Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2015 Sun Belt Volleyball Conference Predictions

As a primer for those just following this year, or not paying attention in previous years, I make my conference predictions at the close of the non-conference season, just prior to the start of conference play. I feel it gives a better look at teams, as sometimes some teams play better than expected or have an impact player not expected to be a big contributor, a coach who has the team running smoothly, etc. While I have been slightly made fun of compared to the pre-season predictions the conferences release, I'll take my marginally better track record compared to the coaches poll and move forward.

I feel this year's volleyball standings will look like past years, the teams in the top half will stay there, the teams in the bottom half won't move up. Not that surprising in the Group of 5 conferences Olympic Sports. It is expected and nothing I saw this year will change that dynamic.

The coaches estimated the following finish:
1) Little Rock
2) Texas State
3) Arkansas State
4) Appalachian St
5) UT-Arlington
6) Georgia State
7) Louisiana-Lafayette
8) Georgia Southern
9) South Alabama
10) Troy
11) Louisiana-Monroe

My picks are as follows:

11) Louisiana-Monore (7-5) - This team has finished last in their division or conference (if no divisions) every year but last year since they joined in 2006. I don't know that will change. A cursory glance of their record says they belong higher. However, they have five wins against Southwestern Athletic Conference teams, the absolute worst conference from a competitive standpoint in just about any sport in the NCAA. 2-5 against so-so competition doesn't give me hope for the Warhawks, though I concede they could be a spot or two higher than last year.

10) Louisiana-Lafayette (3-8) - They had made strides in previous seasons, adopting a play a weak non-conference schedule to get near .500 in season play. While the schedule wasn't quite as weak as in previous seasons, the results should still be way better.

9) Georgia State (4-6) - One of the biggest movers from the pre-season poll, they were picked 6th by the coaches. I just don't see it. Three of their four wins came in a tournament of patsies and the other came against a SWAC school. Four of their six losses have come in five sets, so I may eat crow on this one, but I think some teams are competitive, but consistently come up short. Time will tell on this one.

8) Troy (5-7) - This could be my biggest over reach. Typically a bottom-dweller, the Trojans look better early on than their last-place finish from last year shows. For whatever reason, teams from Alabama (and Louisiana) just don't compete well in volleyball. They are currently riding a five-match losing streak, but the losses have been to okay-to-good teams for the most part. The losses were close, even to Power 5 Conference schools. This is a young squad, with over half sophomores or freshman and only four seniors. I just think maybe Troy is turning the corner.

7) South Alabama (5-4) - Another perennial Sun Belt bottom feeder, the Jaguars 5-4 record came against weaker competition. But these were games they lost in the past. They sit fifth in the SBC in hitting percentage and fourth in digs. Even the teams that have the weak schedules aren't putting those numbers up. I may regret this, but South Alabama is so good in nearly every other women's sport, I just have to wonder when they get volleyball in gear.

6) Georgia Southern (5-6) - Still wondering what to make of the Eagles. Two years ago, they dominated the Southern Conference, going 28-6, 13-3. With most of the players back from that team, they were 7-23, 6-14. There were some injury bugs last year that played a factor too. Their schedule is hard to determine on talent level, some teams could be good or bad, so I'm gonna give Georgia Southern the benefit of the doubt and believe they return to levels they played at in the SoCon.

From here, I believe either team could finish 1-5, it is that close. I don't think there is a clear number one, like Western Kentucky in 2013 or Little Rock last year.

5) Texas State (5-7) - The preseason number two pick certainly has a disappointing record. They've played both challenging opponents and some that pose no threat. Losing to TCU and SMU in straight sets early is concerning, but the fact they scored over 17 just once in six sets against those teams is worse. I rarely bet against Karen Chisum, who has just too many skins on the wall, which is why they aren't worse. But, they have a long way to go to live up to pre-season billing.

4) Appalachian State (7-4) -  The Mountaineers lead the SBC in hitting percentage, kills and assists. They are very good offensively. They are good on defense, though not as much the other way. I wanted to place them higher, but then the question I had was who gets the bump? If there was a numerical value ranking the teams, App would be percentage points behind number three.

3) UT Arlington (9-3) - Really dislike putting the Mavericks higher than preseason expectations, but I really feel they have performed better than expected. See the previous post on why.

2) Little Rock (4-6) - Based on record alone, it looks like the Trojans could be overrated as the preseason SBC favorite. However, they unquestionably have the toughest schedule of any team. Two ranked losses and losses to some quality teams mean more than SWAC wins. That said, some of these losses would have been wins last year (Oklahoma, for example). You don't lose a player like Edina Begic without feeling it. They still return a lot of talent and earned some respect from last year, but I have to wonder how good the rest of the team was just by the presence of Begic.

1) Arkansas State (9-1) - The Red Wolves have impressed me the most. While not as hard as Little Rock's schedule, they have played some good teams...and won. A five set loss to undefeated Missouri is the only setback. Seven sweeps on the year is also impressive. They are first in the conference in digs, second in hitting percentage, opponents hitting percentage and assists while sitting third in blocks. Short answer, they can well on both sides of the net. I see nothing that makes me think they won't finish the regular season at the top. I think this year's Arkansas State team would have given last year's Little Rock team a challenge.

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