If you followed me during the volleyball season, you'll recall I don't like making conference predictions before a game has been played. There are just too many unknowns going into a season that making those kind of prognostications nothing more than talking points. For example, no one in the Sun Belt Conference gave Reger Dowell much consideration, but has been a huge part of the team for the Mavericks. However, I feel that watching games in the non-conference portion does lend some insight into predictions for conference play.
And in the end, for a conference like ours at this point in time, conference play is all that matters. The conference champion is likely the only NCAA Tournament participant. Maybe some teams will get at-larges into other postseason, but only one into the NCAA's.
For the men, the top two seeds get a double bye into the semi-finals of the conference tournament while the next two get a bye into the quarters. The next four teams play in the opening round. That is huge. If you will recall two seasons ago, the Mavs were upset in the semifinals. In this format, McNeese would be playing their third game, had they won two that point, whereas UT-Arlington would have played their first. Would that have meant a win? No guarantees, but it helps the odds.
On the women, the tournament is a standard single-elimination bracket, but eight teams get in, leaving two at home.
For the men, here's how I see the order of finish.
1) Western Kentucky - It is hard for me to pick a clear-cut number one. WKU has the second-most wins of all Sun Belt teams this year, but there isn't a signature win. They did beat the bellwether of Conference USA, Southern Mississippi. They lost to Marshall earlier in the year, but were playing without guards Trency Jackson and Chris Harrison-Docks. Those two have combined to average 22.8 points per game in the five games they have played together, so they will be a force. Combined with the program's tradition, it is just hard for me to think they won't finish first. However, I just can't see them being the runaway top team in the SBC.
2) Georgia State - The Panthers may be the most underperforming team in the non-conference slate. They had some tough early losses: six point to Vanderbilt, 17 to Alabama, eight to Canisius, five to Elon, one to FIU and a ten-point-overtime loss to Southern Mississippi. They are riding a four-game winning streak going into conference play that includes three C-USA wins. Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter are a potent 1-2 punch. They combine for 37.7 points per game. They seem to be finding the winning ways going into conference play.
3) Louisiana-Lafayette - They have best record, and therefore the best RPI rating of all SBC schools, but have a middle-of-the-pack strength of schedule ranking. Three of their nine wins were non-DI and they have a loss to Southwestern Athletic Conference member Jackson State. However, an overtime home win vs. Houston and road win at Louisiana Tech show this team can win. They are led by Elfrid Payton, who is second on the team in scoring at 19.7, second in rebounds at 5.4 and first in assists 5.6 per game. The team that can contain him will have a better chance at the W.
4) Arkansas State - The Red Wolves come in with a 7-4 record. They could easily flip spaces with UTA or Louisiana-Lafayette as their losses are to Wyoming (8-4), Colorado (#20 and 11-2), Nebraska (8-5) and Toledo (12-1). They only played one non-DI game, so their schedule may not be the toughest, but it was full of games that count in the RPI. They almost blew a large lead at Marshall, but hung on to win. I don't know if other teams would have been able to limp out with a W.
5) UT-Arlington - The team I obviously know the most, the Mavericks have gotten better as the season has progressed. The D is much improved from early November, but the offense is head and shoulders above last year's 19-win team. Reger Dowell in in the top 25 in the NCAA in scoring at 22.3 points and tops in the conference. Brandon Edwards, who came in as the top rebounding threat is fifth in scoring in the conference at 19.3 to go with his 10.0 rebounds. If the Mavericks can avoid falling behind early like they have in the majority of their losses, they will be able to hang with anyone in the conference.
6) South Alabama - Three through six could easily fill each others spot. I put USA here because their results in the pre-conference didn't move me. Losses to UT-Austin, Southern Mississippi, Middle Tennessee, OT to Rice, Gonzaga, Arkansas and New Mexico State, don't instill confidence. Those are solid teams, but it is how they lost, many late in the game, that gives me hesitation. Augustine Rubit leads the team in points, 17.3, and rebounds, 9.5. He also recently broke the SBC's all-time rebounding record. There's not much behind him though. For that, it puts them at sixth.
7) Arkansas-Little Rock may be the biggest disappointment in non-conference play. Losses to North Florida (7-7) and Tulsa (4-9) should have been wins if they are going to be at the top of the SBC. They played their share of guarantee games: Florida, Oklahoma and Memphis. However, of their three DI wins, two were against SWAC schools, including a three-point overtime win at Southern. I have been underwhelmed by senior forward Will Neighbor, who was billed as a top player in the conference. At 16.3 points per game, he is tenth in the conference. Only Josh Hagins - at 19th - comes in the top 20 for UALR (UTA has three in the top 18).
8) Louisiana-Monroe - Keith Richards enters his fourth year coaching Louisiana-Monroe, and they are just now overcoming APR sanctions. They have all their scholarships back and will be able to play a full non-conference schedule next year. They have two DI wins, and of the five DI losses, four were guarantee games, the other was a top C-USA team in Louisiana Tech. The Warhawks won't be the pushovers they have been in past years, but they aren't where the Mike Vining-coached teams were in the '80's and '90's. I readily admit that they could be better, but with a lack of non-power conference schools, it is just too hard to tell.
9) Texas State - Danny Kaspar has a track record of success coaching various schools, including SLC-rival Stephen F. Austin. His defensive minded teams have performed at the peak of Texas universities. But Texas State was one of the fastest paced teams in the NCAA prior to his arrival. He just doesn't have the personnel for his scheme. Joel Wright is pretty much the only threat. They will be a force in the SBC, just not this year.
10) Troy - Lowest rated RPI team in the conference and only team in the 300's, out of a possible 351 schools, the Trojans have a ways to go before they become competitive again. They do have a new arena to recruit to, but have to break three consecutive losing seasons. First year coach Phil Cunningham has his work cut out for him.
As for the women, I predict the following finish:
1) WKU - They have the most non-conference wins and the biggest budget. They didn't play the hardest schedule, but they didn't play cupcakes either. Alexis Govan is third in the SBC in scoring, joining two other 'Toppers in the top ten. Chastity Gooch is averaging a double-double with points and rebounds. (NOTE: As I type this, South Alabama beat them in a New Year's Day conference opener, 74-65 in Mobile)
2) Arkansas-Little Rock - UALR is 5-5 entering SBC play. They have the top scoring defense in the conference. They also have the second worst scoring offense, but I am a firm believer that defense wins games. They do have two scorers averaging double-digits. Playing against some of the competition they have, I'd expect their scoring output to increase.
3) Arkansas State comes in as the other Arkansas SBC team at .500, this one at 6-6, all against DI schools. Aundrea Gamble is second in the conference in scoring at 18.6 while three other teammates average double digits. If they get into a shootout, their chances of winning are quite high.
4) Louisiana-Lafayette - As has been the theme of Cajun teams in my conference previews, they haven't played just the toughest schedule, which is why their 7-4 record is a bit misleading. They lost to two of the better Southland Conference teams as well as Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State. Two wins over SWAC schools and two non-DI wins don't convince me they have hit a higher level. In my opinion, the soft schedule skews the stats, as the SBC competition should be a little tougher, but with only one scorer in top 20, I just don't see them finishing any higher than fourth.
5) Georgia State - 4-8 coming into SBC play, the Panthers are a better team than their record indicates. Three of the losses were single digits. They played #22 Georgia 70-58. They could fall further if their current fifth in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense holds in the conference rankings. (NOTE: Georgia State beat Troy 85-77 in the only other action today)
6) Troy- The Trojans are the exact opposite of the other SBC Trojans. They score a lot - 1st in the SBC at 85 ppg (12.5 points better than second), but they give up a lot, last in the SBC at 91.1 (16.7 points worse than 9th). I'm betting the D will perform a little better in SBC play than it has to this point. Joanna Hardin leads the conference in scoring with 25 per game. Amazingly for a team that scores so much, only two other players are in double digits. That means they really spread it around to score so much. Finding a way to get stops on defense is the key for Troy.
7) Louisiana-Monroe - Given their state of their overall athletic budget, I have a hard time thinking they can be competitors for any conference title. UTA, without football has a bigger overall athletic budget than the Warhawks do. However, at 71.8 points, they can score. Only SFA is a team ULM has beat that doesn't have a losing record. Losses to Central Arkansas, McNeese and Grand Canyon, a DI-transitioning school, lead me to believe they aren't going to keep that scoring average through conference play.
8) South Alabama - Early season losses to Samford, Nicholls State and Houston Baptist are inexcusable for a 2-8 team. The SBC has to beat SWAC, Southern Conference and SLC schools. They don't score much, but have held opponents to under 70 four times in losses. They have given up 53 and 54 points in loses because they can't score. If they can figure a way to do that, they may move up in the standings. As it is, I feel USA, along with my final two picks will be in competition for the last conference tournament spot.
9) Texas State - Only one DI win, against Houston, puts the Bobcats in the same boat as UTA. Without Diamond Ford, who graduated, they only have two scorers in the top 30 in the SBC, with only Ashley Ezeh in double figures.
10) UTA - 1-10, two home losses to DI-transitioning schools, a rebuilding program with new coach means long season. They have had three or four seniors have big games, but never together though, and rarely have the underclassmen had big performances. If Briana Walker, Laila Suleiman and Desherra Nwanguma can find a rhythm together in the same game, then maybe they can string together some SBC wins, but what I have seen getting into the conference tournament will be a challenge.
UTA's teams opens SBC play tomorrow with both squads at home against Arkansas State. The women tip off at 5:00 PM with the men following at 7:30.