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Returning stars will shine this season in the Sun Belt

The top storylines from one of the most competitive mid-major conferences

Arkansas State v Memphis Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

It would be hard to find many conferences that had more parity last year than the Sun Belt. No team ever separated itself from the rest of the pack, and the season concluded with Appalachian State, who went 7-8 in conference play, winning four games in four days to make the NCAA Tournament for just the third time. Heading into the new season, this conference seems wide open yet again. With the season just a few weeks away, let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing storylines for Sun Belt basketball in 2021-22.

A conference of continuity

Players that were seniors a year ago have been given an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and loads of mid-major veterans are happily taking advantage of the opportunity. Programs everywhere stand to benefit from this development, and the Sun Belt is a prime example as a host of the conference’s most dangerous players from a year ago are returning.

Sun Belt stars such as Mason Harrell, Norchad Omier, Corey Allen, Caleb Asberry, Justin Forrest, Marquis Eaton, Theo Akwuba, and Michael Almonacy are just a few names on the long list of noteworthy players coming back for more. With many teams returning so many of their significant contributors from a year ago, the conference looks to be in strong shape from a depth standpoint.

The players aren’t the familiar faces slated to return, as not a single Sun Belt program welcomed a new coach this offseason. This conference was already a dogfight. There’s a chance this season will bring more of the same, as there are a few teams that can reasonably make the argument that they are the conference’s best heading into the season.

Georgia State supremacy

Over the past six years, the Georgia State Panthers have become mainstays in the NCAA Tournament bracket. The Panthers have won three of the past six Sun Belt Tournaments, and they were just one game shy from adding another to the list last year. Despite a strong 35-19 record through two seasons as the Georgia State head coach, Rob Lanier may be feeling just a bit of pressure to make sure the Panthers don’t miss the Big Dance a third consecutive time. Fortunately for Lanier and the Panther faithful, Georgia State has every reason to expect success in 2021-22.

Senior guard Corey Allen returns to Georgia State after averaging 15 points per contest on his way to being named to the All-Sun Belt Second Team a year ago. Allen will be joined by fellow veteran guards Kane Williams and Justin Roberts, who each scored in double figures a year ago. In addition to a fabulous trio of returning guards, the Panthers will also welcome back junior forward Eliel Nsoseme who averaged 11.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. After being named to the All-Sun Belt Third Team last year, Nsoseme projects as one of the conference’s premier post threats this season.

The Panthers return the core of a team that was arguably the best in the Sun Belt last season. KenPom had Georgia State ranked as the Sun Belt’s best last year and it really wasn’t close. The Panthers finished as KenPom’s 154th ranked team, and the next-closest Sun Belt squad was Coastal Carolina, checking in at 179.

Georgia State boasts an impressive blend of talent and experience, and this year has a prime opportunity to show up-and-coming Sun Belt programs that this conference still runs through Atlanta.

The Legend of Norchad Omier

Arkansas State has not made the NCAA Tournament in this millennium, and Mike Balado has to be feeling the heat as he’s heading into his fifth season as head coach of the Red Wolves without a winning conference record to his name. If there is any hope in Jonesboro that this season will result in a breakthrough, it is because the Red Wolves have arguably the conference’s best returning player on their roster in sophomore forward Norchad Omier.

Omier has a fascinating backstory. He’s from Nicaragua and played some high school ball at Miami Prep, but still failed to land a huge collection of offers. Balado offered Omier the chance to play at Arkansas State and he immediately proved to be an incredible steal. After becoming the first Nicaraguan to earn a Division I basketball scholarship, Omier was one of the best players in the Sun Belt in his freshman season.

The 6’7 forward was one of just three players in all of college basketball last year to average at least 12 points and 12 rebounds per game. His efforts resulted in numerous accolades, as he was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year and was named to the All-Sun Belt First Team. Omier has already proven to be a force in the conference, and it will be thrilling to watch him continue to grow. The Red Wolves also return one of the conference’s best guards in Marquis Eaton, so keep an eye on this impressive duo in Jonesboro.

Are the Mountaineers for real?

Appalachian State was last year’s feel-good story, as the Mountaineers shocked the Sun Belt to reach the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Mountaineers will set out to prove that those four days weren’t a fluke.

Dustin Kerns is entering his third season as the head coach of the Mountaineers, and he certainly looks like a rising star in this business. After a decade of mediocre basketball in Boone, Kerns has quickly found a winning formula. The Mountaineers are playing a hard-nosed brand of basketball that is predicated on hitting three-pointers, rebounding, and playing smothering defense.

The Mountaineers are one of the deepest teams in college basketball in the sense that, when healthy, they could be rolling with a steady rotation of up to 10 players. Every meaningful contributor from last year’s NCAA Tournament team returns, and the squad will be led by a quartet of veteran guards in Michael Almonacy, Justin Forrest, Adrian Delph, and Donovan Gregory. While Gregory is listed as a guard, he serves as Appalachian State’s ultimate utility man in this era of position-less basketball. Kerns enjoys deploying him all over the court, and you can expect players such as RJ Duhart and James Lewis Jr. to frequently join him in the front court. In limited time as a freshman, guard Xavion Brown displayed some promising playmaking ability. The Mountaineers will also welcome an interesting collection of freshmen talent in forward Chris Mantis and guard Terence Harcum.

On paper, the Mountaineers definitely have what it takes to make another push for the Sun Belt crown. We will most likely know pretty early what type of squad they will have, as they play a difficult non-conference slate featuring opponents such as Iona, East Tennessee State, Charlotte, Hartford, Furman, North Carolina, and Duke.

The South Alabama Experiment

South Alabama is conducting one of the most interesting experiments in all of college basketball. The Jaguars had a respectable 17-11 record a year ago, but head coach Richie Riley tore down his roster and use the transfer portal to build a new squad. The Jaguars added seven new players to their roster from the transfer portal, in hopes that this will launch the squad out of Sun Belt mediocrity.

Those seven transfers are tied for the most in Division I. Six of these players are transferring from major program: Javon Franklin and Tyrell Jones from Auburn, Charles Manning from LSU, Jay Jay Chandler from Texas A&M, Diante Smith from TCU, and Lance Thomas from Memphis. The Jaguars also welcome in Greg Parham, who averaged over 18 points per game for VMI last year.

On the other hand, the Jaguars said their goodbyes to some of last year’s key contributors. Star guard Michael Flowers transferred to Washington State after averaging 21 points per game a year ago. Other meaningful contributors such as KK Curry and John Pettway have also left the program.

Something brewing in San Marcos

If there is going to be a new Sun Belt team to make the Big Dance this year, my money is on Texas State. The Bobcats haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1997, when they were members of the Southland Conference. However, there is reason to believe that streak could end in the near future.

Texas State was the Sun Belt’s best and most consistent team last year. In Terrence Johnson’s first year as head coach, the Bobcats finished 18-7 and 12-3 in Sun Belt play, good for the best mark in the conference. The team’s NCAA Tournament aspirations came up short, as Appalachian State stunned them in overtime in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament.

The Bobcats will enter this season with the expectation of being one of the conference’s best again. All-Sun Belt First Team selection Mason Harrell returns to lead the Bobcats, and he’ll be accompanied in the backcourt by fellow senior guard Caleb Asberry. Asberry and Harrell combine to form arguably the best three point shooting tandem in the conference.

Johnson’s squad also got a huge boost when forward Isiah Small elected to return to San Marcos for his final season after initially announcing he would transfer. Small, who averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, got some serious interest on the transfer market, highlighted by an offer from Texas Tech. The trio of Harrell, Asberry and Small is undoubtedly one of the conference’s best, and you can assure they will be eager to end Texas State’s long NCAA Tournament drought.