Fireside Chats: 2019/2020 Sun Belt Midpoint

Grab your beverage of choice, select your favorite chair and get cozy by the fire as Brady and David once again muse about the state of Sun Belt men’s basketball in the latest installment of our Fireside Chats series – because talking about sports is fun!

Brady Weiler

Well, it’s time to prove our past selves very wrong and hopefully not set ourselves up for failure once again. That’s right, it’s time to check in on the Sun Belt midway through the conference slate.

David Salmon

Honestly, I am excited to do this chat because, while last time we were entering a period of unknown, the conversation this time will be a surprise in a completely different direction.

Brady

There is ever slightly more clarity as to what is happening in the Sun Belt. Little Rock currently has a 1.5 game lead on the rest of the league at 9-2, with Georgia State (7-3), Arkansas State (7-4) and Georgia Southern making up the rest of the top 4 (6-4). However, there are four teams lurking on 5 conference wins as we chat – Texas State, UTA, App State and South Alabama. Who are you focusing your eyes on to make a run to the top of this group?

David

I still like South Alabama and I think they have the best chance of any to really make a run. They do have a tall task going to the Georgia schools this weekend, but then they get a Thursday off, go to Troy, then host the Louisiana schools right after. If they split Georgia, I can easily see them rattling off three straight wins after that and head into the final stretch of the season on a high note. 

Brady

I’m glad we’re keeping our tradition of not selling on South Alabama going – and I enjoy how the roles have reversed here. For my money, I’ll say Texas State. The crux of this answer is that the Texas schools still host everyone in front of them the rest of the way and I just trust Texas State more, not to mention that they’re 8-3 at home to UTA’s 4-4. Feels they’ve gotten a little short shrift as far as league attention goes but they’re still the top defense in the league as far as PPG and they’ve got guys who have “been there”.

David

I like that answer. For what it’s worth, Texas State had a rough opening slate in conference play so the five wins in their last seven is a good counter to them dropping their first 3 @ GSU, @ GS and @ Little Rock. 

But let’s talk the top of the Belt. At the beginning of conference play, we mentioned App State and South Alabama as teams to watch. But lo and behold, Little Rock has shot up to the top. Do you think their reign so far this season should come as a huge surprise, and how will they end up come tournament time?

Brady

I think one of the oldest axioms in college basketball is that good guard play wins you championships. Now, I think Georgia State’s set of guards is pretty good but Little Rock’s got probably the best in the league this season in Markquis Nowell. He’s a walking bucket (17.4 ppg, 53 made 3s at 40.6%) and is good at finding his teammates (4.4 assists a game). But the thing that I’ve found interesting in the time I’ve been able to watch Little Rock is how they can operate the offense without him at the controls pretty well. Coach Walker should be commended for the job he’s done and I think they’re built to last in the league. How it pans out in NOLA, should they get to that stage, I don’t know. But I’ve learned not to discount the work a good guard can do for you.

David

Nowell certainly is destroying the league. I have been impressed with the Trojans from Arkansas myself. While you highlighted Nowell, I will say they are a very deep team – with five guys averaging around 10 points a contest. That plays incredibly well come tournament time. 

Brady

Little Rock’s Ruot Monyyong is currently the only player in the conference averaging a double-double in anything at 11.8 points and a conference-leading 10.3 boards a game, so definitely not just the Nowell show. I guess I’ll take this time to echo my question from last time and ask for a final top 4. For posterity’s sake, last time, you went GSU/USA/TXST/GS while I had USA/GSU/TXST/GS. And in addition, last time I asked for a Player of the Year. This time, let’s do First Team All-Conference.

David

Well, the first part to me is rather easy – I think we will see it go GSU/LR/USA/GS. I think the Panthers take care of their business, Little Rock just misses the cut by virtue of head-to-head with GSU, and USA finds their footing and gets it done down the stretch.

As far as players go for First Team:

  • Markquis Nowell – Little Rock
  • Nijal Pearson – Texas State
  • Ruot Monyyong – Little Rock
  • Devonte Jones – Coastal Carolina
  • Josh Ajayi – South Alabama
Brady

Here’s mine:

  1. Georgia State
  2. Little Rock
  3. Texas State
  4. Arkansas State

Obviously, our answers to my previous question inform these answers to a degree. It feels to me like the two best teams in the league are the teams at 1 and 2 right now, Little Rock and Georgia State. I think it’s close down the stretch but I’ll give the edge to Georgia State for hosting that final regular season game. Moving down the standings, I think Texas State catches some steam – possibly at the expense of either or both Georgia schools – and slides in at 3. Arkansas State’s a team I’ve had doubts about even despite the success they had in the 2019 part of the season. But they’re hanging around into February and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Georgia Southern falling out of the top 4 may be the headline here, but they’ve currently got a suspension of one of their reserve guards – David-Lee Jones – and they are already a small rotation with some shaky shooting numbers. I think there’s a chance we see a little slide from the Eagles and a couple of games will be the difference in the middle of the pack.

As for the all-conference, I’ll say: 

  • Nowell
  • Pearson 
  • Ajayi
  • Justin Forrest – App State
  • David Azore – UTA

And let me tell you, readers and David, I almost, ALMOST went with some spice here. Showed restraint in the end.

David

Save the spice for the next one of these chats. Plenty of opportunity for intrigue as we get into February and March 

Brady

Placed back on the spice rack next to your two-bid Sun Belt takes. A little more dissension among our picks this time so it’ll definitely be interesting to see how the conference season wraps up.

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