As the first two months of the season come to an end, some questions are beginning to be answered — including those on the conference realignment front.
Over the offseason, the Sun Belt added James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss. They’ve left no doubt in anyone’s mind that it has been the right move to add them, with the foursome ending conference play with a combined 39-12 record.
If that’s not impressive enough, seven of the losses came in overtime or by two possessions or less. In KenPom’s predictions for conference play, all four are projected to finish in the top six of the league.
To add to that, all 14 teams in the league have a legitimate chance to make some noise in conference play. Only one is under .500 as of writing this story, making it one of the most impressive stories of non-conference play. It’s going to be competitive.
Let’s walk through the Sun Belt’s newest teams heading into league play:
Holy cow, this offense is a sight to behold.
James Madison ranks first in the country in scoring offense, second in scoring margin, 11th in effective field goal percentage, 20th in adjusted tempo, and 25th in 3-point percentage. To add to that, they’ve scored 100 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1991.
Mind-blowing and something that the Sun Belt hasn’t seen in three years when Georgia Southern did it in 2019. Their head coach was … James Madison’s current head man, Mark Byington. He spent seven years in the league and did a lot of winning.
That 2019 team had the sixth-ranked two-point percentage and 14th-ranked adjusted tempo in the country. This season, his JMU squad is creeping back to that if they stay at that pace. It’s what makes them so dangerous. The quick hits.
When I saw them play Coppin State, they trailed by seven with 23 seconds remaining. Alonzo Sule hit a quick 3, Terrence Edwards a layup, and off a steal they tied it up, erasing a seven-point deficit in five seconds and making it a completely different game.
OMG. TIE GAME BUT VADO MORSE FOULS pic.twitter.com/4pVs5FQFOg— Nick Lorensen (@nlorensensports) December 21, 2022
They ended up forcing double overtime, although having their worst outing of the season from three (6-29).
“We were taking the bad 3s in the first half. In the second half, we were better. But in the first half, I thought our offense was poor because of our 3s, we had taken too many. We shot great from two-point percentage in the first half,” Byington said. “We started the first eight minutes (of the second half) really good and I think we got it within five points pretty quick. So, we were kinda able to play it the rest of the way.”
Just like James Madison, the Sun Belt doesn’t often see an offense run like this.
The Thundering Herd enter league play ranked first in block percentage, fourth in average possession length, 15th in offensive rebounding percentage, 18th in turnover percentage, 23rd in average tempo, and 61st in adjusted efficiency.
Its major difference is that head coach Dan D’Antoni hasn’t coached in the league before. Everything about Thundering Herd basketball is new to the veterans of the league, outside of preseason favorite Louisiana whom they beat by 14 last season.
They were able to see that Marshall size up close, but that has only grown with the addition of 7-foot-1 center Micah Handlogten. He is a big reason why they’re first in the country in block percentage. He ranks 14th in the nation in that stat individually, along with being fifth in offensive rating and tenth in defensive rating.
It helps that he has three other significant underclassmen bigs along with the versatility of Taevion Kinsey to really mold that team together.
“They go 6-9, 7-1, 6-5 with a 42-inch vertical. Jacob Conner comes off the bench at 6-8, Fricks comes off the bench and he’s 6-9, and they’re long as can be and can switch out. So it makes it hard for you to get clean looks from three or get to the rim,” Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole said following a 69-60 loss to the Herd.
That 42-inch vert is clear when you watch Kinsey play. I caught myself jumping out of my seat a couple of times in excitement for a few plays throughout that game.
The thing is, he has been doing that his whole career. He’s a 2,210-point scorer with an impressive career field goal percentage of 50.2%. This season, his play has only seemed to grow though, averaging a career-high 21.2 points per game on 55% shooting, while ranking second in the nation in the percentage of minutes played. That’s a forward who puts up elite guard-type stats.
Taevion Kinsey played great today in the win against Toledo. Kinsey finished with 30/6/2 and had 2 blocks. He was also efficient shooting 63% from the field. pic.twitter.com/XPgXjbM8WG— KJ (@Kjpistons) December 18, 2022
Alongside him, point guard Andrew Taylor has been a consistent face in this program, starting the last 91 games. This season has been his best as well, averaging 19.5 points per game and taking the 42nd-highest percentage of shots in the nation at 31.6%.
Old Dominion is a program that hangs its hat on movement and balance. Those have been clicking over the last month, as the Monarchs boast a four-game winning streak.
In three of those games, the offense has been a handful to deal with, shooting over 50% in each. When you’re that effective and run one of the slowest tempos in the country, opponents are going to have their heads spinning. Especially when they don’t know who to cover.
But, when things don’t go right for them, that’s OK because they can win in different ways just because of how great of a team they are.
In this winning streak, they beat Gardner-Webb, 44-43, holding the Runnin’ Bulldogs to 2 for 20 from deep.
When I saw them play against the SoCon favorite, Furman, their offense exploded for 82 points on 70.8% shooting from the field in the second half. Four different players scored double digits. That’s almost as ideal of a finish as possible for a team like ODU.
“If we were looking for the ideal, that’s kinda what we look for in terms of the balanced scoring, some inside-outside balance,” head coach Jeff Jones said after the Furman win. “If you move them around, then we’ve got opportunities for Chaunce (Jenkins) to attack the lane and Tyreek (Scott-Grayson) to attack the lane and open those outside shots.”
Scott-Grayson is the key addition to this team. He had a great career at UAB and was never able to stay healthy at Northeastern, but has found success early in Norfolk.
In that Furman game, he led the way with 24 points. In the non-conference finale, he scored 30 points as they picked up another big win against rival George Mason. That outing led him to being named the Sun Belt Player of the Week.
In that game, Jenkins, the other man mentioned, showed his clutch ability by hitting a shot just before the buzzer to hand the Monarchs the win.
The Wichita State transfer barely played for the Shockers but through 12 games, he’s averaging 13.2 points on 50% from the field and 46.2% from deep. A much-needed change of scenery.
Heading into the new season, Southern Mississippi ranked 324 in KenPom’s rankings.
After an 11-2 start to the season, the Golden Eagles have risen all the way up to 140. You can thank the transfer portal and a stellar coaching hire for that one.
Much like the other teams entering the Sun Belt, last season was not kind to the Golden Eagles. They had one of the worst teams in the country, finishing with a 5-26 record against Division-I opponents.
It all began with the two cornerstone additions, former Mercer Bears, Felipe Haase, and Neftali Alvarez.
Haase has started every game for Southern Miss, scoring double digits in all but three. He’s a legitimate double-double threat every night out but he added something even more deadly… an effective three-ball.
Through 13 games, the Chilean is shooting 49.2% from deep.
His high school teammate, Alvarez, has fallen into injury troubles again but when he plays he’s a double-digit scoring threat every night out there.
Add in Austin Crowley who is picking pockets like crazy, putting up the most shots on the team, and averaging 16.2 points really out of nowhere since coming over from Ole Miss. Along with Donovan Ivory who has carved out a key role since coming over from Green Bay, Mo Arnold who has become an elite passer this season, and DeAndre Pinckney has been a rock down low for USM for quite some time. Watch out. That’s a deadly bunch.
They’ve shown in dominating Vanderbilt, beating Liberty in Lynchburg, Horizon League champion Purdue Fort Wayne on a neutral side, and its only two losses being against a very good Northwestern State team at the buzzer and a potential NCAA Tournament team in UNLV by single digits.
Louisiana has opened with a 10-2 record, winning the Asheville Tournament, and having its only two losses being on the road against Top-100 teams in Drake and Texas. They also went to Dallas and beat SMU in overtime.
Troy beat Florida State and battled one of the best mid-major teams in the nation until the final minutes, San Diego State.
Texas State beat both Rhode Island and Cal on the road.
App State went into Louisville and beat that joke of a program. Should’ve beat Wake Forest as well but lost at the buzzer.
Georgia State opened a new arena almost beating Georgia Tech but closed non-conference play with a competitive loss against Auburn and a win against Rhode Island.
Then you have Essam Mostafa (Coastal Carolina) and Kevin Samuel (South Alabama) carving themselves out as some of the best big men in the nation, while only one team in the whole league (UL Monroe) finished under .500.
The fun only continues with an absurdly strong opening week schedule, and it is anchored by James Madison/Marshall on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. ET.
If you’re looking for fun brands of basketball and loads of chaos, the Sun Belt is right up your alley this season.