A two-bid Big Dance conference? The Sun Belt’s solid non-con makes its case.

Landing one team into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a time-honored Sun Belt tradition seldom broken, especially of late. It’s not as if the Sun Belt hasn’t featured great teams – Little Rock and Georgia State have recorded Big Dance wins the last two years. But rarely does the Sun Belt give birth to twin March Madness bids. Off the top of my head, I recall South Alabama and Western Kentucky getting the invites in 2008. Let me know if the Sun Belt has more.

But maybe 2017 is the year the Sun Belt receives multiple bids.

It won’t be easy. Since that magic 2008 season, the Sun Belt lost its stronger hoop programs – Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky – to CUSA. UT-Arlington and Georgia State arrived to fill the void, as did Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. While the latter continue to improve, the former are paying dividends now. Which is good, because the Sun Belt needs the juice.  In an interview with AJC.com last year, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson outlines conference success in simple terms.

“In terms of RPI, our better teams need to have a balanced non-conference schedule that includes teams in the top 50, top 100 and top 150,” Benson said.

This season, the Sun Belt’s “better teams” appear to have performed well against Benson’s balanced non-con schedule. Consider the Sun Belt’s hearty November and December:

  • Georgia State delivered a win over former Sun Belt henchman Middle Tennessee (22 RPI)
  • UTA triumphed over St. Mary’s (currently 19th in the AP and Coaches. 30th RPI) and provided a nice road win against Texas (152)
  • Arkansas State upset Georgetown (76) and Chattanooga (77) on the road
  • Louisiana chipped in with a victory over Texas Southern (57) and Nichols State (69)
  • Little Rock added St. Bonaventure (90) to the list, plus necessary Ws over Tulsa (164) and Central Michigan (123)
  • Georgia Southern grabbed wins over 11-5 FCGU (87) and Radford (113)
  • ULM was good enough enough to beat Jackson State (99)

That’s not a bad non-con résumé (though apparently nobody in the Sun Belt (0-4) is capable of defeating Minnesota). The SBC has 25 wins over sub-201 opponents (25-48 overall). As a result, CBSSportsline.com ranks the Sun Belt the 13th mightiest in the nation, and the Sun Belt boasts five sub-150 programs after the non-con season:

  1. UTA (32)
  2. Arkansas State (47)
  3. Louisiana (80)
  4. Georgia State (110)
  5. Georgia Southern  (130)

Reasonably, programs hailing from a conference like the Sun Belt need a sub-50 RPI to even think about receiving an at-large invite to the Big Dance. Last year, the only Sun Belt team with a sub-50 RPI was the conference champion, Little Rock (ULM finished second at 102). The last time the Sun Belt featured two sub-100 RPI programs was in 2014 (Georgia State 82, Louisiana 92) UTA and Arkansas State will likely have a challenge maintaining that distinction as conference play rolls on. It doesn’t help that  zero Sun Belt programs are currently receiving votes in the major polls. Still, the dye is cast for two invites to the NCAA Tournament for the Sun Belt.

Sun Belt Orbit Week 1

Conference Leaders:

  1. UTA (2-0)
  2. Arkansas State (2-0)
  3. South Alabama (1-0)
  4. Georgia Southern (1-0)
  5. Louisiana (1-1)
  6. Little Rock (1-1)
  7. Texas State (1-1)
  8. Coastal Carolina (1-1)
  9. Georgia State (0-1)
  10. Troy (0-1)
  11. ULM (0-2)
  12. Appalachian State (0-2)

Conference Recap Week 1

The Maverick’s 6’9″ forward Kevin Hervey continues to lead UT-Arlington to victory, recording 2 wins against Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State and holding both teams to 69 points (tee hee!) Meanwhile, Arkansas State recorded an identical 2-0 mark by sliding by a tough Cajun team before blowing out ULM 76-45 (26 points below the Warhawks’ average).

Georgia Southern avenged a bitter football defeat with an 88-65 upset over in-state rival Georgia State. The Eagles’ leading scorer, Ike Smith, had another fine night with 22 points.

On Monday night, Louisiana drummed defending conference champion Little Rock on ESPN 2 69-52. The Cajuns look to be a very tough conference opponent with 6’6″ forward Bryce Washington vacuuming nearly 12 boards per game.

South Alabama squeaked by in-state rival Troy 76-75 behind an 18 point effort from senior guard Ken Williams.

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