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Sun Belt Tournament preview: Can the Panthers make it back-to-back?

Ron Hunter said his team has been waiting for March, and March is here.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Cincinnati vs Georgia State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

A wacky #FunBelt regular season has come to a close. The team most expected to win the league before the season did end up wearing the crown on Saturday, as Georgia State beat Georgia Southern 90-85 to claim its third Sun Belt Conference regular season title in the last three years. But if the road to get there was any indication, it could be a wild week in the Big Easy.

First, the bottom four seeds must play the on-campus round on Tuesday night. The bottom two teams in the league standings don’t make the tournament, so Troy and Arkansas-Little Rock are watching from home. Tuesday, No. 7 ULM will host No. 10 Appalachian State and No. 8 South Alabama hosts No. 9 Arkansas State.

The winners advance to Lakefront Arena in New Orleans on Thursday. No. 5 Louisiana awaits the winner of the USA-Arkansas State game, while No. 6 Coastal Carolina will face the winner of ULM-App State. Then No. 3 Georgia Southern and No. 4 Texas State will face those winners, while No. 1 Georgia State and No. 2 UTA enjoy the rare triple bye all the way to the semifinals.

Here’s how we think the tournament shakes out.

The Bracket

The Favorites

Georgia State was the unanimous selection to win the league by Sun Belt coaches in the preseason, but it certainly wasn’t as easy as the Panthers would have liked. Some maddeningly inconsistent play hampered the Panthers on both ends of the court at times throughout the season. Even Georgia State’s star D’Marcus Simonds wasn’t immune to struggles as he had several nights where he scored in single digits.

However, when push came to shove the Panthers generally took care of business. Even in non-conference play, Georgia State’s biggest games were usually their best performances. Beating Georgia by 26 points, coming back from 22 points down to upset Alabama, leading Kansas State in the second half and beating St. Bonaventure by double digits were some examples of what the Panthers are capable of.

The other side of the coin is a blowout loss to Liberty, and falling to the likes of Troy and Coastal Carolina in conference play. The Panthers receive a huge advantage by only having to play one game to get to the finals, and in the end their experience will likely carry the day.

Georgia Southern was the hottest team in the league before Saturday, having won six in a row down the stretch before falling in the final game to Georgia State. The Eagles are led by one of the best players in the history of the league and the newly-crowned Sun Belt Player of the Year, Tookie Brown. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Brown go off and lead the Eagles to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992.

UT-Arlington has won four in a row heading into the tournament and also has the advantage of the triple bye. But is the postseason where their youth catches up to them? They also don’t have a go-to star to the carry the banner in postseason play. Texas State is reeling a bit coming into New Orleans having lost three of their last five, but the Bobcats led the league for much of the season.

The Darkhorse

Coastal Carolina is an interesting case, because their results have been so sporadic throughout the season. However, the Chanticleers had won four out of five before a big letdown to last-place Troy on the final day of the regular season. They have a dominant post player in Zac Cuthbertson and a young dynamic point guard in DeVante Jones. If they get by their first matchup and catch Georgia Southern in a letdown following the Eagles losing the league on the last day of the regular season, the Chants could be a surprise team that makes it to the weekend. Seniors Daishon Smith of ULM and Jakeenan Gant of Louisiana are also capable of taking their teams on a run by themselves.

Players to Watch

D’Marcus Simonds – Georgia State

Tookie Brown – Georgia Southern

Nijal Pearson – Texas State

Jakeenan Gant – Louisiana

Daishon Smith – ULM

Ty Cockfield – Arkansas State

Devin Mitchell – Georgia State

Quan Jackson – Georgia Southern

Zac Cuthbertson – Coastal Carolina

Josh Ajayi – South Alabama

Prediction

Georgia State’s coach Ron Hunter said last week his players have been waiting for the calendar to turn to March all season. Well, March is here, and while the Panthers may not have quite lived up to the historic expectations placed upon them, they should come through again and win the league. There are any number of teams that could meet them in the finals, but I’m willing to bet its rival Georgia Southern. The Eagles were hot down the stretch, and will be itching to get a third crack at the Panthers. But Georgia State’s experience – four senior starters and a former conference player of the year junior – wins the day as the Panthers make their second consecutive appearance in the big dance.