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Sun Belt Conference Power Rankings: Panthers reclaim top spot as non-conference play winds down

The Eagles aren’t far behind.

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

As you all are undoubtedly finishing your Christmas shopping and preparing to drink your weight in eggnog, the college basketball non-conference season is coming to a close. In the Sun Belt, the teams most people expected to be the strongest have looked the part. But as is usually the case, the middle of pack is as jumbled as ever.

This edition of the Sun Belt Power Conference Rankings features another Peach State shakeup at the top. But this is the #FunBelt, where things can and usually do change like the weather.

1. Georgia State Panthers (7-4), Previous — 2

Ron Hunter’s squad has more quality wins than any team in the conference, including erasing a 22-point second half deficit on the road at Alabama earlier this month. But the presumptive conference favorite has also battled bouts of inconsistency, highlighted by a 26-point loss on the road at Liberty.

The Panthers had an opportunity to secure a third victory over a Power 5 opponent this season at Kansas State on Saturday – they previously defeated Georgia 91-67 at the Cayman Islands Classic in November – but the Wildcats ended the game on a 21-6 run to win 71-59.

Georgia State is finally at full strength with the return of senior guard Devin Mitchell, who missed the first eight games of the season with a knee injury. Mitchell scored 17 in a win over Chattanooga last week and will look to use the Panthers final two non-conference games against UNC-Wilmington and NAIA Middle Georgia State to continue to get his legs under him before conference play begins Jan. 3.

2. Georgia Southern Eagles (7-3), 1

After starting the season 5-0, Georgia Southern has lost three of its last five, with one of the two wins coming against NAIA Brewton-Parker. Of the three losses, two came on the road at Arizona and UCF, while one was at home to East Tennessee State.

The Eagles are one of the highest scoring teams in the nation despite being one of the worst three-point shooting teams. Georgia Southern ranks ninth in Division I in points scored per game at 89.7 – aided by two 100-point performances against NAIA teams – but shoots just 28.6 percent from behind the arc, good for 323rd in the country.

Georgia Southern has three interesting challenges remaining in non-conference play as it hosts Bradley Tuesday, then travels to Radford and Dayton before the new year. Three wins would put them right back into the conversation for the top spot in our rankings heading into conference play.

3. Texas State Bobcats (10-1), 5

The Bobcats have been one of the surprises in the league this season. While they still don’t have a marquee win, it’s hard to ignore eight wins in a row, even with a strength of schedule that ranks in the 300s.

Texas State’s success is built largely on its defense. The Bobcats rank 19th in Division I in opponents field goal percentage, and 17th in points allowed per game. Meanwhille Nijal Pearson continues to carry the load offensively averaging nearly 20 points per game.

The Bobcats have their toughest test of the season at Arkansas on Saturday before hosting Howard Payne a week later. The test against the Razorbacks could serve as an opportunity to put the league on notice that their record is no fluke.

4. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (7-4), 3

After playing a very tough schedule to open the season, the Cajuns settled in with five straight victories before Saturday’s 21-point loss at home to Louisiana Tech. While Louisiana has had some good showings against some good teams, the fact is the Cajuns haven’t beaten anyone with a winning record yet. And it’s likely they won’t even get another chance to until they go to Atlanta to face Georgia State on Jan. 10.

Louisiana will go to McNeese State Tuesday and then to Southeastern Louisiana the Saturday after Christmas. It’s hard to tell what this team really is at this point in the season, but with its trio of seniors – Jakeenan Gant, Malik Marquetti and Marcus Stroman – leading the way, the Cajuns will likely easily finish in the top four of the league.

5. Troy Trojans (5-5), 7

The Trojans have moved up a couple spots after Sunday’s 87-81 victory over Western Kentucky on the road. This is probably one of the best mid-major wins for any team in the conference thus far as the Trojans got their record back to .500.

With the powerful forward duo of Jordan Varnado and Alex Hicks leading the way, Troy is very efficient scoring around the basket. The Trojans are also an excellent shot blocking team, but they do it without fouling too as they rank 31st in Division I in personal fouls.

Troy has another chance for a win over a Conference USA opponent when it goes to in-state rival UAB on Friday, then hosts Arkansas Pine-Bluff a week from Saturday.

6. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (6-5), 6

This is where things start to get pretty murky, as five teams in the Sun Belt are within one game of a .500 record and another (App State), could end up being better than all of them. But for now the Chanticleers hold the sixth spot after a pair of close losses against tough in-state opponents in South Carolina and Wofford. Coastal also picked up wins over Howard and North Carolina Central in the last couple weeks.

The Chanticleers’ Zac Cuthbert is playing like a man possessed, averaging 20.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Their last game of 2018 will be a very tough test against rival College of Charleston on Friday, where a victory could build some momentum heading into conference play.

7. ULM Warhawks (5-4), 8

ULM jumped back up a spot after wins over Grambling and Stephen F. Austin. Like their rival Cajuns, the Warhawks are a tough team to figure out as most of their wins have come against subpar competition. Daishon Smith, a transfer from Wichita State, has emerged as the team’s leading scorer in recent weeks after missing some time due to injury. In six games he is averaging 17 points per contest.

Tuesday, the Warhawks will host Nicholls State and welcome Coppin State on Friday. Then ULM will close its non-conference schedule with a trip to LSU next Friday.

8. South Alabama (5-5), 9

Last time the Jaguars played they looked to have finally figured things out with a 21-point victory over Tulane. Wednesday, South Alabama will host Alabama A&M and then crosstown NAIA foe Mobile comes in on Thursday. A home game against the Atlantic 10’s Richmond next Saturday closes the non-conference schedule.

South Alabama was pegged by many at the start of the year as one of the darkhorse teams of the league. Thus far, however, it has just been one of the most inconsistent. If the Jaguars can duplicate their form against Tulane over these next three games, they could be poised for that breakout season in the Sun Belt after all

9. Appalachian State Mountaineers (4-6), 10

The Mountaineers’ season of near opportunities continued on Saturday with a seven-point loss to South Florida, meaning all six of their losses have come by single digits.

App State is scoring at a remarkable rate, ranking 15th in the nation in points per game at 85.3. But the Mountaineers also rank in the 200s in turnovers and have been abysmal defensively, ranking 300th or worse in several defensive categories. They will simply outscore a lot of teams in league play, but until they learn to stop someone, their ceiling is limited.

App State has two very tough challenges left before the new year with a trip to Georgetown tonight and to Saint Louis on Dec. 30.

10. Arkansas State (4-6), 12

The Red Wolves’ best win of the season came on Friday as they beat 75-71 Florida Atlantic in double overtime. After starting of the season 0-4 against Division I competition, Arkansas State has now won three out of five. The Red Wolves host Missouri State Tuesday night before traveling to Syracuse on Saturday.

11. Arkansas Little-Rock (5-6), 11

The Trojans have cobbled together a couple Division I wins, but have shown little to suggest they will be climbing these rankings any time soon. Rayjon Tucker, a transfer from Florida Gulf Coast, is the lone bright spot averaging 20 points per game. He will likely lift Little Rock to a few wins on his own, like he did in a 33-point effort against Sam Houston State. But with trips to Memphis and Georgetown coming up Wednesday and Saturday, respectively, even his efforts likely won’t be enough.

12. UTA Mavericks (3-7), 4

After a surprisingly solid start, UTA has reverted back to what most thought it would be this year after losing its top six scorers from a year ago and breaking in a first-year coach. The brutal schedule has resulted in six straight losses and with trips to Gonzaga, Cal Poly and Texas on the horizon, the near future isn’t looking much better. Perhaps the Mavericks will be battle tested come conference play and surprise some people