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Sun Belt announces scheduling tweaks to bolster NCAA tournament resumes

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Add the Sun Belt to the list of conferences getting creative with its schedule in order to boost its NCAA tournament profile.

The league is shifting to a 20-game “smart schedule” with the final four games of each team’s conference schedule determined by how they fared in the first 16 in order to pit the top three teams against each other for an extra home-and-away series to finish the year.

It will work like this:

After 16 games, the league will be broken up into four pods – Pod A (#1, #2, #3), Pod B (#4, #5, #6), Pod C (#7, #8, #9) and Pod D (#10, #11, #12). Then each team will play the other two teams in its pod twice, once at home and once away. That away the top teams will get an RPI (or whatever metric you prefer) boost by playing the best competition the conference has to offer, rather than some sub-300 team that will be a drag on its profile regardless of the final score.

The Sun Belt is also tweaking its conference tournament format. The pods will essentially dictate seeding. A team from Pod A cannot be seeded lower than third, for instance. The tournament will also feature what the league is calling a “Final Four” starting in 2020. The top two seeds will earn byes into the semifinals, which will be played at the home of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Smoothie King Center. Seeds three and four receive byes into the quarterfinals and will host whichever two teams emerge from the tournament’s opening two rounds before moving to Smoothie King Center for the semis and championship.

“I applaud the commitment of our president and chancellors, athletic directors, and basketball coaches for their willingness to accept the unique concepts that were approved today,” Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said in a statement.  “Not only will these initiatives push our men’s and women’s basketball success to the next level, but our student-athlete and fan experience will be elevated with our new tournament format and host site at the Smoothie King Center.”

While a little quirky, these changes make a lot of sense, and you have to give the Sun Belt – and Conference USA and the WCC – credit for being willing to experiment and innovate in order to bolster its members’ resumes. Given that the scales are weighted so much toward teams from power conferences, it’s almost essential for mid-majors to try to game the system a little themselves in order to put itself in the best position possible.

These changes may be a little gimmicky and will almost certainly confuse fans for the first year or two, but they almost certainly will be an unmitigated success for helping the conference’s national profile come Selection Sunday.

Sun Belt approves new scheduling format

Sun Belt Conference
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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.

Louisiana forward Shawn Long to return for senior season

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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.

Former Alabama guard transfers to Georgia State

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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.

D.J. Brown gives Texas State its second straight double-overtime victory (VIDEO)

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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 freshman ruled ineligible

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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.