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Chaos defines Sun Belt Conference this season

With one week of regular season play remaining, several teams continue to battle for conference supremacy

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 29 UT Arlington at Texas State
Texas State’s Mason Harrell ranks second on the team in scoring at 11.5 points per game and first in assists at 3.1.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This won’t come as a surprise to connoisseurs of Sun Belt basketball, but on the eve of postseason play, the league is full of chaos. In another year where the league refuses to provide any resemblance of predictability, there are a slew of teams that look capable of emerging as conference champions come March.

The Texas State Bobcats enter the final week of regular season play on top of the conference standings. The Bobcats returned the core of a team that went 12-3 in conference play a year ago, so the fact that they find themselves on top of the standings again shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.

Texas State is currently 19-6 overall and 10-3 in Sun Belt play. After being upset in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament a year ago, this group will be hungry to make a deeper run this time around. If the Bobcats are going to make a push for the Big Dance, they’re going to need standout play from senior guard Caleb Asberry. Asberry currently leads the Bobcats scoring 13.4 points per game while also collecting 4.4 rebounds and 2 assists per outing.

Asberry is accompanied by a duo of fellow seniors in guard Mason Harrell and forward Isiah Small, both averaging over 11 points per game. Small is especially an X-factor for this group, and the team’s success is often dependent on his ability to win in the paint.

Dustin Kerns’ Appalachian State Mountaineers went on a Cinderella run to capture the Sun Belt crown a year ago, and this year they’ve proven that last year wasn’t a fluke. The Mountaineers are currently 17-12 overall and 11-5 in conference play, so they’ll enter postseason play as a legitimate threat to cut down the nets in Pensacola, Fla., again.

They are led by senior guard Adrian Delph, who’s averaging 17.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. If Delph is App State’s Batman, his Robin is Donovan Gregory. He may not lead the squad in scoring on a nightly basis, but the senior forward plays a paramount role as the Mountaineers’ ultimate utility man. Gregory is second on the team in scoring, first in rebounding and second in assists. Senior guards Justin Forrest and Michael Almonacy are also capable of getting hot and providing a scoring punch, Almonacy was named the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s conference tournament.

There’s still a lot up-in-the-air in terms of conference tournament seeding. However, one thing is for certain: the Mountaineers will be praying they find themselves on the opposite side of the bracket of the Troy Trojans. After scoring an upset road victory 67-61 in Boone, N.C., last week, the Trojans completed a regular-season sweep of the Mountaineers for the second consecutive year.

Troy has been the feel-good story of the Sun Belt. After being projected to be one of the conference’s worst teams, the Trojans are 18-9 overall and 9-5 in league play. The Trojans feature a deep roster with numerous players that are capable of stepping up on a nightly basis, but the point of the Trojan sword is junior forward Ede Odigie.

The UTEP transfer leads the Trojans in scoring with 11.5 points per game and is second in rebounding. In addition to Odigie, players such as Duke Deen, Duke Miles and Zay Williams are reliable contributors for Scott Cross’ squad.

Success in conference tournaments can often be dependent on whichever team is the hottest, and right now that may be the Georgia State Panthers. After making the conference championship game a year ago, the Panthers entered the season as favorites to among the conference’s best again. The first two-and-a-half months of Georgia State’s campaign were mired by disappointment, injuries and COVID cases, but the team is finally healthy, and the results are starting to follow.

Head coach Rob Lanier deserves serious credit for the resiliency instilled in his bunch. After starting 0-4 in conference play, the Panthers have now won seven of their last eight games and are sitting fourth in the conference standings at 7-5. A trio of senior guards in Corey Allen, Kane Williams and Justin Roberts lead Lanier’s squad.

The Panthers are no strangers to postseason success and have won four of the previous six Sun Belt tournaments. Georgia State features a veteran core that finds its form at the right time and is presenting itself as a tough matchup for anyone in the league.

One of the league’s more perplexing teams remains the South Alabama Jaguars. South Alabama made some headlines last offseason after using the transfer portal to revamp its roster. The experiment hasn’t exactly been a failure or a roaring success. The Jaguars are 8-6 in conference play and 18-9 overall. Like Georgia State, they’ve also suffered from injuries and COVID outbreaks.

When South Alabama is playing its best game, the Jaguars have what it takes to beat any team in the conference. Guards Jay Jay Chandler and Charles Manning Jr. lead the Jaguars, each scoring over 15 points per game. The metrics also remain infatuated with Richie Riley’s group. Kenpom continues to favor South Alabama as the best team in the conference, and the Jaguars rank 16 spots higher than the closest Sun Belt school (Texas State).

If the champion of the conference doesn’t wind up being a team from the upper echelon, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina possess intriguing dark horse potential. The Red Wolves may only be 7-6 in Sun Belt play, but they boast the league’s best player in forward Norchad Omier. The second-year player from Nicaragua is averaging 17.2 points and 12.0 boards per game. The Chanticleers offer a similarly daunting threat in the paint with Egyptian big man Essam Mostafa, who scores 13.6 points and grabs 9.6 rebounds per outing.

UT Arlington, Louisiana, Georgia Southern, Louisiana Monroe and Arkansas Little-Rock round out the standings. But if history teaches us anything, it would be wise to not count out any team in this conference come tournament time. After all, Appalachian State won the tournament after going 7-8 in conference play a year ago.

The Sun Belt has been a logjam all year long, which could potentially create the conditions for a wild conference tournament. Postseason play will begin March 3 in Pensacola.