With an 11-member setup the Sun Belt Conference has played a 20-game conference schedule the last couple of years, which may be seen as a positive when it comes to determining the regular season champion (home-and-home between every team). But for a conference that spans from North Carolina (Appalachian State) to Texas (UT-Arlington, Texas State) travel was far from easy in that setup.
And with Coastal Carolina joining next season, it was clear that the league needed to do something with its scheduling.
Thursday the Sun Belt members approved an 18-game conference schedule, which will begin with the 2016-17 season when the league consists of 12 members. Included in the agreement is the assignment of travel partners (similar to setups in the Pac-12 and Ivy League), and teams playing no more than three consecutive conference games on the road.
Schools will also be guaranteed at least five weekend home games during conference play, and there will be no more weekends in which teams play conference games both home and away (a team won’t play at home Thursday and then have to hit the road for a game Saturday or vice versa, thus cutting down on travel). Obviously with the addition of Coastal Carolina the Sun Belt needed to make some changes in their scheduling, and this week the conference made the moves they needed to make.
After putting together an outstanding 2013-14 season in which he helped lead his team to the NCAA tournament (alongside Elfrid Payton), Louisiana forward Shawn Long once again averaged a double-double in 2014-15. On the receiving end of more attention from opponents Long averaged 16.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who won 22 games and reached the quarterfinals of the CIT.
With this being his fourth season of college basketball (third playing), there was some thought that Long could move on. However according to Luke Johnson of the Acadiana Advocate (Lafayette, Louisiana), Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin announced at the team banquet that his 6-foot-9 star forward will return to school for his senior season.
Long’s decision to return for a fifth year (he sat out the 2011-12 season at Mississippi State before transferring) is a big one for Louisiana, which is now due to return four of its top five scorers from last season. Just two days ago Louisiana received a commitment from 6-foot-11 junior college forward/center Larenz Stalcup, so the return of Long gives them even more depth in the paint.
With the amount of talent due back in Lafayette, Louisiana is capable of challenging reigning Sun Belt champion Georgia State and making a run at its second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years.
Georgia State has been active recruiting transfers the last few offseasons and the Panthers and head coach Ron Hunter landed a commitment from former Alabama guard Devin Mitchell, he announced.
The 6-foot-4 Mitchell is a former Rivals top-150 prospect but only saw limited action during his freshman season with the Crimson Tide. With Alabama hiring a new head coach in Avery Johnson, it was probably best for a fresh start for both parties. Mitchell played 76 total minutes during the 2014-15 season and scored nine points and tallied four assists. He struggled from the field, going 3-for-23 and 2-for-17 from 3-point range.
The Sun Belt might be a better fit for Mitchell and Hunter has found a lot of success taking in transfers. Ryan Harrow had a successful two-year run at Georgia State after transferring from Kentucky and former Louisville guard Kevin Ware also made his way to the Panthers.
Three days after they beat Georgia State 77-74 in double overtime, Texas State managed to beat UALR by the same exact score Thursday night. The hero Thursday night was none other than senior guard D.J. Brown, who knocked down a contested three-pointer as time expired. Brown led four Bobcats in double figures with 16 points while also accounting for five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
With the win Texas State is now 3-1 in Sun Belt play, a game behind Louisiana (which beat Georgia State Thursday night) in the conference standings.
Georgia State is fighting for a NCAA Tournament bid as a potential at-large team in a typically one-bid league, so the Panthers need all the help they can get this season. They won’t get any from freshman forward Jeff Thomas, as the Ohio native was ruled ineligible by the NCAA, according to a release from the school on Monday.
According to the release, Georgia State has gone through all appeals and considers the matter closed. The 6-foot-5 Thomas has yet to play in a game this season and won’t be able to help the team in 2014-15.
“We are obviously disappointed with the decision,” head coach Ron Hunter said in the release. “We will continue to support Jeff as he works toward his degree this year and look forward to him joining the team as a redshirt-freshman next year. We consider the matter closed and will continue to work on improving our team every day.”
As Hunter mentioned, Thomas does get to redshirt and will have four years of eligibility beginning next season. It certainly doesn’t help the Panthers this season, but Thomas staying an extra year gives them more insurance on the wing if R.J. Hunter opts to go pro after his junior year.
Georgia State is the heavy favorite in the Sun Belt this season as the back court duo of Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter returns from a team that came a game away from making the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers became even more intriguing this offseason with the addition of Louisville transfer and guard Kevin Ware. Ware was a medical redshirt at Louisville last season after dealing with the aftermath of a gruesome leg injury and is cleared to return this season at Georgia State.
But head coach Ron Hunter and the Panthers will have to play for a bit without Ware as the junior guard suffered a high ankle sprain in practice, according to Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
While a high ankle sprain isn’t a season-ending injury, it can be a lingering injury that is difficult to fully recover from. Given Ware’s injury history, a high ankle sprain could result in him missing a good chunk of time.
Ware’s injury might not cause him to miss many games — if any — but Georgia State has high aspirations this season and needs Ware if they hope to maximize them. This will be an injury to monitor over the next few weeks as we get closer to the season.