Elfrid Payton, Keith Appling

2013-2014 Sun Belt Preview: Star-studded league should provide plenty of drama

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Elfrid Payton (AP photo)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Sun Belt was one of the conferences that had the most reshuffling during conference realignment, as four schools are headed out of the league while three new programs — Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington — come aboard.

Ironically enough, while the league loses powerhouse Middle Tennessee State, North Texas forward Tony Mitchell and Florida International head coach Rick Pitino, the Sun Belt will likely end up having more star power on their rosters than any mid-major league in the country.

It starts with one of the new additions, as Ron Hunter’s Georgia State squad seems primed for a huge year. Hunter’s back court will be loaded, as his son R.J., a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, returns after averaging more than 17 points as a freshman. He’s got a chance to be an NBA Draft pick down the road. He’s joined by Devonta White and Manny Atkins, who both averaged about 15 points, but the most notable name will be Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow. If Harrow lives up to his potential and Hunter can find some production on the interior, the Panthers have the chance to be really, really good.

(MORE: Ron Hunter channels his inner ‘Coach Dad’)

As talented as Hunter and Harrow are, however, neither will enter the season as the Sun Belt’s Preseason Player of the Year. That title falls to Augustine Rubit, a 6-foot-7 forward that averaged 19.4 points and 10.2 boards as a junior. In layman’s terms, he’s a beast, but if the Jaguars are going to improve on their 14-6 record in Matthew Graves’ first season as head coach, Rubit will need a supporting cast that loses two starters to step up.

No mid-major player had a bigger summer than Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton. The 6-foot-3, do-it-all guard — he averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 boards, 5.6 assists and 2.4 steals — not only managed to make the U19 national team, but he started for them over more highly-regarded players. Throw in the return of Shawn Long, and Bob Marlin’s club will also contend for the league title.

Then there’s Western Kentucky. They return four starters from a team that finished just 10-10 in league play, but they are also coming off of their second straight run to the NCAA tournament. T.J. Price is the Hilltopper to make note of.

And finally, Arkansas State. The Red Wolves lose three of their top five scorers from last season, but leading scorer Ed Townsel is back, as is sophomore Cameron Golden. The key will be transfers. Brandon Reed averaged 15.1 points as a freshman back in 2009-2010 before transferring to Georgia Tech while Melvin Johnson III averaged 13.0 points as a junior at UT-San Antonio in 2011-2012.

Arkansas-Little Rock and UT-Arlington both have enough talent to make a push as well.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Georgia State, Texas State, Texas-Arlington,
Out: Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Florida International, Florida Atlantic

source:
AP photo

PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Augustine Rubit, South Alabama

Rubit came within 18 points of averaging 20 and 10 a season ago, and he’s returning to school to play for a team with a real shot of winning the league title. I know how much talent there is in this conference; this decision was still pretty easy.

FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • R.J. Hunter, Georgia State: Hunter averaged 17.5 points as a freshman and will be playing this season with Ryan Harrow.
  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: If he can refine his jump shot, Payton has a shot to follow the footsteps of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
  • Brandon Reed, Arkansas State: Reed averaged 15.1 points as a freshman with the Red Wolves, but tried transferring to Georgia Tech. That resulted in two uneventful season, so Reed came back under the graduate transfer rule.
  • Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette: The best big man in the league not named Augustine Rubit.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Georgia State
2. Louisiana-Lafayette
3. South Alabama
4. Western Kentucky
5. Arkansas State
6. Arkansas-Little Rock
7. UT-Arlington
8. Troy
9. Texas State
10. Louisiana-Monroe

BUBBLE BANTER: All of tonight’s bubbly action in one place

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie calls to his team during an NCAA college basketball game against Central Florida, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 at the CFE Arena in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
(Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
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Tonight’s schedule. This post will be updated as the games are completed.

UConn (KenPom: 19, RPI: 46) at Temple (KenPom: 95, RPI: 69), 7:00 p.m.
Florida State (KenPom: 37, RPI: 38) at Syracuse (KenPom: 39, RPI: 44), 7:00 p.m.
VCU (KenPom: 32, RPI: 40) at UMass, 7:00 p.m.
Arkansas-Little Rock (KenPom: 41, RPI: 63) at Louisiana Monroe, 8:00 p.m.
Northern Kentucky at Valparaiso (KenPom: 22, RPI: 48), 8:00 p.m.
No. 4 Iowa at Indiana (KenPom: 24, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
No. 11 Oregon at Cal (KenPom: 44, RPI: 32), 9:00 p.m.
Washington State at Colorado (KenPom: 56, RPI: 29), 11:00 p.m.
Gonzaga (KenPom: 33, RPI: 66) at Portland, 11:00 p.m.
Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s (KenPom: 26, RPI: 52), 11:00 p.m.
Oregon State (KenPom: 81, RPI: 31) at Stanford (KenPom: 104, RPI: 71), 11:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Big Ten showdown and key bubble battles

Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff (20), Christian Williams, center, and Adam Woodbury, second from left, and Michigan State's Deyonta Davis (23) and Eron Harris (14) reach for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 4 Iowa at Indiana, 7:00 p.m.

As a result of their surprising loss at Penn State Saturday night, Tom Crean’s Hoosiers enter this pivotal contest a game back of the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten standings. And with their backloaded conference schedule, this is a game Indiana has to get if they’re to entertain thoughts of winning the Big Ten title. Two of the Big Ten’s best players will be on display in Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff and Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, but both have plenty of help behind them offensively.

Iowa’s Peter Jok has been one of the conference’s most improved players, and the Hoosiers can counter not only with forward Troy Williams but with freshman center Thomas Bryant as well. The key in this one: turnovers, as Indiana has lost the ball on more than 20 percent of their possessions in conference play. That can’t happen tonight if they’re to win.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 11 Oregon at California, 9:00 p.m.

The Ducks have been the class of the Pac-12 to this point, but a win in Berkeley won’t come easy. The Golden Bears may not be enjoying the success many expected before the season began, but Cuonzo Martin’s team has won all 14 of its home games this season, most recently whipping rival Stanford last weekend.

The problem for Cal: Tyrone Wallace is still out due to injury, and given Oregon’s many versatile scoring options that’s a problem. Pac-12 POY candidate Dillon Brooks leads the way, but Chris Boucher has emerged as one of the conference’s best big men in recent weeks. Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb and Jordan Mathews will need to come up big, as this is a huge contest for Cal’s NCAA tournament hopes.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  • The top two teams in the Big West get together in Honolulu, as Hawai’i hosts UC Irvine (1:00 a.m.) in the first of their two meetings this season. This will be a matchup of strengths when the Bows have the ball, as they lead the Big West in two-point field goal percentage (54.7) while UC Irvine leads the conference in two-point percentage defense (38.9) thanks in large part to 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Hawai’i forward Stefan Jankovic (15.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has been a much-improved player under first-year head coach Eran Ganot, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding.
  • Two ACC teams with matching 6-5 league records meet at the Carrier Dome, as Syracuse hosts Florida State (7:00 p.m.) in a game both teams need for their respective NCAA tournament résumés. Jim Boeheim’s team should be well-rested, as they haven’t played in nine days, and they’ll need that energy to slow down FSU guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon. The Seminole backcourt is young but talented, and they’ll face two fifth-year seniors in Syracuse’s Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney.
  • Picking up a home sweep of Utah and Colorado may have given Oregon State’s NCAA tournament hopes some life, but they really need to go on a run here. Tonight’s game at Stanford (11:00 p.m.) represents a good opportunity for Gary Payton II and company to win their third straight, but the Cardinal did win the first meeting in Corvallis back on January 6. In that game rebounding was the deciding factor (Rosco Allen finished with 21 and eight boards, too), as Stanford grabbed half of their available missed shots. OSU can’t let that happen again.
  • With SMU ineligible for postseason play, the other American Athletic Conference teams are jockeying for position in next month’s conference tournament. Tonight UConn looks to avenge its home loss to Temple January 5 with a win in Philadelphia (7:00 p.m.). Since Amida Brimah’s return the Huskies have played much better basketball, as they have their rim protector and a finisher for Daniel Hamilton’s alley-oop passes back on the court. The Owls have won their last three games, and tonight is their second-best remaining opportunity for a quality win (they play No. 1 Villanova next Wednesday).
  • At this point, no one’s catching Wichita State for the Missouri Valley regular season title without the Shockers collapsing in epic fashion. But when it comes to who can earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, both Illinois State and Evansville have a shot. The two teams meet in Evansville tonight (8:00 p.m.), with three of the Valley’s best players on display in ISU’s DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Evansville’s D.J. Balentine and Edigijus Mockevicius. Evansville won the first meeting by 11 in mid-January, as the Redbirds shot 6-for-31 from three on the night.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Mercer at Wofford, 7:00 p.m.
  • Hofstra at William & Mary, 7:00 p.m.
  • High Point at Coastal Carolina, 7:00 p.m.
  • James Madison at College of Charleston, 7:00 p.m.
  • Milwaukee at Oakland, 7:00 p.m.
  • Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s, 11:00 p.m.