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A four-team race and other burning questions in the Sun Belt

It is Friday, after all.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

It’s about to get super #Fun(Belt).

The Sun Belt kicks off league play on Friday night with each of its teams in action. Here are a few important questions that the non-conference season dropped on our laps.

Can Louisiana take advantage of a soft opening?

The Ragin’ Cajuns, to this point, have largely lived up to the hype. They rode their avalanche of high major transfers to a 10-3 record, which included a neutral court win over Iowa and road win at Louisiana Tech. Jakeenan Gant and Bryce Washington might be the league’s best interior duo, while Frank Bartley has maintained has scoring pace from last season (15.3 PPG).

Louisiana opens with road games at Little Rock and Arkansas State, followed by a three-game homestand against Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana Monroe. A 5-0 start is a possibility, which would have Bob Marlin’s team at 15-3 ahead of a massive game at UT Arlington on Jan. 18.

How is Ike Smith’s ankle?

Georgia Southern’s junior star has been dealing with an ankle injury that has sidelined him for five out of the Eagles’ last six games. It’s had an impact on the team, as the Eagles’ struggled mightily in understandable losses at CSU Bakersfield and East Tennessee State over that stretch.

Smith is currently mired in a 0-for-19 three-point slump, and hasn’t knocked down a three against a Div. I opponent since Nov. 13. That screams anomaly for a proven scorer that shot 39.6 percent from distance last season. But he can’t break out until he’s on the floor, and it appears he will play in Georgia Southern’s opener at Troy on Friday night.

How high can D’Marcus Simonds fly?

Talk about a green light. The Georgia State sophomore guard has built on an excellent freshman campaign, entering conference play with a loaded stat line (21.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.6 APG). Troy coach Phil Cunningham talked about the challenge Simonds presents.

“He’s a dilemma all to himself,” the coach said. “He’s more physical. He shoots the three well. He comes in playing well.”

As good as Simonds is, the numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s attempted more field goals than anyone in the league, and per KenPom is dominating the ball more than any player in the country besides Oklahoma’s Trae Young. He should continue to post absurd numbers, but a team heavily-reliant on three players — Simonds, Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas — will likely need to develop some depth to truly contend.

Are we locked into a four-team race?

The three teams mentioned above have all had good non-con runs, and the one that hasn’t been talked about — UT Arlington — is the presumptive favorite. Those four are all bunched together at either 9-4 or 10-3, and all are ranked in the KenPom top-105. It’s a steep drop to the next team in the league, with Troy sitting at 174.

Is it locked in that one of the Mavericks, Panthers, Eagles or Ragin’ Cajuns will get the Sun Belt’s NCAA Tournament bid? The numbers seem to bear that out so far, but this is a league that had a surprise entrant (Troy) a season ago.

What is Coastal Carolina?

The short answer? It’s hard to tell. The Chants (6-7) have just three Div. I wins, but none of their seven losses are egregious. They’ve lost by two points to a pair of good teams (South Carolina, College of Charleston), and by six points or less in all but one of the defeats.

Jaylen Shaw is having another all-conference year (16.0 PPG, 5.0 APG) while junior Zac Cuthbertson has been the league’s break out star (17.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG). CCU has an imposing frontline with Cuthbertson and Demario Beck, and while the record might now show it, they could be the team that disrupts that four-team race. That said, it’ll take a lot of work to get a fifth-straight 20-win season.

Is it make-or-break time for Matt Graves?

The Jaguars come into league play on somewhat of a high note. They staged a second half comeback to nearly pick up a nice road win at Tulane, showing that they can compete with a quality team. But USA dropped a slew of winnable games to end the non-non at 6-6. Can the Jaguars move the needle enough over the next three months to buy Graves a sixth season?

There is some reason for optimism. JuCo transfer Rodrick Sikes (16.6 PPG) has been an impact player, and USA has three sophomores — Josh Ayaji, Trhae Mitchell, Herb McGee — in key roles. Another sophomore, Youngstown State transfer Jordan Andrews, hasn’t shot the ball like many feel he’s capable. There may be potential in Mobile, but the question is whether Graves will still be there to see it out.