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Sun Belt preseason power rankings: Kevin Hervey has UT Arlington on track for an NCAA Tournament bid

Don’t count out Louisiana.

NCAA Basketball: Texas-Arlington at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Belt enters the 2017-18 season rich in backcourt talent and should be one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country. Texas Arlington is no longer the clear favorite, as Louisiana and others have stepped it up. In fact, there are potentially six teams with a chance to finish at the top. But for now, the road to the title still runs through Arlington and Scott Cross’s group.

Sun Belt Preseason Power Rankings

1. Texas Arlington Mavericks

The Mavericks are coming off a successful 2016-17 campaign as regular season conference champions. Although they were upset in the Sun Belt Tournament, they made the most of their NIT bid and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing a hard-fought game to CS Bakersfield.

This upcoming UT Arlington team is loaded with experience, including seven returning seniors — most notably, reigning conference player of the year Kevin Hervey. The Mavs will have to replace Jalen Jones and Jorge Bilbao, two of their previous primary weapons. Seniors Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson will most likely assume larger offensive roles along with Top 100 JuCo transfer Davion Turner.

The Mavericks picked up a late addition in Virginia Tech grad transfer Johnny Hamilton. He’s a 7-footer who missed the majority of last season with an injury, but as a former top JuCo shot blocker, Hamilton has the chance to be one of the conference’s best centers.

2. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

The Ragin’ Cajuns seem primed for a great season. Seventh-year head coach Bob Marlin returns seven of his top eight scorers and adds three power conference transfers to an already deep team.

Their lone major loss from last year’s squad is Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and leading scorer Jay Wright. Fortunately for Marlin, he has plenty of talent and depth to make up for it.

Key returners include the senior trio of Bryce Washington, Frank Bartley, and Johnathan Stove. Washington was the only Sun Belt player to average a double-double last season (13.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg), Bartley will most likely lead the team in scoring, and Stove is expected to have a breakout year after an injury-plagued junior campaign.

JaKeenan Gant, Malik Marquetti, and Marcus Stroman all had to patiently wait out last year after transferring from their respective power conference schools.

3. Georgia Southern Eagles

Since joining the Sun Belt in 2014, Georgia Southern and head coach Mark Byington have had two top-three finishes, including third place last season and a bid to the CBI.

The Eagles return all their major scoring pieces, including all five starters. The dynamic backcourt duo of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith both earned First Team All-Sun Belt honors last year. With another year of experience, they should make the best backcourt in the Sun Belt.

Notable additions to the roster include Jacksonville State transfer Jared Hamilton, JuCo transfer David-Lee Jones Jr., freshman Tyshaun Crawford, and redshirt freshman Quan Jackson. Hamilton, Jones, and Jackson will bring great guard depth, while the 7-footer Crawford will lengthen the team.

4. Georgia State Panthers

Ron Hunter’s squad is coming off a 20-13 season with a second place conference finish at 12-6. It was the Panthers’ third 20-win season in the last four years.

To win 20 this year, however, they will have to replace leading scorer Jeremy Hollowell and leading rebounder Willie Clayton. Hollowell is a big loss, but they should have the pieces to replace him. It will be more difficult to replace the rebounding presence that Clayton brought. Jordan Session and others will have to step up in the paint.

With Hollowell graduating, it is time for rising star D’Marcus Simonds to become the face of the team. Simonds averaged 13 points per game as a freshmen last year and was the Sun Belt freshmen of the year. If he continues to improve, he will find himself in the Sun Belt player of the year discussion.

5. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

The Chanticleers had a fine debut season in the Sun Belt, going 10-8 in league play and making the CBI finals. It was also, just barely, the fourth-straight 20-win season for 800-win club member Cliff Ellis. At one point in the offseason, stretching that run to five seasons seemed certain, as Ellis landed a pair of impact grad transfers in Donte Clark (UMass) and Chas Brown (Coppin State). However, neither player is currently with the program.

That doesn’t, however, leave CCU back at square one. The Chanticleers return senior point guard Jaylen Shaw (14.3 PPG, 3.8 APG), an all-league talent that excels in Ellis’ three-point heavy system. Third-leading scorer and interior force Demario Beck (10.0 PPG, 22.6% defensive rebounding rate) is also back. Those two alone should lay the foundation for a competitive team.

If CCU is going to be more than just competitive, it may require a step up from guard Arthur Labinowicz (39.6% on 101 3PA). The sophomore should be expected to stretch the floor more with high-volume shooters Elijah Wilson and Colton Ray-St Cyr lost to graduation. The Chanticleers may also rely more on length and athleticism this year, particularly with 6’8 sophomore Amidou Bamba and 6’7 JuCo transfer Zac Cuthbertson, a one-time Kevin Keatts/UNC Wilmington commit, in big roles.

6. Troy Trojans

The Trojans went on a remarkable run to grab the automatic NCAA bid, winning four games in four days as the 6 seed in the conference tournament. It capped a terrific turnaround season, as they finished 22-15 from a previous 9-22 in 2015-16.

Troy loses big pieces in Jeremy Hollimon and DeVon Walker, two of the team’s major scoring options. Someone will also have to step up on the glass, as Walker’s presence will be noticeable.

All-Sun Belt First Team member Jordon Varnado led the Trojans last year in virtually every stat. He’s a complete player who is definitely a Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate. If Wesley Person has another huge year and Kevin Baker steps up his scoring, Troy will have a dominate big three.

Fifth-year head coach Phil Cunningham compliments his veteran squad with a talented freshman class. Javan Johnson is a skilled forward who should learn well behind Varnado. Guards Malik Burnett and redshirt freshman Darian Adams both can score and will provide key role minutes for the Trojans.

7. Arkansas State Red Wolves

The Red Wolves are coming off an 11-7 conference record but will have to continue that success with new head coach Mike Balado.

The graduations of Donte Thomas and leading scorer Devin Carter will definitely leave a void, but senior guards Deven Simms and Rashad Lindsey will be a big problem for opposing teams. Both are coming off double-figure scoring years and most likely will repeat that in 2017-18.

Balado brings in JuCo guards Ty Cockfield and Grantham Gillard, along with freshman Marquis Eaton to help replenish the backcourt. Cockfield and Gillard should make an impact right away as they are both talented and battle-tested.

Incoming JuCo transfer Shaquillo Fritz is highly regarded as an elite shot blocker. He ranked top-five nationally in blocked shots in his last junior college season and is a high-percentage scorer in the paint.

8. Texas State Bobcats

The Bobcats last year fell short of their first NCAA Tournament since 1997 with a six-point loss to Troy in the conference championship game. Head coach Danny Kaspar has improved this team in each of his four seasons, with a 22-14 record and third-place Sun Belt finish last year.

Texas State graduates four of its top five scorers, including leading scorer Kavin Gilder-Tilbury. Kaspar also brings in a huge class, including juniors Tre Nottingham, Isaiah Gurley, and Alex Peacock.

Nijal Pearson has the potential to be an all-conference player and Immanuel King is due for a breakout senior year, but overall, the returning players are a weak group. The Bobcats will have to put a lot of faith in their large recruiting class if they want to continue their success in the Sun Belt.

9. South Alabama Jaguars

After two straight years of eighth-place finishes in the Sun Belt, coach Matthew Graves is hoping to finally make a jump in the conference standings. This may not be the year though, because South Alabama loses six players, including three starters.

The Jaguars suffer a huge loss with star guard Ken Williams graduating. Georgi Boyanov, Nick Stover, and Don MuepoKelly were also big-time contributors who graduated. Shaq Calhoun decided to graduate and transfer after having a terrific season for the Jags, and big man Nikola Marijan moved schools looking for more minutes.

The Jags got a great pickup in grad transfer Rozelle Nix, who brings much-needed height to the team. Community College transfer Rodrick Sikes should be an impact scorer and a solid ball handler.

South Alabama looks to build around sophomore Josh Ajayi, who is their main returning scoring threat.

10. Louisiana Monroe Warhawks

Things did not go well for the Warhawks last season; they finished in last place with an overall record of 9-24 and just two conference wins.

It might get even harder this year, as Monroe loses one of the greatest players in school history in all-time assist leader Nick Coppola. Marcus Washington (8.5 ppg) and Prince Cooper (3.9 ppg) also graduate.

The Warhawks’ newcomers include three junior college players and one freshman. Leading scorers Travis Munnings and Sam McDaniel return to a team heavy with upperclassmen. Louisiana Monroe is bound for a better season than last, but they will have to prove it on the court first.

11. Little Rock Trojans

Wes Flanigan’s first year as head coach did not go as planned. The Chris Beard replacement had to deal with injury issues right off the bat with Florida State transfer Dayshawn Watkins missing the whole season with a broken toe. The team really never recovered after that, going 6-12 with a tenth-place conference finish.

This season looks to be just as tough, as the Trojans lose six of their top eight scorers.

Little Rock brings in two grad transfers from Ohio in Wadly Mompremier and Khari Harley. Both saw limited playing time at Ohio, but they have great length and should have an impact in the paint. At 6’11, Mompremier will be a rim protector, and with playing time will probably develop into a solid shot blocker. Adding 6’9 returning junior Oliver Black and freshman Kris Bankston to the conversation, the Trojans can play a really long lineup.

Junior college transfers Camron Reedus and Anthony Black bring big scoring roles to a rather inexperienced backcourt. They can both put up solid numbers and it’s only a matter their games translating to the next level. K.J. Gilmore and Cezanne Carson also transfer in with experience and will play big minutes.

12. Appalachian State Mountaineers

Appalachian State is a rebuilding program that has fallen on hard times. The Mountaineers suffered an eleventh-place finish in the Sun Belt with an overall record of 9-21 last year. Coach Jim Fox was slowly turning his young team in the right direction, but that might come to a halt in 2017-18.

The three App State players who received suspensions during the season have decided to transfer: starting guards Kelvin Robinson and Emarius Logan, and freshman three-point specialist Patrick Good. All three players were talented and could have turned the team in the right direction.

The Mountaineers do have some bright spots, though. Leading scorer Ronshad Shabazz returns and Isaac Johnson is due for a breakout sophomore season. William & Mary transfer Hunter Seacat will be eligible, giving depth to their frontcourt. And JuCo transfer O’Showen Williams and sole incoming freshmen Justin Forrest will bring much needed ball handling help.