2013-14 Mid-Major Conference Preview: Sun Belt

USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Belt is yet another conference that has changed significantly. Will a new face prevail or will traditional powers reign supreme once again?

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with the Sun Belt Conference.

The Sun Belt is yet another conference that you need a media guide to figure who is in and who is out of the conference after the realignment shuffle. FAU, FIU, Middle Tennessee and North Texas have moved into Conference USA and have been replaced with Georgia State, Texas State, and UT-Arlington. Next year Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will join the fray. Will a newcomer make some noise in the Sun Belt or will a traditional power once again reign?

1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Last Year:
20-16 (10-10), 4th East Sun Belt, Sun Belt Tournament Champion, NCAA 2nd Round
Departures: Jamal Crook (12.1 ppg), Teeng Akol (6.7 ppg), Marcus Vasquez (1.1 ppg), Eddie Alcantara (Transfer, 1.6 ppg), Stephon Drane (TR, 2.1 ppg)
Key Returners: T.J. Price (15.2 ppg), George Fant (12.8 ppg), Brandon Harris (8.2 ppg), Kevin Kaspar (5.3 ppg)

Ray Harper's squad had its share of ups and downs a year ago but in the end the Hilltoppers defended their Sun Belt title and made it back to the "Big Dance". Western Kentucky returns four out of five starters last year and has a player who can challenge for Conference Player of the Year in T.J. Price. While Price is a dangerous wing, George Fant controls the inside and has grown into one of the Sun Belt's top big men. Joining the two primary scoring threats for the Hilltoppers are a pair of combo guards in Brandon Harris and Kevin Kaspar who can feed off of each other and can step up on any given night.

Texas Tech transfer Trency Jackson adds to the depth for the Hilltoppers. They also have trio of freshmen in Chris Harrison-Docks, Brandon Price, and Payton Hulsey who are expected to make an immediate impact on Harper's bench. Can Western Kentucky make it a three-peat in Bowling Green this year?

2. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Last Year:
13-20, 8-12, 3rd West Sun Belt
Departures: Alan-Michael Thompson (9 ppg), Matthew Moss (TR, 1.4 ppg), Josh Soto (TR, 2.7 ppg), Raymone Andrews (TR), Cornell Barnett (TR, 0.6 ppg)
Key Returners: Elfrid Payton (15.9 ppg), Shawn Long (15.5 ppg), Bryant Mbamalu (13.8 ppg)

Could Bob Marlin's Ragin' Cajuns be on the edge of a dynasty-like run in Lafayette, Louisiana? I said this Summer that I was hitching to the Elfrid Payton train and I'm not getting off yet. Payton's stock exploded this Summer when he not only made the U19 United States national team but ended up starting for Billy Donovan's squad. Payton then played for a Mid-Major All-Star team, Reach USA, where he ended up averaging nearly 22 points per game on their international tour. Payton is my Sun Belt Preseason Player of the Year and he could carry a young Ragin' Cajuns team far this season.

Payton's main running-mate is Bryant Mbamalu a 6'2 shooting guard who averaged nearly 14 points per game last year. Alcorn State transfer Xavian Rimmer should also help bolster the backcourt for Louisiana. Rimmer averaged over 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists a year ago in junior college. The frontcourt isn't shabby either with Mississippi State transfer Shawn Long, who averaged a double-double a year ago with over 15 points and 10 rebounds, while also adding 2 blocks per game. J.J Davenport, a junior college transfer, will add some beef in the middle at 6'6 and nearly 350 pounds.

3. Georgia State Panthers
Last Year:
15-16 (10-8), t-5th CAA
Departures: James Vincent (4.8 ppg), Cameron Solomon (TR, 5.4 ppg)
Key Returners: R.J. Hunter (17 ppg), Devonta White (14.8 ppg), Manny Atkins (14.2 ppg), Rashaad Richardson (7.3 ppg)

The Panthers are the new kids on the block and they are here to win a championship. Ron Hunter returns a talented squad lead by his scoring machine of a son R.J. The 6'5 wing averaged 17 points per game his freshman year and has high major talent, but wanted to play for good ole' dad. Joining Hunter this year is Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow who received an NCAA waiver to play in Atlanta immediately. Harrow started 24 games for UK last year averaging nearly 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. He will challenge the Sun Belt this year as one of it's top guards and will join an already talented point guard, Devonta White, who averaged nearly 15 points and 4 assists per game last year.

Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins had a solid first season in Atlanta and is a valuable 15 points, 7 rebounds per game guy in the paint. Atkins will have a partner this year in 6'9 USC transfer Curtis Washington. Behind the arc Rashaad Richardson has developed into a credible threat and should benefit from the Panthers point guard talent. Look for the Panthers to compete and maybe even steal a Sun Belt Championship in their first year away from the CAA.

4. South Alabama Jaguars
Last Year:
17-13 (14-6), 2nd East Sun Belt, CIT First Round
Departures: Xavier Roberson (13.6 ppg), Freddie Goldstein (7.9 ppg), Javier Carter (7.1 ppg), Trey Anderson (3.7 ppg), Wendell Wright (1.7 ppg)
Key Returners: Augustine Rubit (19.4 ppg), Mychal Ammons (10.8 ppg), Antoine Allen (9.1 ppg)

Former Butler assistant Matthew Graves takes over in Mobile and inherits quite a bit of talent. Augustine Rubit will challenge for Conference Player of the Year after averaging over 19 points and 10 rebounds per game a year ago. Rubit is the conference's top big man, despite only standing 6'7. Forward Mychal Ammons also pounds the boards hard and averaged nearly 11 points and 6 rebounds last year. In the backcourt the Jags are lead by senior Antoine Allen and will also rely on incoming freshmen Ken Williams and Aakim Saintil.

The Jaguars have the talent to compete for a Sun Belt championship, but can a first-year head coach lead the Jaguars to the NCAA Tournament?

5. Arkansas State Red Wolves
Last Year:
19-12 (12-8), 1st West Sun Belt
Departures: Brandon Peterson (10.5 ppg), Trey Finn (10.4 ppg), Marcus Hooten (7.1 ppg), Kris Brown (TR), Jordan Weaver (TR, 0.9 ppg)
Key Returners: Edward Townsel (13.1 ppg), Cameron Golden (7.4 ppg)

The turnstiles are spinning in Jonesboro as starters leave and new starters arrive. John Brady lost three starters a year ago and will replace them with Georgia Tech transfer Brandon Reed, former Southland Freshman of Year and UTSA Roadrunner Melvin Johnson, Houston transfer Kirk Van Slyke, and JUCO transfers Sean Gardner and Seth Kisler. Joining this new cast will be talented guards Cameron Golden and Ed Townsel who combined for over 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists a year ago.

Obviously the Red Wolves have talent, but how fast can this squad gel with so many new faces? Next year the transition will continue with addition of North Texas transfer P.J. Hardwick and Ole Miss transfer Jason Carter.

6. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Lasty Year:
17-15 (11-9), 2nd West Sun Belt
Departures: Ted Crass (0.4 ppg), John Gillon (TR, 10.6 ppg), Michael Javes (TR, 6 ppg), Taggart Lockhart (5.1 ppg)
Key Returners: Will Neighbour (10.7 ppg), Josh Hagins (8.1 ppg), Leroy Isler (7.4 ppg), James White (7.2 ppg)

UALR strength is clearly in their frontcourt with senior big man Will Neighbour and forwards Leroy Isler and James White. The trio could become a real power in the Sun Belt and develop into one of the more formidable frontcourts. The Trojans had a core of talented freshman a year ago but their top frosh, John Gillon, bolted for Colorado State. Adding to the Trojans talent is returning guard Josh Hagins who averaged over 8 points and 3 assists a year ago and may serve as a primary replacement for Gillon when it comes to scoring production.

The Trojans are still a very young team and could surprise some in the Sun Belt this year. Neighbour will have to battle with a slew of talented bigs in this league.

7. Texas State Bobcats
Last Year:
12-22 (5-13), 7th WAC
Departures: Matt Staff (11.2 ppg), Vonn Jones (5.1 ppg), Justin Tanton (0.8 ppg)
Key Returners: Joel Wright (17.8 ppg), Reid Koenen (8.1 ppg), Corey Stern (6.8 ppg), Wesley Davis (6.5 ppg)

The Bobcats are a new face in the Sun Belt and will have a new face behind the bench in Danny Kaspar, who comes over from Stephen F. Austin. Leading the charge for Kaspar this year will be Joel Wright who averaged nearly 18 points and 7 rebounds per game a year. Wright may even become more formidable this year as he has spent the offseason improving his shot selection and working on other facets of his game. Starters Redi Koenen and Wesley Davis also return to form a solid core for the Bobcats, while Phil Hawkins is expected to be an important piece at point guard in Kaspar's transition.

8. UT-Arlington Mavericks
Last Year:
19-14 (11-7), t-4th WAC, CIT First Round
Departures: Kevin Butler (11.2 ppg), Karol Gruszecki (9.1 ppg), Jordan Reves (8.5 ppg), Cameron Catlett (5.8 ppg), Vernell Blackman (TR), Deon Rodgers (TR, 0.5 ppg)
Key Returners: Brandon Edwards (7.8 ppg), Jamel Outler (6.7 ppg)

The last new face in the Sun Belt is UT-Arlington. Unfortunately, the Mavericks likely won't make much noise there first year in the conference after losing three starters. The Mavs will lean heavily on Brandon Edwards and former Texas Tech guard Jamel Outler this season. Shaquille White-Miller will also be asked to step up in his senior year at the point guard position and become a real leader on this team. Oklahoma State transfer Reger Dowell and JUCO transfer Lonnie McClanahan will also help to get the Mavericks through their inaugural journey in the Sun Belt.  The good news is this team has postseason experience and could use their past success and experiences as a springboard in their new conference.

9. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
Last Year:
4-23 (3-17), 5th West Sun Belt
Departures: Taylor Birchett (TR,), Ife Eke (TR, 1.4 ppg), Trey Lindsey (TR, 4.1 ppg), Trent Mackey (TR, 11 ppg)
Key Returners: Amos Olatayo (15.8 ppg), Jayon James (9.4), Marcelis Hansberry (7.5 ppg)

Keith Richard has navigated the Warhawks through tough waters, including APR issues, now clearer waters may be on the horizon for ULM. Four starters return to create a solid core, including Amost Olatayo who averaged nearly 16 points and 6 rebounds a year ago. Freshman point guard Nick Coppola, from Benedictine in Richmond, Virginia, could contend for Newcomer of the Year, while a slew of JUCO transfers will also bolster's Richard's squad. It's still an uphill climb for Richard but expect the Warhawks to at least double their win total from a year ago.

10. Troy Trojans
Last Year:
12-12 (6-14), 6th East Sun Belt
Departures: Emil Jones (11.4 ppg), Ray Chambers(8.2 ppg), Justin Wright (3 ppg), R.J. Scott (TR, 5.4 ppg), Justin Wright (TR, 3 ppg), Jarrett Calhoun (11 ppg)
Key Returners: Hunter Williams (10.4 ppg), Antoine Myers (8 ppg)

Phil Cunnigham is the new head coach at Troy and he has some work to do replacing legend Don Maestri. Simply put, the cupboard is bare for the Trojans. Three of their top four scorers are gone Antoine Myers and Hunter Williams are just about the only weapons left. Five other low producing upperclassmen will be pivotal for Cunningham while a couple of JUCO transfer Kevin Thomas and J.C. Bonny will also try to contribute. Troy has not had a winning year since 2009-10 and I don't think that will change with 2013-14.

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