We’re at the mid-point of conference play and only one team – the ULM Warhawks – are more than 4 games out of first place in the Sun Belt. Also, only two teams (ULM and Appalachian State) have played a full slate of conference games, with COVID-19 dropping the elbow especially hard on UA Little Rock and Georgia State. As a result, studying the standings can cause a mild crossing of the eyes. Two-loss Appalachian State is 1.5 games up on two-loss Arkansas State because the Mountaineers have played three more games.
COVID makes everything stupid. Many Sun Belt programs played the first four or five weeks short-staffed when at all. Nobody took more advantage of their good health than UT Arlington who defeated early contenders like Louisiana, Troy, Georgia State and South Alabama to start the season. Now they’ve lost four of their last five. The point is, the outcome of early season match-ups may be radically different the second time around. COVID makes everything stupid.
Heating Up: South Alabama
Two of the conference’s top five shooters are Jaguars – Charles Manning Jr. (18.0 ppg) and Jay Jay Chandler (16.0 ppg). Javon Franklin, a former transfer from Auburn, ranks 4th in rebounds with 7.2 grabs a game. The Team of Transfers have won five of their last six after starting the season with losses to Appalachian State, UTA and COVID. The Jags were my pick to win the conference this season, and they’re finally gelling and healthy.
Cooling Down: UTA
As we mentioned earlier, the Mavericks started the conference season raising all the brows in college basketball, with four of five and appearing to be a dark horse riding into the light. A disastrous trip through Arkansas hobbled the Mavericks. The loss to 2-win ULM was even worse. David Azore is a tremendous scorer, but UTA just needs more firepower.
Nothing But Net
The NET Rankings for the Sun Belt have shuffled since December.
|Team||February 3||December 26|
|UA Little Rock||308||332|
Biggest Disappointments: Georgia State and Louisiana
Preseason wisdom had the Panthers and Cajuns pounding the rest of the Sun Belt into paste, but early injuries, COVID, and disarray have crushed Georgia State, and the Cajuns appear to be in a mid-season free fall. The Cajuns have dearly missed the multi-purpose services of 6’11” forward Jordan Brown, and have lost five of their last six, including a 1-point loss to struggling Georgia Southern. Meanwhile, a healthier Georgia State team finally put up some big wins over ULM and Louisiana last week, perhaps signaling a run.
Most Surprising Surprise: Appalachian State
I was prone to referring to the Mountaineers as “the Sun Belt TOURNAMENT Champion,” as I felt the best team in the Sun Belt didn’t win last season. But now Appalachian State is 8-2 behind incredibly disciplined defense and some clutch buckets from Justin Forrest and Adrian Delph. There’s nothing flashy about the Mountaineers, but the defense is legitimate, as is their position on top of the Sun Belt standings.
Best Player: Norchad Omier
The Notorious Nicaraguan is the only player in the Sun Belt averaging a double-double (17/11.2), and he’s collected four Sun Belt Player of the Week honors this season. Yes, other stars have ascended in the Sun Belt: David Azore (UTA), Caleb Asberry (Texas State), Essam Mostafa (CCU), Adrian Delph (Appalachian State) and Charles Manning Jr. (South Bama) are all worthy inclusions for consideration, but nobody electrifies the game quite like Omier.
A Menace to Society: Texas State
Texas State has seemed uncharacteristically ordinary since starting the season 9-3. Give some leeway to the Bobcats, who had three consecutive games COVID canceled, which could not have helped their momentum. Even with the sluggish start to conference play, the Bobcats are 4-3 and just 2.5 games out of first place. Asberry has been incredible on the floor, and Nighael Ceaser has been money off the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Bobcats perform well against the Mountaineers at home on Thursday.
PHOTO CREDITS: Me and Arkansas State Athletic Department, Meagan Johnson