It was just few hours ago on this site that we asked whether the Sun Belt was destined to be a four-team race.
Maybe it will be, but that question looks pretty silly after Coastal Carolina smacked UT Arlington with a 90-65 win in Conway.
The Chants built an 11-point half time lead with a hot start from three (7-12). They then poured it on with a 48-point second half, courtesy of a big scoring night from Jaylen Shaw — who had a career-high-tying 26 points — and four other players in double figures.
The seemingly-inevitable Mavericks rally never happened, as UTA didn’t draw closer than nine points in the second half. That was in large part because the Chants’ long, athletic front line bottled up Kevin Hervey. The senior forward was held to just seven points (3-11 FG, 2 TO), the first time he’d been held in single digits since Nov. 23, 2016.
Where do the teams go from here?
For CCU, it could be the building block to Sun Belt contention. The Chants entered the game at 6-7, but had rarely wilted in the non-conference. Over the past three weeks they had close losses to South Carolina (two points), Wake Forest (four points) and College of Charleston (two points). Earlier home losses to Wofford and Lamar weren’t ideal, but both teams do sit in the KenPom top-200.
Cliff Ellis talked about the necessity of an uptick in recruiting as CCU entered its second-year in the Sun Belt. JuCo transfer Zac Cuthbertson, a one-time Kevin Keatts/UNC Wilmington commit, has flown into that category. And along with Amidou Bamba and Demario Beck, forms an imposing front line that has owned the offensive glass this season.
Pairing that with a senior point guard in Shaw makes the Chants as dangerous as they looked blowing out the presumptive league favorite.
But hey, let’s pump the brakes a little, right?
UTA isn’t necessarily a stranger to bouncing back from mildly-underwhelming league starts. The Mavericks began Sun Belt play at 2-2 last year, before winning 12 of their final 14 games to lock up the regular season title.
Losing a game on the road isn’t a sin, especially to a team that’s better than its record indicates. The issue — or, potential issue — is that the Mavericks have now dropped four of their last six games. And this is the second of those losses (along with the FGCU defeat) that is a head-scratcher for a talented UTA team.
The Mavericks’ three-point defense has struggled in each loss, and depth may be a slight concern as well. Virginia Tech grad transfer Johnny Hamilton (11.8 PPG) has exceeded expectations, and Kaelon Wilson has also had a solid year (11.3 PPG, 45.7 3P%). But, as was the case Friday night, UTA may be dead in the water if it gets off nights from its two stars, Hervey and Erick Neal.
Still, plenty of teams will lose when their best players struggle, and having a duo like that is a luxury few coaches have. After one night, however, it looks the league may need to consider CCU more of a threat than it may have seemed.