If there is one thing that can be for certain in the Sun Belt Conference, it’s that its NCAA Tournament representative is going to be the University of Louisiana. That is where the question lies.
Which one? There are two schools in the Sun Belt that refer to themselves as the University of Louisiana. There’s Louisiana-Monroe: a team that boasts the Sun Belt Coach of the Year in Keith Richard and a duo of athletic two-way bigs in seniors Jamaal Samuel and Majok Deng. Then there’s Louisiana-Lafayette: a team that’s won 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in a decade and boasts the Sun Belt’s top NBA prospect in senior forward Shawn Long (16.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG).
With Long leading one of the nation’s top rebounding teams, the Ragin’ Cajuns are primed to take the conference crown. Long leads all active players with 52 double-doubles and on top of having a powerful frontcourt, Louisiana-Lafayette boasts the conference’s top scoring offenses thanks to a supporting cast of Jay Wright (9.1 PPG) and Kasey Shepherd (9.7 PPG) off the bench.
The best part about the Ragin’ Cajuns is that they return every one of their starters from last year’s team. While Louisiana-Monroe lost their leading score from last year, the backcourt duo of guards Nick Coppola (9.4 PPG) and Justin Robinson (8.9 PPG) are expected to bring balance to their starting five and allow the Warhawks to contend for the Sun Belt.
Wedged in between the Battle of the Bayou is Georgia State. Their last three games 2015 was Hollywood worthy. First Kevin Ware, who made it all the way back from a severe broken leg, scored 18 points to beat their rivals, the Georgia Southern Eagles, in the Sun Belt Championship Game. Then R.J. Hunter, son of head coach Ron Hunter, sunk in a three pointer to beat Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament – a game that led to him being drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics.
Ware is in his senior season and will be looked upon to lead the team to their second consecutive trip to the big dance. Indiana transfer Jeremy Howell should help senior forward Markus Crider (9.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG) out in the frontcourt.
While Georgia Southern lost six of their top eight players from last year’s inaugural Sun Belt team, the Eagles bring in a new crop of newcomers, especially freshman point guard Tookie Brown, who was named Mr. Basketball in Georgia.
Arkansas State struggled mightily last year, but returns everyone for a much-improved season. Look for Anthony Livingston (15.9 PPG, 10.0 RPG) and Cameron Golden (13.7 PPG) to lead the pack.
Appalachian State struggled to adapt to tougher competition last season when it moved from the Southern Conference to the Sun Belt. Like Arkansas State, the Mountaineers should fare better this season as it returns the entire starting five, including their leader, senior shooting guard Frank Evans (16.6 PPG).
UT Arlington shot a conference worst .291 from the three-point line last season, and will have to replace an entire backcourt this season. While the Mavericks scramble to find their identity, they’ll look to forward Kevin Hervey to improve on his 7.1 PPG, 6.0 RPG freshman campaign.
Troy lacked depth last season when they fell to the conference and they lack depth this season. Like UT Arlington, the Trojans will rely on Wesley Person (14.2 PPG) to have a steady follow up on his Sun Belt Freshman of the Year campaign while hoping incoming freshman Jordan Varnado is anything like his older brother, Jarvis.
Jalen Jackson is what people in the college basketball world would call a journeyman. He went from Central Arkansas to winning the junior college national championship with Northwest Florida State to returning to Arkansas as now possibly being the centerpiece of UA-Little Rock’s first year head coach Chris Beard’s offense.
Texas State was last in scoring but best in three-point defense – sounds like an army of Dellavedovas. The Bobcats return their leading scorer and rebounder, senior forward and Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate Emani Grant (12.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG), but even he can’t cover up all of their flaws. Other members of the conference’s most experienced group will have to step up if they hope to make Texas Tech viable this season.
South Alabama’s backcourt of point guard Taishaun Johnson (12.5 PPG, 4.1 APG) and shooting guard Ken Williams (15.7 PPG) was the lone bright spot of a below .500 conference finish. The Jaguars are hoping the incoming 7-1, freshman center Nikola Marijan can provide a big boost to this year’s campaign.
In the end, there is no beating NBA caliber talent. R.J. Hunter proved that the last two years and now its Shawn Long’s turn to take Louisiana-Lafayette to March Madness.