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Sun Belt Snapshot: Georgia State Panthers on the Prowl

In a league that was thought to be wide open this season, Sun Belt newcomer Georgia State has grabbed an early grip on the top spot.

Ron Hunter has Georgia State making waves in their first year in the Sun Belt
Ron Hunter has Georgia State making waves in their first year in the Sun Belt
Kevin C. Cox

With conference play now in full swing, here is a snapshot of where the Sun Belt teams stand after three weeks:

1. Georgia State Panthers (5-0, 12-6): Third year Head Coach Ron Hunter and his son, talented sophomore guard R.J. Hunter, have the Panthers clicking on all cylinders early in the conference season. The Panthers aren't just winning Sun Belt games, they are dominating most of them. Their two best wins both came by more than 20 points. On January 9th, the Panthers went to EA Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, KY and smacked WKU 77-54. Western's only two other home losses this year were a five point loss to Ole Miss and an overtime loss to UALR. Speaking of UALR, the most recent statement win for GSU came at the expense of the Trojans on January 18. The Panthers scored a whopping 59 first half points and cruised to a 99-73 win. GSU's total winning streak currently sits at nine games, including all five conference wins.

RJ Hunter, who was All-Everything last year as a Freshman in the CAA, has made the transition into the Sun Belt quite nicely. He is averaging 19.1 points per game, including an incredible 41 point performance in a win at UTSA in December. That day, he made 12 of 19 three point attempts. On the season, Hunter has made 57 three pointers in 18 games and is shooting them at 40%. Kentucky transfer, point guard Ryan Harrow, is averaging a cool 17.8 points and 4.6 assists per game to provide the Panthers with quite the 1-2 punch. Southern Cal transfer, junior forward Curtis Washington, adds power inside averaging 8.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, with 50 blocked shots.

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

2. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (4-2, 9-9): 11th year Head Coach Steve Shields' Trojans have turned it on nicely with the start of conference play. UALR's 4-2 start includes three road wins, the most impressive coming on January 16th at Western Kentucky. The Trojans prevailed 87-83 in overtime after erasing an eight point deficit with just over five minutes to play in regulation. Unfortunately for UALR, they followed up that win with a blowout loss at league-leading Georgia State. The Trojans rematch with the Panthers in Little Rock comes in early February.

Will Neighbour, a 6-10 forward, is a force for UALR. The senior from England averages 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Sophomores James White and Josh Hagins both average over 11 points per game. White adds nearly six rebounds, while Hagins leads the team with more than three assists.

This week: Thu vs Texas St, Sat at Arkansas St

3. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (3-2, 6-7): Fourth year Head Coach Keith Richard's Warhawks made a statement right out of the gate, knocking off the rival Ragin' Cajuns in Double OT to kick off their Sun Belt slate. They followed that up with a pair of losses, including a 61-36 drubbing at home against Texas State. ULM responded, though, sweeping the Alabama swing and putting themselves back in position to be a factor in the race. The Warhawks next three games, and five of the next seven, are at home including a shot at Georgia St this Thursday.

The Warhawks have a balanced roster that features three players in double figure scoring, led by junior forward Tylor Ongwae's 15.8 and senior guard Amos Olatayo's 13.5 points per game. They also have four players averaging between 4.5 and 6.5 rebounds per game.

This week: Thu vs Western Kentucky, Sat vs Georgia St

3. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (3-2, 11-7): Western's pre-conference results included a 68-65 win over a good Southern Miss squad, then their Sun Belt slate started strong. The Tops won a pair of road games, but most recently a 1-2 home stand included losses to other top contenders Georgia State and UALR.

Third year Head Coach Ray Harper's team currently has four players averaging at least 10 point per game. They are led by juniors T.J. Price and George Fant. Price scores 16.7 points and adds 4.5 rebounds and two assists per game. Fant scores 13.2 while leading the team with 7.6 rebounds.

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

3. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (3-2, 12-6): After a pre-conference slate highlighted by a road win against a really good Louisiana Tech team, fourth year Head Coach Bob Marlin's Cajuns figure to be a factor in the Sun Belt race. A couple of disappointing road losses (in 2 OT at ULM, and at South Alabama) have put them a little behind schedule, but the Cajuns get a big opportunity this week when they host unbeaten league-leading Georgia State and Western Kentucky at the Cajundome.

This Cajuns squad is led by the supremely talented duo of junior Elfrid Payton and sophomore Shawn Long. Both guys absolutely fill the stat sheet in every category. Payton scores 19.7 per game with 6.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.4 steals. He's registered three points/assists double doubles this year, and come within three assists of that mark seven other times. At ULM on January 4th, Payton had his lone triple double this year scoring 34 points with 11 boards, 11 assists, and five steals for good measure. Not to be outdone, Long is averaging more than 20 points a contest. He also leads the team with just under seven rebounds and three blocks a game.

This week: Thu vs Georgia St, Sat vs Western Kentucky

6. Arkansas State Red Wolves (3-3, 10-7): Arkansas State sits at 3-3 in league play after their most recent road trip included a pair of heartbreaking losses. On January 16, the Red Wolves fell by one point at front running Georgia State. RJ Hunter scored with 11 seconds to play to put the Panthers ahead, and two ASU attempts missed before the final horn. Two days later, ASU dropped a double overtime game at Western Kentucky scoring just two field goals in the extra periods.

Sixth year Head Coach John Brady's Red Wolves are led by forward Kirk Van Slyke. The 6-10 senior averages over 17 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He also helps his cause by shooting over 80% from the free throw line. A pair of senior guards, Melvin Johnson III (13.5) and Brandon Reed (11.2), also average double figures scoring.

This week: Sat vs UALR

7. Texas-Arlington Mavericks (2-3, 7-0): The Mavericks, led by eighth year Head Coach Scott Cross, are off to a bit of a slow start in their first Sun Belt campaign. Their 2-3 record includes two early home losses (to ASU and UALR.) The third loss was a blowout loss to another contender at UL Lafayette.

Senior guard Reger Dowell, a transfer from Oklahoma State, leads UTA scoring 21.6 points per game. He has shot 55-144 from three point range in 15 games played, or just under 10 attempts per game. Senior forward Brandon Edwards averages 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Since the start of conference play, junior guard Lonnie McClanahan has stepped up scoring more than 18 points per game.

This week: Thu vs Troy, Sat vs South Alabama

8. Troy Trojans (2-4, 7-11): First year Head Coach Phil Cunningham's Trojans have gotten off to a strange start in this Sun Belt season. They've lost all three conference home games (to WKU, ULM, and UL Lafayette) but they also swept a pair on an always difficult road swing through Arkansas against ASU and UALR.

Troy doesn't have any players dominating the stat sheets. Five players average between 8.5 and 12.5 points a night, and all five of those players have led the team in scoring at some point this season.

This week: Thu at UTA, Sat at Texas St

9. Texas State Bobcats (1-4, 5-13): It's been a rough go of it so far for first year Head Coach Danny Kaspar's Bobcats. They've lost all three home games so far in the program's first Sun Belt campaign. The lone win came in a road game at UL Monroe.

Forward Joel Wright leads the way for the Bobcats. The 6-7 senior scores 14.8 points and grabs 6.3 rebounds per game.

This week: Thu at UALR, Sat vs Troy

10. South Alabama Jaguars (1-5, 7-12): First year Head Coach Matthew Graves and his Jaguars have gotten off to a frustrating start in the Sun Belt. The five conference losses have come by totals of two, 10 (to unbeaten GSU), five, 12, and six points. Their win came at the expense of expected conference contender UL Lafayette.

Senior forward Augustine Rubit leads the way for USA on a nightly basis, scoring 16.6 points with 9.9 rebounds per game.

This week: Sat at UTA

The top eight finishers qualify for the Sun Belt Conference tournament