The story of the 2017-18 Sun Belt was extinguished when UT Arlington knocked out Louisiana in the semifinals on Saturday. This removed the regular season champion, which had dominated the conference in running up a 16-2 record.
But that doesn’t mean that the league is left with a fluke of a final.
UTA (21-12, 10-8) brings a litany of intriguing storylines to the table as it tries to make just its second NCAA Tournament in program history. The first came in 2008, when Scott Cross was in his second year and the Mavericks won the Southland Conference Tournament. Now in their fifth season in the Sun Belt, it didn’t look like it would take this long to make a return to the sport’s main event.
Cross rolled out excellent teams in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, going a combined 27-11 and winning the regular season title in the latter of those two seasons. That may have been the case in 2015-16 as well, even with Chris Beard’s Little Rock giant, had star forward Kevin Hervey not torn an ACL midway through the year.
Despite that success, UTA came up empty in the semifinals both years. This year, the script has flipped. The preseason favorite Mavericks underwhelmed to the tune of a 10-8 league record, as they at times battled depth issues around Hervey and point guard Erick Neal. Yet it’s been nothing but success thus far in New Orleans after Saturday’s hard fought win.
“Sure, well the good lord shined down on us today,” UTA coach Scott Cross said after the win. ”These guys came out, they played extremely tough, they were locked in defensively, and it was a great team effort. We knew we were going to have to play one of our best games to beat Louisiana. They are as good of a team as we have played in the last three years.”
Avoiding a third-straight semifinal letdown puts the dynamic duo of Hervey (20.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG) — a legit NBA prospect — and Neal (16.9 PPG, 6.8 APG) — one the nation’s best playmakers — on the verge of a well-deserved moment in the spotlight.
In their way is a team with its own dynamic leader in Sun Belt POY D’Marcus Simonds (20.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.5 APG). Georgia State (23-10, 12-6) quietly reeled off a 10-game winning streak in league play, momentarily threatening Louisiana’s supremacy. The Panthers defense sagged down the stretch, sending them to New Orleans having lost four of their last six games.
But their defense has clamped down over the past few days, holding Troy and Georgia Southern to under a point per possession in the two wins. The Panthers did have to hold on against a furious Eagles comeback after leading by 15 points at halftime. Simonds was relatively quiet in the game, highlighting the depth that GSU has developed in yet another 20-win or more season by Ron Hunter.
The senior duo of Isaiah Williams (21 points) and Jordan Session (16 points, 9 rebounds) led the way, as they try to make their mark on a program that wasn’t so long ago the talk of the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.
The final sets up the ultimate rubber match between teams that split their season series, each winning on their home floor.