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Sun Belt Power Rankings: Injuries adding intrigue to an already muddied conference

ULM has shot up the rankings.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Cincinnati vs Georgia State
Georgia State has been flying since Devin Mitchell’s return.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play has arrived and the theme early on for the Sun Belt has been injuries. A few teams expected to be contenders have had some major setbacks, causing more questions in a league that is already notoriously unpredictable.

Will Georgia State be able to live up to its lofty preseason expectations? Or will a team such as Coastal Carolina, Troy or South Alabama take advantage of an opportunity to rise among the top four? Let’s check in on the lay of the land down south after the first week of #FunBelt action.

1. Georgia State Panthers (11-4, 2-0), Previous 1

The Panthers have been rolling ever since senior guard Devin Mitchell returned from injury in early December, winning six of their last seven with the lone loss coming on the road at Kansas State. The winning continued over the weekend with a sweep in Texas over UT-Arlington and Texas State, but it wasn’t as easy as some Panther fans would have liked.

First, Georgia State attempted just 39 shots against UTA, a program-low in Ron Hunter’s seven-and-a-half seasons as coach. The Panthers committed 18 turnovers and made just 23-of-38 free throw attempts in the 63-58 victory. The offense continued to struggle in the first half in San Marcos on Saturday, as GSU was held to just 26 points. Thankfully for the Panthers, their defense was strong enough in both contests to secure a win as GSU defeated Texas State, the early season surprise in the conference, 73-69.

Georgia State senior D’Marcus Simonds has to get going again if the Panthers are going to reach their full potential. The junior NBA prospect has scored just 11.6 points per game over his last five, after averaging 21 through the seasons’ first 10 games. He also has recorded as many turnovers as assists during that stretch.

This week, the Panthers will be rowdy as they host rival Louisiana, which is coming off a tough week, as well as fellow undefeated ULM.

2. ULM Warhawks (9-5, 2-0), 7

The Warhawks have matched the Panthers over the past seven games, winning six with their only loss coming at in-state power LSU. Former Wichita State guard Daishon Smith exploded for 42 points in a 97-84 win over Arkansas-Little Rock in the conference opener, then had 24 in the win over Arkansas State to give ULM a 2-0 start in league play.

Smith’s emergence has given ULM a substantial three-pronged attack along with point guard Michael Ertel and forward Travis Munnings. The Warhawks will make their swing through Georgia this week, putting their recent run of success to the test.

3. Texas State Bobcats (12-3, 1-1), 3

The Bobcats came into conference play having won 10 of their last 11 games, with the only loss coming to Arkansas. Are you sensing a theme in these rankings yet?

Texas State opened the SBC schedule by hosting Georgia Southern, the team most believed was likeliest to challenge Georgia State for the conference title. The Bobcats had a double-digit lead late and then had to hold off an Eagles’ rally to win 73-70. Then they got their own shot at the Panthers and the Bobcats frustrated Georgia State as they held Simonds, the reigning player of the year, to just seven points. However, a second half surge led the Panthers to a victory.

The strength of Texas State’s non-conference schedule left something to be desired. But with the way the Bobcats have been stringing together wins combined with a strong performance against the conference favorite, they have earned the right to hang on to a top three spot. This week a trip through the Carolinas awaits.

4. Georgia Southern Eagles (9-6, 1-1), 3

The Eagles have been dealt a tough hand as senior starters Ike Smith and Montae Glenn have both been out the past few weeks with injuries. Their timetable to return to the squad is very questionable, as Georgia Southern may be forced to move forward without them.

While they couldn’t complete the comeback against Texas State, the Eagles rebound with a 77-64 win over UT-Arlington. Forwards Isaiah Crawley and Simeon Carter have picked up their production since Glenn and Smith went down, as has guard Quan Jackson. They will need those pieces to complement Tookie Brown if they are going to stay in the top half of the league this week when they host Louisiana and ULM.

5. South Alabama Jaguars (9-6, 2-0), 8

The preseason darkhorse pick broke out of the gates strong as South Alabama was just one of three teams to go undefeated in the opening week of conference play. After an up-and-down start to the season, the Jaguars have won four of their last five, including wins over Coastal Carolina and App State to begin league play.

It’s beginning to look like Saturday’s two-overtime showdown against the Chanticleers could be a preview of teams that will be looking for the all-important fourth seed in the conference tournament, which secures a bye in the first round. The Jaguars will make trips to Arkansas State and Little Rock this week with a great opportunity to build on their early SBC success.

6. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (10-5, 1-1), 4

Last season the Cajuns started off conference play 10-0 before falling at Georgia State on Feb. 8. This year, Louisiana dropped its conference opener to Arkansas State.

Louisiana allowed the Red Wolves to shoot 56 percent from the floor and made just five of their 24 three-point attempts in a 93-84 loss. The good news for the Cajuns is that it would seem senior forward Jakeenan Gant didn’t take too kindly to starting conference play 0-1. He came back the next game against Little Rock and scored 45 points in a 75-61 victory over the Trojans.

One major factor in the Cajuns’ road the rest of the season is the loss of senior guard Malik Marquetti. The former USC transfer was Louisiana’s second leading scorer and best three-point shooter before a knee injury cost him the rest of his senior year. Louisiana will have to move on quickly though as the Cajuns travel to Georgia State and Georgia Southern this week.

7. Coastal Carolina (7-6, 1-1), 6

The Chanticleers opened SBC play with a 85-71 win over Troy in which they made 15-of-25 3-pointers. But the joy was short-lived as they dropped a double-overtime heartbreaker to South Alabama on Saturday.

Coastal’s primary issues all season have been consistency, as the Chanticleers have yet to win consecutive games against Division I competition. This week they host UTA and Texas State looking to for a signature win against the Bobcats to climb back into the top half of the league.

8. Troy Trojans (8-6, 1-1), 5

The Trojans were another team playing at less than full strength in the opening week of conference play as leading scorer Jordan Varnado missed the Coastal Carolina game. He returned against App State on Saturday to score 27 points and lead Troy to an 89-85 win.

If Troy can get a little more production from its guards, it will quickly rise back up towards the top of the league. But the loss to Coastal showed that if either of the dynamic forward duo of Varnado and Alex Hicks aren’t available, the Trojans generally struggle.

9. Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-8, 1-1), 10

The conference opening victory over the Cajuns was an unexpected jolt for a program that hasn’t done much in recent years. Ty Cockfield has led the team all season, averaging 21 points per game, but he had some help against Louisiana as Maquis Eaton had 24 and Grantham Gillard added 20.

Those three guards are good enough to score against teams who struggle to defend the perimeter, which could lead to a few more wins than expected for the Red Wolves. This week they host South Alabama and Troy.

10. Appalachian State Mountaineers (5-10, 0-2), 9

The Mountaineers lost both legs of their trip through Alabama, giving them five losses in their last six with the lone win coming over NAIA Milligan. App State was close in both games, losing each by two possessions or less. That’s been a theme as the Mountaineers have now lost seven games by single digits this year.

App State is very capable offensively, but the defensive side of the ball has been the difference as they rank 317th in Division I in points allowed per game. The Mountaineers host the Texas schools this week.

11. Arkansas Little-Rock Trojans (5-10, 0-2)

Similar to their rival Red Wolves, the Trojans have an elite scorer that is desperate for some support. Rayjon Tucker has averaged 21 points per game this season, and had 36 points in a loss to Louisiana on Saturday. His lowest scoring output of the season is 14 points.

But unlike Cockfield, it doesn’t appear Tucker’s help is on the way. Home games against South Alabama and Troy will be tough tests for Little Rock this week.

12. UT-Arlington Mavericks (4-11, 0-2)

The Mavericks put up a good fight in the opener against the Panthers, perhaps eager to get some revenge over last year’s SBC Championship Game loss. But UTA’s struggles will likely continue throughout the season as Chris Ogden looks to rebuild this program from the ground up.

A trip through the Carolinas this week could be interesting as the Mavericks look to get a win over the reeling Mountaineers.