Entropy Reigns! Sun Belt Basketball Tournament Preview

The Sun Belt basketball season was bedlam, with Texas State and Arkansas State contending for the title when very little was expected of both programs.

The Sun Belt basketball season went, more or less, as expected, with preseason favorite UT Arlington eventually riding preseason Player of the Year Kevin Hervey to a 24-7 record and a regular season title.

The Sun Belt basketball season was total chaos, with incoming champion (and preseason #2) Little Rock completely falling apart without head coach Chris Beard and shooting guard Josh Hagins leading the charge.

The Sun Belt basketball season was business as usual, with Georgia State and Georgia Southern finishing third and fourth and Appalachian State residing at the bottom.

How you view the 2016-17 Sun Belt basketball season depends on your perspective. But now we enter into a new season – Tournament time, baby. And while you can’t just throw the records out of the window, and can count on something nuts to happen. Let’s talk about why and try like fools to predict what will happen.

Before we make unqualified predictions, let’s look at the bracket

You can read how UTA, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Texas State picked up first round byes here. It’s entropic, man, leaving us with a juicy-ass bracket that includes every single member of the Sun Belt. Even the Warhawks.

This 2016-17 Sun Belt Basketball Tournament bracket is both juicy and meaty.

How can I watch all this sizzling Sun Belt action?

Every tasty Sun Belt Tournament game is available on the modern sorcery that is ESPN3, starting Wednesday morning with Coastal Carolina taking on South Alabama at 11:30 AM. The tournament finale will be aired Sunday, at 1 PM on ESPN…2.

Everybody is pretty good in the Sun Belt (expect maybe ULM)

With Troy and Louisiana picking up victories on the last day of the regular season, 66% of Sun Belt teams earned 10 or more conference wins. (Compare that to, say, the American, where only 36% of the conference achieved 10+).  Of the four who failed to pick up at least ten victories, Little Rock (6-12) is the defending champion and always dangerous. South Alabama (7-11) ended the season by knocking of Arkansas State. Appalachian State (4-14) defeated Georgia State and Georgia Southern, and also beat the Red Wolves once (and nearly beat them twice). ULM is…well, they’re a little disappointing. Picked to finish 8th in the preseason, the Warhawks finished dead last with two conference wins. Still, the Sun Belt Tournament is host in Louisiana, giving ULM a smidgen of home court advantage.

Who’s leaving New Orleans with an invitation to Dance?

If anybody can win the Sun Belt, then why bother predicting who will win it? I like the pain. And I have a 1 out of 12 chance to be right, which aren’t the worst odds, considering my chances to be wrong generally hover around 100%. Here are three teams that, in my arrogant opinion, have the best chance to walk away with the Sun Belt Tournament championship:

UT Arlington

Yeah. These guys are pretty good, and they earned the #1 seed by winning 8 straight conference games before stumbling in Lafayette against a better-than-you-think Cajuns team. The Mavericks enter the tournament ranked 3rd in the conference for points (77.9), 2nd in rebounds (38.8) and 3rd in field goal percentage (.464). The Mavs are simply solid at every facet of the game, and that kind of consistency is needed to win this tournament.

Louisiana

The Cajuns have won six straight conference games and are coming off a rousing season ending victory over mighty UTA.  Take the Cajuns out of the Cajun Dome, and Louisiana is a healthy 8-7 and joins the Mavericks as the only SBC teams with a positive road record. With Bryce Washington gobbling up boards and Frank Bartley IV pouring 18.5 points per game his last four outings, Louisiana will need keep the heat boiling to meet the Mavericks in the finals – and break them!

Georgia State

The 2-seed Panthers have also ended the season on a good note, winning its last 3 of 4 and besting rival Georgia Southern in Atlanta’s friendly confines. At one point, the Panthers rattled off 8 straight conference wins behind the emergence of Sun Belt freshman of the year D’Marcus Simonds and senior leader Jeremy Hollowell (15.4 ppg).  If the Panthers can get past the Cajuns in the second round, then Georgia State has the toughness to go all the way.

Who has the hidden heat to upset the Mavericks?

Thanks to its season ending loss to the Cajuns, UTA’s RPI is currently sitting at 40 and will not likely impress a Selection Committee pressured into adding more 10-loss P5 programs into the NCAA Tournament. But let’s be blunt: the Mavericks are the best team in the Sun Belt, lead by the unstoppable trio of Eric Neal (6.5 assists per game),  Kevin Hervey (17.3 PPG, 8.4 boards) and Jorge Bilbao (54% FG, 9.2 PPG). It will take a crisp, error-free performance to send UTA to the NIT. Who’s got the stones? Three (3) candidates:

Texas State

Earlier in the year, Texas State and Sun Belt 1st teamer Kavin Gilder-Tilbury announced their presence by handing the Maverick’s an 81-73 upset loss. Yes, UTA would avenge that loss by trouncing the Bobcats later in the season 76-61. Both teams won on home courts. The SBC Tournament neutral site should determine once and for all who’s the Sun Belt Sheriff of Texas, and if Gilder-Tilbury can outplay Hervey again, the Bobcats could send the Maverick’s packing.

Arkansas State

The Red Wolves are limping in the SBC Tournament having lost five of it’s last seven, including end-of-season road bungles against South Alabama and Troy. But in losing the 2-seed of the tournament, Arkansas State earned a juicy route to the finals with a warm-up against hapless ULM (whom the Red Wolves defeated twice this season) and then a matchup with Texas State, who beat A-State by just five points in San Marcos. Should the Red Wolves figure out the Bobcats, Grant McCasland’s young team has a shot at knocking off UTA in the semi-finals.

Troy

The Trojans of Troy will have to endure the slings and arrows of the Tournament to meet and conquer the Maverick’s in the finals.  Currently enjoying a season-ending two-game win streak, Troy handed UTA its worst conference loss of the year when Wesley Person scored a career-high 39 points (10 threes!) and Jordon Varnado added 24 for a 93-71 destroying. Troy has a hard road to the finals, but should it survive the gauntlet and find the Mavericks waiting, the Trojans should be more than capable of stealing the championship.

Most Vulnerable Bye: Georgia Southern

The Eagles enjoyed a tremendous season and placed two on the Sun Belt All Conference First Team: Tookie Brown and Ike Smith. But Georgia Southern enters the tournament losers of five of its last 7, shooting 36.4% and 41% their last two outings. Shooters gotta shoot, and Brown and Smith are two of the conference’s best. But when those guys get cold, the Eagles plummet to Earth.

Who’s definitely not winning?

ULM.

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