2014 Sun Belt Tournament Preview: Can Georgia State go dancing?

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There may not be a mid-major conference that has more potential NBA talent than the Sun Belt. Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette have two guys that will get scouted plenty by NBA front office types. Western Kentucky has a couple of players as well. Even South Alabama, who didn’t even qualify for the conference tournament, has a player on their roster — Augustine Rubit — who will make a living playing basketball.

Perhaps what’s more notable about the Sun Belt tournament is that they are one of the few mid-major leagues that do it the right way. Only eight teams are invited. The top two seeds get a double-bye into the semifinals. The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds get a single-bye into the quarters. Reward the teams that won in the regular season.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 13-16

Where: Lakefront Arena, New Orleans

Final: March 16th, 1:00 p.m. ESPN2

Favorite: Georgia State

The Panthers struggled early on this season, but turned things around when he coach Ron Hunter made the decision to move Ryan Harrow off the ball full time. Yes, Kentucky-transfer Ryan Harrow. He’s at Georgia State now, averaging 17.2 points and 4.4 assists, and he’s not even the best player on the team. R.J. Hunter, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, is. GSU is loaded with perimeter talent, and it showed, and they finished 17-1 in league play.

RELATED: How a transfer turned Ryan Harrow’s career around

And if they lose?: Louisiana-Lafayette

The Ragin’ Cajuns finished third in the league this season, but they may have the best 1-2 punch in the conference. Elfrid Payton is a name most diehard fans will know, as he starred on the USA’s U-19 team this summer and averaged 19.3 points, 6.0 boards, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals. Shawn Long’s numbers were equally impressive, as he averaged 19.2 points, 10.4 boards and 2.8 blocks.

Sleepers:

  • Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers finished second in the Sun Belt this season, led by T.J. Price and George Fant. They’ve won the last two Sun Belt tournament titles.
  • Troy: The Trojans finished eighth in the conference. But they are the only team to have beaten Georgia State in league play. So there’s that.

Studs:

  • R.J. Hunter, Georgia State: The leading scorer on the conference’s best team. Hunter is the head coach’s son and a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter.
  • Ryan Harrow, Georgia State: Harrow was eligible immediately this season after transferring in from Kentucky, and he’s been terrific in his new surroundings.
  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette: I wrote a story earlier this year on Payton and how he exploded onto the national radar.

CBT Prediction: Georgia State over Louisiana-Lafayette

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.