Sun Belt Basketball Tournament Preview – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Men's Basketball Tournament begins Saturday at Campus Sites. Here is my bracket preview of the top bracket featuring the #1, #4, #5, #8 and #9 seeds.
#1 LITTLE ROCK (21-10, 15-5) Coach: Darryl Walker, 2nd season
STRENGTHS: The league's best inside/outside game. Marquis Nowell is a POY candidate, ranking in the top five of scoring, assists, field goal percentage and three pointers per game. Ruot Monyyong is a double double machine and Kamani Johnson is a very good scorer and rebounder. This is the highest scoring team in the league, the best shooting team and the best three point shooting team in conference play. Team goes nine deep, giving Walker flexibility. Good FT shooting team.
WEAKNESSES: They aren't a great defensive team. In fact, they aren't a good defensive team. They don't force a lot of turnovers. Despite Monyyong's numbers, Little Rock is not a monster on the boards. When he's out of the game you can get them on the glass. Team gets out of control at times. Nowell is such a big part of what they do, if you neutralize him, they can get stagnant on offense.
OUTLOOK: This is by no means a prohibitive favorite. They are the champions for a reason, though. They do so many things well offensively. With Coupet and Maric, they have options offensively and the ability of all five starters to score the basketball makes them really tough to guard. Like South Alabama, we'll see how they react after having eleven days off. But, regardless of what happens in the tournament, get used to seeing the Trojans. They're bringing everyone back next year.
#4 SEED GEORGIA STATE (19-12, 12-8) Coach: Rob Lanier (1st season)
STRENGTHS: Very balanced offense with multiple guards who can really get it going from the perimeter. They can score the basketball and they can do it from just about anywhere. Their top five scorers all shoot between 34-42 percent from beyond the arc. They turn you over more than any other team in the league with their quickness. And, when you foul them, you pay the price. They're very good from the free throw line.
WEAKNESSES: They get out of control on offense sometimes and when it happens in waves, the Panthers get themselves in trouble. They rotate three guys inside but none has proven to be a threat as a scorer or a rebounder. They can get in foul trouble on the inside. Team had lost three straight before Saturday's win over Little Rock.
OUTLOOK: This team can be a head scratcher at times. They lost to Troy...twice. They weren't very good away from home and their lack of an inside game made for some tough matchups. But their perimeter players are dangerous and when they are in sync on both ends of the court, they are as good as anyone. Doing that consistently has been their biggest issue. They had a great home season and only need one win on Decatur Street to make it to the semifinals.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (18-13, 12-8) Coach: Mark Byington, 7th season
STRENGTHS: Very athletic team with good strength, especially on the offensive end. Quan Jackson can beat you in a lot of ways. He can drive it, he can shoot it from the perimeter, he can handle it and on defense, he'll take it away from you. Isaiah Crawley plays bigger than his size inside. I like Elijah McCadden a lot. He's a tough matchup for a lot of teams. Ike Smith is a veteran who doesn't make many mental mistakes. Georgia Southern has good depth and their talent doesn't go down a ton when the reserves are in. They guard pretty well, especially at the three point line.
WEAKNESSES: They don't rebound it that well as a team. Crawley and Carter are good on the boards, but they aren't always on the court at the same time. Wishart has nights when he really shoots it and nights he doesn't. They have a good field goal percentage but really aren't a great shooting team. And, in conference play they were the worst free throw shooting team in the league.
OUTLOOK: They had a golden opportunity to get a bye to the quarters, but a silly foul with 1.8 left relegated them to the 5 seed. It will be interesting to see how they respond to that. They've already beaten Louisiana twice. But I bet they'll be rooting for the Red Wolves to come a calling again. If they get to the semis, their in-state rival awaits. Georgia Southern beat them at the GSU Arena for the first time since 1992. If they get there, it won't be easy.
#8 SEED LOUISIANA (13-18, 8-12) Coach: Bob Marlin (10th season)
STRENGTHS: The Cajuns have a few guys who can score. Jalen Johnson, Cedric Russell and P. J. Hardy are double digit mainstays. Mylik Wilson is the best freshman I've seen this year. His averages of 12.7 pts, 6.2 rebounds 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals show his versatility. He's the only freshman in Division I to have those numbers. Hardy is their best defender. The Cajuns shoot free throws very well. Team never thinks they are out of a game; seven of those 13 wins came when the Cajuns trailed by double figures.
WEAKNESSES: They don't have a lot of brute strength inside except for Tiras Smith. Gueye and Johnson are more finesse players. They have struggled to shoot the basketball, both inside and outside. Their assist/turnover ratio hasn't been good, although that's improved a lot over the last six games. Because of injuries, they've had precious little depth all season and they can get weary late in games.
OUTLOOK: The Cajuns lost a key player before the season started, lost a starter after eight games and their other six best players missed a total of 39 games. It will be interesting to see if Smith, who was suspended by Bob Marlin for a violation of team rules, is reinstated for the tournament. He certainly gives them an inside presence that is missing when he isn't in the game. Whether he plays or not, this team needs to shoot it really well from the perimeter to have success. Unfortunately for them, it hasn't happened enough.
#9 SEED ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (16-15, 8-12) Coach: Mike Balado, 3rd season
STRENGTHS: I really like Marquis Eaton. He plays hard on both ends of the court. He can drive it and finish as well as any guard in the Sun Belt. He'll miss from the perimeter, but he's uncanny from three when his team really needs one. Canberk Kus is one of the league's most improved players. And, Caleb Fields is gonna be a good one. He's a good perimeter shooter, a good distributor and he's got good court vision for a freshman. Balado isn't afraid to use his bench, and there's some talent there. Some really good free throw shooters bring their percentage up to 71. Arkansas State has shot more free throws than any team in college basketball.
WEAKNESSES: When it went south, it went south in a hurry. Arkansas State lost eight straight and everyone is at a loss to figure out why. Sometimes that means a chemistry issue but I don't visibly see one. They aren't a great rebounding team, they don't have a lot of offense inside and they sometimes get out of control and take bad shots. It looks like that free throw attempt disparity started to even out the second half of the season and that could be a reason for all those L's. And, while some of their guys are really good from the line, some of them are far from great at the charity stripe.
OUTLOOK: This was a team with absolutely no confidence. Until there were 1.8 seconds left Tuesday in Statesboro. Now they think they can win again. Arkansas State showed its capability to beat good teams early in the season, mostly at the First National Bank Arena. The win in Statesboro is their best road win in conference play. But they have been reminded they can win and they could be a dangerous first round opponent.