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Sun Belt Power Rankings: Texas State claims top spot as Panthers plummet

Chris Ogden and UT Arlington fly up as well.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There aren’t many people that would have predicted that more than halfway through the Sun Belt Conference schedule the two Lone Star State schools would sit atop the conference standings. After being picked to finish eighth and 11th, respectively, by the league’s coaches in the preseason, Texas State and UT Arlington are now tied for first place.

In a league where things rarely go as expected, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make the Bobcats and Mavericks accomplishments to date any less impressive.

1. Texas State Bobcats (17-5, 8-3), Previous Ranking – 2

Texas State had built a reputation under Danny Kaspar prior to this year as being a very sound defensive team that competes hard every game, but struggled to close out close games and rarely finished in the top third of the league. While the Bobcats do still play sound defense – they allow the fewest points per game in the league at 63.8 – they are now 4-1 in conference games decided by five points or less.

The Bobcats got one of those close victories on Thursday when they ended Appalachian State’s winning streak at three with a 74-71 victory. Junior guard Nijal Pearson led the way with 19 points while Tre’Larenz Nottingham added 18 and Jaylen Shead had 15. App State led with just over five minutes to go, but a 9-0 run put Texas State back on top and the Bobcats held on from there.

Then Texas State built a 16-point lead in the first half against Coastal Carolina on Saturday, only to see the Chanticleers close within three points with two minutes to play. Eric Terry had a clutch basket and the Bobcats hit their free throws down the stretch to secure a 65-57 win.

The Bobcats go on the road this week to face Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock, but they have fared well on the road this season as the Bobcats are the only team in the league with a winning record on the road at 7-3.

2. Texas-Arlington Mavericks (12-12, 8-3), 3

The Mavericks had one of their best weeks in conference play yet with a 20-point victory over Coastal on Thursday and a 10-point win over Appalachian State on Saturday. UTA has now won three games in a row and eight of its last nine, including an 84-77 double overtime win over Texas State on Feb. 2.

It was a balanced effort which led the Mavericks to victory over Coastal as all five starters scored at least nine points, but none more than 14. They also added 17 points from the bench and held the Chanticleers to just 22.6 percent shooting. Then junior Brian Warren led the way over App State with 22 points and nine assists.

The only team to beat the Mavericks since the first week in January was Georgia State, the preseason conference favorite. Now UTA goes to Little Rock on Thursday and Arkansas State on Saturday looking to keep pace with in-state rival Texas State atop the league standings.

3. Georgia State Panthers (16-8, 7-4), 1

The Panthers couldn’t close out a victory in Louisiana last week, falling to Louisiana-Monroe 82-76 and to Louisiana-Lafayette 76-72. Georgia State trailed nearly the entire game against ULM, but a three-pointer by senior Jeff Thomas put the Panthers on top 74-73 with just over two minutes to play. But just like he did all night, junior Wichita State transfer Daishon Smith proved to be too much for the Panthers down the stretch.

Smith scored 36 points on Wednesday, including a pair of three’s immediately following Thomas’s to put the Warhawks back up by five points. He scored his team’s final nine points.

Georgia State then fell flat on ESPN2 against the Ragin’ Cajuns on Friday as Louisiana led by as much as 15 points in the first half and 41-30 at halftime. But the Panthers played what may have been their most inspired six minutes of basketball all season to open the second half on a 17-0 run and take a six-point lead. However, as has been the case all season in Atlanta, Georgia State’s inconsistency caught up to them.

The Panthers’ lineup features four seniors, the reigning conference player of the year, two of the highest rated recruits signed by coach Ron Hunter in his eight years at Georgia State, and a transfer from Pitt. But for whatever reason, something just hasn’t clicked for them. They are fortunate to be over .500 in league play and have looked like a middle of the pack team far too often this season. This week they host the Alabama schools with Troy coming in on Wednesday and South Alabama on Friday.

4. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (13-10, 6-5), 6

For the second week in a row the Sun Belt featured the Lou Henson National Player of the Week as Smith followed up his 36-point performance against Georgia State by pouring in 38 points in an 88-79 victory over Georgia Southern on Friday. Those two efforts put Smith at the top of the SBC scoring leaderboard at 21.9 points per game. Smith has hit more 3-pointers (73) than anyone in the league despite missing three games due to injury.

ULM’s home sweep of the Georgia teams moved them into a 3-way tie for fourth place and ended a three-game losing streak. The Warhawks have one of the better starting fives in the league, but aren’t particularly deep. The three-pronged attack of Smith, Michael Ertel and Travis Munnings is a formidable one though.

ULM travels to Lafayette this week for an in-state clash against the Ragin’ Cajuns, looking to sweep the regular season series for the first time since 2014-15.

5. Georgia Southern (14-10, 6-5), 4

The Eagles scored 103 points in a victory over Louisiana on Wednesday, marking the third time this season they have eclipsed the century mark, before falling victim to Smith’s heroics on Friday. Senior Tookie Brown is apparently a reader of this website, as the week after I called him out for not being aggressive enough, he goes off for 32 points on nine-of-16 shooting in the win over the Cajuns.

Brown followed that up with 28 points in the loss to the Warhawks and if it wasn’t for Smith he likely would have garnered multiple conference and possibly even national player of the week honors.

It’s been a bit of a topsy-turvy season for the Eagles. After overcoming injuries and its star player not performing up to his capability, Georgia Southern finds itself still fighting for one of the top four spots in the league. This week, South Alabama comes in on Wednesday before an ESPN2 game against Troy on Friday.

6. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (12-11, 6-5), 5

As expected, it appears the Chanticleers five-game winning streak may have been more of a product of their schedule rather than their true status as a contender. Coastal was routed on the road at UTA, then made just three-of-20 from behind the arc in an eight-point loss to Texas State.

Devante Jones continued to play well as he continues his campaign for conference freshman of the year. But Coastal has a tough schedule down the stretch and will likely continue their slide back down to the middle of the pack. This week, though, they go to Boone for an in-state rivalry game with last-place App State.

7. Louisiana Ragin Cajuns’ (14-10, 5-6), 7

After giving more than 90 points per game in recent weeks, the Cajuns finally found a recipe that worked against the Panthers in limiting them to 72 points. It was the first win in five tries for Louisiana in the series in what has become one of the better rivalries in the league.

Louisiana, having been ravaged by injuries this season, just doesn’t have the depth to compete against the top echelon of the league consistently. Against the Panthers, coach Bob Marlin played four of his players more than 35 minutes. Then, down by two in the final seconds, Georgia State inexplicably settled for a contested three-pointer despite Louisiana’s leading scorer Jakeenan Gant having fouled out of the game. Would the result have been different had the Panthers forced overtime with so many of the Cajuns having racked up the minutes? Probably.

This week Louisiana hosts ULM on Saturday.

8. South Alabama (12-12, 5-6), 8

The Jaguars’ took their winning streak to three games on Thursday with a victory over Arkansas State, only to see it snapped with a loss to Little Rock over the weekend. Junior guard Herb McGee had a career-high 24 points in the victory over the Red Wolves.

South Alabama then squandered a chance to get back above .500 in league play by letting Little Rock overcome a nine-point deficit at the half. Rodrick Sikes’ scoring average has dropped six points from last season, when he was an all-conference selection. The Jaguars needed him to maintain that form with a team that has so many new faces in order to fulfill their potential. But instead they have hovered around the .500 mark all season.

The Jaguars go to Statesboro to face the Eagles on Wednesday then to Georgia State on Friday.

9. Troy Trojans (11-12, 4-7), 9

The Trojans’ leading scorer Jordan Varnado has been dealing with a concussion in recent weeks and his team has largely suffered because of it. Troy finally ended a four-game slide with a victory over Arkansas State on Saturday as Javon Johnson led the way with 20 points.

With Varnado, the Trojans are capable of beating any team in the league, but struggle with inconsistency. A tough trip through Georgia this week, including a nationally televised game against Georgia Southern on Friday, provides an opportunity for them to climb back towards the middle of the pack. But they need Varnado healthy.

10. Arkansas-Little Rock (9-15, 4-7), 12

After falling to the bottom of the league with a five-game losing streak, the Trojans surprised everyone by sweeping their trip to Alabama. And who else led the way but Rayjon Tucker with a pair of 24-point performances.

The junior is trying to give Daishon Smith a run for his money for newcomer of the year, averaging 20.5 points per game. But the defense stepped up for Little Rock last week as well, holding Troy and South Alabama to 70 and 68 points, respectively. Little Rock has held opponents to 70 points or fewer eight times this year, and is 7-1 in those games. This week the Trojans host UTA and Texas State.

11. Arkansas State (10-14, 4-7). 10

The Red Wolves have their own newcomer leading the scoring with Ty Cockfield, who poured in 27 points in Saturday’s loss to Troy. But the Red Wolves seem to have a deal with Little Rock that when one team wins a couple, the other loses.

Arkansas State picked up a couple close wins in recent weeks but weren’t able to find any luck on the road in Alabama. This week won’t get much easier as the Red Wolves host the league leaders with Texas State and UTA coming to town. Georgia State will be hoping for an upset, but the Panthers shouldn’t hold their breath. However, the road teams are just 23-38 in league games this season.

12. Appalachian State Mountaineers (8-16, 3-8), 11

The Mountaineers couldn’t keep the magic going last week after winning three straight games. App State faltered late against Texas State on Thursday despite 23 points from Ronshad Shabazz, then fell by 10 to UTA on Saturday.

Those are still solid performances against the league co-leaders. And this week App State will get a chance to host Coastal Carolina with a chance to climb back out of the cellar as the Arkansas schools face off against UTA and Texas State.