The race is on to dethrone Little Rock in the Sun Belt.
The Trojans lost head coach Chris Beard to UNLV and Sun Belt first-team guard Josh Hagins, but should be fighting it out for an NCAA berth under new head coach Wes Flanigan. But it won't be easy. UT Arlington will present the biggest challenge with star Kevin Hervey back after an ACL injury. Georgia State, meanwhile, will look to rebound after a disappointing season and make it two conference titles in three years.
2016-17 Sun Belt Preseason Power Rankings:
Last year, Hervey's injury derailed a 14-3 start, which included wins at Ohio State and Memphis. Hervey averaged 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, and returns to the lineup along with first-team Sun Belt guard Erick Neal (12.7 ppg, 6.2 assists per game) and five key contributors from a year ago.
2. Georgia State
The darlings of the 2015 NCAA Tournament faltered in conference play a year ago, but get a boost from transfers eligible this season, including former Charlotte big man Willie Clayton. Paired with former Indiana forward Jeremy Hollowell (14.8 ppg), the duo should be the top frontcourt in the conference.
3. Little Rock
The reigning conference champs knocked off Purdue in the First Round in the NCAA Tournament, but will have to replace some key losses, including Hagins and Roger Woods in the backcourt. Second-team Sun Belt guard Marcus Johnson Jr. (12.5 ppg) returns, along with Mississippi State transfer forward Oliver Black, who is eligible this season.
4. Coastal Carolina
Cliff Ellis’s program succeeded in the Big South and brings a talented roster into its first year in the Sun Belt. Elijah Wilson (13.7 ppg) headlines a deep backcourt, but questions surround the status of Shivaughn Wiggins (12.6 ppg), who has not yet rejoined the team following an arrest.
5. South Alabama
The top four scorers, headlined by third-team Sun Belt guard Ken Williams (15.5 ppg), return for the Jaguars, who are poised for a breakthrough season. Former Butler assistant Matthew Graves’ program completed a successful offseason European trip by defeating three opponents by an average of 18 points.
6. Georgia Southern
Sophomore guard and first-team Sun Belt selection Tookie Brown (17.8 ppg) leads the Eagles, who return all five starters from a team that won nine of its last 15 Sun Belt games. Four Eagles made over 45 three-pointers last year, making Georgia Southern the conference’s second-best team from distance.
Former Florida guard DeVon Walker will join as a graduate transfer for coach Phil Cunningham. The 6’6 wing will join a roster returning four starters from a year ago, including second-team Sun Belt guard Wesley Person (16.8 ppg) and Jordon Varnado (13.2 ppg, 6.9 rebounds per game), who is coming off an impressive freshman campaign.
8. Louisiana Monroe
Keith Richard’s club lost five seniors, including Majok Deng and Justin Roberson, but will return senior point guard Nick Coppola (10.9 ppg, 5.3 apg). The all-time program leader in assists will work with forward Travis Munnings (7.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg), but newcomers will have to step into the fold to help the Warhawks to their third straight 20-win campaign.
9. Louisiana Lafayette
Last year's conference leading scorer Shawn Long leaves a big void for the Ragin’ Cajuns to fill, but Johnathan Stove, Jay Wright, and Bryce Washington each averaged around nine points a game and all return. BYU transfer Frank Bartley IV will feature in the backcourt, and 6’11 JUCO transfer Larenz Stalcup will look to contribute in the paint.
10. Arkansas State
Leading scorer Devin Carter (17.3 ppg) returns along with backcourt partner Donte Thomas (11.2 ppg) for the Red Wolves. In his first year at Arkansas State, Grant McCasland will welcome eight newcomers, including forward Salif Boudie and NJCAA All-American guard Deven Simms.
11. Texas State
The Bobcats have lost three of their top five scorers from 2015-16, but Kavin Gilder-Tilbury (12.3 ppg) returns for coach Danny Kaspar. Newcomers Nijal Pearson and Nedeljko Prijovic will look to contribute at guard and forward, along with touted big man Maxwell Starwood -- a Tulane signee who backed out after a coaching change.
12. Appalachian State
Third-leading scorer in the Sun Belt Frank Eaves (18.7 ppg) is gone, but guard Ronshad Shabazz (11.9 ppg) returns. Tyrell Johnson will look to provide more scoring punch in the frontcourt, while Emarius Logan will need to help pick up the load in the backcourt with Eaves’ graduation.