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:
-South Alabama: vs. Middle Tennessee State, Dec. 3:
Kermit Davis’s squad shocked the country last year by upsetting No. 2 seed Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament, before falling to eventual regional champion Syracuse, 70-55. Top scorers Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw come back for MTSU, and Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams should be an immediate contributor in the frontcourt.
The Jaguars are a promising squad this year because of what they have returning this season. Ken Williams averaged 15.5 points a game and will be counted on to lead a backcourt aided by Shaq Calhoun who impressively averaged almost nine points a game while only averaging 19 minutes a game.
Frontcourt mates Georgi Boyanov and Nick Stover were also steady performers last season, each averaging a shade over ten points a game. 7'1 center Nikola Marijan could be a key factor if he progresses off of a freshman year in which he made 11 starts.
-Louisiana Lafayette: at Georgia, Dec. 14:
The Bulldogs are looking for a breakthrough season, and this could be it. Eight of their top 10 scorers return, headlined by JJ Frazier and Yante Maten. Both second-team SEC performers a year ago, the duo ranked seventh (16.9 points per game) and ninth (16.1) respectively in scoring, and each recorded 12 outings of 20 points or more last season.
The Ragin' Cajuns return Jay Wright and Johnathan Stove in the backcourt and they will be joined by BYU transfer Frank Bartley IV. Bryce Washington is an undersized forward who plays tough in the paint, but will be surrounded by many inexperienced players in the frontcourt. 6'11 center Larenz Stalcup is a JUCO transfer who sat out last year sorting academic eligibility, but should factor into the frontline for Louisiana Lafayette.
Additionally, Stegeman Coliseum is an underrated venue and could be overwhelming for this young roster.
-Little Rock: at Florida, Dec. 21:
The Gators were almost an upset victim to another Sun Belt program in Louisiana Monroe two years ago, escaping 61-56 in overtime when they were ranked eighth in the country. With the defending Sun Belt champions Little Rock, who upset of Purdue in the NCAA Tournament coming to christen a refurbished Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the Gators will be fully aware of what can happen.
Four starters return including guard Little Rock native KeVaughn Allen and big man John Egbunu in Mike White’s second year at the helm, and College of Charleston transferCanyon Barry should be a nice addition to a talented roster that is expected to challenge at the top of the SEC.
Marcus Johnson Jr. had a strong debut season with 12.5 points a game to lead the Trojans in the backcourt, and Jalen Jackson should see a bump in minutes after averaging 8.7 points a game while only averaging a shade over 15 minutes a game.
The frontcourt should feature Oliver Black, a Mississippi State transfer eligible this season and Lis Shoshi who started all but one game a year ago and scored 14 points to go along with nine rebounds in Little Rock's biggest moment in school history knocking off Purdue in overtime in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Expect the Trojans to not be intimidated one bit in front of a raucous environment that will be awaiting the reigning conference champions.
-Coastal Carolina: at BYU, Nov. 19:
The Cougars had a strong 26-11 mark last season and an NIT semifinal appearance, but have to replace two key cogs in Chase Fischer and Kyle Collinsworth. Nick Emery will return who averaged 16.3 points per game a year ago, and Kyle Davis returns at forward coming off averaging 11.9 points per game and 7.5 rebounds a game.
Touted freshman forward Yoeli Childs joins the program, and along with backcourt transfers Elijah Bryant (CAA Freshman of the Year at Elon in 2014-15) and L.J Rose (led Houston in assists in sophomore and junior seasons). Dave Rose’s squad should contend with Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference crown.
The Chanticleers are the newest Sun Belt members and Cliff Ellis is as experienced a head coach in big games as it gets. Elijah Wilson headlines the roster, returning after leading Coastal Carolina with 13.7 points a game.
Backcourt mate Shivaughn Wiggins isn't listed on the current roster after legal issues, but Colton Ray-St Cyr is a capable guard with length at 6'5 that battled wrist injuries last season. A young frontcourt will need to grow up quickly, and freshman Amidou Bamba from Canada is talented enough to make an instant impact. Playing at higher altitude is always a challenge, but expect the Chanticleers to be up for the challenge.
Remember to read Part I (here) and Part III over the coming days at Mid-Major Madness.