After a wild two weeks in the Sun Belt Conference, it’s anyone’s guess how the final standings will look come March. Out of 12 teams, eight have an identical 2-2 record. Of the 24 league games thus far, 13 have been decided by six points or less.
With so little separating so much of the league, it’s looking like it could be a wild couple months down South. But we’ll try to navigate our way through the weeds to tell you how we think the conference stacks up.
1. Georgia State Panthers (13-4, 4-0), Previous — 1
The Panthers are one of just 13 teams in Division I to start conference play 4-0 or better this season, but depending on who you ask you may think they got a little bit of help along the way. In Saturday’s 74-73 victory over Louisiana-Monroe, Georgia State senior D’Marcus Simonds appeared to commit a traveling violation on his way to scoring the game-winning basket. There could be an argument made that he was also fouled on the drive, which would have negated the travel and put him on the line. However, the conference deemed the mistake so bad that the officiating crew has been suspended for one game.
The officials had received punishment from the fans in Atlanta throughout the game, and no one will likely argue the suspension wasn’t warranted. It was nonetheless interesting to see the conference’s statement specifically mention the play as directly impacting the result of the game and leading to the suspension.
Controversy notwithstanding, the Panthers are 4-0 in league play. Simonds got back on track as he scored 21 points in Thursdays’ 89-76 win over Louisiana-Lafayette and then poured in 28 against ULM. Georgia State was the unanimous pick to win the league in the preseason by the coaches, and nothing thus far has indicated any reason to think otherwise.
The Panthers will make the trip to Alabama this week to face South Alabama and Troy. Georgia State went winless on this trip last year, but over the past two-plus seasons have won 15 straight games in the month of January.
2. Texas State Bobcats (14-3, 3-1), 3
After nearly pulling off the upset over Georgia State in week one, the Bobcats won a pair of close games last week against Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. Texas State only had two wins by five points or less in the non-conference, but since league play began all three victories have been nail-biters by four points or less.
The Bobcats’ best player, Nijal Pearson, played with a mask last week after suffering a broken nose in the loss to Georgia State. It clearly affected him as he did not shoot the ball very well, but was still able to score 12 and 16 points against Coastal and Appalachian State, respectively.
This week Texas State will make the trip to Arkansas to face two teams expected to finish near the bottom of the conference. Win both games and it could set up a potential revenge opportunity in Atlanta on January 24th with first place in the league on the line.
3. ULM Warhawks (9-7, 2-2), 2
After a 2-0 start to Sun Belt play, the Warhawks lost two heartbreakers last week to fall among the logjam of teams in the conference at .500. Not only did the officials potentially cost them a win in Atlanta, but ULM also lost on a buzzer beater against Georgia Southern on Thursday.
Wichita State transfer Daishon Smith continued his strong play on Thursday, scoring 27 points on 53 percent shooting. But he went cold from beyond the arc on Saturday, making just two-of-13 from three-point range as Georgia State held him to 11 points.
The Warhawks were the victims of some bad luck this week, but are still playing like one of the better teams in the league. With just one game this week at home against in-state rival Louisiana, this is a big opportunity for ULM to take advantage of a depleted Ragin’ Cajuns team and set itself up nicely in the league standings.
4. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (11-6, 2-2), 5
Ever since Louisiana’s leading scorer Malik Marquetti was lost for the year due to injury, senior forward Jakeenan Gant has been playing like he’s on a mission. He picked up his second consecutive Player of the Week nod this week after scoring 36 points against Georgia State and 22 points against Georgia Southern.
Gant is the only player in Division I averaging at least 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game this season, and is seventh in the nation in blocked shots. He’s simply a step above his competition right now as one Sun Belt writer commented to me this week, “I don’t see how any team in the conference can guard him.”
The Cajuns still need those around him to increase their production though if they are going to remain one of the more competitive teams in the league. Senior point guard Marcus Stroman filled up the stat sheet in Saturday’s win with 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals, but also committed 10 turnovers. He needs to find a balance of being more aggressive in trying to score more points (to make up for the loss of Marquetti) while also playing within himself and protecting the basketball.
5. Georgia Southern Eagles (10-7, 2-2), 4
The Eagles and Cajuns switched places in the power rankings this week after Louisiana’s win, but Georgia Southern did get some good news as senior forward Montae Glenn returned to action from an ankle injury. He played 22 minutes on Saturday and getting him back in the starting lineup at full strength could be huge for the Eagles as they hope to keep pace with the top of the league.
Georgia Southern continues to be one of the more interesting mid-major teams in the country when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. Despite being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation, the Eagles are averaging 85 points per game. Tookie Brown, Quan Jackson and Isaiah Crawley are all averaging in double figures, with Glenn and David Lee Jones just outside the 10-point mark.
Despite having played without Glenn for a couple weeks and still missing senior Ike Smith, the Eagles are showing they are one of the deeper teams in the league. They make the Alabama swing this week as well, with Troy first then South Alabama.
6. Troy Trojans (9-7, 2-2), 8
This is where things start to get a little murky, because it just doesn’t seem right moving the Trojans up two spots after a 14-point loss to Arkansas-Little Rock and an overtime victory over Arkansas State. The league truly is a jumbled mess this year, but frankly, I trust the Trojans just a little more than some of the 2-2 teams in the league, despite their poor week.
Troy’s loss to Little Rock was stunning, even if it was on the road. The Trojans shot just 38 percent from the floor and committed 23 turnovers, leading to their worst offensive performance of the season. The Trojans have a big opportunity to redeem themselves this week with games at home against Georgia State and Georgia Southern, but they need to recover quickly.
7. South Alabama Jaguars (9-8, 2-2), 5
There isn’t any team in the league more in need of hitting the reset button than the Jaguars. After going 2-0 the first week, they continued their roller coaster season by losing 66-65 to Arkansas State on Thursday. That’s not so bad, after all the Red Wolves beat Louisiana the week before.
But then the Jaguars lost to Little Rock by 29 points, 91-62. That’s one of the more surprising results since I started following the league six years ago. Despite that bombshell score, I still have the Jaguars ranked ahead of the Trojans because, again, I have more faith in them in the long run. But it’s definitely true that through the first half of the season, no team in the league is as unpredictable as South Alabama.
8. Arkansas Little-Rock Trojans (6-10, 2-2), 11
What’s that? How could I have Little Rock behind South Alabama after a 29-point drubbing. Well, before last week the Trojans had lost eight of nine against Division I competition. So while a 14-point win over Troy and the beatdown of the Jaguars was impressive, I need to see a little more before shooting the Trojans up the rankings any more.
The really encouraging part of the Trojans week was that leading scorer Rayjon Tucker was far from a one-man show. Deondre Burns added 12 and 22 points off the bench in the two victories. Kamani Johnson, Jazic Lottie and Nikola Maric all had strong weeks as well.
With a trip to Texas looming this week, we should have a better idea of what Little Rock is in a few days.
9. Arkansas State Red Wolves (8-9, 2-2), 10
The Red Wolves couldn’t complete the Alabama sweep like their in-state rivals, but they came close with the win over South Alabama and an overtime loss to Troy. Ty Cockfield and Marquis Eaton led the way in the win, scoring 22 and 18 points, respectively.
This could be a bit of a separation week as the schools from Arkansas and Texas square off. The Red Wolves have a pair of solid wins already in conference play, but a win over Texas State would be their best yet.
10. UT-Arlington Mavericks (6-11, 2-2) 12
After having won just one game in its last 11 going into last week, UTA won consecutive games against Division I competition for the first time all year with victories over Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. The Mavericks beat the reeling Mountaineers by 10 then Radshad Davis hit a game-winning three-pointer in the finals seconds to lift UTA to victory over the Chanticleers.
The Mavericks have a good opportunity this week to continue to build some momentum by hosting Arkansas State and Little Rock.
11. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (7-9, 1-3), 7
The Chanticleers had one of the more disappointing weeks in the league as they dropped two at home to Texas State and UTA. Coastal has now lost three in a row, with the first being a double overtime loss on the road at South Alabama.
Coastal has one of the better players in the league in Zach Cuthbertson, but need to find ways to win close games if they want to climb back in the top half of the standings. They face Appalachian State on Saturday.
12. Appalachian State Mountaineers (5-12, 0-4), 11
Appalachian State coach Jim Fox may be coming very close to the end of his rope in Boone as he is very close to securing his fifth consecutive losing season. The Mountaineers lost yet another close game on Saturday, falling to Texas State 70-69. That marks their seventh loss of the season by single digits.
The Mountaineers will face Coastal on Saturday looking to stop the bleeding after dropping seven of their last eight.