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2016-17 Sun Belt Post-Mortem

June 8, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The Sun Belt Conference often lurks quietly down in the South, in the shadows of not just the SEC but even fellow major college football-playing Conference USA, to say nothing of overlapping leagues like the Big 12, ACC, and nation-spanning AAC.

The league’s basketball results in recent years have done little to change that, but in the 2016-17 college hoops season, the Sun Belt just might’ve been the best-kept secret in the country. Home of a proud basketball history-it once was the home of programs like UAB, UNC Charlotte, Old Dominion and VCU, and was among the nation’s best leagues in the 1980s-the league saw something of a resurgence just one year after celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Texas-Arlington led the way, winning its first conference title on the way to a 27-win season. A veteran team led by star Kevin Hervey and one of the nation’s assist leaders in Erick Neal, the Mavericks also recorded one of the better non-conference road wins of any team in the country, winning at Saint Mary’s. UTA had 11 true road wins, played 20 of 31 regular season games away from home, and should’ve been a serious candidate for an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament (they apparently didn’t even get a sniff from another heavily BCS-centric committee).

Behind the Mavericks, though, the Sun Belt was deeper than it has been in some time. A total of seven teams won at least 20 games, and second-through-eighth place in the league standings were separated by just two games. It produced a fascinating race for position all the way through the regular season, as well as a conference tournament that was as wide-open as any in the country coming in, and then lived up to that billing with sixth-seeded Troy capturing the title.

Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State and Troy all were notably improved. League teams recorded marquee road wins over programs like Middle Tennessee State, Georgetown, Texas and UNLV. Collectively, the Sun Belt finished 13th in the RPI (per CBSSports.com RPI data), its best finish since 2004-05 and an accomplishment for a league regularly in the late-teens to 20s nationally. And all this came on the heels of the conference recording NCAA Tournament wins as double-digit seeds each of the previous two years.

Oh, and one other thing about that RPI: it was 10 spots higher than Conference USA this year.

Along with improved teams, the Sun Belt also has a growing pool of talented individual players. With Hervey and Neal at UTA, Troy’s Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado, Georgia Southern’s backcourt of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith, and Louisiana-Lafayette super-rebounder Bryce Washington, the league has some true star power right now. It made for an exciting season this year, and so long as the league isn’t affected too much by the sport’s transferring bug, there should be more of the same in the future.

Final Standings

Sun Belt Overall
Texas-Arlington 14-4 27-9
Georgia State 12-6 20-13
Arkansas State 11-7 22-14
Texas State 11-7 22-14
Georgia Southern 11-7 18-15
Louisiana-Lafayette 10-8 21-11
Troy 10-8 22-15
Coastal Carolina 10-8 20-19
South Alabama 7-11 14-18
Arkansas-Little Rock 6-12 15-17
Appalachian State 4-14 9-21
Louisiana-Monroe 2-16 9-24

Conference Tournament
After three years of an eight-team tourney with the top two seeds getting byes to the semifinals, the Sun Belt returned to bringing everyone to the conference tournament, inviting all 12 teams to New Orleans. It came with a cost for top seed Texas-Arlington, which rolled past eighth-seeded Coastal Carolina 74-51 in the quarterfinals, but lost starting guard Jalen Jones to a broken hand. Without him, the Mavericks stumbled in the tourney semifinals, falling to fourth-seeded Texas State 83-62.

As tightly packed as the league was all year, upsets should’ve been no surprise. Still, the tourney provided some shock value, first with 12th-seeded Louisiana-Monroe stunning an Arkansas State team that as a 5 seed looked capable of a run at the title, the battle of schools formerly known as Indians going to ULM 73-70 in overtime.

Moreover, there’s always a Cinderella factor with teams seeded fourth and sixth meeting in the title game, which was exactly what happened when Texas State-after eliminating ULM 63-51 in the quarterfinals and UT-Arlington in the semis-met No. 6 Troy. The Trojans won a first round game by knocking out 11 seed Appalachian State 84-64, drilled third-seeded Georgia Southern 90-70 in the quarterfinals and then tripped up 2 seed Georgia State 74-63 in the semis.

The championship game was a low-scoring fight where offense didn’t come easy for either team. That scenario most certainly favored defense-minded Texas State, but the Bobcats hurt themselves with 17 turnovers and could never seem to get comfortable. Troy shot just 35 percent but got 15 points off the bench from Jeremy Hollimon, and Jordon Varnado scored 10 straight points down the stretch in the Trojans’ 59-53 win for their first-ever Sun Belt title and just their second NCAA Tournament bid as a Division I member, and first since 2003.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Kevin Hervey, Jr. F, Texas-Arlington
Defensive Player of the Year: Jay Wright, Sr. G, Louisiana-Lafayette
Freshman of the Year: D’Marcus Simonds, Fr. G, Georgia State
Newcomer of the Year:
Frank Bartley, Jr. G, Louisiana-Lafayette
Coach of the Year: Scott Cross, Texas-Arlington

All-Conference Team
Tookie Brown, So. G, Georgia Southern
Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, Sr. F, Texas State
Kevin Hervey, Jr. F, Texas-Arlington
Ike Smith, So. G, Georgia Southern
Jordon Varnado, So. F, Troy

Season Highlights

  • The Sun Belt finished a healthy 13th in the conference RPI, its highest mark since posting an identical finish in 2004-05. Seven Sun Belt teams won at least 20 games.
  • Sun Belt teams were active in the postseason. Coastal Carolina was the CBI runner-up, while Texas-Arlington and Texas State were quarterfinalists in the NIT and CIT, respectively. In all, six Sun Belt teams combined to post a more-than respectable 8-7 mark in postseason tourneys.
  • UTA guard Erick Neal finished fifth in NCAA Division I with 6.6 assists per game. Louisiana-Lafayette forward Bryce Washington finished sixth nationally with 22 double-doubles and also was seventh in rebounding at 11.2 caroms per game, while Louisiana-Monroe guard Nick Coppola was one of the nation’s leading iron men, averaging 37.2 minutes per game, sixth-best in the country.

What we expected, and it happened: Texas-Arlington was primed for a big year, and the Mavericks delivered. UTA won at top-25 St. Mary’s, took the Sun Belt regular season title handily, and then followed up an unfortunate league tourney result by advancing to the NIT quarterfinals.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Even knowing it lost a coach and some of the leaders from its 30-win team, we still thought UALR would still be a contender for the Sun Belt title. The Trojans looked the part for the season’s first month, getting off to a 9-2 start, but then fell hard, tumbling near the bottom of the conference.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: How about Troy and Texas State meeting in the conference tournament final, with the Trojans picking up their first Sun Belt title and just their second-ever NCAA D-I tourney appearance? Arkansas State doubling its win total from 11 to 22 was also a surprise-ASU was one of the most pleasant surprises in the country. On the opposite side, Louisiana-Monroe’s fall from second place to the league cellar also was not something we saw coming.

Teams on the rise: Georgia Southern, Texas State, Troy. The Eagles are in good position to challenge the next two years as long as their stellar backcourt of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith stays around. Danny Kaspar appears to have turned a corner at Texas State, and the Bobcats should continue to be a tough out, and Troy returns two of the league’s best players in Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado, plenty to keep the Trojans in contention.

Teams on the decline: Arkansas-Little Rock, Louisiana-Monroe. Both went from the penthouse to the outhouse in one year, with the Trojans dropping from first to 10th, the Warhawks from second to last.

 

2017-18 Sun Belt Outlook

The best part of the Sun Belt’s improvement has been just how young so much of the talent is. Many of those who starred this past year should be back. There will be no shortage of players to watch, which also means there will be no shortage of teams to watch.

Texas-Arlington will likely be the favorite, though the Mavericks do lose glue players Jorge Bilbao and Jalen Jones. Hervey and Neal will be one of the best duos in the country, certainly in the South…and you might be able to say the same about Georgia Southern’s Brown and Smith. And Troy’s Person and Varnado, too.

Georgia Southern should return virtually every major contributor for the second straight year. If the Eagles can get a little more from their inside game, they could wind up the team to beat. Troy should be competitive again and now has the invaluable experience of winning in March. Like UTA, the Trojans will miss some secondary core players with the departure of seniors Jeremy Hollimon and Devon Walker.

Besides those teams, Louisiana-Lafayette is another to watch. The Ragin’ Cajuns lose key senior Jay Wright but bring back most everyone else and welcome USC transfer Malik Marquetti. Texas State will be a tough out, the proverbial team few want to play with its rugged defense. And you have to figure Cliff Ellis will have Coastal Carolina in the mix, as the Chanticleers now have had a year to acclimate to the Sun Belt.

It’s a conference fast becoming more competitive, so much that recent contenders like Arkansas State (this past year) and Arkansas-Little Rock and Louisiana-Monroe (two years ago) will have their work cut out to keep up, while Appalachian State and South Alabama face a major uphill climb.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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