Bask in Blazing Entropy! 2023 Sun Belt Basketball Tournament Review

As usual, the script was ripped from the start.

NASA can predict with pinpoint accuracy when a comet not seen for 50,000 years will become visible to Earthlings, but science has no answers for Sun Belt Basketball, a microverse of chaos for unaffected by mathematics, logic or the penetrating mind of the most savvy Sun Belt prognosticator. Just marvel at the hilarious content this graphic:

Now breath deep the vapors of cold reality:

Why do we even bother to hazard a guess? The variables are too hidden. James Madison, brand new to the Sun Belt, was the only program who finished predictably – fourth in the conference. The rest of the Sun Belt didn’t even bother reading the production notes.

WTF Part 1: Southern Miss

In the preseason, not a single Golden Eagle landed on an All-Sun Belt squad. Who could have foreseen Austin Crowley and Felipe Haase becoming a top 10 tandem in conference scoring? Who could have predicted Southern Miss holding opponents to an SBC second stingiest 65 points per game? How did a program that went 7-26 last season dominate to a 25-6 record this year? Why isn’t the House of Representatives investigating this?

WTF Part 2: Georgia State and Texas State

The Bobcats and the Panthers are both perennial Sun Belt powerhouses and both received first place votes in the preseason. On Tuesday, both will play on Day 1 while others enjoy BYE games. What happened?

Texas State, led by Terrence Johnson, may have found life without longtime leader Caleb Asberry (transferred to Oklahoma) more difficult than imagined. As for Georgia State, the Panthers opened the season with a brand new coach, Jonas Hayes, following a solid tenure from Rob Lanier. As a first year coach, Hayes gets a pass. Johnson, in his third year, may be experiencing a delayed hangover.

First Day of the Tournament

A few years ago, the Sun Belt grew weary of conference Cinderellas winning the SBC tourney and representing the conference at the Big Dance. As a result, the powers implemented a kind of tiered tournament format that rewarded the top four teams with a pair of byes while the bottom four teams played their way into the bracket. It’s a good plan, except programs like 2017 Troy and 2021 Appalachian State keep peeing into the Cheerios.

This year’s play-in bracket has Coastal Carolina taking on Arkansas State (Red Wolves earned one of their four conference wins against the Chants) while Georgia State and Texas State attempt to put one or the other out of their suffering. (This will be their first meeting of the season.)

The Hottest Teams Going In

Four teams will arrive to Pensacola winning eight of its last ten games – Southern Miss, James Madison and…Old Dominion and South Alabama. The Jaguars are the team to watch here. Since starting conference play losing seven of nine, Richie Riley’s men have put it all together, blowing out programs like Southern Miss (85-54) and ULM (81-45) before finally cooling down a bit during the season opener against Louisiana. With Isiah Moore pouring points and Kevin Samuel banging boards, South Alabama may be the most dangerous team in the tournament.

NET News

Not a single Sun Belt team finished with a NET in the 300s.

Don’t forget about the Cajuns and Marshall

The Cajuns have fired hot and cold all season, enjoying stretches of domination behind Jordan Brown while periodically stumbling, as they did starting 0-2 to open the conference season. However, Brown has played as predicted (SBC preseason player of the year) and Greg Williams has added the additional scoring weapon needed to make a run.

Somewhat forgotten in the scrum is the Thundering Herd, led by Tavian Kinsey and bearing the Sun Belt’s best NET rating at 76. Marshall closed the season with a loss to Old Dominion, but the team is nearly as hot as Southern Miss, James Madison and South Alabama.

Who’s Gonna Pull A Mountaineer?

In 2021, a solid though not particularly spectacular Appalachian State team downed heavily favored Texas State and Georgia State to earn a trip to what some people call “The Big Dance.” Who has the juice to disappoint Southern Miss and Louisiana?

We already mentioned South Alabama, who finished 8th in conference but are as dangerous as sweaty dynamite. However, this is the Sun Belt, which means entropy can drive a championship run from anyone. Troy and Georgia Southern are two obvious candidates, with the Eagles being especially menacing behind the insane scoring and boarding of Andrei Savrasov.

How about an even longer shot? ULM started conference play with a set of jarring victories, but have since lost seven in a row to close the season. Appalachian State could easily return as champion, though they seem more of a threat in Boone than anywhere else.

Nobody from Day One of the the tournament looks especially interested in making a surprise move, though Arkansas State has looked better in recent weeks, winning two of its last three while getting a big boost from SBC Freshman of the Year candidate Terrence Ford. Of the bottom four teams, the Red Wolves are (technically) the hottest.

My Ultimate Wilde Card: Old Dominion

The Monarchs suffered the indignity of opening the season with a home loss to Arkansas State. However, not only has Old Dominion concluded the regular season with a shocking win over Marshall, it has won 8 of its last ten – on pace with the Golden Eagles, Jaguars and Dukes. Old Dominion isn’t lighting up score boards, but it is playing the hard-assed defense that worked so well for Appalachian State a couple years ago while getting great board production from Mekhi Long.