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

John Calipari reminds Kentucky fans to remain classy in defeat

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Before traveling to Phoenix for the Final Four festivities, Kentucky head coach John Calipari used his Twitter account in an effort to diffuse the anger members of Big Blue Nation have directed at a referee following a heartbreaking loss in the Elite Eight.

In the days following the season-ending loss to North Carolina, some fans — not all — have harassed official John Higgins. They’ve flooded the Facebook page of his roofing business, leaving negative reviews and lowering his company’s star rating. Some have gone even more extreme, going as far as sending death threats over the phone.

Based on the replies, some have received the message. Others haven’t. The latter, despite it being a small but vocal group, can, unfortunately, paint a fan base with a broad brush.

Mark Emmert: NCAA Board of Governors to meet ‘in the next few days’ to determine N.C.’s tournament standing

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Late on Wednesday night, the state of North Carolina reached an agreement to repeal the controversial and discriminatory House Bill 2 law, which is commonly known as the bathroom bill.

The NCAA had given the state a deadline of Thursday morning to make a change in this law or they would miss out on hosting NCAA tournament game until the 2022 season, so it’s not hard to connect the dots here. The pressure the NCAA asserted on the state helped create a change.

The question is just how much of a change, as many believe that the repeal does not do enough to change what is discriminatory about the law.

“What distinguished North Carolina,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “there were four distinct problems that the board had with that bill, and they removed some of them but not all of them. If you removed two or three of them, is that enough?”

The NCAA Board of Governors have stretched out the process of determining future tournament sites as far as possible, Emmert said, meaning that a decision on this new bill will be made soon.

“Because this happened on such short notice, we have to find a time to get together with the board, and that will probably happen in the next few days,” Emmert said, and in those meetings, the board “will determine if this [new] bill is sufficient change.”

“I’m personally very pleased they have a bill to debate and discuss. Hopefully we can be in a place where we can announce the board’s decision early next week.”

Gonzaga’s Mark Few named AP Coach of the Year

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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has added to his program’s banner season with an individual award, being named AP Coach of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

Few led the Bulldogs to their first Final Four. The Zags enter the national semifinal with a 36-1 record. Up until Feb. 25, they were flirting with a perfect season. A loss to BYU is currently the only blemish on their season.

Few also won his 500th career game during the course of the 2016-17 season. Since 2014, two coaches from outside the major conferences have earned his honor. Gregg Marshall was named AP Coach of the Year in 2014 after leading the Shockers to a perfect regular season.

This was a very competitive race this season. Sean Miller lost two players expected to be key pieces this season — and had Allonzo Trier miss 19 games — but guided Arizona to the Pac-12 Tournament championship. Jay Wright led Villanova to another Big East title despite two cornerstone pieces — Ryan Arcidiancono and Daniel Ochefu — gone from last season’s national championship team. For a while, Baylor’s Scott Drew seemed to be the favorite. The Bears didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason top-25 poll but went on to earn a No. 1 ranking.

Few’s season continues on Saturday against South Carolina.

Frank Mason is named AP Player of the Year

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Kansas point guard Frank Mason III was named the AP Player of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

The senior floor general for the Jayhawks headlined the AP All-American team, which included UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, Villanova Swingman Josh Hart, Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan and North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and shot 49 percent from behind the 3-point line during the 2016-17 season. He helped guide Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title.

He becomes the fourth senior in a row to win the award, preceded by Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminksy and Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

He had previously been named player of the year by NBC Sports.

TJ Leaf declares for the 2017 NBA Draft

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UCLA freshman forward TJ Leaf announced he is declaring for the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday afternoon.

The 6-foot-10 Leaf averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. His shooting numbers were also impressive, connecting on 62 percent of his field goals, including 27-of-58 from beyond the 3-point arc.

This news comes six days after Lonzo Ball officially announced he had played his last game at UCLA. Neither move is shocking, with Ball in the running for the No. 1 overall pick and Leaf also pegged as a first round selection.

The Bruins will have quite a bit of turnover next season with guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton exhausting their eligibility. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has a six-man recruiting class set to come in to help replenish the roster. It’s led by versatile forward Kris Wilkes, point guard Jaylen Hands, and big men Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.