Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016/17 Sun Belt Men's Basketball Predictions

I posted the Sun Belt Conference women's basketball predictions yesterday. They open the conference portion of the schedule tonight. Now I post the men's version. This was a lot tougher than past years as the Sun Belt looks to have a great chance to make a splash.

Nine teams are over .500 with another even in wins and losses. Of the two teams below the majority mark, one is by a single game. Yes, a few of those wins came against non-Division I opponents, but this is the best mark I have seen in the SBC since UTA joined.

Before I introduce my selections, here's what the coaches predicted for the SBC finish:

1. UT Arlington (10)
2. Little Rock (1)
3. Georgia State (1)
4. Georgia Southern
5. Coastal Carolina
6. South Alabama
7. Louisiana
8. Louisiana-Monroe
9. Troy
10. Arkansas State
11. Appalachian State
12. Texas State
I think if the coaches did what I did and voted now, there would be a lot of changes.

12) Appalachian State (5-6) - 12 through 9 may be the hardest part of this list and I firmly believe that they could exchange spots without any hiccups. I figured App gets the nod for two reasons. They finished second-to-last the previous season and have a combined four juniors and seniors. The second is their schedule, which is average at best. They average a +6.1 in scoring margin, but that is bolstered by a 119-51 win against Warren Wilson, a school that is not in the NCAA or even NAIA. Otherwise, that margin would be in the high negative.

11) Texas State (7-5) - The record is somewhat deceiving here as Texas State has two wins over non-DI schools. The remaining .500 DI record is spotty at best. Ultimately, the loss to UT-Rio Grande Valley made me think twice about this team. It seems Danny Kaspar has been in rebuilding mode every year since his arrival.

10) Coastal Carolina (5-8) - The unknown of the conference, the Chanticleers have not looked pretty in wins and dreadful in losses. The schedule is tough, but middle of the pack by SBC standards. They've given up the most points in the SBC and if you can't play defense, in this conference..., well let's just say the Sun Belt isn't an easy conference.

9) ULM (7-7) - The Warhawks lost a lot of talent. It looks like they haven't replaced it fully. I like what sophomore Travis Munnings is doing, averaging 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. However, they mainly get their production from six players. That lack of depth can be a big issue in crunch time, whether it be by fouls, match ups or just a bad night.

8) South Alabama (7-6) - They looked early on to be a solid contender for a top-level spot. They started the season 5-0, but have lost six of the last eight. The losses were to good teams, but certainly not great ones. They play a slow, methodical game and that could help them out against some of the faster-paced teams of the Belt, but they aren't going to win many track meets. That appears to be what the SBC is heading to this year.

7) Troy (8-6) - Traditionally a bottom dweller when it comes to men's basketball, the Troy Trojans have enjoyed one of their better non-conference seasons in a while. They didn't have the toughest schedule, but every single game was respectable, especially as the season wore on. They are second in the conference in scoring and middle of the pack in defense. They have the ability to be higher, I just need to see it once to be comfortable.

6) Georgia Southern (7-6) - The future is bright in Statesboro, but not quite yet. The combination of Ike Smith and Tookie Brown leave match-up problems for a lot of teams, but if their opponents figure it out, the Eagles have little else to fall back on. The defense is shaky, with it falling in the ninth place in the conference. Still, it is a young team and on any given night, young teams can either play lights out or go colder than an Artic winter.

5) Little Rock (9-4) - No Chris Beard and no Josh Hagins mean a lot of question marks. The Trojans have gone 7-4 against their peer division, but unlike most years, the schedule is pretty light. Losses to Idaho, Pepperdine and Oral Roberts leave question marks. The biggest deficiency from last year appears to be how their defense defends, as they are the second worst in FG percentage defense. Opponents make 43 percent of their shots and that won't cut it in the Belt.

4) Arkansas State (9-4) - Took me a good long while to decide three and four. This team is middle of the pack statistically compared to their Sun Belt peers, which means little in non-conference play. They've won when it matters and looked in control while doing it. Redshirt senior Devin Carter is their main man on offense, leading the team in scoring. Deven Simms is the only other in double figures, but eight players add five or more per game. This team has depth. The big weakness may be interior play, which could become an issue against the top of the SBC. Ultimately (after much thought and deliberation) I put the Red Wolves here for no other reason than the sheer amount of talent they have now that did not play in Jonesboro last year. Not that Red Wolf faithful need much more vindication, but if first-year coach Grant McCasland does better than this placing, the John Brady era will look even more dreadful. I would not be surprised with a higher finish.

3) Georgia State (7-5) - Not quite sure what to make of the Panthers, as they look great in a road win at Middle Tennessee, but seemed a little flat in a home loss to Massachusetts. On the plus side, they currently rank fourth in the SBC in scoring defense, 0.6 points behind number two. I think their lack of size or ability inside will hurt in the long run, but they will do fine most nights. Their experience was my X-factor, something A-State doesn't have.

2) Louisiana (10-3) - One of the big gripes I had from the SBC last year was that the two U's from Louisiana, which finished near the top of the standings, did so poorly in non-conference, it killed any at-large chances for top teams that didn't win the SBC tournament. The Cajuns lose Mr. Interior Shawn Long and improved on their 2-5 mark against DI competition in non-conference. They had an eight-game winning streak, second longest in the conference this year. Their schedule isn't the toughest, which is ultimately what put them here, but they have more experience at the top of the SBC standings in recent memory and those kind of intangibles count for something. It's still early, but Bryce Washington is sure shaping up to be a fine replacement for Long.

1) UTA (10-3) - The only time I have picked a UTA team to win the conference was essentially this exact same basketball team last year. Kevin Hervey goes out with an ACL tear in his "good" knee and the team still went 13-7 against SBC competition. I will remind readers, though I don't think it is necessary, that these predictions are based on what I know now. UTA has a nine-game winning streak, beat a ranked team for the first time and finally got the Austin school as well. They are near the top of the SBC in FG percentage, FG percentage defense, 3 pt FG percentage, 3 pt FG percentage defense and rebounding margin. Carry that against a tough schedule and UTA should compete well against the SBC elite. The scariest factor may be that the word out of Arlington is that Hervey is still not where he was when he left last year. If he gets back to that this team should rank as the best ever from UTA.

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