Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Sun Belt.
UT-Arlington has managed to scrape together some of the best teams the program will ever see, but they’ve yet to see that talent pay dividends. In 2015-16, their star big man Kevin Hervey tore his ACL in the middle of January, an injury that more or less derailed the season for a team that could have pushed Chris Beard’s Arkansas-Little Rock team for the Sun Belt title. Last year, after Hervey made it back to full health by the end of the season, the Mavericks won the league regular season title only to lose by 21 in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals.
This season is going to be the last for UTA with Hervey, but they still look to be the favorite to win the league despite losing three of their top six players. Hervey, of course, is back, as is Erick Neal, who might just be the best point guard in the league. There are going to be a number of players in new roles this season, but giving a terrific coach like Scott Cross the best point guard and best big man in a conference is a good start.
If it’s not UTA, the favorite in the league is probably Georgia Southern. I know I just praised UTA’s top two, but I think that it is fair to say that GSU returning Ike Smith and Tookie Brown, the top two scorers in the league a season ago, probably means they have the best 1-2 punch in the conference. Combine that with the fact that the program returns essentially everyone from a team that finished 3rd in the league last season, and Mark Byington has a real shot at getting this group to the NCAA tournament.
Coming off of a trip to the big dance a year ago, Troy will again be a team to watch. Jordan Varnado is back for his junior season, and the Trojans also get back Wesley Person Jr. and Kevin Baker. Replacing two starters will not be easy, but it’s doable. Along those same lines, Georgia State will also take a hit with Jeremy Hollowell graduating, but sophomore D’Marcus Simonds looks to be the next superstar for Ron Hunter.
Texas State lost three seniors, including a first-team all-league player in Kavin Gilder-tilbury, but Nijal Pearson should have a very good sophomore season. The Coastal Carolina program is always worth keeping an eye on, while Louisiana returns the majority of the key pieces in their rotation.
PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kevin Hervey, UT-Arlington
Anyone that pays any attention to mid-major basketball has long known about Hervey. A 6-foot-9 forward that can block shots and make threes, he’s been on the NBA’s radar since his breakout sophomore season. That also means that NBA scouts were well aware of the torn ACL he suffered late that year. It took him a while to get fully healthy last season, but he eventually got there. He’s a senior now, and almost two years removed from the injury.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM
- Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern: Tookie not only has the best nickname in the conference, but he’s also the best point guard and a major reason the Eagles can compete to a league title.
- D’Marcus Simonds, Georgia State: Just a freshman last season, Simonds will take over as the star for a good Panther team this year.
- Ike Smith, Georgia Southern: The leading scorer last year in the Sun Belt, Smith is back to anchor a team that could very well end up winning the conference.
- Jordan Varnado, Troy: The junior big man’s presence on the front line is one of the reasons the Trojans were in the mix at the top of the conference and reached the NCAA tournament last season.
1. UT Arlington
2. Georgia Southern
4. Georgia State
6. Coastal Carolina
7. Louisiana Monroe
8. Texas State
9. Arkansas State
10. Appalachian State
11. South Alabama
12. Little Rock