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The power in the Sun Belt will once again lie in Atlanta. In 2013-2014, during just their second season in the conference, Georgia State steam-rolled through the regular season. They went 17-1 in league play and had the look of a program that was going to give some high seed nightmares. That was until they ran into Louisiana in the Sun Belt title game, blowing a nine-point lead in the final three minutes before losing in overtime.
The Panthers are looking for redemption this season, and they bring back enough talent that they should be the overwhelming favorites to get it. Ryan Harrow, who a former top 40 recruit that played at both N.C. State and Kentucky, starred for the Panthers last year. He’ll be joined in the back court by former top 50 recruit and Louisville guard Kevin Ware this season. Oh, and the best player on the team is sharpshooter R.J. Hunter. Georgia State is loaded. Period.
Their biggest challenger will likely be Louisiana once again. That’s because the Ragin’ Cajuns have another future NBA draft pick on their roster. Shawn Long may not be a top ten pick like Elfrid Payton was, but he is a 6-foot-10 big man that blocks a lot of shots, averaged 18.6 points and can hit threes. Oklahoma State transfer Brian Williams will provide a jolt of athleticism and toughness on the wing, but the x-factor will end up being Xavian Rimmer, a senior guard that played his best basketball late in the season and during the Sun Belt tournament.
Those two teams are probably a cut above the rest of the conference, but there are some capable teams in the league. Georgia Southern will be one to keep an eye on. There are a couple question marks — namely, how will GSU adjust to a new conference and just how long Eric Ferguson will be suspended for his offseason legal troubles — but if all goes according to plan, the Eagles return star guard Jelani Hewitt and get back a pair of former all-Southern Conference big men (Ferguson and Trent Wiedeman) who redshirted last season.
Arkansas-Little Rock loses Will Neighbour but they bring back Josh Hagins, James White and a healthy J.T. Thomas. Louisiana-Monroe loses a couple of starters, but they bring by all-league forward Tylor Ongwae. Losing a guy that averages 20 points isn’t easy to overcome, but UT Arlington‘s offense should be more balanced without Reger Dowell. Their senior back court of Lonnie McClanahan and Jamel Outler will be tough. Arkansas State lost seven of their top eight from last season. John Brady better home those new guys are ready to compete from day one.
In: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State
Out: Western Kentucky
PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
The Sun Belt has had quite a bit of individual talent in the league over the last year or two, but Hunter is as good as any of them. That includes lottery pick Elfrid Payton. Hunter is a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is one of the best shooters in the country and capable of putting 30 on anyone.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM:
- Ryan Harrow, Georgia State, Sr.: Harrow thrived last season after transferring into the program from Kentucky, playing the role of point guard alongside Hunter.
- Shawn Long, Louisiana, Jr.: Long is not only a very good college player, his ability to block shots and hit threes will get him NBA attention
- Jelani Hewitt, Georgia Southern, Sr.: Hewitt was a big-time scorer in the SoCon for GSU last season, and his production should translate to the Sun Belt as well.
- Tylor Ongwae, Louisiana-Monroe, Sr.: Ongwae, a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 16.2 points in his first season with ULM after transferring into the program from a JuCo.
ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SunBelt
1. Georgia State
3. Georgia Southern
4. Arkansas Little-Rock
6. UT Arlington
7. Arkansas State
8. Texas State
9. South Alabama
11. Appalachian State