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

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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

Indiana upsets No. 4 Iowa, moves into first-place tie in Big Ten

Indiana's Troy Williams (5) and Collin Hartman (30) celebrate after Williams made a shot and was fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana picked off the No. 4 team in the country on Thursday night, beating Iowa in Assembly Hall, 85-78.

It goes without saying that this was a huge win for the Hoosiers. They had just a single top 50 win on their résumé entering the night. They were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but for a team that just moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with the win, they were no where near as safe as you might think.

You read that right.

Indiana is not exactly safe when it comes to their NCAA tournament standing despite, on February 11th, being tied with Iowa and Maryland for first place in the Big Ten.

So yes, adding a top ten win to that profile is incredibly significant.

Having a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten regular season title is incredibly significant.

But more than anything, how this win came to be matters more than anything.

For starters, it came on a night where Yogi Ferrell was off. He hit his first shot and his last shot of the night, but missed all ten field goal attempts in between. He finished with just one assist compared to two turnovers and four fouls. He was bad. And it didn’t matter. For a team that relies as heavily upon a player as Indiana relies upon Yogi, that’s significant.

As is the fact that the Hoosiers were able to win despite blowing a 16-point lead. Remember, Indiana had lost to Penn State on Saturday. Following that up by blowing a huge lead at home in the most important game of the season is the kind of thing that can obliterate a team’s confidence, and with a brutal stretch run — at Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Maryland — getting into a funk now would be a season-killer.

Six Hoosiers scored at least nine points, led by 14 from Ferrell, while it was the play of Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, grabbing 10 of Indiana’s 19 offensive rebounds, that really made the difference; the Hoosiers scored 26 second-chance points.

As far as Iowa is concerned, the only real problem coming from this loss was their inability to keep Indiana off of the offensive glass. The Hoosiers had 12 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Iowa had 11 total rebounds. On the season, the Hawkeyes are 225th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Indiana gets to the offensive glass as well as anyone, but Fran McCaffery is not going to be happy about their numbers — or effort — when he watches this film.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Indiana, California pick up important home wins

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Indiana 85, No. 4 Iowa 78

There’s now a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings, as the Hoosiers outlasted the Hawkeyes in Bloomington. Yogi Ferrell led five Indiana players in double figures with 14 points, and Tom Crean’s team won this one in large part due to their rebounding (19 offensive rebounds) and accuracy from the foul line. Indiana made 18 of its 21 attempts from the charity stripe, with Iowa going a pedestrian 13-for-23. Jarrod Uthoff scored 24 points and Mike Gesell 17, but those missed opportunities from the foul line proved costly for Fran McCaffery’s team.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

California 83, No. 11 Oregon 63: Jabari Bird scored 24 points to lead the way offensively as Cal moved to 15-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. Oregon simply did not have any answers for the Golden Bears, who shot nearly 56 percent from the field and racked up 27 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint. As a result the top seven teams in the Pac-12 are separated by a total of two games. So how does Cal go about ensuring that they don’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday? By doing something that’s proven to be far easier said than done for them this season.

Temple 63, UConn 58: With six minutes remaining UConn held a 12-point lead and appeared poised to pick up a win in Philadelphia. Things didn’t play out that way however, as Temple closed the game on a 21-4 run to pick up a much-needed win for their NCAA tournament hopes and move to 9-3 in the American. Quenton DeCosey scored 23 points and Daniel Dingle 15 for the Owls, who are now 6-0 on the season against the other top teams in the American (UConn, Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa).

Syracuse 85, Florida State 72: The Orange opened the second half on a 13-1 run, grabbing control of a key game between teams looking to add quality wins to their NCAA tournament résumés. Michael Gbinije scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Malachi Richardson added 17, six board, five assists and three steals for the Orange. Devon Bookert led four Seminoles in double figures with 15 points, but FSU shot just 8-for-26 from three against the Syracuse zone.

STARRED

Rokas Gustys, Hofstra: Gustys racked up 25 points and 15 rebounds in Hofstra’s 86-80 win at William & Mary.

Matt Harris, UMass-Lowell: Harris scored 33 points, shooting 10-for-15 from the field, in the RiverHawks’ 108-95 overtime win at Maine.

Jabari Bird, California: Bird scored 24 points, shooting 9-for-14 from the field, in the Golden Bears’ blowout win over No. 11 Oregon.

Nick Emery, BYU: Emery scored 37 points in the Cougars’ 114-89 win at San Francisco, shooting 10-for-12 from three.

STRUGGLED

Chattanooga: The Mocs committed 26 turnovers in their 67-61 loss at Western Carolina.

James McGee, Southern Utah: McGee shot 2-for-10 from the field, scoring six points in the Thunderbirds’ 86-53 loss at Montana.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UMass knocked off VCU 69-63 in Amherst, dropping the Rams a game behind Dayton in the Atlantic 10 standings.
  • Matt Tiby accounted for 24 points and 11 rebounds and Jordan Johnson added 14 points and ten assists as Milwaukee won 93-85 at Oakland.
  • James Madison picked up an important 56-52 win at Charleston, but leading scorer Ron Curry left the game with a knee injury. His status moving forward will be of great importance to the Dukes.
  • Jacksonville fell short in its quest to grab sole possession of first in the A-Sun, as they lost 93-92 at Lipscomb.
  • High Point won at Coastal Carolina, beating the Chanticleers 68-67. Adam Weary led a balanced offensive effort for the Panthers with 13 points.
  • Stony Brook extended its win streak to 17 straight games with a 75-52 win at UMBC. Jameel Warney finished the game with 22 points and seven rebounds.
  • Western Carolina handed Chattanooga its second loss in SoCon play, beating the Mocs 67-61. Torrior Brummitt finished with 16 points and ten rebounds for the Catamounts.
  • Charlotte scored 66 second half points in a 102-73 win over Rice. Mark Price’s 49ers shot especially well from three, connecting on 17 of their 29 attempts.
  • There’a a two-way tie atop the Northeast Conference, as both Saint Francis (PA) and Fairleigh Dickinson picked up wins Thursday night. Wagner, which entered the night tied for first, lost at LIU Brooklyn 82-69.
  • UAB won for the 18th time in their last 19 games but they had to work hard for it, beating Southern Miss 80-77 in double overtime. Chris Cokley accounted for 17 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for the Blazers.
  • Montana State shot an incredible 25-for-43 from beyond the arc in a 101-58 win over Northern Arizona.
  • Montana (10-2) and Weber State (9-2) remain atop the Big Sky standings, as both picked up comfortable home wins Thursday night. While the Grizzlies blew out Southern Utah 86-53, Weber State beat Sacramento State 63-50.
  • Oregon State picked up a 62-50 win at Stanford, a good result for a team in need of more wins as they look to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Also winning in the Pac-12 was Colorado, which avoided a bad loss by beating Washington State 88-81 in double overtime.
  • Gonzaga grabbed sole possession of first in the WCC with a 92-66 win at Portland. They had some help from Pepperdine, which went up to the Bay Area and beat Saint Mary’s 69-63 in Moraga.