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Sun Belt Championship Primer: Bobcats and Trojans duke it out for NCAA bid

Texas State and Troy are set to battle for the league’s lone NCAA bid.

NCAA Basketball: Troy at Mississippi Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Can Texas State go from worst to first, or will Troy’s terrific tandem of Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado carry the Trojans to the NCAA Tournament?

The championship game will be televised on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. from Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.

Texas State Outlook

The Bobcats, led by coach Danny Kaspar, were picked to finish dead last in the Sun Belt preseason polls after going 15-16 and returning only two of their top five scorers from a season ago.

With top returning scorer Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, a rangy 6’7 senior forward and one of the best two-way players in the Sun Belt, and fellow seniors Ojai Black and Bobby Conley returning in the backcourt, Kaspar had to piece together his roster with an eye on the defensive end.

Freshman Nijal Pearson was a big coup for Kaspar, and the 6’5 guard has sparkled in his first year in San Marcos, starting all 32 games and averaging 13.3 points a game.

Fellow newcomers Immanuel King, who was a JUCO signee, and freshmen Nedeljko Prijovic and Maxwell Starwood have been featured in the Bobcat frontcourt all year long.

The Bobcats’ non-conference schedule was not the most challenging, with only one opponent ending up with a winning record on the season. Nonetheless, Texas State entered Sun Belt play with a 7-5 mark and found themselves at 8-4 in the conference with wins over UT-Arlington and Arkansas State.

The Bobcats finished the Sun Belt race by going 3-3 in their final six games to earn the fourth seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

Gilder-Tilbury earned First-Team Sun Belt honors after averaging 16.8 points and 5.5 rebounds for the year.

The Bobcats dispatched ULM in the the first round of the conference tournament 70-65 behind 16 points from Pearson, setting up a showdown with the top-seeded Mavericks.

The Bobcats got huge first half efforts from King and Prijovic, who combined for 20 first half points to help Texas State to a 41-32 halftime advantage.

Pearson scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, and Conley knocked down two big 3-pointers. Gilder-Tilbury kept conference player of the year Kevin Hervey in check as the Bobcats stunned UT-Arlington 83-62 to earn a spot in the championship.

Troy Outlook

The Trojans were not picked much higher than Texas State in the preseason polls, checking in at ninth after a 9-22 mark a year ago.

Coach Phil Cunningham had four starters return, including guard Wesley Person and forward Jordon Varnado. In addition, former Florida swingman Devon Walker came in as a graduate transfer, bolstering a formidable core for the Trojans.

Troy had a similar non-conference slate to Texas State, but had close losses to the two strongest teams on their schedule, with a five-point loss to USC and a six-point loss to Wyoming as part of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic.

Troy wrapped their non-conference schedule with two wins in Las Vegas and headed into Sun Belt play at 8-6, but started slow in Sun Belt play with four losses in their first six outings.

With a strong 8-4 stretch to close the regular season, the Trojans finished at 10-8 and earned the sixth seed heading into the conference tournament.

Varnado was named to the Sun Belt First-Team after averaging 16.2 points and 6.9 rebounds, and Person earned Third-Team honors after averaging 13.9 points per game.

Having to play in the first round, the Trojans took care of Appalachian State 84-64 behind Person’s five 3-pointers and 29 points.

Person stayed hot in the quarterfinal matchup with third-seeded Georgia Southern as the junior hit seven 3-pointers and finished with 26 points. Varnado added 26 points of his own to help the Trojans take down the Eagles 90-70.

The Trojans had to meet another opponent from the Peach State in the semifinal in second-seeded Georgia State, and found themselves trailing the Panthers by nine at halftime with Person and Varnado combining for only two points.

With their backs against the wall, Walker sparked the charge in the second half, scoring eight points in the first eight minutes of the half to get Troy back in the game.

Varnado and Person brought the Trojans home, scoring 17 of the last 20 points as the Trojans took down Georgia State 74-63 to advance to Sunday’s championship game.

Person finished with 16 points and Varnado added 15 as the two scored 29 points combined in the final 20 minutes.

Matchup breakdown

The two clubs met twice in the regular season, and the Bobcats came away victorious on both occasions in close contests.

Texas State came into Troy on Jan. 19th and emerged victorious with a 75-71 victory. All five starters reached double figures as they were led by Gilder-Tilbury’s 17 points.

On Feb. 25th, Troy led by three at halftime, but the Bobcats turned it around on their home floor. Gilder-Tilbury netted 17 again to help the Texas State to 63-59 victory.

The Bobcats use Gilder-Tilbury and Pearson as often as possible to make plays in the half court, but Ojai Black has been very sure-handed as the primary ball-handler with only 55 turnovers against 128 assists on the year.

When the floor is spread, the offense relies primarily on cuts to the rim, and drive-and-kicks to the perimeter for jumpers, where the Bobcats for much of the year have shot it well from the outside at 34%.

Tempo is critical as the Bobcats rank near the very bottom in possessions per game. If they play at their kind of pace, they will be comfortable digging in defensively and make life miserable for opponents.

Secondary scoring was tremendous with King and Prijovic coming up large on Saturday, and it will be needed again to keep up with a Troy team that is a bit stronger on the offensive end.

As strong as the Bobcats are on the defensive end, rim protection is the one thing lacking, but Gilder-Tilbury is adept coming over as a secondary defender to block shots.

Texas State is not the strongest at the foul line, with a 65% mark as a team, but Black and Pearson are the most reliable as they each hit north of 70% of their attempts.

The Trojans are more prolific offensively, averaging 79.1 points per game, ranking second in the Sun Belt.

Person and Varnado get the majority of the touches on the offense end, and ball screens are a staple for the Trojans to utilize.

Although the Trojans shoot it extremely well from the perimeter at 37%, they have the luxury of having multiple guy finishing at the rim strong with Varnado, Walker and Person all around the rim.

Juan Davis, Jr. is a key factor and has been extremely quiet in the first two contests in New Orleans with only 3 total points, but he is lethal from beyond the arc when he gets good looks. With Person and Varnado playing at a high level, expect the Bobcats to focus on them which can open up the floor for Davis to find spots to shoot from.

Varnado, albeit undersized at 6’6, is a key on the defensive end patrolling the paint, but he has to stay out of foul trouble with the drop off in the frontcourt glaring from a depth standpoint.

Prediction

Beating a team three times in a season is a challenge for any team, and in a winner-take-all scenario, teams that thrive on the defensive end usually are the pick.

The Trojans are in a good rhythm from having the extra game in the first round to play, which I tend to prefer more often than teams with byes in mid-major tournaments. A team on a roll is dangerous, and as good as Troy is on the offensive end, I lean towards the Trojans.

This environment will be one that neither team has seen in quite some time, and I think the key to the game is one player who has been in a lot of huge games in the SEC and NCAA Tournament: Devon Walker. His ability to provide a spark offensively, which he did on Saturday, and be a force on the glass will be a nice luxury for Troy to lean on.

I expect a tight game, and the Bobcats’ free-throw shooting could be a major issue in crunch time. With the Trojans having a few more offensive weapons they can count on when needed, I give the edge to Troy.

Troy 66, Texas State 61