The Sun Belt has been a load of fun this season.
As they welcomed in four new teams (James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion, Southern Mississippi), the league has found success and its highest KenPom rating since the 2002-03 season.
Three of those four new teams have earned double-bye’s in the conference tournament, eclipsing the 20-win plateau. The other (Old Dominion), has 19 wins.
Outside of the newcomers, Louisiana had an impressive 23-win season while Troy is also just one win away from reaching 20. This all sets up for a fun couple of days in Pensacola.
Any of the top four seeds have not only a realistic chance to win this conference tournament but win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
Note: All times listed are Eastern.
First Round (Tuesday, Feb. 28), ESPN+
Game 1: No. 13 Arkansas State vs. No. 12 Coastal Carolina, 6 p.m.
Game 2: No. 14 Georgia State vs. No. 11 Texas State, 8:30 p.m.
Second Round (Thursday, March 2), ESPN+
Game 3: No. 9 Appalachian State vs. No. 8 South Alabama, 12:30 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 5 Troy, 3 p.m.
Game 5: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 6 Old Dominion, 6 p.m.
Game 6: No. 10 UL Monroe vs. No. 7 Georgia Southern, 8:30 p.m.
Quarterfinals (Saturday, March 4), ESPN+
Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs. No. 1 Southern Mississippi, 12:30 p.m.
Game 8: Game 4 Winner vs. No. 4 James Madison, 3 p.m.
Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs No. 3 Marshall, 6 p.m.
Game 10: Game 6 Winner vs No. 2 Louisiana, 8:30 p.m.
Semifinals (Sunday, March 5), ESPN+
Game 11: Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner, 6 p.m.
Game 12: Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner, 8:30 p.m.
Finals (Monday, March 6), ESPN2
Game 13: Game 11 Winner vs. Game 12 Winner, 7 p.m.
Southern Mississippi (25-6, 14-4): The best turnaround in all of college hoops this season took place in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Southern Mississippi eclipsed their prior win total before their first loss this season, ultimately winning their first outright regular season title since 1991. In nine of their last eleven games, they’ve won by two or more possessions. Impressive stuff.
It’s because of the transfer portal with additions like Austin Crowley, Felipe Haase, and Neftali Alvarez that they were able to do this, flipping its defense from a bottom 40 one in the country to the top 100.
Louisiana (23-7, 13-5): When Louisiana is holding fort on the defensive end, they’re a scary team. The Cajuns have gone on two five-game win streaks along with a 10-game one this season, holding one loss outside of the KenPom top 151.
This success is happening because Louisiana is quietly one of the better offensive teams in the country, ranking 46th in adjusted offensive efficiency. They’re so strong in those numbers because of an impressive interior presence from Jordan Brown. The big man goes to the charity stripe a ton, all while averaging 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
Marshall (24-7, 13-5): Only one team in the country has two players who average 20 points per game and that’s the Marshall Thundering Herd with Taevion Kinsey and Andrew Taylor.
With those two at the helm, offense seems to come at ease. The Herd rank 69th in the country in offensive efficiency, while allowing the lowest number of blocked shots per game in the fastest offensive tempo.
James Madison (21-10, 12-6): Another quick offensive team, the James Madison Dukes have shown positive signs on both ends of the court.
When non-conference play ended, they led the nation in points per game. But in their last ten games, only once has a team reached 70 points, moving them to 67th in the country in defensive efficiency.
The Dukes have the experience and depth to win games in March, ranking in the top 20 of the country in both.
Troy (19-12, 11-7): Scott Cross has the boys clicking at the right time, as the Trojans have won six of the last seven. Their defense seems to consistently cause fits for even the best of offensive teams.
Old Dominion (19-11, 11-7): If I were to vote for the peskiest team in the country, I would give my vote to ODU. Their last ten games have all been decided by single digits, winning six of the last seven. Obviously a sign of a good team.
South Alabama (16-15, 9-9): South Alabama is one of the hottest teams in the country, winning eight of its last ten games by more than two possessions. This is because of their strong defense and Isaiah Moore’s surge into becoming the Player of the Year favorite in the league. The DII All-American has scored single digits only once this season.
Texas State (13-18, 6-12): Terrence Johnson won a regular season title during his first two seasons in San Marcos, but the Bobcats have fallen on hard times. Mason Harrell will fight to make the NCAA Tournament for one last time in his college career.
Players to Watch
Austin Crowley, Southern Miss (16.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 47.2% FG%)
Felipe Haase, Southern Miss (15.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 47.7% FG%)
Jordan Brown, Louisiana (19.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 57.5% FG%)
Taevion Kinsey, Marshall (22.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.4 APG, 54.5% FG%)
Andrew Taylor, Marshall (20.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 41.8% FG%)
Terrence Edwards, James Madison (12.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 51.7% FG%)
Zay Williams, Troy (12.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 53.2% FG%)
Chaunce Jenkins, Old Dominion (13.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 47.1% FG%)
Andrei Savrasov, Georgia Southern (14.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 50.0% FG%)
Isaiah Moore, South Alabama (18.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.5 APG, 53.3% FG%)
Kevin Samuel, South Alabama (10.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 64.4% FG%)
Donovan Gregory, Appalachian State (12.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.3 APG, 42.4% FG%)
Tyreke Locure, UL Monroe (14.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 37.1% FG%)
Jamari Blackmon, UL Monroe (12.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 41.3% FG%)
Mason Harrell, Texas State (16.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 41.2% FG)
Antonio Daye, Coastal Carolina (12.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 42.2% FG%)
Omar El-Sheikh, Arkansas State (11.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 50.0% FG%)
Dwon Odom, Georgia State (12.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.0 APG, 43.8% FG%)
They’ll be upsets littered throughout this bracket. But, I think that Marshall beats Troy in the championship, making it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018. Kinsey has a big game in the first round and opens NBA scouts' eyes.