The Sun Belt belonged to Louisiana in 2018. Except for the briefest moment in early February, the Ragin’ Cajuns ran roughshod over the league, getting out to a 10-0 Sun Belt start before winning the regular season title by a comfortable four-game margin.
The historic season (26-5, 16-2) earned Bob Marlin league Coach of the Year honors, as he got a roster of big-time transfers (Frank Bartley, JaKeenan Gant) and four-year stars (Bryce Washington, Johnathan Stove) playing at times like the country’s most dangerous mid-major. But oh did a slight asterisk appear on the regular season’s final day.
Louisiana dropped a home game in overtime to last place Little Rock (7-25, 4-14) last Saturday, and while letdowns do happen, the aura of invincibility slipped a little. The Ragin’ Cajuns side of the bracket features preseason favorite UT Arlington (19-12, 10-8), which rebounded from a disappointing start to win six of its final eight games. And the Mavericks may be playing with special desperation, as seniors Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal get their final shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.
Elsewhere, league POY D’Marcus Simonds leads a Georgia State team (21-10, 12-6) that had its own 10-game winning streak in league play, but stumbled into the No. 2 seed by losing four of its last six games. Georgia Southern (20-11, 11-7) also sits on that side of the bracket, and won its final three games with one of the league’s most potent offenses.
History also can’t be forgotten. Last season, Troy emerged from a jumbled middle of the conference to grab the Sun Belt’s auto-bid. The middle was similarly jumbled this season, and featured the experienced Trojans (15-16, 9-9), and five other teams that finished at either 7-11, 8-10 or 9-9.
Here’s the schedule as the Sun Belt takes over New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena.
Wednesday, March 7
No. 8 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 9 Texas State, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN3
No. 5 Appalachian State vs. No. 12 Little Rock, 2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3
No. 7 Troy vs. No. 10 South Alabama, 5:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3
No. 6 Louisiana Monroe vs. No. 11 Arkansas State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Friday, March 9
No. 1 Louisiana vs. TBD, 11:30 a.m., ESPN3
No. 4 UT Arlington vs. TBD, 2:00 p.m., ESPN3
No. 2 Georgia State vs. TBD, 5:00 p.m., ESPN3
No. 3 Georgia Southern vs. TBD, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3
Saturday, March 10
Semifinal #1, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN3
Semifinal #2, 2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Sunday, March 11
Championship, 1:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Surprising regular season finale aside, it’d be negligent to pick against Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns dominated the Sun Belt this season, beating league competition by an average of 13.7 points per game. They had the conference’s most efficient offense and defense, and have a great front court pairing in Gant and Washington. They’ve responded to a loss with fury already this season, winning six straight games — including matchups with UTA and Georgia Southern — after getting blown out at Georgia State in early February.
It would not be a shock if any team down to ninth-seeded Texas State cut down the nets, because there is plenty of parity past the Ragin’ Cajuns. But they’re the clear favorite, and have an excellent chance to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons.