When the subject of conference realignment comes up, there are a few conferences that are at the forefront of it, for better or worse. A few seem to be in perpetual realignment, to the point of wondering if the conference administration doesn’t at some point have an identity crisis, especially if the conference’s geographic footprint expands greatly over time.
Enter the Sun Belt, where big changes have recently happened and will continue.
This past season, the conference welcomed Georgia State and UT Arlington. Next season, Western Kentucky leaves for Conference USA (another conference whose membership is constantly in flux) and welcomes Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to go to 11 schools in basketball (Idaho and New Mexico State also join in football only). UT Arlington has been right in the middle of conference realignment in recent years, having played in their third different conference in three years this past season.
One of the newcomers in 2013-14, Georgia State, was the story of the conference season. Led by the father-son duo of head coach Ron Hunter and sophomore star R.J., the Panthers won the regular season by five games. Ron was Coach of the Year and R.J. was Player of the Year, and Ryan Harrow also had a fine season to lead the way. The Panthers ultimately settled for an NIT bid after losing a heart-breaker in the conference championship.
The conference may be constantly changing, but there was plenty of talent that took the floor this season and a lot will return. Elfrid Payton was a lottery pick in the June NBA Draft, and while his early departure means two of the first team all-conference players will not return next season, the three that return will all lead the way next season. One of them, Shawn Long, was the only player in the conference to average a double-double.
While conference realignment is largely about football, the basketball product has some promise going forward that was evident this season. But the changing landscape also makes it tough for continuity and an identity, especially when a signature program like Western Kentucky leaves. The Hilltoppers had a chance this past season to win three straight championships for the second time, and that has happened only one other time in conference history. Given that they are leaving, unless a program or two that will be in the conference long-term becomes a consistent contender, like Georgia State may be poised to, sustaining any level of success will be challenging.
The Sun Belt Conference Tournament opened up with UALR ending Troy’s season with a 74-61 win, then UT Arlington knocked off UL Monroe 68-65. Both would fall the next day, as Arkansas State beat UALR 116-114 in four overtimes, a tournament record, then UL Lafayette held off UT Arlington 91-85 behind a monster game from Shawn Long with 19 points, 17 rebounds and five blocked shots.
That led to the semifinals, which Georgia State began by blowing out Arkansas State 72-45. In the other semifinal, UL Lafayette won a thriller 73-72 over Western Kentucky in a game that saw both teams miss layups in the final 11 seconds of play.
The championship game was all one could ask for. Georgia State looked to have the game in hand, and with Ryan Harrow having a career game in front of his father, it seemed like a storybook ending was coming. But UL Lafayette rallied from a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes to force overtime, and in the final seconds of the extra session, Harrow missed an off-balance shot that would have put the Panthers ahead. He had 37 points, but it wasn’t enough as the Ragin’ Cajuns won 82-81 to take home the conference championship and the NCAA Tournament bid.
Player of the Year: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
Rookie of the Year: Chris Harrison-Docks, Western Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Ron Hunter, Georgia State
Defensive Player of the Year: Elfrid Payton, UL-Lafayette
Reger Dowell, Sr. G, UT Arlington
Ryan Harrow, Jr. G, Georgia State
R.J. Hunter, So. G, Georgia State
Shawn Long, So. F, UL Lafayette
Elfrd Payton, Jr. G, UL Lafayette
- Shawn Long was the only player in the Sun Belt to average a double-double on the season with 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
- Georgia State’s 17 wins set a school record for conference wins in a season.
- Georgia State tied Wisconsin for fewest turnovers per game nationally.
What we expected, and it happened: Western Kentucky was picked to win the conference, and the Hilltoppers were right there in their final season in finishing second.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: South Alabama was picked second in the preseason coaches’ poll, but a 1-10 start to conference play doomed them. They finished next-to-last and didn’t make the conference tournament.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Georgia State rolled to the top of the conference. Sure, the Panthers figured to be good and were picked in a tie for fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll. But no one figured they would win the conference by five games in the regular season.
Team(s) on the rise: Georgia State. Ron Hunter has the program on a roll now, and with his son and Ryan Harrow leading the way, there’s no reason to expect a slip next season. Plus, Hunter coaches with an edge, and losing in the conference final will surely be used as a motivator for next season.
Team(s) on the decline: South Alabama. This past season wasn’t what many expected, and Augustine Rubit has graduated. Not a good combination. About the only positive is that because only eight teams qualified for the conference tournament, and the Jaguars were not one of them, they were the only team to end the season with a win.
2014-15 Conference Outlook
Georgia State is where the conversation about favorites in 2014-15 has to start and end, as the Panthers will return the best backcourt in the conference by a good margin, especially with Payton’s early departure for the NBA. This should be the Panthers’ title to lose next season.
The best contender is probably UL Lafayette, and Long will need some help. He will probably be a double-double machine again, but he’ll draw more defensive attention and losing a point guard is nothing to take lightly. UALR could be there as well with Josh Hagins and James White leading the holdovers.