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2014-15 Sun Belt Basketball Preview

Georgia State and Louisiana will once again duke it out in the Sun Belt this year after a crazy end to last season. Will the Panthers become the national power everyone thinks they can be on the mid-major level or will someone challenge the Panthers in the Sun Belt?

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

1. Georgia State Panthers
Last Year:
25-9, 17-1, 1st Sun Belt, NIT
Key Losses: Manny Atkins (14.3 ppg), Devonta White (11.6 ppg), Rashaad Richardson (2.8 ppg), Denny Burguillos (0.6 ppg), Jaylen Hinton (Transfer, 1.4 ppg), Darius Sharpe (TR, 0.8 ppg), Kevin Shaw (TR, 1.1 ppg), Laron Smith (TR, 1.1 ppg)
Returners: R.J. Hunter (18.3 ppg), Ryan Harrow (17.8 ppg), Curtis Washington (7.5 ppg)

It's been over a decade since the Georgia State Panthers have made the NCAA Tournament and it looked like that streak was going to end a year ago after a 17-1 run through Sun Belt play. Unfortunately for Ron Hunter the Panthers ran into a hot Elfrid Payton, Shawn Long, and the rest of the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns. While it looks like there was a lot of turnover for the Panthers, this year's squad may be even better. RJ Hunter and Ryan Harrow aren't just two of the best mid-major players in the country they are two of the best players in the nation. Both have skills to play at the next level. Joining them this year will be former Louisville Cardinal Kevin Ware who should help bolster the Panthers lineup. Curtis Washington, a USC transfer himself, fills out a very nice lineup for GSU as the 6'10 center averaged 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game a year ago.

The Panthers schedule is upgraded this year after not getting an at-large bid from the selection committee, which could be a fallback this year for Hunter's squad. The scary thing is that we may have dynasty building in Atlanta with Indiana transfer Jeremy Hollowell and Samford transfer Isaiah Williams to the mix.

2. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Last Year: 23-12  (11-7),  Sun Belt Tournament Champ, NCAA Tournament
Key Losses: Elfrid Payton (19.2 ppg), Bryant Mbamalu (12.3 ppg)
Returners: Shawn Long (18.6 ppg), Xavian Rimmer (8.8 ppg), Kasey Shepherd (8.2 ppg)

Anytime you lose a lottery pick point guard, it has to take a little time to get over it. The Cajuns saw Elfrid Payton move on to the Orlando Magic and they also lost 6-2 guard Bryant Mbamalu to graduation. There is still reason for optimism in Lafayette, as the Cajuns have another NBA caliber player, Shawn Long, on the roster. The 6-10 big man led the team in rebounds and blocks last year and will try to get his team back to the NCAA tournament.

The Cajuns will rely on experience in their backcourt. 6-2 guard Xavian Rimmer returns and the point guard duties will be handled by 6-3 junior Kasey Shepherd. They will be joined in the starting lineup by 6-5 Brian Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma State. Williams has a lot of big game experience and the Louisiana native will help fill the leadership void left by Payton.

3. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Last Year: 15-17  (9-9)   t-5th
Key Losses: Will Neighbour (16.3 ppg), Leroy Isler (7.1 ppg)
Returners: Josh Hagins (12.4 ppg), James White (11.6 ppg), Ben Dillard (7.3 ppg)

UALR brings back most of their roster, but they do lose leading scorer Will Neighbour, a 6-10 big man as well as 6-5 forward Leroy Isler.  Coming back are 6-1 guard Josh Hagins, 6-8 forward James White, and 6-2 Ben Dillard. 6-5 wing Stetson Billings should make a big jump in production this year.

UALR will have to find some production inside to help out James White. The Trojans have two experienced point guards in DeVonte Smith and J.T. Thomas, but no real experience at center. Head Coach Steve Shields might have to go small, with White joined by 6-5 230 forward Roger Woods, who averaged 4 pts and 4 rebounds at Southeastern Louisiana in 2013.

4. Texas-Arlington Mavericks
Last Year: 15-17  (9-9), t-5th
Key Losses: Reger Dowell (20.3 ppg), Brandon Edwards (16.3 ppg)
Returners: Lonnie McClanahan (14.0), Jamel Outler (11.2 ppg), Anthony Walker (3.5 ppg)

UT-Arlington has to deal with the loss of their two leading scorers in Reger Dowell and Brandon Edwards. The 6-6 Edwards was also the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker. Head Coach Scott Cross is back for his ninth year at his alma mater and he does have some experienced players to lean on.

Senior guards Lonnie McClanahan and Jamel Outler are back to lead the team and they will be joined by 6-3 point guard Johnny Hill, a transfer from Illinois State. Inside, the Mavericks have 6-9 Anthony Walker and 6-10 Brandon Williams. 6-5 senior Greg Gainey will also play significant minutes. Cross will have to rely on young guys for depth as he has nine freshmen and sophomores on his roster.

5. Louisiana Monroe Warhawks 
Last Year: 10-17  (7-11), 7th
Key Losses: Amos Olatayo (13.7 ppg),  Jayon James (9.6 ppg)
Returners: Tyler Ongwae (16.0 ppg), Marvin Williams (8.4 ppg), Nick Coppola (6.9 ppg)

ULM Head Coach Keith Richard has a full roster, loaded with size and experience. He hasn’t been able to say that before in his time as the head coach at his alma mater. Leading returner Tyler Ongwae returns and at 6-7, gives Richard some real size on the wing. Point Guard Nick Coppola returns after starting as a freshman, and 6-8 Marvin Williams returns up front.

Filling out the lineup will be junior guards Justin Roberson and Mack Foster as well as big men Majok Deng and Jamaal Samuel. Two role players from last year, Chinedu Amajoyi and DeMondre Harvey will bring experience off the bench.  Richard has a little shooting to bring off the bench as Amajoyi and sophomore Prince Cooper can fill it up from the outside.

6. Arkansas State Red Wolves
Last Year: 19-13  (10-8), 4th
Key Losses: Melvin Johnson III (15.2 ppg), Kirk Van Slyke (14.9 ppg), Kendrick Washington 10.1 ppg)
Returners: Cameron Golden (7.6 ppg), Kelvin Downs (2.2 ppg)

Arkansas State Head Coach John Brady loses his entire starting five this season. He does return juniors Cameron Golden (6-2) as well as 6-9 center Kelvin Downs. Brady does have former UNT point guard P.J. Hardwick, so that’s another player with Sun Belt experience.

The Red Wolves bring in a couple of big guys from Paris Junior College in Texas. 6-10 Nohoum Bocoum and 6-9 Ronnie White will add depth behind Downs.  Expect Arkansas State to take a bit of a step back this year as they rebuild their roster, but Coach Brady will always have a competitive team in Jonesboro.

7. Texas State Bobcats
Last Year: 8-23  (4-14), 10th
Key Losses: Joel Wright (14.7 ppg), Phil Hawkins (6.7 ppg)
Returners: Emani Grant (8.9 ppg), Wesley Davis (8.4 ppg)

6-8 forward Emani Grant returns after averaging 9 points and 5 rebounds a year ago. He will be joined by former San Jose State point guard D.J. Brown and 6-3 senior Wesley Brown. Head Coach Danny Kaspar has won 473 games in his career so he knows what it takes to win. This year will be a challenge as he has to replace his leading scorer and rebounder in Joel Wright.

6-7 junior Kevin Gilder-Tilbury should be much improved after a solid freshman outing. The Bobcats will be thin up front as they don’t have much size to help out Grant inside. 6-8 transfer Ed Seay and 6-7 transfer Cameron Naylor will have to play right away. 6-4 guard JaMarcus Weatherspoon comes in from Kilgore College and could start in a four guard lineup.

8. Georgia Southern Eagles
Last Week:
15-19 (6-10), 7th Southern Conference
Key Losses: Tre Bussey (16.2 ppg), Brian Holmes (9.0 ppg), Marvin Baynham (5.4 ppg), Chris Daniels (TR), Kameron Dunnican (TR, 2.3 ppg), Sam Mike (TR, 1.1 ppg), Torlof Thomas (TR, 1.4 ppg), Bryce Woodliff (TR)
Returners: Jelani Hewitt (19.4 ppg), Angel Matias (7.7 ppg)

Georgia Southern will give it a go in the Sun Belt this year for the first time and they will certainly be an interesting team to keep an eye on. Jelani Hewitt is a talented scorer and now he's expected to have of big men Eric Ferguson and Trent Wiedeman by his side. Ferguson missed last year due to a knee injury and Wiedeman comes over from College of Charleston after averaging 13.5 points and 6.2 rebounds two years ago. Currently Ferguson is suspended indefinitely with a intent to distribute marijuana charge. Undersized forward Angel Matias finishes off the Eagles frontcourt, which could be solid among its Sun Belt peers. Curtis Diamond and Kyle Doyle will join Hewitt in the backcourt, with a slew of newcomers poised to contribute as well. The Eagles could surprise some in the Sun Belt this year.

9. South Alabama Jaguars
Last Year: 11-20 (5-13), 9th
Key Losses: Augustine Rubit (17 ppg), Antoine Allen (10.7 ppg), Terence Johnson (TR, 2.6 ppg), Victor Juricek (TR, 0.7 ppg), Aakim Saintil (TR, 6.3 ppg), Mychal Ammons (PRO, 9.3 ppg)
Returners: Ken Williams (9.1 ppg), Barrington Stevens III (7.3 ppg)

Brad Stevens disciple Matthew Graves knew it was going to take time to rebuild the South Alabama Jaguars program and this year he hopes to take another step in the right direction after a five win showing in the Sun Belt a year ago. Ken Williams and Barrington Stevens III from a solid backcourt for the Jaguars while a couple of new additions in the frontcourt will look to replace the uber-productive Augustine Rubit. USA might really take off next year with the addition of Loyola Marymount transfer Nick Stover who will redshirt this year due to NCAA transfer rules.

10. Troy Trojans
Last Year:
11-20 (6-12), 8th
Key Losses: Hunter Williams (13.9 ppg), Antoine Myers (12.1 ppg), Tevin Calhoun (10.5 ppg), Jeff Mullahey (9.2 ppg), Westley Hinton (5.5 ppg), J.C. Bonny (TR, 3 ppg), Deonta Jethroe (TR), Justin Wright (TR)
Returners: Kevin Thomas (9.2 ppg)

Five of Troy's top six scorers from a year ago are gone and Kevin Thomas and Kelton Ford are about the only key pieces returning for the Trojans. A pair of transfers should help bolster the lineup this year in Musa Abdul-Aleem from South Florida and Oskar Reinfelds of Pensacola State College, formerly at Portland. Regardless of the additions, it should be another long year for the Trojans.

11. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Last Year:
9-21 (5-11), 9th Southern Conference
Key Losses: Tevin Baskin (8.3 ppg), Aaron Scott (TR, 3.7 ppg), Ty Toney (TR, 6.2 ppg), Jay Canty (PRO,12.3 ppg)
Returners: Tab Hamilton (12.7 ppg),  Mike Neal (9.7 ppg), Tommy Spagnolo (8.5 ppg)

Appalachian State was thought to be a team on the rise in the Southern Conference a year ago under Jason Capel but the wheels fell off the Mountaineers. Now former Davidson assistant Jim Fox begins a new era of hoops in Boone but may be in for a tough season his first year. While nearly of the starters are back lead by Tab Hamilton, this is still the bones of a squad who won just five games in the SoCon a year ago. IT might be a struggle the first time around for the Mountaineers in the Sun Belt.