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Sun Belt Power Rankings: Panthers recover from stumble to lead at halfway point

Plus mid-season awards.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With every team in the Sun Belt having played nine games, we are officially halfway through the conference slate. There’s been plenty of surprises along the way as teams have battled injuries or overcome slow starts in league play.

Will things start to settle in the second half or will the madness that is the #FunBelt continue for another five weeks? Find out how we see the conference stacks up at the midway point, and who’s getting mid-season hardware.

1. Georgia State Panthers 16-6 (7-2), Previous — 1

Since we last updated these rankings, the Panthers had a rough stretch where they dropped consecutive games to Troy and Texas State. That put Georgia State in a tie with the Bobcats for first place for the time being, but with Texas State losing to in-state rival UT-Arlington over the weekend, the Panthers are back on top.

Georgia State was tied with Texas State at 42 at the half two weeks ago, and then played arguably one of its worst halves of the season while the Bobcats got hot. Texas State stretched its lead to as much as 20 points before winning 81-68. Coach Ron Hunter told the media after the game it was his most disappointing moment in his eight years at GSU because what he perceived as simply a lack of effort.

One of the key reasons Georgia State hasn’t played up to its lofty expectations has been the inconsistent play of its leading scorer and reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year, D’Marcus Simonds. The junior had a five game stretch in late December and early January where he averaged just 11 points per game. Then it appeared he was back to himself for a couple weeks before Texas State held him to 15 points, and he pulled himself out of the game against UTA on Jan. 26 due to ineffectiveness. He was held without a basket on nine shots and sat out the final 17 minutes, finishing the game with just one point.

Georgia State was able to overcome Simonds’ off day against UTA with 27 points from senior Jeff Thomas in a 77-71 victory. Then Simonds got back on track on rivalry weekend as he led the Panthers with 29 points in an 81-72 victory at home against Georgia Southern on Saturday.

Simply put, the Panthers won’t make it back to the tournament without Simonds finding some consistency. This week, the Panthers make their trip to Louisiana, with a matchup against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns on ESPN2 on Friday night.

2. Texas State Bobcats (17-5, 6-3), 2

The Bobcats were flying high after a very emotional win in Atlanta two weeks ago, but were brought back down to earth with consecutive losses. After going 13-of-29 3 from against the Panthers, Texas State went just seven-of-26 against Georgia Southern and lost 74-58. Then they made just six-of-26 from deep in an 84-77 double overtime loss to rival UTA.

Texas State was picked to finish eighth by the league’s coaches and it’s clear the Bobcats will finish much better than that projection. They simply whooped the Panthers on their home floor, giving Georgia State its only home loss of the season thus far.

The Bobcats have always been stout defensively under Danny Kaspar, but this season the offense has finally carried its weight led by the prolific junior Nijal Pearson, who is averaging 18.7 points per game. The 75.3 points per game the Bobcats have scored beats their previous high mark under Kaspar of 66.4 by a wide margin. Meanwhile, the 63.7 points per game they allow is the second best mark of his tenure.

Things appear to finally be coming together in San Marcos, but they will need to regain their form this week as Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State come to town with both riding a winning streak. Texas State will also be hoping the Panthers stumble so they can get back in prime position for a regular season conference title.

3. UT-Arlington Mavericks (10-12, 6-3), 10

The fact that the Mavericks are now tied for second-place in the league is either a testament to the job Chris Ogden has done in year one in Arlington, or to the fact the league just isn’t very strong this year. We’re going to go with the fact it’s a little bit of both. Regardless, the Mavericks have won six out of seven games and are seemingly steadily improving each week.

Last week, the Mavericks knocked off in-state rival Texas State in double overtime behind a 30-point performance by Brian Warren. The junior hit the game-tying shots in the final seconds of regulation and the first overtime to keep the Mavs alive, then hit the go-ahead free throws that put them up for good in the second overtime.

Perhaps the behemoth non-conference schedule UTA played is paying dividends, but there’s no doubt the Mavericks are one of the hottest teams in the league. They will have a great chance to continue their winning ways this week with Coastal and App State visiting.

4. Georgia Southern Eagles (13-9. 5-4), 5

The Eagles have mostly held serve this season, with their four losses coming against some of the stronger teams in the league, while they have mostly taken care of business against the weaker teams. Georgia Southern’s drubbing of Texas State came after a tough home loss to UTA in which they were held under 70 points for just the third time this season. All three games have resulted in a loss.

Georgia Southern held a brief lead in the final minutes against Georgia State on Saturday before the Panthers closed the game on a 12-3 run. Sophomore Quan Jackson continued his second-year breakout as he led the Eagles with 20 points in the loss.

One question looming over the Eagles is the level of production from their star, Tookie Brown. The senior is still averaging 16.5 points per game, but that is the lowest scoring average of his prolific career. Brown moved into the top five on the all-time Sun Belt scoring list on Saturday, and the Eagles need him to be the dominant scorer he has been for most of his career. A snap shot comparison of his line to Simdonds’ line on Saturday shows the disparity in the two stars’ approach. Simonds was of 10-of-20 from the filed with 29 points, while Brown was just four-of-nine with 11 points.

5. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (12-9, 6-3), 11

The Chanticleers have made a tremendous turnaround in recent weeks as they have won five consecutive games, including a Louisiana sweep of Louisiana-Lafeyette and Louisiana-Monroe over the weekend. Zac Cuthbertson has been a steadily dominant force for Coastal Carolina all season, but took his game to another level last week with 29 and 24 points, respectively. His efforts earned him national recognition as the Lou Henson National Player of the Week as he averaged 26.5 points and 8.5 rebounds over the two games.

However, another reason for the Chanticleers rise in the standings has been the play of freshman point guard DeVante Jones. The rookie missed about six weeks due to injury, but since returning to the lineup full time against Arkansas on January 24, he’s averaged 19.5 points, 5 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. He poured in 25 in the win over ULM on Thursday, then added 16 against the Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday.

Coastal desperately needed a second scorer to emerge opposite Cuthbertson and Jones has more than answered the call since his return. However, we are ever so slightly pumping the brakes on Coastal’s emergence as a conference title contender, despite their being tied for second place. Their opponents combined record during this five-game winning streak is a putrid 49-60. The wins over the Louisiana schools came at home, where their opponents had to travel nearly 1,000 miles to play them. Jones’ emergence makes them a threat, for sure. But we’ll see how they do on their trip to Texas this week before announcing their legitimacy in the title hunt.

6. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (11-10, 4-5), 3

The Warhawks have gotten a bad rap this year with a couple of blown calls and incredible buzzer beaters costing them a few wins, but now they are reeling a bit having lost three consecutive games. ULM’s rivalry win over Louisiana-Lafayette two weeks ago moved the Warhawks to 3-2 in the league and they appeared to be in good position despite referees missing a blatant traveling call on the game-winning shot by Georgia State’s Simonds the week before. The Warhawks followed up the win against the Ragin’ Cajuns with a road victory at Troy, but that’s where the good vibes came to an end.

South Alabama started ULM’s slide with a 78-72 victory. Then the Warhawks dropped both games on a trip to the Carolinas, including an 85-84 loss to Appalachian State. The three-point defense let the Warhawks down last week as the Chanticleers hit 11 three-pointers and the Mountaineers hit 14.

The Warhawks will have plenty of motivation to get back on track this week as they look to end their losing streak against the dreaded Panthers, who they feel stole a win from them last month. Then ULM hosts Georgia Southern on Friday. It’s been a rough couple weeks for the Warhawks, but two wins would get them right back in the thick of the Sun Belt race.

7. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (13-9, 4-5), 4

After dropping the rivalry game in Monroe, the Ragin’ Cajuns appeared to be back on track with a pair of victories over Troy and South Alabama. Junior guard P.J. Hardy appeared to finally be turning a corner after being thrust into the starting lineup due to an injury to Malik Marquetti. Hardy scored a season-high 24 points in the loss to Monroe, then came back with 18 against South Alabama and 13 against Troy. That gave the Ragin Cajuns’ a boost in scoring they were desperately lacking since losing Marquetti, who was the team’s leading scorer at the time of his injury.

However, Hardy was held to three and five points, respectively, in last week’s losses to App State and Coastal. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s defense, which was already one of the team’s weaknesses, has somehow gotten demonstrably worse. Through the first 15 games of the season, the Ragin’ Cajuns allowed 81 points per game. Beginning with the loss to Georgia State on Jan. 10, they have allowed 91 points per game in their last seven, culminating with App State and Coastal scoring 104 and 96 points, respectively, last week.

Senior Jakeenan Gant has been unguardable in league play, averaging 27 points and 10 rebounds per game. But unless the Cajuns can figure out how to stop someone, they won’t climb back into the top third of the league standings any time soon.

8. South Alabama (11-11, 4-5), 7

The Jaguars finally ended a five-game losing streak on Jan. 26 by upsetting ULM on the road in a 78-72 victory. Then they topped Troy 81-75 on rivalry weekend to inch back closer to .500 in league play.

South Alabama had some growing pains in their five-game losing streak, as four of those losses came by four points or less. The Jaguars have played really well against some of the better teams in the league at times, and then they also have been blown out by 30 points by Arkansas-Little Rock, which currently sits in last place in the Sun Belt with a conference record of 2-7. The Jaguars will look for revenge as they host the Arkansas schools this week with Arkansas State up first on Thursday.

9. Troy Trojans (10-11, 3-6), 6

Troy upset Georgia State at home with a 30-foot game-winner by Jordan Varnardo in the final seconds on Jan. 19. But since then, not much as gone right for the Trojans. They were swept on their trip to Louisiana and then dropped the rivalry game to South Alabama on Saturday.

Troy has had Georgia State’s number over the past several years, having won six of the last eight meetings between the two schools since 2016. And Varnardo has been one of the best players in the conference during league play, averaging 27.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. But the Trojans need to find some consistency, beginning with two good opportunities for a win this week as Troy hosts Little Rock and Arkansas State.

10. Arkansas State Red Wolves (10-12, 4-5), 9

The Red Wolves have pulled off a few surprises this season, but have yet to beat anyone who currently has a winning record in league play. Ty Cockfield continues to carry the banner for the Red Wolves, as he did with 32 points in an 82-81 overtime victory against Appalachian State two weeks ago. He followed that up with 28 points in Saturday’s win over Little Rock.

Cockfield has gotten a little better support in league play as Marquis Eaton and Grantham Gillard have raised their scoring averages into double digits. But that will need to continue this week as Arkansas State hits the road to Troy and South Alabama.

11. Appalachian State Mountaineers (8-14, 3-6), 12

The Mountaineers have had horrible luck all season, and it just seemed like the one breakthrough victory might set them off. Well, it appears that may have been the case, as App State has now won three straight games for the first time this season.

After falling to Arkansas State 82-81 in overtime, the Mountaineers finally ended their seven game losing streak with a 77-73 win over Little Rock. They followed that up with their best performance of the year in a 104-77 victory over Louisiana. App State had five scorers in double figures that night, including a season-high 20 points from senior Tyrell Johnson in just 16 minutes of game-time. Then App State upset ULM with a 85-84 victory behind 32 points from sophomore Justin Forrest.

The Mountaineers will face a much stiffer test to keep the winning streak alive this week as they travel to Texas, beginning with Texas State on Thursday.

12. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (7-15, 2-7), 8

After picking up a pair of wins at home against the Alabama schools, things have gone south in a hurry for Little Rock as the Trojans have lost five straight, including the last three by a combined six points.

Little Rock is one of the better shooting teams in the country, ranking 16th in Division I with a 49 percent field goal percentage. Their problem is getting the shots off as they are one of the worst teams in the nation at turning the ball over, averaging 16.45 per game. They also struggle with offensive rebounds and defending the 3-point shot.

This week, the Trojans travel to Alabama to face Troy and South Alabama.

MID-SEASON SUN BELT CONFERENCE AWARDS

Player of the Year: Jakeenan Gant, Louisiana-Lafayette

Coach of the Year: Danny Kaspar, Texas State

Newcomer of the Year: Daishon Smith, Louisiana-Monroe

Freshman of the Year: DeVante Jones, Coastal Carolina