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Five initial thoughts on the Sun Belt regular season schedule

Mid-June opinions matter too.

NCAA Basketball: Nicholls State at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Sun Belt made news by announcing changes to its regular season schedule and tournament format that will take full effect in 2019-2020. On Tuesday, the league released its regular season schedule for 2018-19, the swan song for the conference’s current format.

Here are five far-too-early thoughts on the Sun Belt’s upcoming schedule:

A title game rematch, with a very different look

The teams that met with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line last season — Georgia State and UT Arlington — kick off their respective league seasons against one another. Things should look familiar for the Panthers, as the defending champions return reigning league player of the year D’Marcus Simonds, along with much of their core (Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas, Devin Mitchell). The Mavericks won’t have that luxury. Program all-timers Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal are gone, as is Scott Cross, after the school made the puzzling decision to let the 12th-year coach despite three straight 20-win seasons.

All eyes on South Alabama

No Sun Belt program has generated more offseason momentum thus far than the Jaguars. Newly-minted coach Richie Riley has brought energy and a slew of talented transfers after leading a quick turnaround at Nicholls. Only South Carolina transfer Kory Holden is eligible this coming season, but Riley also inherits some solid pieces in Rodrick Sikes, Josh Ayaji and Herb McGee. A lot can happen during the non-conference, but USA gets a seemingly favorable opening to its first league season under Riley with home games against Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina.

The potential for a high stakes rivalry

Modern Day Hate may take center stage on the final day of the regular season. Georgia State travels to Georgia Southern in a game that could — a loose term in mid June — have plenty on the line. The rivals will be among the league favorites entering the year, and the Sun Belt’s two best players — Simonds and Tookie Brown — may well be playing for a league title on March 9.

An early test for the Ragin’ Cajuns

Dating back to 2016-17, Louisiana has won 22 of its last 24 regular season Sun Belt games. The bulk of this damage was done as the Ragin’ Cajuns locked up the regular season title with a 16-2 record last year. Bryce Washington and Frank Bartley are gone, but Bob Marlin returns a talented core in Jakeenan Gant, Malik Marquetti, Marcus Stroman and Justin Miller. They’ll be tested early, as the road swing to Georgia State and Georgia Southern hits the Ragin’ Cajuns in early January.

The Mountaineers may be set up for a breakout

For better or worse, the Sun Belt has had a jumbled middle the past two seasons. Last year, seven teams finished with regular season records between 7-11 and 10-8. One of the teams in that pile was Appalachian State at 9-9, but the Mountaineers may be poised for a breakout in 2018-19. They return scoring star Ronshad Shabazz (18.5 PPG), as well as add a pair of intriguing transfer guards in South Florida’s Mike Bibby Jr. and Tulsa’s Joseph Battle. Everything can change between now and January, but the Mountaineers’ schedule seems favorable from the jump. They won’t face any of the presumptive league heavy weights — Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana — until Jan. 31.