It was a weird year in the Sun Belt. UT Arlington was in the hunt for trip to the NCAA Tournament thanks to huge road wins against Saint Mary's and Texas in its nonconference slate, but two losses in its final three regular-season games and a loss in the conference tournament put the Mavericks in the three-letter tournament instead.
Troy, which finished in a three-way tie for sixth in the conference, wound up getting the conference's bid and was 15-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans inability to get a win in the dance snapped a two-year streak of the conference getting at least one NCAA Tournament win.
UT Arlington figures to be the favorite in the conference once again. Coach Scott Cross has to find a way to replace Spanish big man Jorge Bilbao and guard Jalen Jones, but having a future NBA player in Kevin Hervey solves a lot of problems.
A lot of the team's losses came with Hervey either out of the lineup or playing through injury at the beginning of the year. The 6-foot-9 matchup nightmare averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. Barring injury, he should be the Sun Belt Player of the Year. The team also has the best passer in the conference in Erick Neal, who averaged 10.6 points and 6.5 assists last season.
Typically, Georgia State is the school in the conference with all the star transfers coming in, but this year it is Louisiana-Lafayette bringing in the big guns. The Rajin’ Cajuns will have former South Carolina guard Marcus Stroman (no, not the Toronto Blue Jays pitcher), Missouri transfer Jakeenan Gant, and Malik Marquetti from Southern California. Marquetti is 6-foot-11 and should start at the center spot while the 6-foot-8 Gant should join him in the low post.
Georgia State finished second in the conference, and though coach Ron Hunter does not have as many transfers coming in as the Rajin' Cajuns, he has one that trumps them all in former Purdue wing Basil Smotherman.
Troy, which went 22-15, returns perhaps the most dominant low-post player in the conference in Jordan Varnado, who led the team with 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds
UT Arlington should rule the conference with an iron fist, but the transfers Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette brought in should not go unnoticed. Georgia Southern and Troy are also intriguing teams that have experienced recent success in Sun Belt play.
Greg Peterson’s Sun Belt Conference forecast:
1. UT Arlington
2. Georgia State
5. Georgia Southern
6. Arkansas State
7. Coastal Carolina
9. Appalachian State
10. Texas State
11. Little Rock
12. South Alabama