Finally, a little bit of separation at the top.
After what has been a wild season thus far in the Sun Belt , it appears the the leaders are finally taking control of the league. One of the biggest surprises all season has been Texas State, which now claims sole possession of first place with five games left to play. But right behind the Bobcats is a group of three teams who have all beaten Texas State once each.
The middle of the pack remains a jumbled mess and we have a new team in the cellar this week. Without further delay, here is how we see the Sun Belt teams stacking up at the present.
1. Texas State Bobcats (21-5, 10-3), Previous Ranking – 1
The Bobcats are one win away from matching their highest win total this century. Texas State won 22 games in 2016-2017 and fell to Troy in the Sun Belt Tournament championship game. The only season in Division I where the Bobcats had more wins was in 1993-94 when Jim Wooldridge’s squad won 25 games and reached the NCAA tournament.
This year’s Texas State team has a good chance to set a new high mark for wins as UT-Arlington is the only one of five remaining regular season opponents who has a winning record in conference play.
Last week, the Bobcats took care of business on the road against Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock. One of their strengths all season has been the fact that they have a number of players who can step up on any given night. While leading scorer Nijal Pearson has remained a consistent threat, averaging 18.5 points per game, it was a season-high 17 points from Jaylen Shead and a conference-high 18 points from Alonzo Sule which proved to be the difference in Texas State’s victory over Arkansas State on Thursday. Then Eric Terry added 12 points on a perfect six-of-six shooting in the 67-60 win over Little Rock on Saturday.
Another feature of this Texas State team is the ability to keep its poise under pressure. The Bobcats trailed by double digits in the first half against Arkansas State, but closed the half on a 15-4 run to pull even at the break. They took the lead early in the second half and never looked back.
This week Texas State hosts Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe.
2. Georgia State Panthers (18-8, 9-4), 3
The Panthers played one of their more complete games of the conference slate thus far against Troy in a 77-63 win. It was just their second win by double digits in league play. Then the Panthers overcame an 18-point first-half deficit to beat South Alabama 90-81 on Friday to go 2-0 in the same week for the first time since early January, when they swept a home slate against the Louisiana schools.
D’Marcus Simonds played arguably his best game of the season against Troy, finishing with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists while turning the ball over just twice. Simonds settled for a lot of three-point pull ups in the game, but shot a good percentage as he was five-of-13 from beyond the arc. Most Panther fans would agree that Simonds is at his best when he attacks the basket, but it’s hard to argue with the results on that night.
Against South Alabama, the Panthers played miserable defense in the first half, allowing the Jaguars to make 12-of-19 from three-point range. South Alabama led 50-32 when a brief scuffle led to a double technical. That seemed to spark the Panthers, as they brought the deficit down to 53-39 at half. They then opened the second half on 16-3 run to cut the Jaguars lead down to just one. Georgia State outscored South Alabama 51-28 in the second half as Malik Benlevi led the way with 26 points.
Georgia State will travel to the Carolinas this week to face Appalachian State on Thursday and Coastal Carolina on Saturday. The Panthers have struggled in Boone historically as last year’s victory was their first in five tries at Holmes Convocation Center. But they need to continue the new trend they started last year if they hope to reclaim the league’s top spot.
3. Georgia Southern Eagles (16-10, 8-5), 5
The Eagles also picked up their first two-win week in a month as they beat South Alabama 75-65 and then blasted Troy out of Hanner Fieldhouse with a 76-51 win with a dominant second half.
All season Georgia Southern has struggled to shoot from outside, ranking 272nd in Division I in three pointers made. But the Eagles had it working against Jaguars just enough to give them the edge as they hit seven-of-15, led by a four-for-eight effort by Calvin Wishart. He tied a season-high with 14 points.
Georgia Southern then returned to what it does best against the Trojans. The Eagles grabbed a ridiculous 53 rebounds and forced 22 turnovers while holding Troy to just 28 percent from the field in the blowout win. Seven players scored seven or more points for Georgia Southern, highlight the Eagles’ depth as one their biggest strengths.
The Eagles are nearly back at full strength after several injuries and have one of the deepest teams in the league. They look to be firing on all cylinders at just the right time and could be a force in March.
4. UT-Arlington Mavericks (12-14, 8-5), 2
The Mavericks claimed a share of the conference lead for the first time this season a week ago, only to see it slip away as they went 0-2 in Arkansas last week. Poor shooting was the culprit in the 56-52 loss against Little Rock on Thursday as the Mavericks made just six-of-25 from three and eight-of-15 from the free-throw line. Brian Warren was the team’s leading scorer with just 10 points.
UTA’s shooting improved against the Red Wolves, but the Mavericks allowed 11 three pointers in the 83-79 loss. The Mavericks overcame a double-digit deficit to pull within two points multiple times in the last 10 minutes, but could never tie or take the lead as Ty Cockfield made seven consecutive free throws to end the game.
The Mavericks are lacking a true dominant scorer. Warren and Edric Dennis are both averaging over 14 points per game, but each can disappear at crucial times. This week UTA will host the Louisiana schools, looking to protect its two-game lead for the fourth seed, which is the final spot that gets a bye in the conference tournament.
5. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (15-10, 6-6), 7
The Ragin’ Cajuns have clawed their way back to .500 in the league after last week’s rivalry win at home against ULM. The player of the game in the 83-76 victory was undoubtedly Marcus Stroman. The South Carolina transfer is known more as a distributor than a scorer, but he did both on Saturday as he finished with 22 points and nine assists.
This is the type of performance the Cajuns need from Stroman if they are to compete with the top third of the league consistently. Senior forward Jakeenan Gant still leads the conference averaging 25.4 points per game in league play. But Louisiana desperately needs another scorer to step up.
This is a crucial week for Louisiana as they travel to Texas to face UT-Arlington on Thursday, followed by a trip to Texas State on Saturday.
6. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (13-11, 6-6), 4
A week after a pair of impressive victories at home against the two Georgia schools, the Warhawks faltered at Lafayette on Saturday, losing 83-76. Senior guard Daishon Smith had 25 points in the loss, but was just 3-of-11 from 3-point range as his usual heroics came up just short.
Neither the Warhawks or Cajuns are very deep teams as Louisiana played just eight guys on Saturday and ULM only seven. Four players played 37 minutes or more for the Warhawks, which one wonders is sustainable heading into the tournament play.
This week ULM will go to the league leaders Texas State on Thursday and then to UTA on Saturday. They will likely hear some cheering coming from Georgia as the Panthers are hoping for both Texas schools to lose this week.
7. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (12-12, 6-6), 6
The Chanticleers’ slide back to the middle of the pack continued last week with an 88-79 loss on the road to Appalachian State. It was the third straight loss for Coastal Carolina, which came after a string of five consecutive victories last month.
Coastal shot the ball very poorly against the Mountaineers, making just five-of-22 from beyond the arc. They also had significant foul issues as three players fouled out of the game, including rising star freshman point guard DeVante Jones. The final score could have been even more lopsided had the Mountaineers shot better from the free-throw line as they finished 22-of-36.
This week Coastal hosts Georgia Southern and Georgia State.
8. Arkansas-Little Rock (10-16, 5-8), 10
The Trojans had five players score in double figures in Thursday’s 56-52 win over UT-Arlington, including a season-high 10 points from forward Dani Koljanin. The win was Little Rock’s third in a row after sweeping the Alabama schools the week before. The Trojans then gave Texas State a tough test, but eventually fell 67-60.
Little Rock has played solid defense over the past few weeks, giving up an average of 64.25 points per game in its last four. The Trojans will go to Jonesboro this Saturday looking for some rivalry revenge after the Red Wolves’ one-point victory earlier this month.
9. Arkansas State Red Wolves (11-15, 5-8), 11
Ty Cockfield and Marquis Eaton combined for 53 of the Red Wolves’ 83 points in Saturday’s win over UT-Arlington. The win stopped a three-game skid since Arkansas State snuck a win out of Little Rock on Feb. 2.
The Red Wolves are tough to beat at home as they have posted an 8-3 record in Jonesboro. But they will be hosting a determined Little Rock team looking to settle a score.
10. South Alabama Jaguars (12-14, 5-8)
A winless trip to Georgia marks three straight losses for the Jaguars, who continue their roller coaster trajectory this season. The Jaguars’ loss to Georgia State was actually a microcosm of their season. For one half, they couldn’t miss, going 12-for-19 from three-point range and building a 50-32 lead on the Panthers’ home court.
Then they made just two-of-13 from three in the second half and allowed Georgia State to score 29 points off turnovers.
The Jaguars go to Troy on Saturday looking to right the ship. But South Alabama is just 1-9 on the road this season.
11. Appalachian State Mountaineers (9-16, 4-8), 12
The Mountaineers had five players score in double figures in Saturday’s 88-79 win over Coastal Carolina, led by 20 points from Ronshad Shabazz. Justin Forrest also added 18.
Appalachian State got off to a horrible start in league play and since has been about average. With wins over ULM, Coastal and Louisiana in the last month, the Mountaineers have shown they can be a tough out for the top half of the league. Georgia State and Georgia Southern will find that out this week as they make the trip to Boone.
12. Troy Trojans (11-14, 4-9), 9
This ranking should come with a bit of an asterisk as the Trojans have been playing without their leader Jordan Varnado due to a concussion for the last several weeks. Nonetheless, since Varnado’s game-winning shot against Georgia State on Jan. 19, the Trojans have lost seven of their last eight.
The 25-point loss to Georgia Southern was a new low for the league’s new cellar-dwellers. The Trojans shot just 28.3 percent from the floor and committed 22 turnovers. Troy will host South Alabama this Saturday, hopefully with a healthy Varnado.