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Full of close games throughout the regular season, the Sun Belt Tournament will be wide open

The tournament starts Friday in Pensacola

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 15 Coastal Carolina at Wofford Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Sun Belt ranks dead last in the country in blowout percentage and is fourth in close game percentage, meaning this league is as competitive as it gets.

Texas State, Georgia State, Coastal Carolina, and Louisiana all earned byes to the quarterfinals, but there were four other teams fighting for those in the final weekend, not including unanimous preseason favorite Little Rock.

There’s talent up and down the board in this league, so expect the close games to continue, and some great March action in Pensacola.

Bracket

Schedule:

Note: All games are in Pensacola, Florida. All game times are Eastern.

First Round (Fri., Mar. 5), ESPN+

Game 1: No. 4W Arkansas State vs No. 5E Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.

Game 2: No. 3E South Alabama vs No. 6W UL Monroe, 6:30 p.m.

Game 3: No. 4E Appalachian State vs No. 5W Little Rock, 8:30 p.m.

Game 4: No. 3W UT Arlington vs No. 6E Troy, 9 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Sat., Mar. 6), ESPN+

Game 5: Game 2 winner vs No. 2W Louisiana, 6 p.m.

Game 6: Game 1 winner vs No. 1E Georgia State, 6:30 p.m.

Game 7: Game 4 winner vs No. 2E Coastal Carolina, 8:30 p.m.

Game 8: Game 3 winner vs No. 1W Texas State, 9 p.m.

Semifinals (Sun., Mar. 7), ESPN+

Game 9: Game 5 winner vs Game 6 winner, 6:30 p.m.

Game 10: Game 7 winner vs Game 8 winner, 9 p.m.

Finals (Mon., Mar. 8), ESPN2

Game 9: Game 9 winner vs Game 10 winner, 7 p.m.

The Favorite:

Georgia State (14-5, 8-4): Not many teams are as hot as Georgia State right now, as the Panthers have now won six straight.

Leading Rob Lanier’s squad is four upperclassmen in Corey Allen, Justin Roberts, Kane Williams, and Eliel Nsoseme, each of which average double digits. Allen is the sharpshooter of the squad, averaging 14.9 points per game while shooting 46.4% from the field. Nsoseme is a force down low, averaging 11.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

Along with them, there are two stud underclassmen in Jalen Thomas and Evan Johnson. Thomas averages double-digit points per game, as Johnson only averages 6.9 off the bench. Johnson did play 27 minutes on national TV this past weekend though and dropped 28 as he was unconscious from deep.

When looking at the Panthers KenPom page, you see a lot of green. Also, that they have a top 35 win in an upset, four-overtime victory over bubble team Georgia Tech to start the season. That’s a good sign for the Panthers.

The Dark Horses:

Texas State (18-6, 12-3): Remember when everyone made fun of Houston for scheduling Our Lady of the Lake in the middle of the season… the Bobcats lost to them in December. The good news for TSU though is that they’ve won 15 of 18 since, and seven straight to end the season, winning their first regular-season conference crown since 1999. This has all been done under the leadership of Terrence Johnson who was given the interim head coaching job after long-time coach Danny Kaspar left under investigation. Their pair of stud guards in Mason Harrell (who looks too much like Zero from Holes) and Caleb Asberry have been the leaders on the floor, each averaging 13 points per game. Big man Isiah Small doesn’t put up as glamourous averages, but ranks in the top 50 of effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and three-point percentage while averaging a little over 10 points per game.

Coastal Carolina (15-6, 10-7): Everyone wants to talk about Chanticleers football, but what about their basketball team? Cliff Ellis has helped turn Devante’ Jones into one of the best mid-major players in the country, averaging 20.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. He ranks in the Top 100 nationally of four KenPom categories, fighting head-to-head with South Alabama’s Michael Flowers for Player of the Year. Right behind him, he has a stud JUCO guard in Deanthony Tipler who averages an impressive 15.1 points per game. Down low, they have a 6’9” freshman center in Essam Mostafa who averages 11.4 points, and 8.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 55.1% from the field. If it weren’t for Norchad Omier at Arkansas State, the Chants could easily have the Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Newcomer of the Year in the Sun Belt.

The Long Shots:

Louisiana (16-8, 10-7): The Cajuns are fast, and can really wear down their opponents. They gave Baylor a solid fight to begin the season, scoring the most points a team has against the Bears this season. Cedric Russell can kill you from three, Mylik Wilson on defense, and Theo Akwuba everywhere. Their test will be to see if their pace can’t slow them down, working on multiple consecutive days.

South Alabama (16-10, 10-7): Michael Flowers should be a first-team mid-major All-American. He will single handily win the Jaguars games, and when they fall behind in others, he gets them right back into it. The senior averages 20.8 points per game, dropping 30+ three times in conference play. His team's problem is their lack of three-point defense, which they rank second-worst in the country in.

Appalachian State (13-11, 7-8): The Mountaineers play their opponents close, but have struggled of late. When their backcourt of Delph, Forrest, Gregory, and Almonacy are on their A-game, they’re super fun to watch.

Arkansas State (10-12, 7-8): Norchad Omier is one of the best freshmen in the country. He has 13 double-doubles on the season, meaning every missed shot is essentially a pass to him. Around him, Marquis Eaton and Caleb Fields have had all league seasons. The Red Wolves really struggle on the road though, finishing 1-9.

Little Rock (11-14, 7-11): The Trojans have not been the same since the lights literally went out on their final possession at Louisiana. Star guard Marquis Nowell left the program, and they lost six straight before a season-ending win against Louisiana. They still have star big man Ruot Monyyong though, who averages 11.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. Maybe the Trojans will come out hungry, trying to redeem that bid that they lost last season.

Players to Watch:

Corey Allen, Georgia State (14.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 46.4% FG%)

Eliel Nsoseme, Georgia State (11.7 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 62.3% FG%)

Devante’ Jones, Coastal Carolina (20.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 49.1% FG%)

Deanthony Tipler, Coastal Carolina (15.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 42.2% FG%)

Essam Mostafa, Coastal Carolina (11.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 55.1% FG%)

Michael Flowers, South Alabama (20.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 43.7% FG%)

John Pettway, South Alabama (10.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 55.8% FG%)

Justin Forrest, Appalachian State (11.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 37.5% FG%)

Michael Almonacy, Appalachian State (11.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 39.2% FG%)

Zack Bryant, Georgia Southern (13.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 43.8% FG%)

Mason Harrell, Texas State (13.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 46.1% FG%)

Cedric Russell, Louisiana (17.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 43.0% FG%)

Theo Akwuba, Louisiana (11.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 62.1% FG%)

Shahada Wells, UT Arlington (16.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 41.8% FG%)

David Azore, UT Arlington (12.1 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 44.3% FG%)

Marquis Eaton, Arkansas State (14.1 PPG, 5.1 APG, 41.0% FG%)

Norchad Omier, Arkansas State (12.5 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 53.5% FG%)

Nikola Maric, Little Rock (14.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 53.8% FG%)

Ruot Monyyong, Little Rock (11.7 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 57.1% FG%)

Prediction:

Arkansas State will make a Cinderella run to the Championship in Norchad Omier’s freshmen season but fall short to Coastal Carolina in the Championship.