Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Sun Belt Conference.
The Sun Belt has had quite a bit of talent come through the ranks over the course of the last three or four years. In 2014, it was Elfrid Payton playing his way into the lottery and coming within a couple of minutes of upsetting No. 3 seed Creighton and Doug McDermott in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter that became a first round draft pick after hitting a game-winning three to upset No. 3 Baylor – and knock his dad out of his chair. And last season, Arkansas-Little Rock was turned into a 30-win team by Chris Beard, who departed for Texas Tech by way of UNLV after upsetting Purdue in the first round of the Big Dance.
In other words, there is always talent in this league, and this season will be no different.
The star that you need to be paying attention to this season resides at UT-Arlington. His name is Kevin Hervey. A 6-foot-7 forward, Hervey was generating attention from NBA scouts with a terrific start to his sophomore season when he tore his ACL while warming up for a showdown with Little Rock last winter. At the time, Arlington was coming off of wins over Memphis and Ohio State and looked like a real mid-major threat. The good news? Arlington brings back their entire starting lineup, including Hervey, who is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season gets into full-swing. There’s no reason that the Mavericks can’t make the kind of run that Little Rock made last season.
Speaking of Little Rock, losing Beard is going to hurt. Wes Flanigan is a local guy that had been on the staff for five years over two different tenures, but he’ll have his work cut out for him replacing Josh Hagins, whose heroics spawned the upset of Purdue. Marcus Johnson Jr. and Lis Shoshi will be asked to play bigger roles while transfers Oliver Black (Mississippi State) and Dayshawn Watkins (Florida State) will play major minutes as well.
Ron Hunter has made his name at Georgia State by relying on transfers, but that also means he has had to adapt to dealing with turnover every year. This season is no different, as the Panthers have to replace three starters. They do return Jeremy Hollowell, however, and the former Indiana Hoosier has the talent to challenge for Sun Belt Player of the Year.
Louisiana is not only going to have to replace Shawn Long, one of the best to ever play in the Sun Belt, and Kasey Shepard, a 1,000-point scorer, they’re going to have to do it with the death of incoming freshman Herman Williams hanging over the program. Williams died of a heart attack while working out this summer. Cliff Ellis started his four-decade coaching career in the Sun Belt and he’ll likely end it there as well as Coastal Carolina move to the conference this year. Ellis has a veteran backcourt that led the Chanticleers to a 12-6 mark in the Big South last season.
If there’s a sleeper in the league it’s Arkansas State. Devin Carter, the league’s second-leading scorer, returns, as does Donte Thomas, one of four players nationally to average 11 points, 5.5 assists and 5.5 boards. Keep an eye on Georgia Southern as well as Tookie Brown may be the best scorer in the conference and the Eagles return five starters that were freshmen or sophomores. Troy and South Alabama will be in the mix for a top-six finish thanks to Wesley Person and Ken Williams, respectively.
Appalachian State has a good sophomore class that Jim Fox needs to come of age quickly as he tries to replace three starters on a team that finished 7-13 in the league. Danny Kaspar is known for building programs from the ground up, but in year four at Texas State, the Bobcats haven’t finished above .500 yet. ULM finished second in the league last season but they lost four starters.
PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kevin Hervey, UT-Arlington
The Sun Belt always has at least one guy whose names bounces around NBA Draft circles and this season it is Hervey, whose torn ACL derailed what could have been a special season for the Mavericks. With everyone back, a healthy Hervey is a scary thing for opponents to hear about.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM:
- Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern: The former Mississippi State commit averaged 17.8 points as a sophomore.
- Jeremy Hollowell, Georgia State: The former Hoosier is one of the most talented players in the league.
- Erick Neal, UT-Arlington: The Mavericks have a chance to have a special season and Neal is the engine that makes them run.
- Marcus Johnson Jr., Little rock: Someone needs to step-up with Beard and Hagins gone.
ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @sunbelt
1. UT Arlington
2. Georgia State
3. Georgia Southern
4. Little Rock
6. Coastal Carolina
7. Arkansas State
9. South Alabama
11. Texas State
12. Appalachian State