It’s been an excellent 41st year for the venerable Sun Belt Conference, and one that is showing no signs of dampening as the regular season winds down and conference tournament time approaches.
Showdowns for first place have seemed like an almost nightly occurrence in the Sun Belt this season, and Monday night brought yet another one. Showing the mettle of a team that was expected to be the league favorite before the season and is looking more and more comfortable as a leader, Texas-Arlington scored an 81-71 road win at Georgia Southern to remain a game ahead of the field as the regular season winds down.
A terrific game that included 16 lead changes and 10 ties was decided by UT-Arlington seizing the moment down the stretch and owning the game’s final six minutes. The teams were tied as late as 65-65, but the Mavericks scored on their next four trips down the court. Just as importantly, UTA got stops, holding the Eagles scoreless in that time, and that 3 1/2 minute stretch was all the difference.
The game also featured an individual dual between Mavericks star Kevin Hervey and GSU sophomore Ike Smith, who combined for 55 points. Hervey scored a career-best 28 points, hit 5 of 6 three-point tries, and also grabbed 13 rebounds. He showed why he’s such a tantalizing all-around talent, even as he played just 29 minutes. It’s almost impossible not to gush when Hervey plays like this; his offensive skill and knack are something to be seen, and he is a matchup nightmare in the Sun Belt and would be in any conference. And yet, on this night Smith was nearly as good, scoring 27 points, making four three-pointers and hitting a string of smooth pull-ups.
In a league where various teams have held the top spot at one point or another, Texas-Arlington is the latest to take the point. Top to bottom, the Sun Belt has been arguably the most improved conference of any in the country this season, and its upcoming tournament is poised to be as must-see as just about any this year. Literally any of eight teams appear to be legitimate candidates to win the whole thing (and none are named Arkansas-Little Rock, the NCAA Round of 32 participant from a year ago that dominated this league last season).
Even now, UTA is no sure thing to claim the league’s regular season title. There are four games left in the regular season, and the Mavericks still close with a road swing at Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. Four teams are within 1 1/2 games of first, and a whopping seven are just three games out. Whoever wins this league is going to be more than sufficiently battle-tested to do some good things in the postseason.
- Tuesday morning is leaving many wondering just what is wrong with Virginia. At the same time, let’s give some credit to Miami (Fla.), which dealt the Cavaliers their fourth straight loss with a 54-48 overtime win. The Hurricanes are playing without one of their leaders with JaQuan Newton out and fielded a strict seven-man rotation, yet Miami won the battle of defenses against one of the best defensive squads anywhere.
- Iowa State got a nice road win, tipping Texas Tech 82-80 in Lubbock for its 19th win and just about sewing up an NCAA bid. Naz Mitrou-Long, Monte Morris and Matt Thomas combined for 59 points and led a long range attack that delivered 12 three-pointers, and the Cyclones weathered some late foul trouble for their fifth true road win of the season.
- West Virginia handled Texas as expected, cruising to a 77-62 win, but the game had a scary moment when WVU coach Bob Huggins briefly dropped to his knees and was clutching his chest late in the first half. Huggins said after the game that his defibrillator had gone off, but after collecting himself he was able to continue coaching in the second half. The lovably gruff Huggins once had a heart attack in 2002 and received the defibrillator soon after.
- North Carolina Central still leads the MEAC by 1 1/2 games over its nearest competition after a 66-59 win at Howard. Texas Southern also continued to hold off hard-charging Alcorn State in the SWAC, with the Tigers’ 92-61 win over Mississippi Valley State keeping them half a game ahead of the Braves, who defeated hapless (1-24) Alabama A&M 74-59.
- Maryland took a blow on its interior when it was announced 7-foot-1 junior center Michal Cekovsky will miss the rest of the season after fracturing his ankle Sunday in the Terrapins’ loss at Wisconsin. Tough loss for the young man and the Terps, as he was averaging over seven points per game and becoming more and more of an impact player of late.
Tonight’s Menu: It’s a skimpy slate for impact matchups
- The night starts with Purdue on the road at Penn State (6 p.m. Eastern, Big Ten Network). PSU’s struggles insidesuggest this will be a tough task, but the Nittany Lions did beat Maryland their last time out. Following that on the tube is Northwestern at Illinois (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).
- Rhode Island is at La Salle with positioning in the Atlantic 10 at stake (6 p.m., CBSSN). Both are in hot contention for as high as the 3 seed in the conference tourney. Another team in that hunt is George Mason, which faces a tough task at Dayton.
- South Carolina has been struggling, but can sufficiently prove it is just fine with one stroke: winning at Florida (7 p.m., ESPN).
- Clemson is nearing its last chance for at-large candidacy (we think; you never know with this year’s ACC). The Tigers are at Virginia Tech (7 p.m., ESPNU).
- Monmouth puts its 13-game win streak on the line with a tough one on the road at Fairfield, which can shoot its way to a win if not even trying to match the Hawks’ depth.
- Wright State at Northern Kentucky is another good battle for place, this in the Horizon League.
- Mississippi is at Mississippi State (9 p.m., ESPN2), with the Bulldogs look to avenge a 27-point flogging in the rivals’ first meeting.
- Mountain West tri-leader Colorado State is at New Mexico (10 p.m., CBSSN), with the Lobos looking for the season sweep.
Have a super Tuesday.