Tuesday, September 20, 2016

2016 Sun Belt Volleyball Conference Predictions

The Sun Belt Conference begins the 2016 conference portion of the schedule this Friday. Consistent followers of this blog know I like to give my predictions for the conference finish after the normal non-conference schedule has concluded and prior to the start of conference play.

We've got a new format this year as the addition of Coastal Carolina allows the SBC to split into divisional play. Only problems I have with that are the unbalanced home vs. road games in a 16-match schedule and how do you adequately determine the true champion? UTA will play four cross-divisional road matches but play only two home matches. Playing uneven road and home matches also can effect the division standings as a team that hosts a preseason favorite will have a slight advantage over a team that plays them on the road.

Anyway, before I get into the breakdown, here's how the coaches foresaw the end result of 2016.

East Division
1. Coastal Carolina (10) - 70 pts
2. Appalachian State (2) - 57 pts
3. South Alabama - 40 pts
4. Georgia Southern - 31 pts
5. Troy - 30 pts
6. Georgia State - 24 pts
West Division
1. Arkansas State (12) - 72 pts
2. Texas State - 58 pts
3. UT Arlington - 45 pts
4. Little Rock - 39 pts
5. UL Lafayette - 24 pts
6. UL Monroe - 14 pts

After non-conference play, most of my predictions will mirror the coaches picks. I'll start in the east.

6. Georgia State - A rather lackluster 4-7 to start with a team with little history of success. They have been swept four times and lost in four sets the other three times. The wins were over teams just as poor. The team with the second worst SBC hitting percentage has a lot of improvement to make. 

5. Troy - A 6-9 team that has been swept five times doesn't look good. On top of it, three of the wins saw set losses to Alabama A&M, Chicago St and Savannah St. Ouch.

4. Appalachian St - A toss up between them and Troy. Ultimately I gave a little more credence to App's tradition and experience. The preseason east favorite's are young and, at 2-11, seem to be rebuilding. Their schedule is a bit tougher than the previous two teams we have seen, but certainly should have seen more wins to this point, and last year's crew certainly would have.

3. Georgia Southern - Every year since the Eagles have joined the SBC, I have expected them to perform better than they have. Maybe this is the year. At 7-8, they certainly look better. Six of the eight losses are to Power Five Conference schools. The downside is all but one of those losses were sweeps and of their seven wins, only one is a sweep. That may be enough in the east to earn a third or second place finish. 

2. South Alabama - This is the surprise team in the east to me. The Jaguars have been improving every year, but where they came from, there was a lot of improvement to make. At 9-4. they've beat who they were supposed for the most part, but with a cupcake schedule, the record looks more impressive than it maybe should. They lead the conference in hitting percentage, but are last in opponents hitting percentage. That first one will decline with better competition. That second is not a great sign if the school's schedule was already soft.

1. Coastal Carolina - This is the only east team that is performing as expected. 9-3 on the year with five Power 5 Conference wins. Two of the three losses were to ranked teams and the other loss was to Georgia Tech, a team they also have a win over. They are top two in every SBC team category except digs and service aces. Annayka Legros is leading the conference in hitting percentage and will likely feast on the east.

Moving over to the west, I think the coaches picks will stand through.

6. UL-Lafayette - At 3-11, they have the least amount of non-conference wins of any team in the west. The schedule isn't completely soft, but certainly not hard either. Last year's last place team could swap with their rivals at number five.

5. UL-Monroe - They weren't last in 2015, beating the Cajuns by one game in the standings. Their schedule isn't great again, but they are getting more wins in non-conference the past few years than their historical average. They are in the bottom half in every team statistical category and will not challenge often in the deeper West Division.

4. Little Rock - I thought after the poor performance UT-Arlington had in stretches that Little Rock would be in the top three, but one common theme for the next three teams will be the under performing of the SBC's "elite" teams. Their schedule is tougher than the previous two, but the results weren't close. They aren't getting many digs or kills, but they are staying in the match due to their blocking skills, which is first in the SBC. The offense has to pick up for the Trojans to perform better.

3. UTA - The inconsistent play is still a factor, but should carry them to eight wins minimum in the SBC. The team has exceeded my expectations on digs, currently third in the SBC with the Mavs as the only team to have two players in the top eight in the SBC. Blocking is still a strength, though I thought they'd be higher than fourth there. Offense is where the heart attacks originate from - tenth in the conference. If that stat increases in conference, the team could contend for a division title.

2. Texas State - The Bobcats are taking a play from the Mavericks playbook as the inconsistency has led to a 7-8 record. The offense is okay, the defense is sub-par, an unusual combo of a team led by coach Karen Chisum. At third in the conference, the TXST blocking has been a surprise, picking up the slack defensively. If Alex Silver can enter the SBC's top ten in digs, the 'cats will be contenders for a postseason bid, a regular occurrence in their history.

1. Arkansas State - Injuries may have hurt the Red Wolves, but at 8-6, they have played consistently enough to own the best non-conference record in the West. The schedule isn't daunting, but wasn't easy either and have won at least two matches in every tournament they played in. The depth has helped them and their starting players are near the top of the best in the SBC. It looks like the West is Arkansas State and then everyone else this year.  

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