Sun Belt Preview: Louisiana to overtake Georgia State?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Sun Belt Conference.

The last two seasons, Ron Hunter’s Georgia State team has reigned supreme over the Sun Belt Conference. They’ve won 34 league games and a pair of outright regular season titles during that stretch, advancing to the 2015 NCAA tournament where they pulled off an upset of No. 3 seed Baylor in the opening round.

But that GSU team is gone for the most part. R.J. Hunter went pro while Curtis Washington and Ryan Harrow graduated, but the Panthers still should be able to compete at the top of the league this season. Former Louisville guard Kevin Ware is back for his senior season while Indiana transfer Jeremy Hollowell is eligible to play this year. Throw in the return of Marcus Crider, a physical, undersized four that was named to the preseason  all-Sun Belt second-team, and Hunter has a group capable of making it a three-peat.

They won’t, however, be favored to do it. Louisiana will be, as Bob Marlin returned the league’s best player in Shawn Long. Long is a difference maker at this level, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker with three-point range and the ability to pop off for a double-double on any given night. He can win games on his own, but the good news for the Ragin’ Cajuns is that he won’t have to. Devonta Walker is back up front while Kasey Shepard and Jay Wright man an underrated back court.

The third real contender for Sun Belt supremacy is Louisiana-Monroe. Losing Tylor Ongwae is going to hurt, but the Warhawks do bring back two all-conference caliber players in big man Majok Deng and guard Nick Coppolla. They have size, they have length and they can defend. The question is going to be whether or not they can score enough without Ongwae; they struggled in the game they were missing him last season.

Both Arkansas State and South Alabama are worth keeping an eye on if, for no other reason, than because they have two of the best players in the league on their roster. Arkansas State big man Anthony Livingston averaged a double-double as a sophomore and would be the best front court player in most mid-major conferences. USA’s Ken Williams is the best guard in the conference and is a very well-coached team that swept Louisiana last season. Texas State also falls in this category. They can really defend and have a first-team all-league player in Emani Gant, although their issues on the offensive end will be tough to overcome.

Georgia Southern and Arkansas-Little Rock both lost a ton of talent, but UALR was able to land FAMU transfer Jermaine Ruttley, which is a major reason they’re picked to finish in the middle of the pack instead of the bottom of the league.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Louisiana-Lafayette. They have a ton of talent, not just Shawn Long. They have a really nice front court, Jay Wright is underrated in the back court. They have the most coming, the best player coming back. They’re good, and there’s a reason they got picked to win. Bob Marlin does a fantastic job.”
  • Sleeper: “You gotta talk about Arkansas State. Livingston is really good. They missed the conference tournament last year, but they bring everybody back.”
  • Star to watch: “Shawn Long is the best player in the league. There are two ‘high major’ players in the conference — Long and Livingston — but Long, on a great night, can win game by himself. Talent wise, size wise, he’s an NBA guy. When he’s on, nobody in the league can stop him. He’s that level of player.”

PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Shawn Long, Louisiana

With R.J. Hunter in the NBA and Ryan Harrow lost to graduation, Long becomes the biggest name in a league that has become known as a place for high major transfers to land on their feet. Long, whose career at Mississippi State was derailed by the post-Renardo Sidney fallout, is arguably the best big man in mid-major basketball. He’s a 6-foot-10 low post scorer that can knock down threes and is the best rim protector in the league. He’s got a shot at an NBA career when he’s done in college.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM:

  • Anthony Livington, Arkansas State: Still just a junior, Livingston averaged 15.3 points and 10.0 boards last season.
  • Emani Gant, Texas State: An excellent defender, Gant is the best offensive weapon on a team that can struggle to score.
  • Ken Williams, South Alabama: With the Georgia State guys gone, Williams is the best guard in the league.
  • Kevin Ware, Georgia State: Ware will have plenty of opportunity as a senior after playing behind a pair of shot-happy guards last year.

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PREDICTED FINISH

1. Louisiana
2. Louisiana-Monroe
3. Georgia State
4. Arkansas State
5. South Alabama
6. Arkansas-Little Rock
7. Texas State
8. Georgia Southern
9. Appalachian State
10. UT-Arlington
11. Troy