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Ranking the 10 best non-conference Sun Belt games

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There’s plenty of quality mid-major on mid-major action.

NCAA Basketball: Appalachian State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

As the league prepares for another season of #FunBelt action, we took a look at each school’s non-conference schedule and found the 10 most intriguing matchups. As is the case with most mid-major conferences, there are plenty of opportunities for marquee victories in pay games against power conference opponents. However, we’re more interested in the games against peers, which will provide some mid-major on mid-major action through the season’s first two months.

Without further delay, here are the 10 most intriguing non-conference games from the Sun Belt Conference.

(Yes, I cheated and counted mid-season tournaments as one event).

10) Louisiana at The Gulf Coast Showcase, Nov. 19. The Ragin’ Cajuns stormed through the league in conference play in 2017-18, only to fall to the preseason favorite UT Arlington in the conference tournament semifinals. With Frank Bartley, Jonathan Stove and Bryce Washington graduated, the Cajuns will have some questions to answer early in the season. Following early games against Tennessee and Kansas, Louisiana will take on Colorado State at the Gulf Coast Showcase. While that’s not particularly interesting, a potential second round matchup against Florida Gulf Coast very much could be.

9) South Alabama at Southern Miss, Nov. 28. The Jaguars had one of the splashier offseasons for a Sun Belt team in recent memory as they hired a new coach in Richie Riley, who then added three high profile transfers to the roster. While only one of those players, Kory Holden from South Carolina, is immediately eligible, he will be added to a team that brings back its top five scorers from a year ago, and 82 percent of its total scoring overall. While early season trips to Auburn and Texas A&M will certainly get more attention, this trip to Southern Miss could tell us more about the Jaguars. Many consider them a dark horse candidate to be one of the top teams in the league this season, and a win on the road against a CUSA opponent could be an indicator of such a leap forward for a team that hasn’t finished above .500 in conference play since 2012-13.

8) Appalachian State at Saint Louis, Dec. 30. Both programs are trying to break through to the top of their leagues, and will face off in one last tune-up before league play begins. The Mountaineers surprised a few teams along the way as they were .500 in league play a year ago for the first time since joining the Sun Belt in 2014-15. App State also returns leading scorer and all-conference performer Ronshad Shabazz. Meanwhile, the Billikens are still trying to get back on track under third-year coach Travis Ford. After three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 2012-14, the Billikens have now gone four straight years without a trip to the dance.

7) Coastal Carolina at Northern Kentucky Men’s Basketball Tournament, Nov. 16. The Chanticleers will face three quality mid-major opponents in mid November when they travel to Highland Heights, Ky. Coastal opens the tournament against Manhattan, then goes up against 2018 NCAA Tournament team UNC Ashville, before closing against the host, Northern Kentucky. The Chanticleers took a small step back in 2017-18, posting an 8-10 record in league play after going 10-8 in their inaugural season in the Sun Belt the year before. Coastal could enhance their own reputation and that of the league with a solid performance in the Bluegrass State.

6) Troy at Western Kentucky, Dec. 16. The Trojans will travel to Bowling Green, Ky. this year to face their former conference foe and one of the best mid-major teams in the country. The Trojans made a surprising run through the Sun Belt tournament two seasons ago to make an NCAA tournament appearance, but couldn’t replicate that success a year ago. This year, Troy returns a strong senior core led by forward Jordan Varnado. The Hilltoppers, meanwhile, have huge expectations this year after winning 27 games and reaching the NIT semifinals a year ago.

5) Georgia Southern vs. George Mason, Nov. 13. The Eagles have finished in the top five in the Sun Belt every season since joining the league in 2014-15 and picked up one of the biggest non-conference wins in school history when they upset Wake Forest on the road a year ago. This year, Georgia Southern has a trip to Arizona, but a home game against an Atlantic 10 opponent is always an exciting date for a Sun Belt team. The Patriots have fallen on harder times since jumping to the A-10 from the CAA, but are the only team in the country to return 100 percent of its scoring production from a year ago. They will be looking to avenge last year’s 23-point loss when they travel to Statesboro to face the Eagles and one of the league’s best players in Tookie Brown.

4) Georgia State at Montana, Nov. 9. The Panthers and Grizzlies played a classic in Atlanta last year as Montana erased a 13-point second half deficit to tie the game at 68 in the final minute. Georgia State eventually held on for a 71-68 victory. Both teams then went on to make the NCAA tournament as conference tournament champions. This season, each team returns four starters from a year ago and both have aspirations of making it back to the NCAA tournament. This game will be the regular season opener for the Grizzlies, while Georgia State opens the year at home against ETSU on Nov. 6.

3) Georgia Southern at Dayton, Dec. 29. In the last test before conference play begins, the Eagles will travel to Dayton for a chance at a signature non-conference victory against another Atlantic 10 opponent. The Flyers return nearly every contributor from last year’s squad, including leading scorer Josh Cunningham. While Dayton had a disappointing open to the Anthony Grant era with a 14-17 record a year ago, look for the Flyers to be much improved this season. This is a big opportunity for the Eagles to improve their own resume, as well as the Sun Belt’s.

2) UTA at Gonzaga, Dec. 18. This matchup has more intrigue because of an off-court storyline than it does because of these two teams squaring off. UTA fired coach Scott Cross last season despite three consecutive 20-win seasons, including a school record 27-win campaign on 2016-17. The reason was that the administration says that they want to consistently be an NCAA tournament team, with several reports claiming UTA athletic director Jim Baker told Cross he wanted the Mavericks to be the “next Gonzaga.” Well, Baker will get to see first hand just how for off the Mavericks are from that level when they make the trip to Spokane this season. It’s just one of many tests for UTA, who also have trips to Indiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and North Texas on the schedule. All this while losing seven of their top eight contributors from last year’s team.

1) Georgia State at Cayman Islands Classic, Nov. 19-21. The reigning Sun Belt Conference tournament champs have built one of the toughest non-conference schedules of the Ron Hunter era, which will be accented by this mid-November trip to the Cayman Islands. The Panthers will open the three-game event against St. Bonaventure, then will face either Creighton or Boise State in the second game, depending on the outcomes. The Bonnies were one of the top mid-majors in the country last year as they finished second in the A-10 and defeated UCLA in the first four of the NCAA tournament. They lost several key contributors from that team and coach Mark Schmidt will have to get the most of his young roster to match that success, but this would be one of Hunter’s best non-conference wins in his eight years as coach of the Panthers.