The Sun Belt had a full day of games Wednesday as the league took over Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. The conference’s top four teams had byes, but here’s what we learned as the #fun(belt) got started in the Big Easy.
Texas State shook it off at the right time
The Bobcats came into their first round game with Coastal Carolina riding a nine-game losing streak, which was extended courtesy a Kevin Hervey buzzer-beating three last Friday. And during that stretch, the once 7-2 Bobcats dropped two overtime games, and four games by four points or less.
The point? Texas State was probably more dangerous than its recent slide suggested, and it showed against the Chants. They got a career day from sophomore forward Eric Terry (16 points), giving them an offensive post presence they’ve rarely had this season. And while CCU senior star Jaylen Shaw had a great day (27 points), the Bobcats used a 16-2 run in the second half and solid free throw shooting (22-26 FT) to pull away.
They now get a third shot at heavy favorite Louisiana, one of which went okay (10-point loss in Lafayette) and another that went not-so-okay (25-point loss in San Marcos). Danny Kaspar and Bob Marlin have been tangling for decades, and if the Bobcats can slow down the pace like they want to, the No. 1 seed could get a scare.
The UT Arlington narrative returns for Appalachian State
It seems like a lifetime ago, but the season began with many pointing at UTA as the Sun Belt favorite. The Mavs early league slide began, in part, with a loss in Boone in late December. UTA is playing well of late — winning six of eight — but will need to get past the Mountaineers, who blasted Little Rock by 29 points on Wednesday.
And Appalachian State is surging in their own right. They’ve gone 6-2 since Feb. 3, mostly on the back of a defense that has limited easy chances around the rim for opponents. But against Little Rock, the Mountaineers busted out a balanced offensive attack that didn’t need to rely on Ronshad Shabazz (12 points). Four other players scored in double figures, led by a career-high 22 points from junior point guard O’Showen Williams. He was perfect from distance (3-3 3FG), which was the theme for the night, as Appalachian State hit half of its 22 three-point attempts.
The Mountaineers have been somewhat three-point reliant this season, despite shooting under 33 percent as a team during Sun Belt play. They’ll look for another hot night to upset UTA for the second time this season.
Can muscle memory kick in for Troy?
You want a winning streak? How about the Trojans — last year’s champion — having now won five Sun Belt Tournament games in a row. And this latest one wasn’t easy, as South Alabama led Troy by five at halftime on Wednesday evening.
The Trojans would respond, as Jordon Varnado (22 points, 9 rebounds) fueled a run that saw Troy holding a nine-point lead before 10 minutes had gone by in the second half. Troy would hold on, in part because of their best defensive outing in nearly two months. The Jaguars were held to just 0.87 points per possession, and could not get anything going from distance (4-23 3FG).
We know that the Trojans have the star quality to cut down the nets with Varnado and Wesley Person, and a reliable third banana in Alex Hicks. They’re now 7-3 since Feb. 3, and looking to yet again turn an uneven league season into a NCAA Tournament appearance. It continues against a Georgia State team they’ve competed with for three halves this year.
Sweet revenge for Louisiana Monroe
What a difference four days can make. ULM came into its regular season finale as one of the hottest teams in the Sun Belt, winners of eight of their last ten games. But they would fall at home to Arkansas State, completing a regular season sweep by the Red Wolves.
The Warhawks got that loss back immediately, blowing out A-State in the first round’s nightcap. Just days after A-State shredded the ULM defense, the Warhawks clamped down and held the Red Wolves to just 33.3 percent from the field and forced 15 turnovers. Coupled with a star performance from senior guard Marvin Jean-Pierre (23 points, 10-13 FG), ULM finds itself in a quarterfinal game with Georgia Southern.
For as tricky a team as the Eagles can be, the Warhawks present a difficult matchup. ULM is undersized, but so is Georgia Southern. And where the Eagles’ backcourt can create massive pressure, ULM’s guard rotation — particularly senior Jordon Harris and freshman Michael Ertel — don’t get rattled easily. The Warhawks actually won the one game the teams’ played this season, and it came in Hanner Fieldhouse. Can they make it two?