The non-conference season serves as more than just a time to get your rotation set and rack up a few easy wins. In the Sun Belt, each team has at least one significant challenge on the schedule to get them ready for league play.
Some call them guarantee games, others look at them as opportunities. Regardless, here’s our first part in a three part series looking at the top opportunities for the Sun Belt to make statements this fall.
2016-’17 Sun Belt Statement Games:
-Louisiana Monroe: at Texas, Nov. 14:
The Longhorns feature an influx of talented freshmen, headlined by big man Jarrett Allen, but personnel losses hit Shaka Smart’s program as four of his top six scorers departed. Still, Kerwin Roach Jr. and Eric Davis Jr. team up for a quality backcourt pairing to go along with a loaded recruiting class.
The Warhawks will need to lean heavily on senior point guard Nick Coppola to lead them into a hostile environment. Forward Travis Munnings had a promising freshman season, and is the only other returner with any starts under his belt a year ago.
Louisiana Monroe only used a six-man rotation last season, and with roster turnover like Texas, playing time is up for grabs for both teams. Guards Prince Cooper and Marcus Washington played sparingly last season but came from the junior college ranks and they likely will get first cracks at playing opportunities. Freshman Sam Alabakis is a promising talent at 6'11 from Australia and could get thrown into the fire quickly against a talent like Allen.
-Arkansas State: at Georgetown, Nov. 17:
The Hoyas went through a difficult season a year ago, going 15-18. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera departs after leading the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game, but graduate transfer Rodney Pryor from Robert Morris will slide into his place. The 6’5 guard averaged 18 points per game to go along with eight rebounds, and has NCAA Tournament experience from 2015 with the Colonials. Issac Copeland, LJ Peak, and Bradley Hayes all return for the Hoyas, who expect to contend in the Big East.
This matchup will be intriguing in the backcourt as the Red Wolves return their top scorer in Devin Carter, Donte Thomas and NJCAA All-American Deven Simms comes aboard. Carter and Simms are 6'5 and Thomas is 6'3, and match up well with Georgetown's guards with Pryor and Peak both at 6'5.
The frontcourt battle is where the Hoyas should have the upper hand in experience and height with Hayes at 7 feet and Jessie Govan at 6'10. Christian Davis at 6'7 is the lone returner in the frontcourt, and freshman Salif Boudie at 6'9 is a promising forward from Africa, but both will have their hands full with the Hoya backline.
-Georgia State: at Purdue, Nov. 18:
The Boilermakers know all too well about the Sun Belt as Little Rock downed them in the NCAA Tournament, 85-83 in double-overtime last season. This year, Vince Edwards and Caleb Swanigan will feature as one of the top frontcourts in the Big Ten. Touted freshman guard Carsen Edwards should team with P.J Thompson in the backcourt, and Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht joins the fray and should provide experience.
A great frontcourt battle should commence with the Panthers featuring Jeremy Hollowell, no stranger to Big Ten play after transferring from Indiana, and Charlotte transfer Willie Clayton who is eligible this year. Isaiah Williams returns in the backcourt, and he will be aided by Alabama transfer Devin Mitchell and Murray State transfer Justin Seymour. This could shape up to be one of more underrated non-conference matchups all season with these two teams both looking to be near the top of their respective conferences.
--Troy: at USC, Dec. 17:
USC had a breakthrough year under Andy Enfield last season, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. However, six departures, including Julian Jacobs, Nikola Jovanovic and Katin Reinhardt will weaken a talented roster.
Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart return in the backcourt, and Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron is eligible and could make an impact. Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu make a formidable frontcourt, as USC should be a strong contender again in the Pac-12 conference.
Troy is an interesting team with talented players littered across their roster. Wesley Person ranked sixth in scoring in the Sun Belt at 16.8 points a game, and will be joined by Jeremy Hollimon in the backcourt who averaged 10.3 points a game last season.
Jordan Varnado had a stellar freshman campaign averaging 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. Florida transfer DeVon Walker joins the program and will be a versatile performer that can play multiple positions. The frontcourt is a bit unproven and undersized and will be tested early by USC's frontline.
Remember to read Part II over the coming days at Mid-Major Madness.