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Jumbled Sun Belt is awash with contenders

The league may house one of the most compelling regular season title races in the sport.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Baylor Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Marlin has heard the puns before with his last name, whether it’s in headlines or when putting his name down at a restaurant. That’s what he told us in a 2018 interview, so the 11th-year Louisiana coach probably wouldn’t be put out by the idea that his team reeled in a big win over Little Rock over the weekend.

The Ragin’ Cajuns held on for a two-point win over the reigning league champions on last Saturday in a game that will likely be best remembered for the lights literally going out on Little Rock’s final possession. It was a good win for a resurgent Louisiana team but they were unable to complete the sweep the following day, as the Trojans responded in another close win, ultimately pulling away in overtime.

It was fitting for a Sun Belt where a jumble of teams has left observers in the dark thus far as to how the conference race will shake out.

For its part, Little Rock has largely picked up where it left off last season. The regular season champion Trojans sat in pole position to make just their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 30 years before the pandemic scrapped the Sun Belt Tournament, and they had gotten to that perch with the most efficient offense in the league.

That’s carried over into 2020-21, where senior forward Ruot Monyyong (13.6 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 65.1 FG%) and junior point guard Markquis Nowell (15.1 PPG, 7.7 APG) have remained among the best at their positions at the mid-major level. Talented senior wing Ben Coupet also flashed his potential in early January, pouring in 53 points over two games against UT-Arlington and taking home Sun Belt Player of the Week honors in the process.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Little Rock at Memphis
Ruot Monyyong has been a walking double-double this season.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

They’ve been bolstered by some upticks as well. Junior center Nikola Maric had an abbreviated 2019-2020 campaign after being suspended for the first 16 games due to an offseason amateurism violation. He’s been a load in the post this year, acting as the Trojans’ first option on offense late in both close games against the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Will that be enough to push Little Rock (7-4, 3-1) to its second consecutive title? There are plenty of other teams with realistic designs on stopping that from happening.

Louisiana (8-3, 2-2) sits in that group itself. And that probably shouldn’t be a big surprise even after a 14-19 (8-12) campaign a year ago. Marlin talked to us back in 2018 amid a historic season that saw the most wins (27) and best conference record (16-2) in the program’s Division I history. That team was an entirely new group from the Elfrid Payton-led group that notched the Sun Belt’s auto bid in 2014.

Marlin’s ability to build winners in Lafayette has come around again, as senior guard Cedric Russell is the only holdover from that 27-win team. The Ragin’ Cajuns have gotten a breakout season from junior forward Theo Akwuba (11.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 3.5 BPG), as the Portland transfer’s out-of-his-shoe’s athleticism has helped fuel an efficient defense that kept Little Rock’s attack largely in check over the weekend series.

Akwuba — the nation’s second-leading shot blocker — talked to the Daily Advertiser about being more than just a rim protector with a jaw-dropping 7-6 wingspan.

“They (Cajun coaches) have been putting that emphasis on not forcing a poor shot,” Awkuba said. “My coaches told me from the start, ‘Look, if you follow the game plan the points and rebounds are basically gonna come to you.’ So I just trusted them, and so far it’s working. I’m not rushing anything, not forcing anything. I’m just doing my job and it’s paying off.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns are far from the only other contender in the early going. Dustin Kerns has Appalachian State (9-4, 3-1) sitting at 3-1 after a favorable schedule to open league play, but with a quality non-conference at Charlotte under the Mountaineers’ belt. Coastal Carolina (9-2, 3-1) is also off to a 3-1 start as the ageless Cliff Ellis continues to get the job done now in his 14th year in Conway.

This version of the Chants is yet again led by junior point guard DeVante’ Jones, who has grown into one of the more effective players in the country (22.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.8 APG) and seems the early favorite for league POY. Former CCU guard Keishawn Brewton, who transferred to Buffalo over the offseason, talked about the Jones in an interview with last year.

“He’s the best point guard I have ever played with,” said junior guard Keishawn Brewton. “He’s definitely an NBA prospect. He has so many assets to his game.”

And that’s not to mention the team that may well be the odds-on favorite.

If nothing else, Georgia State (7-2, 1-1) certainly has the best body of work in the league, with the Panthers notching the dramatic four overtime win over Georgia Tech in their opener, and also picking up solid wins against Charlotte and Mercer. The Panthers got off to a rough shooting start in their first two league games against CCU but were still able to grind out a win, and have a veteran core led by its backcourt trio of seniors Corey Allen, Justin Roberts and Kane Williams.

GSU has also gotten its own double-double breakout in the frontcourt with Eliel Nsoseme (13.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG) off to an incredible start to the season. The Cincinnati transfer missed the two-game series at CCU after a positive COVID-19 test, but was tremendous in his previous two games against Division I competition in wins over Charleston (10 points, 10 rebounds, 5-5 FG) and Mercer (16 points, 20 rebounds).

Last year, Little Rock coach Darrell Walker talked to us about the state of the Sun Belt as his team had roared out of the blocks with a 10-2 league record and sat atop the conference.

“Anybody in this league can beat anyone, I’m going to say it again to you, anybody in this league can beat anybody,” he said. “There’s some good teams and this is far from over with. Our goal is to try and get to New Orleans, that’s our goal right there.”

One year later, under very different external circumstances, it seems Walker’s sentiment remains.