Marcus Stroman. And, of course, Bob Marlin is a great coach.
(8) South Alabama over (9) Arkansas State
(7) Louisiana Monroe over (10) Appalachian State
(5) Louisiana over (8) South Alabama
(7) Louisiana Monroe over (6) Coastal Carolina
(5) Louisiana over (4) Texas State
(3) Georgia Southern over (7) Louisiana Monroe
(1) Georgia State over (5) Louisiana
(3) Georgia Southern over (2) UT Arlington
(3) Georgia Southern over (1) Georgia State
Tookie takes his revenge over Simonds and the Panthers in what should be appointment television. The Eagles earn a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament and give some unsuspecting 3 all it can handle.