At the beginning of the year, the coaches thought the final Sun belt standings would be:
|1||Georgia State||121 (11)|
Mine won't vary too much, but there were some question marks that did arise from a couple of teams, and some head turners from others.
1 Georgia State (7-4). The Panthers are the defending SBC champs and in some ways seem to be following the formula from last year. The non-conference record is better than the previous version, but for the top of the SBC, I'd hoped for better. Still, they have R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow, who can score. I still remember Markus Crider who killed the Mavs last year, and he's a role player for the squad. They are scorers from start to finish. The one weakness seems to be rebounding. Catch them on a cold shooting day and you can walk out with a W. There is no signature win and some losses to Colorado State, Old Dominion and Wisconsin-Green Bay, teams the top of the SBC could and maybe should beat, IMHO. However, the SBC is theirs to lose given what they did last year and with most of the cast returning.
2 Louisiana-Lafayette (6-5). No Elfrid Payton, no problem right? Not so fast. The Cajuns have a 6-5 record overall, but only a 3-5 record against DI. Dig even deeper and see two losses in two tries against SLC teams! Top of the SBC should always beat any SLC team, which McNeese State and Northwestern State certainly aren't even at the top. Collectively, those two are 2-11 against DI, both wins against the Cajuns. At least the Cajuns claim a victory over Louisiana Tech, a conference-championship contender in Conference USA, so that gives me hope. Ultimately, I have some respect for Bob Marlin's coaching ability and they can still score. With Shaun Long manning the interior, this is a dangerous team. They are beatable, but until I see it otherwise in conference, I will give this team the respect they've earned from previous years.
3 UT Arlington (6-4). I really hesitate to put them so high. We started to see last season repeat itself at times, the team playing just below the level of its opponent. Buffalo, Montana State, Texas. I'll give the Montana State game an asterisk as it came with hellacious travel from Kentucky where more than a day of travel came in the two-day break. However, they beat Weber State in a back and forth game at home, something they didn't do much of last year and had two really good road wins at UC-Irvine, most pieces back from a Big West championship, and Grand Canyon, who will be a leader in the watered-down WAC. The thing that has me excited is this team isn't a one-man show, a la Reger Dowell last year. With some really young guys making big contributions, they should get better as the season rolls on. I may regret it later, but I think this UTA team will win this year.
4. UALR (5-5). I wanted to put them lower, as they dropped several eggs in a four-game losing streak including losses to Missouri State (4-6 v DI) and Tulsa (one loss coming to a DII squad). Their other losses are to generally good teams, but again, the top of the SBC should win some of those games against the top of similar conferences. Roger Woods and James White are only guys who average double digits in points, but they do have a talented roster. They just kind of underwhelmed me the first two months of the year. They could easily follow the coaches predictions and flip with UTA if they perform how they are capable.
5. Texas State (6-3). This may be my biggest stretch, but I really believe in Danny Kaspar. I may give him too much credit early, as they are only 3-3 against DI competition, and those three aren't impressive. They don't score, but they make the shots they do take. They slow down the game, put emphasis on defense, passing and good shot selection..., or basically, typical Kaspar ball. If they hold on to that formula during conference play, they will win.
6. Georgia Southern (7-2). The biggest surprise to me is the play of Georgia Southern. They opened with a tough road loss to Illinois. In a Power 5 conference v non-P5 game, many times it can be the opponent playing down to the "lower level" team or the "lower" team playing up. That didn't prove to be the case as they would go 7-1 over the next eight. The schedule was weak, including three non-DI wins, but they picked up a win on the road against the American Athletic Conference's South Florida and a home win against Conference USA's Florida International (hold the laughter please). They won't be as bad as many have expected. I fully expect to see them in New Orleans in March.
7. Arkansas State (5-4). This is perhaps the biggest disappointment of all 11 teams. They are usually a solid team, but opening home losses to Tennessee-Martin and Lamar (2-6 vesus DI)? They rebounded with wins over a bad SEC team in Mississippi State (5-5 v DI), Marshall (2-8 v DI) and Niagra (1-8). The last two were close wins, so I wasn't terribly impressed.
8. Appalachian State (3-6). The Mountaineers have arguably the toughest non-conference schedule of all teams in the SBC as all opponents were DI, and generally good DI teams on top of it. They beat Virginia Tech, lost by one to Alabama and lost by 13 to Georgia Tech, all on the road. I wish they'd have fared better against Hofstra or Charlotte, but only the Furman game was a loss to a bad team. I know nothing about Jim Fox, who is in his first year at the helm of the ASU program, but his team seems to have some fight in it. This could be a trap game for teams at the top of the SBC.
9. Louisiana-Monroe (6-5). This is a team coming out of APR issues last year and has one of the smallest overall athletic budgets in the conference (UTA, without football, spends more than the Warhawks). That has proved on the court, with Keith Richards, entering his fifth season, sporting a 14-53 record his first three years. 10 wins last year, first time in double digits since 2009/10 and already six this year. My problem is those six weren't impressive, three weren't DI. Losses to Coastal Carolina, Robert Morris and Samford don't instill confidence in me. I like senior Tylor Ongwae, but he has to have help. There isn't much there, I'm afraid.
10. Troy (5-4). The record looks nice, but two wins came outside of DI, one was to an absolutely terrible Central Arkansas team, another was a road win against an almost equally terrible Nicholls State team and a Southwestern Athletic Conference (always the worst conference in DI) win. They have the weakest schedule of all 11 teams and should have more wins really. However, if they can play like they did in a two-point loss at Southern Mississippi, they have a chance against the lower-level SBC teams. There just isn't much depth behind a couple of good seniors in Musa Abdul-Aleem and Kevin Thomas. Freshman Wesley Perkins has been nice, but the Trojans need more.
11. South Alabama (2-8). I don't understand how this program has fallen so far. The Jaguars used to be one of the best non-P5 teams (before that distinction even existed). But now, they can only pick up wins against DII or lower, 0-8 this year against the top tier division. A nine-point loss to a 5-6 Southern Mississippi, a 13-point loss to a 6-7 Detroit, a six-point loss to a 4-8 IUPUI and a 13-point loss to a 7-8 Howard teams were inexcusable just a couple of years ago. I just don't know what to say. I had such respect for this program and have no idea how it has fallen so far. But at least the football team went 6-7 this year and made a bowl game.