Sun Belt Power Rankings: Red Wolves and Cajuns Make Move

Melvin Johnson III scored 22 in a dominant A-State win over WKU - Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia State remained undefeated and widened their lead over the rest of the conference, but recent wins by Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette have made the Sun Belt race behind the Panthers very interesting.

1. Georgia State Panthers (17-6, 10-0): Georgia State remained unbeaten in league play winning a pair of games comfortably last week, including an impressive 11 point win in Little Rock. The win wasn't necessarily impressive because of point differential, although any double digit win at UALR is a feat. This was an impressive win because GSU showed they can win a hard-nosed defensive game if needed. The Panthers held UALR to under 37% shooting, including just 2-for-14 from three, on their own home floor. They also out rebounded the Trojans. The Panthers also proved they could win with star R.J. Hunter limited with foul trouble. Of course, limited is relative when it comes to Hunter. In just 23 minutes he still scored 14 points and grabbed four boards. Devonta White picked up the slack scoring 22. Georgia State has now won 14 consecutive games.

With two more wins, the Panthers have moved up to 11th in the latest Mid Major Madness Power 15.

Last week: W 85-65 vs South AL, W 68-57 at Little Rock

This week: Thu vs Texas St, Sat at Troy (ESPN2)

2. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (16-8, 8-3): In their only game last week, Western Kentucky stretched their winning streak to six games in thrilling fashion. The Hilltoppers knocked off UALR in Little Rock when Trency Jackson drained a pull-up three pointer as time expired. The shot completed an impressive second half comeback, as WKU erased a 13 point deficit over the final eight minutes. Jackson led the Tops in scoring with 20 points off the bench. In their first of three games this week, Western's six game winning streak and unbeaten road conference record were both shattered in a crushing loss at Arkansas State. Aaron Adeoye scored 10 points with seven rebounds.

Last week: W 79-78 at Little Rock

This week: L 72-58 at Arkansas St, Thu vs Troy (ESPN3), Sat vs South AL (ESPN3)

3. Arkansas State Red Wolves (13-8, 6-4): A Sun Belt scheduling snafu and a winter weather postponement resulted in Arkansas State not playing any games last week. They responded well to the long lay-off, though, dominating second place Western Kentucky to kick off a busy three game week. John Brady's Red Wolves executed a masterful defensive game plan, and brought the Toppers' six game winning streak to a screeching halt. Arkansas State's defense held Western to 37% shooting and helped the Tops commit 17 turnovers. They also did a remarkable job against Western's two best players. T.J. Price scored two points while George Fant was held scoreless on just two field goal attempts. Offensively for A-State, Melvin Johnson III continued his strong play scoring 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

Last week: No games played

This week: W 72-58 vs Western KY, Thu at South AL, Sat at UL Lafayette

4. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (15-9, 6-5): Ten days ago, Louisiana-Lafayette had lost four of five and also lost a key reserve in sharpshooter Kasey Shepherd for the season. But as the calendar flipped to February, the Cajuns fortunes have also flipped reminding the Sun Belt that UL Lafayette will be a team to watch come March. It started with a dominant home win over UL Monroe, avenging a double overtime road loss in Monroe earlier this season. This past week, the Cajuns went to Texas and won a pair against UTA and Texas State. Against UTA, the Cajuns stormed in front 40-15. They had to weather a furious Maverick comeback, but did hold on for another win. Against Texas State, the Cajuns rallied from 12 down, holding the Bobcats to just six points over the final 6:43 of the game, and won it on a Xavian Rimmer three pointer with just 11 seconds to play. You can't speak of the Cajuns without mentioning the dynamic duo of Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long. Against ULM, Payton scored 28 points making 13 of his 14 field goal attempts. UTA was victimized by both guys. Payton filled the stat sheet scoring 22 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists. Long was also halfway decent that night, scoring 31 points with eight rebounds. While Texas State did a nice job against Payton holding him to just 10 points, six boards, and four assists, Long went off again tallying 20 points and 13 rebounds.

Last week: W 92-89 at Texas-Arlington, W 67-66 at Texas St

This week: Thu vs Little Rock, Sat vs Arkansas St

5. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (12-12, 7-5): Another solid season for Head Coach Steve Shields and the Trojans hit a snag this week as UALR fell in a pair of home games against the league's top teams. In the most recent loss to Western Kentucky, a pair of second half runs told the tale. UALR turned a two point deficit into a 13 point lead with under eight minutes to play thanks to a 15-0 run. Western closed the game on an 18-5 run, though, winning on Trency Jackson's buzzer-beating three. Unfortunately for the Trojans, they missed 3-of-6 free throws in the final minute leaving the door open for Western's heroics. Josh Hagins scored 20 off the bench to lead the Trojans. The injury bug has bitten UALR at a most inopportune time as top players James White and Will Neighbour have missed parts of, if not entire, games over the past couple weeks against the Sun Belt's best competition.

Last week: L 68-57 vs Georgia St, L 79-78 vs Western KY

This week: Thu at UL Lafayette, Sat at UL Monroe

6. Texas-Arlington Mavericks (9-13, 4-6): I have no idea what to make of UTA at this point. The Mavericks have lost three straight, against the Sun Belt's top three teams in these rankings, but every game has been amazing. At Western Kentucky, UTA led for more than 36 minutes before the Toppers rallied late and pulled out a five point win in WKU's Diddle Arena. At Georgia State, the Mavs and Panthers played one of the more sensational games I've ever watched. If not for two mind-blowing made three pointers by GSU that forced overtime, UTA would have handed the Panthers their first conference loss. GSU eventually won by 10 in overtime. In this week's loss, UTA trailed the Cajuns 40-15 in the first half. They still trailed by 18 points with just over four minutes to play, but rallied to within two in the final seconds. Unfortunately UTA couldn't grab a missed free throw in time to get a desperation shot off at the buzzer. These three excruciating losses against three quality opponents have added to a season of heartbreak. In the pre conference slate, UTA lost 72-69 at Texas and 91-89 at Oklahoma.

Last week: L 92-89 vs UL Lafayette

This week: Thu at UL Monroe, Sat vs Texas St

7. Texas State Bobcats (7-16, 3-7): Texas State split a pair of home games this week against the Louisianas, as their recent improvement continued. In the win over ULM, the Bobcats used a 13-0 run early and an 8-0 run late to dispatch of the Warhawks. Joel Wright led all scorers with 19, including eight during the decisive 14-5 run over the final three-plus minutes. Against UL Lafayette, a Cajuns three pointer with 10 seconds left and a pair of Bobcats turnovers in the final seconds dealt Texas St. a crushing defeat in front of nearly 3,000 fans on Jeff Foster jersey retirement night. Texas State led 60-48, but was outscored 19-6 over the final 6:43 of the game. Wright again led the scoring for the Bobcats tallying 17 points, but he also lost the ball trying to drive for a potential game winner at the buzzer.

Last week: W 65-57 vs UL Monroe, L 67-66 vs UL Lafayette

This week: Thu at Georgia St, Sat at Texas-Arlington

8. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (7-11, 4-6): Louisiana-Monroe has now dropped four of their last five after falling to improving Texas State this week. The Warhawks rallied from nine down at the break and actually led the game with 3:17 to play before being outscored 14-5 down the stretch. Jayon James scored 18 with five assists and three steals while Tylor Ongwae added 14 points and seven rebounds in the loss.

Last week: L 65-57 at Texas St

This week: Thu vs Texas-Arlington, Sat vs Little Rock

9. Troy Trojans (8-14, 3-7): Troy snapped a five game losing streak this week, but it came at home and at the expense of the league's last place team. Hunter Williams had a massive second half in the win over in-state rival South Alabama, scoring 21 of his 26 points after the break. He made 7-of-12 from behind the three point arc.

Last week: W 79-74 vs South AL

This week: Thu at Western KY (ESPN3), Sat vs Georgia St (ESPN2)

10. South Alabama Jaguars (7-16, 1-9): South Alabama's struggles continued this week with another pair of losses, both on the road. The Jags have now lost five in a row and 14 of their last 15 games against Division I competition. The lone win in that stretch was a home win against Louisiana-Lafayette. Go figure.

Last week: L 85-65 at Georgia St, L 79-74 at Troy

This week: Thu vs Arkansas St, Sat at Western KY (ESPN3)

If the Sun Belt Tournament started today…

First Round

#5 Louisiana-Lafayette (6-5) vs #8 Texas State (3-7)

#6 Texas-Arlington (4-6) vs #7 Louisiana-Monroe (4-6)

Second round

#4 Arkansas-Little Rock (7-5) vs UL Lafayette/TX St

#3 Arkansas State (6-4) vs UTA/ULM

Semifinals

#1 Georgia State (10-0) vs UALR/UL Lafayette/TX St

#2 Western Kentucky (8-3) vs ASU/UTA/ULM

The top eight finishers qualify for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament

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