It’s hard to make out what exactly the Sun Belt is this season. Is it a strong league with several quality teams that are beating each other up? Or is it simply a league with good parody that lacks a truly elite team.
I’m going with the latter, as another wild week in the #FunBelt saw Texas State lose its lead in the conference standings, only to gain it back again two days later. When the dust settled the conference looked very similar to the way it did a week ago, but with one exception as there is one team making a late push.
1. Texas State Bobcats (22-6, 11-4), Previous Ranking – 1
The Bobcats opened the door for Georgia State on Thursday when they fell at home to ULM 63-60. Texas State trailed by eight at the half, and ULM stretched that lead out to as much as 14 with just over eight minutes to play. A late rally by the Bobcats made things interesting, and they had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but Tre’Larenz Nottingham’s three-pointer was blocked by Daishon Smith.
Nottingham had 22 points and Eric Terry had 19 in the loss as leading scorer Nijal Pearson struggled, making just 3 of 16 shots and finishing with eight points.
The Bobcats rebounded with a win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, but it too came with some drama. Texas State led by 12 at the half and by as much as 18 in the second half before Louisiana came roaring back. Then a Jakeenan Gant dunk finally put the Cajuns up on top with just over a minute to play. But a three-pointer by Pearson answered the call and proved to be the winning basket as Louisiana missed a potential game-winner with one second left.
This week, the Bobcats will travel to Alabama to face Troy on Thursday and South Alabama on Friday. Texas State obviously controls its on destiny with a one game lead, but if the Bobcats do falter and are forced into a tiebreaker situation, they have a better chance of having an advantage over Georgia Southern than they do Georgia State.
2. Georgia Southern Eagles (18-10, 10-5), 3
The Eagles continued their rise back up the power rankings with another two victories over Coastal Carolina, 79-74, and over Appalachian State 92-69. That puts their winning streak at four straight since losing at ULM on Feb. 8.
In their first 24 games, the Eagles gave up 77.8 points per game. During their four-game winning streak, they’ve only allowed 64.8 points per game. Meanwhile they’ve continued to score at a high clip, culminating with Saturday’s blowout win.
Georgia Southern senior guard Tookie Brown has been rejuvenated after a slight early season slump and is averaging 22.5 points per game over his last six. After a poor performance against Georgia State where Brown looked passive, coach Mark Byington brought him off the bench in the Eagles next game against Louisiana. He got the message, as he erupted for 32 points and hasn’t looked back since.
Meanwhile, the Eagles are finally getting healthy. Senior Ike Smith is likely lost for the season, but they have replaced him adequately with a deep rotation. Georgia Southern has been playing the best basketball in the conference in recent weeks. And if the Bobcats stumble, they could go from being just one game over .500 in league play at 6-5 to regular season conference champions. This week they host Little Rock on Thursday and Arkansas State on Saturday.
3. Georgia State Panthers (19-9, 10-5), 2
The enigma that is this Georgia State team continues. Put simply, the Panthers just do not show up in certain games. Sometimes it’s for a half, other times they just never seem to find their groove at all.
Georgia State has been able to overcome these lapses several times throughout the season, but when you dig a 33-point deficit as the Panthers did on Saturday against Coastal Carolina, it’s nearly impossible to get out of it. To the Panthers’ credit, they did manage to cut it to single digits in the final minutes. But that is small solace for a team which had put itself back in the driver’s seat with a win over Appalachian State on Thursday.
Similar to Brown, Simonds has recovered from a midseason slump to perform very well in recent weeks. In his last seven games he has averaged 21.7 points per game, including 32 in the loss on Saturday. He’s shot 37.3 percent from 3-point range during that time, after shooting 26.4 percent from 3 in his first 21 games.
The problem on Saturday was that Simonds had little help. Georgia State has four seniors in its rotation who combine to average over 40 points per game. They scored 11 in the loss against Coastal.
This week the Panthers host Arkansas State on Thursday and Little Rock on Saturday.
4. Texas-Arlington Mavericks (13-15, 9-6), 4
The Mavericks also fell on Thursday, dropping a 76-64 defeat to the Cajuns, but rebounded to defeat ULM 91-86 in double overtime to keep its two-game lead over the Louisiana schools for the fourth spot in the standings. This is crucial as the top four teams receive a bye in the conference tournament, while the top two seeds get a double bye.
UTA got just 19 points from its starters in the loss on Thursday as the Mavericks were led by 17 points from Radshad Davis off the bench. They also committed 16 turnovers while forcing just five.
The Mavericks bounced back with 33 points from Brian Warren in Saturday’s win. They also shot a lot better as team, making 46 percent of their 3-pointers on Saturday after going five-for-20 on Thursday.
This week UTA will go to Alabama to face South Alabama on Thursday and Troy on Saturday. Two wins would clinch a first round bye for the Mavericks, and a Texas State loss could put them back in the mix for a top two seed heading into the final week of the regular season.
5. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (14-12, 7-7), 6
The Warhawks impressive victory over the Bobcats Thursday set them up to potentially break into the top four with a win over the Mavericks, which makes the double overtime defeat all that more difficult to swallow. ULM has had nasty luck this year, but they had their chances on Saturday.
After trailing by 10 at halftime, ULM battled back to force overtime with a pair of free throws by Daishon Smith with 14 seconds remaining. They held out UTA’s potential game-winner, then led by three in the final 30 seconds of overtime before a Warren 3-pointer tied the game. Michael Ertel had a shot at a game-winner, but missed. And the Mavericks pulled away in the second overtime.
Smith has surpassed Gant as the leader in points per game during conference play, averaging 24.2 points. After being held to just nine points in the win over the Bobcats, he had 34 points in the loss to UTA.
This week the Warhawks host Appalachian State on Thursday and Coastal Carolina on Friday.
6. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (16-11, 7-7), 5
Like the Warhawks, the Cajuns had a golden opportunity on Saturday slip through their fingers. After trailing by double digits, Louisiana took the lead late, but couldn’t answer Pearson’s go-ahead three-pointer with a basket of their own in the final minute as the Bobcats got a key offensive rebound and were able to drain precious time.
Both Texas schools did a fabulous job defending Gant as he was held to just 11 points against the Mavericks and 13 against the Bobcats. Perhaps a little fatigue is setting in as he has carried Louisiana for most of the season.
The Cajuns’ improved defensive play in recent weeks has kept them in the top half of the league, but they need to take care of business at home this week and need some help if they still want a shot at a first round bye. Louisiana hosts Coastal Carolina on Thursday and Appalachian State on Saturday.
7. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (13-13, 7-7), 7
Coastal Carolina kept its own hopes for a first round bye alive with Saturday’s dominating win over Georgia State. The Chanticleers exposed Georgia State’s defense by simply jacking up as many 3-pointers as they possibly could, making 14-of-39. They also nearly doubled up Georgia State on the glass as they outrebounded the Panthers 50-27.
Doing most of the damage from behind the arc was junior Tyrell Gumps-Frater with a career-high 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting from 3-point range.
The win over the Panthers ended a four-game skid for the Chanticleers, and now they face a crucial weekend in Louisiana. It’s tough to win on the road in this league, especially when the Louisiana teams will be itching for redemption after going winless in the Carolinas last month.
8. South Alabama Jaguars (13-14, 6-8), 10
The Jaguars had a dominating performance against in-state rival Troy on Saturday, defeating the Trojans 68-52. That ended a three-game losing streak as South Alabama was led by Trhae Mitchell with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
The Jaguars have been a streaky team all season, but this week they host the Texas schools, for which everything is still on the table. South Alabama is eliminated from a first-round bye, and is playing for little more than a winning record. However, they have the physicality to match up against the gritty Mavericks and Bobcats. The cheers will be loud from the state of Georgia if South Alabama can defeat UTA on Thursday and Texas State on Saturday.
9. Arkansas State Red Wolves (12-14, 6-8), 9
The Red Wolves won Saturday’s rivalry matchup with Little Rock 72-65 behind 25 points by Ty Cockfield and 18 points by Grant Gilliard. There was a remarkable 56 free-throws attempted in the game, with the Red Wolves making 27 of 37 proving to be the difference.
This week Arkansas State will travel to Georgia to face the Panthers on Thursday and Georgia Southern on Saturday. The fact that Arkansas State continues to hover within a couple games of .500 at this point in the season is an achievement in itself.
10. Arkansas Little-Rock Trojans (10-17, 5-9), 8
After three consecutive wins and taking Texas State to the wire two weeks ago, Saturday’s loss to the Red Wolves is disheartening. Rayjon Tucker did his part, posting a double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Nikola Maric added 16 points, but they had little help from the rest. Exacerbating the issue was that three starters, including both Tucker and Maric, fouled out of the game.
The Trojans will go to Georgia Southern on Thursday and Georgia State on Saturday hoping to play the role of spoiler for a couple of conference title contenders.
11, Appalachian State Mountaineers (9-18, 4-10), 11
The Mountaineers were competitive against Georgia State and even tied the game in the final minute before sophomore guard Kane Williams made a couple big plays down the stretch to lead the Panthers to victory, The Mountaineers were led by 17 points from Justin Forrest.
App State goes to ULM on Thursday and Louisiana on Saturday looking to close out a regular season that began with a lot of promise which never truly materialized.
12. Troy Trojans (11-15, 4-10), 12
The Trojans just aren’t the same team with their leader, Jordan Varnado. He’s been out since Feb. 2 with a concussion, and there’s been no word if he’s close to returning. If he does, and is himself, this is a team that can hang with anyone in the league. Without him, the Trojans have lost seven of eight.
This week Troy will host Texas State on Thursday and UTA on Saturday. As with the Jaguars, Georgia State and Georgia Southern will be pulling hard for the Trojans this weekend, hoping Trojans wins could set up their clash on the final day of the regular season with some conference title implications.