Seemingly in a perpetual search for an identity due to so many membership changes, the Sun Belt Conference found one in 2014-15 as a conference that provided a little of it all.
The Sun Belt was both as predicted and unpredictable. It played games in the 90s and 100s…or the 30s and 40s. It even had some star power amidst rosters that would mostly generate a shrug on the national level. It was a unique mix, but in the end it worked out well for a now-venerable league that has faced numerous changes over the years but is nearing its 40th anniversary.
Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette came into the season as favorites and performed as such. GSU won the league regular season and tournament titles as expected, while the defending champion Ragin’ Cajuns were in the hunt again before bowing in the league tourney semis to the Panthers in a terrific game.
At the same time, the league surprisingly offered upward mobility for its new members. Georgia Southern was a mid-pack, below .500 team in the Southern Conference the year before but stunned by tying for second and was merely a couple hard-earned points away from winning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Almost as startling was Appalachian State, which finished 9-21 and ninth in the Southern a year earlier but was near .500 in the Sun Belt.
The Sun Belt could run and stun or it could play low and slow. UL-Lafayette was one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, and go-go Texas-Arlington actually played even faster, ranking eighth nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo statistics (ULL was 11th). At the same time, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas State all ranked in the top 40 nationally in scoring defense, and bizarre scores like 40-36, 45-43 and 53-41 were not uncommon for their games.
The league also again featured its second consecutive prospective high NBA pick in Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter, who should follow former UL-Lafayette guard Elfrid Payton into the pros. The Ragin’ Cajuns still had a double-double machine and one of the nation’s top rebounders in Shawn Long, while Troy has a rising star in Wesley Person, Jr., the league’s top freshman.
The end product was a league that was far more than the two-horse race it was expected to be, with teams 1-4 separated by just two games. Not bad for a conference that has been a carousel for membership, adding five teams in the past two years as it continues to chase the Division I-A (FBS) football rainbow.
Most importantly for Sun Belt hoops, though, is that it got back in the win column in the NCAA Tournament and fared well overall in the postseason. Georgia State went to the NCAAs as a 14 seed but put together a memorable rally in the final minutes and stunned Baylor on Hunter’s 30-footer for the Sun Belt’s first Round of 64 win in the tourney since 2009. Louisiana-Monroe also made it to the CBI finals, while UL-Lafayette won a pair of games in the CIT before losing to eventual champion Evansville.
The Sun Belt uses one of those rather confusing double-bye formats with an eight-team field, with the top two seeds getting byes into the semis and the four lowest seeds playing first round games.
The format succeeded for the top two seeds-barely-and nowhere was the Sun Belt’s dichotomy of play illustrated better than the semifinals. Top seed Georgia State avenged a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the 2013 championship game, defeating the No. 4-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns 83-79. No. 2 Georgia Southern followed by advancing over No. 3 Louisiana-Monroe 44-43 after rallying from an eight-point second half deficit.
There was no doubt about which team controlled the tempo in the championship game. Georgia Southern held Georgia State to 38 points-but still lost. R.J. Hunter drained two free throws with 21.6 seconds left for the winning points in a 38-36 Panther victory in a game where the final score was not deceiving in the least-this was one of the most grinding conference tourney championship games ever.
Higher seeds won six of the seven games in the tourney, with the lone upset coming in the first round when No. 8 Texas State knocked off fifth-seeded Texas-Arlington 68-62. No. 6 South Alabama defeated No. 7 Arkansas-Little Rock 57-55 in the other first round game, while Louisiana-Lafayette (53-43 over Texas State) and Louisiana-Monroe (77-59 over South Alabama) won the quarterfinal games.
Player of the Year: R.J. Hunter, Jr., G, Georgia State
Freshman of the Year: Wesley Person, Fr., G, Troy
Defensive Player of the Year: Jelani Hewitt, G, Sr., Georgia Southern
Coach of the Year: Keith Richard, Louisiana-Monroe
Jelani Hewitt, Sr., G, Georgia Southern
Ryan Harrow, Sr., G, Georgia State
R.J. Hunter, Jr., G, Georgia State
Shawn Long, Jr., F, Louisiana-Lafayette
Tylor Ongwae, Sr., F, Louisiana-Monroe
- Georgia State defeated Baylor in the NCAA Tournament for its second-ever NCAA tourney win and the Sun Belt’s first win in the Round of 64 since 2009, when No. 12 seed Western Kentucky knocked off Illinois.
- Only three Sun Belt teams made it to the postseason-a small number when 148 teams total qualify for tourneys-but the league also had success in the CBI and CIT. Louisiana-Monroe advanced to the championship series in the CBI, while Louisiana-Lafayette made it to the quarterfinals in the CIT. In all, the Sun Belt posted a 6-4 record in the postseason.
- Louisiana-Monroe joined Baylor and Utah as the only three teams in NCAA Division I to not allow 75+ points in a single game.
What we expected, and it happened: Georgia State was the preseason favorite and won the conference title, won the league tourney and even made some noise in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers met-if not exceeded-every expectation coming into the season.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Arkansas-Little Rock was tabbed for third in the Sun Belt in the preseason poll, but the Trojans stumbled to eighth, and their 13-18 record cost the respected Steve Shields his job.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Georgia Southern was picked to finish ninth in the Sun Belt in its first season in the league. Instead, the Eagles were one of the conference’s best teams all year and finished just a couple points shy of their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1992.
Teams on the rise: Louisiana-Monroe, Texas State. ULM was a pleasant surprise this year and will return much of the size and length that made its defense so good, despite losing Tylor Ongwae. The Bobcats are already a good defensive team but are due to take the next step under Danny Kaspar because it’s hard to imagine a Kaspar team struggling so much shooting.
Team on the decline: Georgia Southern. The Eagles are looking up for the long term, but it will be very tough next year to match their Sun Belt debut season splash.
Next Season Conference Outlook
A league so unpredictable this past year looks to be even more so next year, with four of the top five teams sustaining significant personnel losses.
Louisiana-Lafayette will be the likely favorite to make its second trip to the NCAA’s in three years with the return of Shawn Long plus a number of talented sophomores. Louisiana-Monroe shouldn’t be too far behind with its loooooooong defense.
The outlook gets cloudy after those two. Georgia State loses R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow, but coach Ron Hunter has another transfer ready in former Indiana forward Jeremy Hollowell, and without those two prolific scorers this may be the year for Markus Crider and Kevin Ware to really fly. Texas-Arlington also will be fun to watch again as well, despite losing Johnny Hill to transfer.
There is plenty of room for surprises again. Perhaps it’s Texas State, as highly successful coach Danny Kaspar enters his third year and continues to remake the Bobcats. Arkansas State returns almost everybody from a team that went 11-18, but also won at Mississippi State. Even cellar-dwelling Troy should bring back one of the league’s most exciting players in Wesley Person and lost eight games by six points or less.