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Troy and South Alabama look to turn the corner in the Sun Belt

Are we looking at a breakthrough in Dixie?

NCAA Basketball: South Alabama at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For the Sun Belt's two Alabama schools, the last three years have been a struggle.

South Alabama has gone 37-60 in that span while Troy has had even less luck, going 30-61. Neither has finished a season with a winning conference record.

A year ago, South Alabama and Troy finished eighth and eleventh respectively in the Sun Belt, but for the 2016-17 season, each team has plenty of reasons to believe that they can make some noise.

The lofty expectations start with each team returning four of their five leading scorers from last year.

South Alabama

Scoring was an issue for the Jaguars last season as they were held below 60 points eight times. But with simple offseason progression and their top four scorers returning, it's possible that South Alabama will see significant improvement.

Guard Ken Williams went for 20 points or more eight times last year, but had all but one of those performances out of Sun Belt play. Earning third-team conferences honors, Williams was adept at getting to the foul line, where he shot 80 percent for the season.

Georgi Boyanov had a breakthrough campaign last year, posting seven double-doubles and scoring in double figures 18 times. His averages increased from six points per game as a sophomore to 10.1 as a junior, and his rebounding numbers went from 4.7 to 7.4 a game.

Nick Stover was a steady contributor with 20 double-figure scoring games, and Shaq Calhoun was the key bench option for the season, averaging 8.7 points in just 19.2 minutes per contest.

Troy

Meanwhile in Troy, the Trojans fared adequately in non-conference play in 2015-16, scoring a win on the road at South Florida, defeating Southern Miss at home, and taking Ole Miss to overtime on the road before eventually losing by three. Sun Belt play wasn’t as kind, however, with the Trojans going 4-16, with seven of those losses decided by six points or less.

Head coach Phil Cunningham returns three double-figure scorers from last season’s team and an SEC transfer with plenty of big game experience in Florida’s DeVon Walker.

Walker comes from Florida, having played on a Final Four team under then-head coach Billy Donovan. Primarily a bench player, Walker graduated early, allowing him to transfer and play one more season elsewhere. The 6’6 wing will provide versatility and experience that should prove to be valuable to the Trojans.

Two-time all-Sun Belt junior Wesley Person joins Waker among the team leaders. He scored in double figures in all but five games last season, with his 16.8 points per game ranking sixth in the Sun Belt.

Jordon Varnado, the brother of former Mississippi State standout Jarvis Varnado, burst onto the scene in his freshman campaign with 13.2 points per game to go along with 6.9 rebounds. He posted 21 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over South Florida in his first game, and went for 25 points and 11 rebounds on the road at Seton Hall.

Jeremy Hollimon had several standout scoring nights last year, scoring 21 at South Florida, 25 against Austin Peay and 26 against Louisiana Monroe, en route to averaging 10.3 per night.

These two programs, fittingly, will kick off their Sun Belt campaigns in Mobile on Dec. 31, then will battle in Troy on Feb. 4 toward the end of the conference schedule. They will have to contend with likely favorites Texas Arlington and Georgia State, but with experienced lineups, expect each side to be tough outs for the past stalwarts of the Sun Belt.