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Sun Belt Preseason Power Rankings: Will Ron Hunter and Georgia State have another March moment?

A familiar foe will be nipping at the Panthers’ heels.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Cincinnati vs Georgia State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Belt Conference believes it’s a league on the rise after some mild successes in recent years, such as Georgia State upsetting four-seed Baylor and Little Rock defeating five-seed Vanderbilt in the 2015 and 2016 NCAA tournaments, respectively. Last year, Ron Hunter led Georgia State back to the tournament, where the Panthers had a double-digit lead on Cincinnati before faltering late. UT-Arlington and Louisiana have also each had 25-plus win campaigns in recent years.

Just as was the case a year ago, there appears to be a clear favorite in the Sun Belt this season. But things hardly ever go according to play in the #FunBelt, and here’s how we see the league shaping up in 2018-19.

1. Georgia State Panthers, 24-11 (12-6), Lost to Cincinnati in Second Round of NCAA Tournament

After reaching the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years, the Panthers return four starters including Sun Belt Player of the Year D’Marcus Simonds, and seniors Malik Benlevi, Devin Mitchell and Jeff Thomas. Simonds is a legitimate NBA prospect after averaging over 21 points per game a year ago on his way to setting a school record for most points in a single season.

The Panthers will go as far as Simonds takes them, but they are far from a one-man show. Benlevi, Mitchell and Thomas can all stroke from beyond the arc, giving Simonds several options to kick the ball out as he slashes into the lane. They will likely be joined in the starting lineup by Jordan Tyson, a senior forward who is a former transfer from St. Bonaventure that averaged 10 minutes per game a year ago.

The Panthers will have several key newcomers as well, led by former Pitt transfer Damon Wilson. Four-star signee Nelson Phillips is the highest rated player Ron Hunter has ever signed out of high school.

The Sun Belt had a clear preseason favorite a year ago in UTA, but it was Louisiana which dominated the regular season and the Panthers who won the conference tournament. Will Georgia State fare better and give Ron Hunter a chance at another magical March moment?

2. Georgia Southern Eagles, 21-12 (11-7)

The Eagles have been one of the most consistent programs in the league since joining the Sun Belt in 2014-15, but have been unable to reach the NCAA Tournament. The biggest thorn in their pursuit of that goal has been in-state rival Georgia State, as the Panthers have beaten the Eagles once in the conference tournament final (2015) and once in the semifinals (2018).

Georgia Southern would love nothing more than to finally make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992, when the Eagles defeated the Panthers in the Trans-Atlantic Athletic Conference final.

Hoping to lead Georgia Southern to that goal is one of the league’s best talents: Tookie Brown. The senior guard initially declared for the draft in the Spring before deciding to return to school. He will be supported by fellow senior returners Ike Smith and Montae Glenn, as well as sophomore Quan Jackson, who impressed as a freshman. The Eagles also add former Iowa State forward Simeon Carter, two junior college transfers and four freshmen to what they hope is a bigger, more athletic roster.

3. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, 27-7 (16-2), Lost to LSU in First Round of NIT

The Ragin’ Cajuns dominated the Sun Belt in league play a year ago, as they lost just two games and finished four wins ahead of their closest competition with an average margin of victory of 17.6 points. Louisiana faltered in the conference tournament, however, falling to UT-Arlington in the semifinals.

This year, the Cajuns must replace three key contributors in Frank Bartley, Johnathan Stove and Bryce Washington, who all averaged double figure scoring a year ago. They will be led by a trio of seniors in Jakeenan Gant, Malik Marquetti and Marcus Stroman. Justin Miller and Cedric Russell both played reserve roles a year ago and will look to expand their contributions this year. Louisiana also added four freshmen and a couple of junior college transfers.

Louisiana will need more offense from Stroman and will have to have a couple contributors step up their roles this season to duplicate last season’s success, but the Cajuns will always be one of the top programs in the league as long as Bob Marlin is on the sidelines.

4.South Alabama Jaguars, 14-18 (7-11)

The Jaguars could be positioned for a breakout season under first-year coach Richie Riley. South Alabama returns its top six scorers from a year ago, including senior first-team all-conference guard Rodrick Sikes. Josh Ajayi and the Trhae Mitchell will man the frontcourt, while Sikes is joined by South Carolina transfer Kory Holden in the backcourt.

Riley made a big splash the offseason by adding a lot of new blood the program. Holden and Tashombe Riley (South Carolina State) are eligible as grad transfers, and are joined by R.J. Kelly, a transfer from Savannah State who sat out last year.

The Jaguars’ program fell stagnant under Matthew Graves, finishing below .500 in conference play in five straight seasons. But Riley has brought a renewed energy and after leading Nicholls to a 21-win season and Southland regular season title in just his second season, improved results could come quickly in Mobile, especially with a star like Sikes leading the way.

5. Troy Trojans, 16-17 (9-9)

The Trojans fell short of expectations in 2017-18, a year after reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. Troy’s inconsistent play last year led to a middle of the pack finish in the conference despite being the only team to defeat Georgia State twice in the regular season.

Now the Trojans must replace their all-time leading scorer in Wesley Person, as well as his backcourt mate Kevin Baker. Troy’s strength will be in the frontcourt, where Jordan Varnado returns after earning second-team all-conference recognition a year ago. Varnado, along with Alex Hicks and junior college transfer Devante Foster, will form one of the more formidable fruontcourts in the league this season.

The name of the game will be finding consistency and production in the backcourt. If the Trojans can do that, then they could crack into the top four and possibly even challenge for a conference title.

6. ULM Warhawks, 16-16 (9-9), Lost to Austin Peay in First Round of CIT

After a dismal start to conference play a year ago, the Warhawks went on a tear and won seven out of eight games from the end of January through the end of February. Included in that streak were wins on the road at Georgia Southern and Georgia State, as well as a home victory over UT-Arlington. The Warhawks were eventually knocked out of the conference tournament by Georgia Southern and then lost in the first round of the CIT.

ULM will be built around senior forward Travis Munnings, who earned second team all-conference recognition a year ago. Michael Ertel, the reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, will lead the backcourt. But outside of those two very strong pieces, the Warhawks must replace a lot of scoring as they graduated three players who averaged double digit points a year ago.

The Warhawks have built a reputation under Keith Richard for being an extremely competitive team, but haven’t been able to break through to the pinnacle of the league. Could this be the year that finally changes?

7. Appalachian State Mountaineers, 15-18 (9-9)

While the Mountaineers’ football team is making headlines with its first top 25 ranking since joining the FBS, the Appalachian State basketball team could be providing plenty of storylines of its own this season. With all-conference guard Ronshad Shabazz leading the way, the Mountaineers took a big step forward in 2017-18, jumping from four wins in conference play the year before to nine last year.

This season App State returns a strong core, led by Shabazz and Justin Forrest, who averaged 13.5 points per game as a freshman last year. App State also returns its leading rebounder in Issac Johnson and its best shot blocker in Tyrell Johnson.

With one of the best scorers in the conference, the Mountaineers will have a chance to make some noise. If some pieces around him start to gel and play well, they could be the breakout team to watch in the Sun Belt.

8. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, 14-18 (8-10)

The Chanticleers’ streak of four consecutive 20-win seasons came to a halt last year in Coastal’s second season after moving over from the Big South. The Chants were one of the streakiest teams in the league play. From Dec. 31 to Feb. 24 they did the following in order: six-game losing streak, four-game winning streak, three-game losing streak, three-game winning streak.

Coastal returns second-leading scorer Zac Cuthbertson (14.7 PPG) at forward, but must replace the scoring output of Jaylen Shaw as well as the rebounding of Demario Beck.

The Chants don’t have that one star player that some of the other mid-tier Sun Belt teams do — like a Shabazz or Munnings — to help carry them, so they must have some answers with depth if they hope to finish in the top half of the league in year three.

9. UT-Arlington Mavericks, 21-13 (10-8)

The Mavericks streak of three consecutive 20-win seasons looks to be in grave peril this year as they will feature one of the least experienced lineups in the nation. UTA returns just 15 percent of its minutes played from a year ago, with senior guard Davion Turner leading the way after averaging 15 minutes per game a year ago.

First-year coach Chris Ogden’s objective is clear. The administration expects UTA to reach the NCAA Tournament with regularity. The fact that the Mavericks haven’t done so since 2008 despite being heavy favorites to win the league last year cost Scott Cross his job.

However, it would be a monumental shock for the Mavericks to achieve that goal in year one of Ogden’s tenure. He brought in several junior college transfers to help balance out the classes, and those signings would all have to be home runs for the Mavericks to be very competitive. Two of the candidates who appear capable of such a breakout campaign are guard Radshad Davis and forward Andres Ibarguen. Davis averaged more than 16 points per game last year at Missouri State-West Plains, and Ibarguen nearly averaged a double-double (10.4 PPG, 9.4 RPG) at Trinity Valley Community College.

10. Texas State Bobcats 15-18 (7-11)

The Bobcats got off to a fantastic start to conference play a year ago, winning six games in a row at one point on the way to a 7-2 record. However, nine-straight losses torpedoed the season and destroyed any chance Texas State had at making a run in the conference tournament.

This season, Texas State is led by an elite scorer in junior wing Nijal Pearson, who is fresh off a 2017-18 campaign in which he averaged 15.2 points per game. No other Bobcat averaged in double figures. Senior Alex Peacock will lead the frontcourt.

11. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans, 7-25 (4-14)

A year after posting single digit wins, the Trojans will turn to some new faces to help right the ship. Little Rock was hit hard by transfers, as five players either left the program or were dismissed in the offseason. But two incoming transfers could be the key for the Trojans in Darrell Walker’s first season.

Forward Dani Koljanin is immediately eligible as a grad transfer from Marshall, and Rayjon Tucker will finally suit up after sitting out last season following his transfer from Florida Gulf Coast. The leading returner is sophomore guard Jaizec Lottie, who averaged 7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game a year ago.

Like the Mavericks, the Trojans will be very dependent upon incoming transfers and progression from players in reserve roles a year ago in order to move back into the top half of the league.

12. Arkansas State Red Wolves, 11-21 (6-12)

The Red Wolves were a consistently strong team in the Sun Belt for several years at the beginning of the decade, but never made it to the NCAA Tournament. Former coach Grant McCasland turned a one-year stint in which the Red Wolves won 20 games into a new job at North Texas, leaving Arkansas State with a depleted roster and no momentum. The result was predictable as Mike Balado took over.

Arkansas State must now replace three of its top four scorers, including guard Devan Simms who averaged 17 points per game last year. Guard Ty Cockfield is the leading returner along with fellow seniors Grantham Gillard and Tristin Walley, who will have expanded roles this year.