Fireside Chats: 2019/2020 MBB Sun Belt Conference Preview

Our Fireside Chats series presents information and opinions in a conversational back-and-forth format. This entry discusses the state of Sun Belt Conference Men’s Basketball as the league opens conference play.

Brady Weiler

Good Sun Belt eve, David. ‘Tis the season!

David Salmon

Indeed it is. Always happy to chat some Sun Belt basketball.

Brady

I won’t be the only Sun Belt watcher to say this, I’m sure, but I have genuinely no idea where this conference season is about to go. 

David

I agree. It’s way more fun this way in my opinion. The uncertainty we had coming into the season feels much stronger now that we have actually started the thing.

Brady

We’ve obviously followed Georgia State very closely. But as you’ve been able to peruse the rest of the league, who has caught your eye, whether for a good or a bad reason?

David

The easy answer is Georgia State, but so far the biggest surprise to me has been Arkansas State. Mike Balado returned only one starter from a year ago and his team heads into conference play with a 7-3 record. Highlighted by an impressive come-from-behind win against Tulsa, the Red Wolves might be better than initially expected. 

Brady

I’m waiting to see it from stAte in-conference, especially given their current negative point differential (67.5ppg, 67.6ppg allowed). But definitely I have woken up on the Red Wolves more than I expected.

Similarly, I have woken up on the work Dustin Kerns is doing in his first year at App State. Hanging with some good teams like Michigan, UNC-Greensboro and ETSU, picking up some big wins and knocking off what we saw was a good Charlotte team, this team is probably already past where they’ve ever been since joining the conference.

David

Which would be huge for the Mountaineers. Kerns was certainly an interesting hire for them, but so far they feature the best defense in the conference. Given the opponents they have played, that’s not nothing.

Speaking of first-year coaches, who has made an impression on you so far this year?

Brady 

Kerns obviously has come in and put his stamp on App State and I absolutely think Scott Cross will get Troy on track, though that’s going to be a building process. But for me, I’ll stay close to home and say Rob Lanier.

There was transition abound in Atlanta, coaching, roster, you name it. And while there still are things the team needs to iron out, he’s helped the Panthers pick up where they left out (6-3 record). The scheme is new and you can see how good it can be when it’s all clicking. But, as we’ve talked on the podcasts before, what stands out is his ability to coach up guys like Josh Linder who seemed lost in Coach Hunter’s system. When he’s got a roster of “his” guys, the Panthers could be a real force.

David

Going to agree with you there. If App State goes the distance, maybe we can talk Kerns. But heading into conference play, Coach Lanier has done an incredible job.

Brady

Well, now seems as good a time as ever for absurdly-too-early predictions.

Let’s go 1-to-4 in regular season standings and, just for kicks, throw in a Player of the Year.

David

You know me, I am a huge fan of way too early predictions. I will keep this simple. 

  1. Georgia State
  2. South Alabama 
  3. Texas State 
  4. Georgia Southern

I think South Alabama improves on their early season struggles, but I do think the Panthers repeat as regular season champions. There’s too much talent, and they still look like a force when they play in Atlanta. 

Player of the Year is a little harder for me. No one has really separated themselves so far this season, but if I had to throw a name out there it would be Josh Ajayi at South Alabama (currently averaging 7.8 rebounds/game and 15.1 points/game on 60% shooting).

Brady

I will set up in the “THERSday Night not looking like homers” hive and go with this:

  1. South Alabama
  2. Georgia State
  3. Texas State
  4. Georgia Southern

David

We’re really sipping the Jaguar Kool-Aid this year, aren’t we?

Brady

I think South Alabama is still extremely talented and they haven’t really gelled yet. Over a full conference slate and getting more comfortable, the talent there wins out, especially since we haven’t fully seen the warts of Georgia State yet. No guarantee we ever do but if the problems manifest in a couple straight defeats – specifically, say, a three-game road trip at the start of January – those losses could be all it takes to slip up in the regular season.

This says nothing of two days in New Orleans, but that’s how I see the regular season ending up. And given my pick and the general predilection of conferences to make PoY an achiever on the best team, I will also go Josh Ajayi, though if Markquis Nowell keeps up what he’s doing (19.8 points/game, 4.5 assists/game, 2.9 steals/game), it might not matter how good or bad Little Rock finishes. And he’s a sophomore? Sheesh.

David

If Nowell can push that three-point shooting up just a tiny bit (currently at 37.8% from 3), he will take over the race. The likes of Ty Cockfield and D’Marcus Simonds are gone from the Sun Belt, but there’s still so much talent here.

Brady

Agreed. Fitting with the wide-openess of the conference race, the top-tier talent is spread out and should make for a lot of intrigue over the next three months and change.

David

Absolutely. When we do this again in a few weeks, it’ll be interesting to see who has separated themselves. Before we go, I wanted to ask what has been your favorite OOC win so far of any team in the Belt?

Brady

I think for this, my only answer has to be Coastal Carolina beating Utah.

I don’t know how good Utah will be, I don’t know how good Coastal will be. It’s December. But Coastal basically ran a PAC-12 team out of the gym and such is the beauty of out-of-conference basketball.

David

It was quite beautiful to watch, and a great answer.

I hope no Tulsa fans see this, but I really can’t get over the Red Wolves knocking them off at home. UT-Arlington also bested the Golden Hurricanes, but those are solid wins for some Fun Belt teams. The American is the gold standard for mid-major basketball, so any time a Sun Belt team can knock one of them off, it’s a solid win.

Brady

Very true. And with that, let us wave bye-bye to non-conference play…for two games and then Georgia State plays two more. But when we talk here again, we’ll be in the throes of conference play and maybe, just maybe, have more of an idea of what this Sun Belt basketball season will be.

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