Conference play starts this week in the Sun Belt.  As league play begins, the Sun Belt has a Conference RPI of 17 and a Conference NET of 16 (The NET, a combination of computer rankings, replaces the RPI as the main ratings index for NCAA purposes.)

There are no divisions in men's basketball in the Sun Belt (that will change next year), but for the purpose of these two stories (part two will appear on Wednesday), I've divided the league into two parts.  Today's preview features Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.

APPALACHIAN STATE (5-8)  Home:  5-0, Road 0-5, Neutral 0-3  RPI: 242, NET:  214

BEST WIN (RPI):  Howard (289)  WORST LOSS:  at East Carolina (330)

LEADING SCORER:  Ronshad Shabazz (19.6)

LEADING REBOUNDER:  Isaac Johnson (9.4)

LEADING ASSISTS:  Isaac Johnson 3.0

ABOUT APP:  The Mountaineers worked their way into the #5 seed in the SBC Tournament last year, the best finish under Jim Fox.  And, with seven veterans returning plus a couple of transfers from the AAC, expectations have risen in Boone.

But so far, it's been a lot like a year ago.

App has three double digit scorers and have had games where they've put up a lot of points.  And, to be fair, most of their losses have been against teams in the top 120 of the RPI.  But there's no getting around the fact they haven't been able to win away from home and three of their wins are against non-D-1 schools.  Going to Boone won't be easy for the opposition, just as it was last season.  But if this team is going to match what they did a year ago, they've got to win away from home.  Personally, I think they're good enough to do so.  We'll see.

COASTAL CAROLINA (6-6)  Home: 4-0, Road 1-5, Neutral 0-1  RPI 296, NET 226

BEST WIN:  (RPI)  at Campbell (237)  WORST LOSS: Manhattan (339)

LEADING SCORER:  Zac Cuthbertson (20.1)

LEADING REBOUNDER:  Cuthbertson (9.0)

LEADING ASSISTS: Trevion Brown 2.8

ABOUT CCU:  The Chants don't have any good wins...but they've played a lot of people tough.  Of their six losses, three are to teams in the top 100 of the RPI and all were by single digits.  They also played South Carolina to a six point game.  Their biggest issue is simple:  No one has stepped up to be a consistent scorer except for Cuthbertson.  To be sure, Zac is a very good talent.  But he can't do it by himself.  Coastal has four players averaging about eight points per game.  At least one needs to break away from the pack and help out.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN (8-5)  Home 4-1, Road 1-4, Neutral 3-0  RPI 76, NET 141

BEST WIN (RPI)  Montana (79)  WORST LOSS:  East Tennessee State (109)

LEADING SCORER:  Tookie Brown 18.9

LEADING REBOUNDER:  Montae Glenn 6.5


ABOUT THE EAGLES:  They've navigated a pretty tough schedule.  While Montana is their only really impressive win, they haven't loaded up against weak D-1 teams (they do have a pair of non D-1 wins). They've played only two games against teams ranked 275 or lower in the RPI and they've only been blown out once, and that was against Arizona.  The Eagles have four players that average double figures and that makes a talent like Brown even more dangerous.  Here's your stat:  Georgia Southern may not shoot it all that well from three point range (31%) , but they're shooting a blistering 61% as a team inside the arc.  That's a very scary stat.  Based on what we've seen so far, it looks like the best basketball in the Sun Belt is being played in the state of Georgia.

GEORGIA STATE (9-4).  Home 5-0, Road 2-3, Neutral 2-1  RPI: 55  NET: 113

BEST WIN (RPI): at ALABAMA (39)  WORST LOSS:  at Liberty (125)

LEADING SCORER:  D'Marcus Simonds (19.8)

LEADING REBOUNDER:  Malik Benlevi  5.2

LEADING ASSISTS:  Simonds (3.9)

ABOUT THE PANTHERS:  Georgia State has gotten it done despite the fact they've been without Devin Mitchell for a good part of the season.  They've got five guys averaging double digits (Mitchell included.)  They, as usual, don't rebound the ball particularly well.  What they can do is shoot it.  They've got multiple long range threats.  They also are a team that will turn you over, but don't turn it over a lot themselves.  They are +4.2 in turnover margin.  They aren't a really deep team, but they've always got five good players on the court.  Their two games against Georgia Southern won't be for the faint of heart.

SOUTH ALABAMA (7-6)  Home:  7-2, Road:  0-4  RPI: 337  NET: 295

BEST WIN (RPI)  Southeast Missouri State (253)  WORST LOSS:  Jacksonville (317)

LEADING SCORER:  Kory Holden 16.3

LEADING REBOUNDER:  Josh Ajayi (8.1)

LEADING ASSISTS (Trhae Mitchell 3.5)

ABOUT THE JAGUARS:  Richie Riley is the new head coach at South Alabama, and, frankly, I thought that was a very curious hire.  Riley spent a couple of years at Nicholls State, where he brought in a load of transfers and in his second season, tied for the Southland title.  Then he jumped ship.  And, it appears he's doing the same thing at South.  Holden is a grad transfer and Riley is sitting out three transfers.  Next year he'll have at least eight seniors on the roster and will be looking to make a big run at the Sun Belt (and presumably look for that big payday.)  The Jags have four in double figures, and they've got four returnees who are good players.  Actually, if you look at them statistically, they're pretty good, although they don't rebound particularly well.  But they've beaten no one of substance and haven't looked particularly good against good teams on their schedule.  Riley can't wait for next year.

TROY TROJANS (7-5)  Home:  5-0, Road 2-3  RPI: 159, NET: 158

BEST WIN:  at WKU (87), WORST LOSS:  at Pittsburgh (131)

LEADING SCORER:  Jordan Varnado (17.3)

LEADING REBOUNDER:  Alex Hicks (7.8)

LEADING ASSISTS:  B. J. Miller (3.2)

ABOUT THE TROJANS:  Their three seniors are all good players and they've all played well so far.  All three are in double digits in scoring, and Hicks and Varnado are also good rebounders.  The rest of the team is young and not very deep.  There are only two juniors on the roster and both are JUCO transfers.  Varnado is a Player of the Year candidate who can do it all.  Miller is a solid floor general.  It took a few games for the chemistry to come together, but the Trojans have won four straight, including a win at Diddle Arena, something Wisconsin couldn't do.  They need to develop some better depth so they don't wear down late in the season.  Don't go to sleep on this squad.  Despite the loss of Wesley Person, this might be Phil Cunningham's best team.


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