Lonte’s College Basketball Conference Preview: Sun Belt
Last year this conference was ranked in the top half by KenPom and saw their conference tournament champion Louisiana push Tennessee to the brink in the first round.The conference is usually pretty competitive and provides a ton of intrigue on a weekly basis. There were five teams who finished with 20+ wins and an additional three teams who finished .500 or better. This year I expect much of the same as the bottom of the conference should be more competitive.
Southern Miss finished atop the conference with a 14-4 record and 25-8 overall. As mentioned, Louisiana won the conference tournament to secure the auto-bid after finishing third in the conference. The top four teams in this conference were all inside the top 100 of KenPom which shows just how good they were last year. In this article we will go through and pick a conference winner, sleeper team, and all-conference teams.
Conference Winner: Appalachian State
The Mountaineers finished last year exactly .500 in conference and overall record. They were 8th in the conference last season and nearly upset Troy in the 2nd round of the SBC tournament. The coaches picked App St to finish 2nd this season and kenPom ranks them 1st in his SBC rankings. In college basketball, I’m big on continuity and guard play. Those are two key parameters I look for in teams going into the season and during March.
App State has both of those things and more. They return all five starters, highlighted by Terence Harcum and Donovan Gregory. They are one of the deeper teams in the conference and have the best defense. They finished last year number one in scoring defense and effective field-goal% allowed. The offense must improve if they want to take the next step. They were outside the top 250 in offensive efficiency. As good as the defense is, it can’t be the saving grace this year with how much better this conference is from top to bottom.
The free-throw line and three-point line will be big if the Mountaineers want to win the conference. They were under 66% from the foul line and outside the top 220 in three-point shooting. They have some freshmen who I think if given the minutes, can stretch the floor and knock down shots. Kearns is a solid coach and with this deep experienced roster, I think they can take a nice leap to top three in the conference and win the regular season title.
Conference Sleeper: Arkansas State
It’s a new era in Jonesboro. Out is Mike Balado and in is former Alabama assistant Bryan Hodgson. If you are a fan of this team, you have a lot to be excited about this season and in the future. Hodgson is known as an elite recruiter and had his hands all over the Alabama offense in his four years in which they finished 20th, 16th, 30th, and 35th in offensive efficiency. The Red Wolves finished outside the top 270 in offensive efficiency and 344th in adjusted tempo. Hodgson will improve those numbers instantly with his offensive scheme.
Last year, they started off okay (9-6) but crashed late in the season. From the end of December (12/31) to February 11th, they lost 10 in a row and 12 of 13. The Red Wolves return three starters highlighted by point guard Caleb Fields who led the team in scoring and assists last year. Returning alongside Fields are Terrance Ford and Avery Felts who both were fringe double digit scorers last year.
Coach Hodgson wasted no time making some key additions to the team. He added three key pieces who will be big contributors to the team this year. Dvondre Dominguez (Umass), Derrian Ford (Arkansas), and Laquill Hardnett (Buff) are massive adds. Each player adds something different that can have this team leaping from the bottom of the conference to the top. Dominguez shot 39% from deep last year while averaging close to nine points per game. Hardnett, who was recruited by Hodgson at Buffalo is a 34/35% shooter from behind the arc and averaged 11 points to go along with 7 rebounds last season.
The player to be most excited for is the Arkansas transfer Derrian Ford. I think he has all-conference written all over him. Ford spent last year with the Razorbacks and did not log much playing time behind a stellar Hogs roster loaded with NBA talent. He is a former four-star recruit from the state of Arkansas where he won not one but two Gatorade players of the year. He was a Mcdonald’s All-American nominee and this is the perfect situation for him to showcase his skill set. Look out for Ford to be a key contributor in this Hodgson offense in the backcourt with Fields.
With these additions mixed in with the returning talent and the new scheme, Arkansas State could be in line for a huge leap. Kenpom has them projected 6th while the coaches voted them to finish 9th. I’m higher on this team and I think they could contend for a top 3-4 spot. If you want to buy stock while its low, this is the time to get it because after next year, the Red Wolves will be consistently atop the SBC.
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G. Derrian Ford – Arkansas State
G. Austin Crowley – Southern Miss
G. Terrence Edwards – James Madison
G. Themus Fulks – Louisiana
F. Donovan Gregory – App State
Player Of The Year:
Austin Crowley – App State
Coach Of The Year:
Bryan Hodgsin – Arkansas State
THIS IS AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY DELONTE SMITH
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