The James Madison Dukes, who many thought would finish this season undefeated after finishing up their non-conference schedule undefeated with wins over Michigan State and Southern Illinois, are now defeated thanks to the efforts of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles and the 4,107 fans in attendance at Reed Green Coliseum. A win of such magnitude ushers in an even bigger story in the Sun Belt Conference other than a nationally-ranked team: the emergence of the entire conference.
Having seven top-200 NET teams and two top-100 NET teams, the conference has the kind of depth that two-bid conferences can have.
James Madison Dukes
It’s been an all-time season for the Dukes, who have only been in the Sun Belt for one full season after making the transfer from the Colonial Athletic Association. They found their way in the AP Poll for the first time in school history. Staring off their season with a win at fourth-ranked Michigan State, the squad, led by junior guard Terrance Edwards Jr., followed that win up with wins over mid-majors Kent State and Southern Illinois. That loss to Southern Mississippi surely puts a taint on their resume, but with the recent trend of top teams losing on the road in conference play, they aren’t the only ones worrying about their team’s winning ability. (Yes, I’m looking at you, FAU.)
Appalachian State Mountaineers
With a win at Auburn highlighting the Mountaineers record, they also sport a 30-point win over UNC Wilmington on a neutral court. App State sits as the clear number two in the conference with the ability to move up to No. 1 after a trip to James Madison on Saturday. A defensively-centered team that only allows 64.9 points per game this season, the Mountaineers lead all of division one with 6.7 blocks per game as a team. Led by forwards Donovan Gregory and Trevon Spillers on offense and forward Justin Abson on defense (2.7 blocks per game), App State stands as a scary opponent to face on an off night.
Louisiana Ragin Cajuns
Despite their 8-8 record on the season, this teams sits at No. 156 in the NET rankings following a brutal nonconference schedule with losses to high ranking mid-majors in Louisiana Tech, McNeese State, Toledo and Wright State, their only double-digit loss coming at Samford in late November. This team can compete with some of the best of mid-major basketball, and if they can work on their ability to win in close games, they will find themselves alive deep into March.
The Trojans find themselves in an odd situation after going 6-6 in nonconference play. Now sitting at 10-6, Troy has been the biggest surprise of the Sun Belt so far. Second in the conference in both offense and defense, the Trojans have been an all-around threat with wins over App State and Louisiana highlighting their start to conference play.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Despite a poor NET ranking (235 on Jan. 11), the Golden Eagles have wins over some high-profile teams this season. Their win over James Madison being the highlight, they also have road wins at both UAB and Lamar this season. Standing at 3-1 in conference play so far, a trip to Troy to face the Trojans on Saturday will be the true test on if this Golden Eagles squad truly has a chance to win out by March.