College Basketball Preview: Sun Belt

By Jesse Kramer

Thanks to conference realignment, the Sun Belt is another conference with a changed group of teams this season.

Georgia State, in its first year in the conference, will contend for the crown along with long-time Sun Belt members Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky, and South Alabama. Texas State and Texas-Arlington are also new additions to the conference, but they are still a couple of years away from competing at the top of the league.

 

The Favorites

1. Georgia State

In  its first season in the Sun Belt, Georgia State will compete for a conference title. The Panthers return four starters and sixth man Markus Crider from last year’s team that finished 15-16 in the CAA.

Photo: slamonline.com
Photo: slamonline.com

Sophomore guard R.J. Hunter (pictured), already considered a NBA prospect by some, returns to lead the way for the Panthers. The son of head coach Ron Hunter, R.J. led the Panthers with 17 points per game as a freshman. He also averaged 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals while draining 36.5% of his three-pointers.

The Panthers also return seniors Devonta White and Rashaad Richardson to their backcourt while adding Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow. White, a point guard, led the team with 3.9 assists per game last season, and he also added 14.8 points and 1.7 steals. Richardson performed well on the wing with 7.3 points per contest and 36% three-point shooting.

Harrow averaged 9.9 points and 2.8 assists for Kentucky last season.

In the frontcourt, Georgia State will use Manny Atkins and Crider. Atkins, a redshirt senior who transferred from Virginia Tech, averaged 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds last season and drained three-pointers at a 41.2% clip. Crider came off the bench for 17.1 minutes per game and averaged 3.7 points on 51.7% shooting and 3.2 boards.

 

2. Louisiana-Lafayette

Louisiana-Lafayette is in shape for a huge season. The Ragin Caguns’ last season above .500 was in 2004-05, but that will surely change as they bring back all five starters and most of their bench.

Louisiana returns two locks for the all-conference first team, point guard Elfrid Payton and power forward Shawn Long.

Payton, who earned first team honors last year as a sophomore, averaged 15.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.4 steals per game. His 3.4 turnovers per game were higher than hoped for, but he was still the best floor general in the league.

Long was an easy pick for Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, and he also earned All-Sun Belt Second Team honors. Long averaged a double-double with 15.5 points and 10.2 boards, good for third and second in the conference, respectively. He was also fourth in the conference in blocks with two per game.

The Ragin Caguns also return guards Bryant Mbamalu, Steven Wronkoski, Kasey Shepherd, and Kevin Brown.

 

The Contenders

3. Western Kentucky

Western Kentucky is on its way back to mid-major prominence. (Although the Hilltoppers have been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, they have been a No. 16 seed both times.)

A borderline top-25 mid-major, the Hilltoppers return leading scorers T.J. Price and George Fant, as well as Kevin Kaspar, Aleksej Rostov, O’Karo Akamune, and Caden Dickerson.

Price led Western Kentucky in points with 15.2 per game last season and three-point shooting at 35.8%. Earning All-Sun Belt Second Team honors, Price had 10 games with at least 20 points and posted a career-high 30 against Louisiana-Monroe.

The addition of redshirt freshman point guard Chris Harrison-Docks to the backcourt will add some extra depth. Harrison-Docks was a three-star recruit on both Scout and Rivals in the Class of 2012.

Fant, who earned All-Sun Belt Third Team honors, averaged 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds. The 6’6″ forward posted four double-doubles last season.

In the frontcourt, the Hilltoppers add a pair of junior college transfers, big men Daouda Soumaoro and Aaron Adeoye.

 

4. South Alabama
Photo: Sun Belt Sports
Photo: Sun Belt Sports

South Alabama returns three starters from last year’s team that won 17 games and earned a postseason berth, providing first-year head coach Matthew Graves a solid core to build on.

Augustine Rubit (pictured), the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year, is back as he tries to lead his team to another postseason. Rubit has been a dominant force at the mid-major level for the last three seasons. Last season he averaged 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds; as a sophomore he averaged 15.2 points and 9.2 boards; and as a freshman the numbers were 13.1 and 11.0. Since joining the Division I ranks, he has amassed 43 double-doubles.

The Jaguars also return guards Mychal Ammons and Antoine Allen. Ammons recorded 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while Allen posted 9.1 points and 1.3 steals.

 

The Sleepers

5. Arkansas State

Arkansas State returns all but three players from last year’s 18-win team, and it also adds a few key transfers.

Ed Townsel (13.1 ppg), Cameron Golden (7.1 ppg, 2.1 apg), and Rakeem Dickerson (4.9 ppg, 2.2 apg) anchor an experienced backcourt, but they will be joined this season by Brandon Reed, Melvin Johnson III, and Sean Gardner.

Reed, who played his freshman season at Arkansas State, returns after playing the last two years at Georgia Tech. As a Yellow Jacket, he averaged 5.2 points in 2012-13.

Johnson III was one of the Southland’s better scorers at Texas-San Antonio for two seasons. In 2010-11 he averaged 14.9 points, and in 2011-12 he posted 13 per game. As a junior, he shot 46.1% from the field and 43.4% on three-pointers.

Gardner averaged 10.7 points and three assists last season at Motlow State Community College.

In the frontcourt, the Red Wolves return Kendrick Washington and Raeford Worsham while adding Houston transfer Kirk Van Slyke.

 

6. Arkansas-Little Rock

With the return of four starters, including All-Sun Belt Third Team member Will Neighbour, Arkansas-Little Rock could make a push in the standings this season.

Neighbour, a 6’10” forward, is one of the league’s better players. Last season, he averaged 10.7 points, seven rebounds, and 1.2 steals, and in the process he posted five double-doubles. The Torjans also return 6’8″ redshirt sophomore James White (7.2 ppg, 50.0 FG%) to the frontcourt.

At guard, the Trojans will use sophomore Josh Hagins, who averaged 8.1 points and 3.1 assists as a frosh. Hagins had as many as eight assists in a single game last season.

 

The Rest

7. Texas State

Texas State won only 12 games last season, but it got hot late with wins in five of seven games before losing to New Mexico State in the WAC semifinals.

Now in the Sun Belt, the Bobcats return four starters, including the WAC’s leading scorer Joel Wright. Wright, a 6’7″ forward, averaged 17.9 points and 6.9 rebounds last season.

This first season will not be easy, but new head coach Danny Kaspar is the right man for the job. Kaspar, who experienced seven 20-win seasons as the head coach of Stephen F. Austin, built the program up after finishing 10th in the Southland in his first year.

 

8. Louisiana-Monroe

Louisiana-Monroe is poised for a leap in the standings after going only 4-23 last season. The Warhawks bring back four starters, including point-forward Jayon James, and add a talented group of junior college transfers. James, a former Iona transfer, is coming off a breakout junior season where he averaged 9.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.4 steals, and ranked No. 37 nationally in assist rate.

Amos Olatayo, who was fourth in the conference in scoring last season with 15.8 points per game, also returns.

 

9. Texas-Arlington

Texas-Arlington lost its top three scorers from last season, but a large group of transfers could keep the Mavericks competitive this season.

Most notably, they add Reger Dowell, who played three season at Oklahoma State. As a junior, he averaged 5.5 points and 1.7 assists in 19.2 minutes per game, and he scored 22 points against Texas A&M in February 2011.

The Mavericks also welcome junior college transfers Anthony Walker and Vincent Dillard to help returnees Brandon Edwards (7.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 58.5 FG%) and Greg Gainey (6.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) in the frontcourt.

 

10. Troy

After winning only 30 games over the last three seasons, Troy decided to fire Don Maestri and hire former Western Kentucky assistant Phil Cunningham. And it will be a big, uphill climb for Cunningham.

The Trojans return three starters and have a veteran backcourt with seniors Hunter Williams (10.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) and Antoine Myers (8.0 ppg, 2.6 apg).

Junior college transfer Kevin Thomas, whom ESPN ranked the 37th-best small forward in the Class of 2011, should make an impact for the Trojans from day one. At Palm Beach State College last season, he averaged 9.1 points and nine rebounds.

 

Sun Belt Player of the Year

Augustine Rubit, South Alabama

Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year

Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette

Sun Belt Freshman of the Year

Chris Harrison-Docks, Western Kentucky

Sun Belt All-Conference Team

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette

T.J. Price, Western Kentucky

R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

Augustine Rubit, South Alabama

Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette

 

*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.

Author: Jesse Kramer

Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has had work featured on SI.com, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.

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