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Handicapping the race for the top of the Sun Belt

A look at what the top teams will face down the stretch

NCAA Basketball: Georgia State at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

With conference play more than halfway through, it’s crowded at the top of the Sun Belt. Arkansas State, Georgia State, and Georgia Southern sit tied for first at 9-2, with UT Arlington, Texas State, and Coastal Carolina also boasting above-.500 records.

Here is a look at the key games remaining for those six teams:

Georgia State:

Of the final seven games for Ron Hunter’s Panthers, five will be against teams with winning Sun Belt records. Fortunately for Georgia State, it gets UT Arlington, Texas State, and in-state rival Georgia Southern all at home. A road trip to Jonesboro precedes the regular season finale, and it is possible that those two games will decide who is the top seed in the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans.

Key player to watch: D’Marcus Simonds

The freshman is likely on his way to the Sun Belt Rookie of the Year award, despite missing the first three conference games due to injury. After a one-point output in his first Sun Belt game, Simonds has averaged 19.9 points in the last seven games. Simonds is a savvy offensive player, with an attack-the-basket-first approach, and is an efficient scorer. His work on the defensive end shows with 5.2 rebounds in those seven games and 2.4 steals.

Arkansas State:

Four out of the last seven games for Grant McCasland and his Red Wolves are against the top half of the league, but the upcoming two-game stretch through Texas could be critical to the remainder of the regular season. A matchup with the preseason favorite Mavericks and the upstart Bobcats will not be easy to come through unscathed. Even a split would be acceptable for the Red Wolves, as a three-game home stand follows up.

Key player to watch: Tamas Bruce

The Red Wolves rely on the work of their perimeter players, but Bruce, albeit a bit undersized, is an important player with his defensive activity around the basket. Over his last six games, he is averaging 10.3 points in just 18.3 minutes. With an undersized lineup across the board, Arkansas State relies on energy defensively, and Bruce provides that and more.

Georgia Southern:

Mark Byington’s Eagles may have the most demanding schedule going forward of the Sun Belt contenders, with five road contests, including three straight to end the regular season. The swing through the Carolinas has not been kind to most teams this season, and that is where the Eagles head next with dates against the Chanticleers and Appalachian State. The two Texas teams come to Statesboro, which won’t be easy by any means, and the final three games on the road are against Arkansas State, defending conference champion Little Rock, and in-state rival Georgia State. If Georgia Southern comes through with the top seed, it will have certainly earned it.

Key player to watch: Jake Allsmiller

In Sun Belt play, Allsmiller is shooting 45 percent from three, and in an Eagle offense that relies heavily on perimeter shooting, he will be counted on to keep it up. He has five games in Sun Belt play with three trifectas or more, and has five other such games on the season.

UT Arlington:

With one extra game to complete over the three teams tied at 9-2 at the moment, the Mavericks have a chance to earn some big wins, and finish strong against the bottom half of the league. Arkansas State comes to town on Feb. 11 in a big matchup for both teams. The two-game Georgia trip shortly follows, and if Scott Cross’s Mavs can come away with a 2-1 mark, the final four games set up favorably.

Key player to watch: Jorge Bilbao

While his front court partner Kevin Hervey gets a lot of the attention within the conference, Bilbao has been a steady performer in conference play. In 10 games, he’s averaging 9.8 points and 8.7 rebounds. Bilbao runs the floor and is a strong finisher at the rim on drives to the basket. He compliments Hervey well, and the two are second and third in the conference in rebounding.

Texas State:

Danny Kaspar’s Bobcats have exceeded expectations and have a good chance to stay in the top half of the conference at year’s end. A huge three-game stretch starts on Feb. 13, with Arkansas State coming to San Marcos, before the Bobcats head east to take on Georgia Southern and Georgia State. With a chance to continue surprising the league leaders, do not be surprised if Texas State pulls off a win or two in that stretch. The final four games for the Bobcats are all against the bottom half of the league, and with a style of play that can be frustrating to deal with, Texas State should find itself in good position heading to New Orleans.

Key player to watch: Nijal Pearson

The freshman has played a large role in the Bobcats’ strong season to this point, putting up 12.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in conference play. Pearson scores in a variety of ways, but does most of his damage at the rim. Defensively, he has been a key to Texas State leading the conference in scoring defense.

Coastal Carolina:

The Chanticleers’ hot start to Sun Belt play included wins over Arkansas State, Little Rock, and UT Arlington. Cliff Ellis’s bunch has the most favorable schedule going forward, with only two games against teams .500 or better in conference play. The two games upcoming are big ones, with Georgia Southern and Georgia State coming to Conway. A split would do wonders for Coastal Carolina, as the final five games provide a potential nice finish to the regular season.

Key player to watch: Shivaughn Wiggins

Wiggins was indefinitely suspended following an offseason arrest, and was reinstated for the Chanticleers’ Jan. 7 game against Arkansas State. Since he returned, Coastal Carolina is 5-4 and he is averaging 9.1 points over nine games. Giving Ellis another ball-handling option, Wiggins has valuable experience and should be critical as the Chanticleers try to mount a run in the conference tournament.

Spoiler alert?

A potential spoiler looms in the Troy Trojans. Sitting at 4-6, each of Troy’s losses have come by six points or fewer, and the Trojans have beaten UT Arlington, Georgia Southern, and Georgia State. Gus Cunningham’s squad is dangerous, and could mount a late charge up the rankings with games against Coastal Carolina and Arkansas State at home, and a Texas swing upcoming against Texas State and UT Arlington.

Who takes the top seed?

At the beginning of the year, 14 wins looked like it could be enough to win the conference. Now, it appears that the magic number may be even smaller.

With four more wins, likely picking off one or two against each other, Georgia State, Arkansas State and Georgia Southern are sitting the prettiest. UT Arlington has to play all three of those teams in a four-game stretch. The odds of coming through 3-0 are long, but as this conference has played out up to this point, anything can happen in the stretch-run to New Orleans.