Top #FunBelt storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. The top half of the league is deep this year, and the UT Arlington/Louisiana battle is a coin flip, and both play exciting styles. #FunBelt indeed.

2. One new coach joins the league, with Mike Balado taking over at Arkansas State. Balado comes from the ever expanding Rick Pitino coaching tree, which is unfortunately producing potentially tainted fruit across mid-majordom.

3. D’Marcus Simonds at Georgia State, Jordon Varnado at Troy and Kevin Hervey at UTA are legit NBA-level talents, and they’re three players to definitely keep an eye on even if you have little to no interest in the league.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. UT Arlington– UTA loses three starters from last year’s SBC regular season title team and NIT quarterfinalist, but they bring back the league’s best inside/out duo in point guard Erick Neal and do-it-all 4 Kevin Hervey. Additionally, the UTA athletic department managed to hold on to Scott Cross, who seemed ready to be plucked away by a high major. Neal and Hervey are essential to everything Cross wants to do offensively, which revolves around pushing in transition off turnovers and off the defensive glass. Neal is lightning quick at the point with a decent jump shot. He lead the league in assist rate and is key in Cross’s ball-line defense that denies lane penetration, via dribble or entry pass, with heavy ball pressure before sinking down into a compact, lane-clogging halfcourt formation. The idea is to force jump shots and have Hervey rip down the misses and lead the break, as he can handle the ball well in transition for a player his size. Hervey’s rates in conference play were truly astounding last year; he posted the league’s second-highest rebound rate, 14th-highest assist rate as a 6-foot-9 four, 12th-highest foul rate offensively and a shooting slash line of .588/.418/.734. That led to a 123 ORtg in SBC play despite taking the third-highest shot rate in the league and having the fourth-highest usage rate. In short, Hervey is the league’s best player with an NBA-ready game, assuming he can stay healthy. Athletic off guard Kaelon Wilson returns alongside Neal, and he’s good for several highlight dunks in Cross’ transition offense. JUCO transfer Davion Turner probably slots in at the 3, supplanting Nathan Hawkins and Mairega Clarke, who will have key roles off the bench. Clarke is a versatile defender, and he and Hill should improve what was some woeful perimeter shooting from the Mavs at times. Replacing the severely underrated Jorge Bilbao at the 5 is Cross’ toughest assignment this year. Bilbao allowed Hervey to thrive at the 4, and if a pair of 7-footers in Link Kabadyundi and Johnny Hamilton (VA Tech transfer) can’t run the floor in Cross’ system, it will force Hervey to play out of position at the 5. With Neal and Hervey, the Mavs have the best 1-2 punch in the league, and that should be enough to keep them at the top of the SBC. The question is, can they get consistent shooting from the wings when it matters in March?

2. Louisiana– Bob Marlin has built a monster in Lafayette this year with four returning starters and the league’s best class of newcomers. Not picking them to win the SBC could be incredibly shortsighted, but there are some scheme issues on both ends that have always bothered me with the Cajuns. We’ll get into those in a bit, but first let’s take a look at all the talent Marlin has assembled. Starting in the backcourt, the Cajuns return Frank Bartley, an efficient combo guard who can score in a variety of ways, and he’ll be joined by South Carolina transfer Marcus Stroman on the ball, who could be a lethal penetrator in the SBC. Freshman and local product Cedric Russell spurned high-major offers to stay at home, and he could be a factor at both guard spots this year; he’s the future of the Cajuns. He’s a pure scorer that Marlin thinks could be the next Elfrid Payton, but he’s a little behind after suffering a stress fracture this summer. Marlin has depth in the backcourt as well with sharpshooter P.J. Hardy returning and Kadavion Evans, another sophomore who can run the point when needed. On the wing, senior Johnathan Stove could lead the Cajuns in scoring this year, as he’s a relentless rim attacker in Marlin’s transition-based offense, and he’s been slowly developing a jump shot to keep the sag heavy SBC defenses honest. USC transfer Malik Marquetti could see heavy minutes at the 3 as a 6-foot-6 athlete, and he would be devastating in Marlin’s perimeter pressure heavy defense and running the open floor in transition. Jerekius Davis is yet another three-star recruit who can play the 3 or 4. His minutes as a freshman were inconsistent, but he was phenomenal in a small sample size, and his per minute rates suggest he’s an All-SBC caliber player when he’s on the floor. Unfortunately, Marlin probably won’t be able to play him accordingly, but he would vastly improve a defense that was dead last in efficiency rating in SBC play. The frontcourt is just as loaded, if not more so, with the backcourt and wing units. Bryce Washington leads the way, as the senior post rolls out of bed with a double double. No player in the SBC was more efficient than Washington in terms of scoring at the rim, and he shot 64 percent from the field in league play. His rebounding prowess is just as important, as running off the defensive glass is key in Marlin’s offense (the Cajuns have averaged a top-40 tempo nationally since Marlin’s arrival seven years ago), as is relentlessly going after offensive rebounds. (Louisiana has finished 11th and 16th in offensive rebounding rate the past two seasons.) Jakeenan Gant comes to Lafayette by way of Missouri, and the former four-star recruit could be an absolute matchup nightmare at the 4 if he puts it all together. His athleticism around the rim could be unparalleled in the league, and he can step out on the perimeter and run the floor in transition. If Gant realizes his potential, it could be lights out for the rest of the SBC. Larenz Stalcup returns as the best rim protector on a team that struggled to defend in the paint or in transition, but he fouled at a higher rate than he blocked shots. Justin Miller returns as a solid rebounder and reliable option in pick-and-roll situations, but he was a total liability defensively. As you can suss out, Louisiana is loaded with talent at all three levels. However, Marlin’s defensive scheme has never really made much sense to me given the league he plays in. The SBC is a penetration-driven league, and Marlin insists on a defense that disrupts on the perimeter and takes away the 3-point line, leaving driving lanes open for big, penetrating guards, which the SBC has in droves. What the SBC doesn’t have is a lot of pure shooters, which is why zones like Ron Hunter’s at Georgia State and packed in defenses like Scott Cross’ have been successful. Conversely, Marlin never seems to have a shooter that can take advantage of those defenses. Regardless, the talent level is so ridiculously high that the Cajuns could overcome any scheme discrepancies and win the league going away.

3. Georgia State– In a league that has one of the highest talent levels in mid-major basketball, D’Marcus Simonds might be the most talented player in the SBC and the best bet as a future pro. Simonds is one of the best off the dribble rim attackers from the top of the key that I’ve seen at the mid-major level in several years. If his jump shot continues to develop, he’ll unstoppable at this level of basketball. Simonds is aided by the return of Isaiah Williams, who can play on the ball and allow Simonds to wreak havoc from anywhere on the floor. Malik Benlevi and Jeff Thomas form a solid, veteran wing duo. Both can shoot from the perimeter and both are devastating versatile defenders in Ron Hunter’s trapping zone scheme. Speaking of which, few coaches in the country are more synonymous with their defensive scheme than Hunter. Hunter has been using a morphing 1-3-1 halfcourt trapping zone that seamlessly shifts into a 1-2-2. Benlevi and Thomas can both play at the top or the bottom of a defense (as can junior Devin Mitchell, who showed some flashes of living up to his billing as an impact transfer from Alabama two years ago) that relies heavily on disrupting offenses and generating turnovers before they can get into any sort of motion. That said, there’s a drawback, as the perimeter is left wide open if your guards can handle the harassing zone traps. GSU has consistently ranked near the bottom in terms of 3-point rate allowed during Hunter’s tenure. Hunter will rely on St. Bonaventure transfer Jordan Tyson to replace the rebounding and rim protection production left behind by Willie Clayton, and a step up in production from senior Jordan Session and a healthy Chris Clerkley would be welcome as well. Two freshmen figure to see immediate minutes for Hunter, as Josh Linder is a 6-foot-9 athletic freak who could wreak havoc on both ends for Hunter next year. Kane Williams is a do-everything combo guard who could be lethal next to Simonds. Hunter typically doesn’t play freshmen often, but after he couldn’t bring Simonds along slowly, he might be more inclined to play Linder and Williams this year. Only Louisiana can rival GSU’s talent level, and if Hunter can get a modicum of production out of the frontcourt, the Panthers could return to the top of the SBC.

4. Georgia Southern– The Eagles finished last year on a bitter note, losing seven of their last 11 league games after a 7-0 SBC start before getting blown out by Troy in the SBC Tournament. Then they didn’t show up at home against Utah Valley in the CBI. Amazingly, Southern returns all five starters for the second year in a row, and I’m curious to know how often that has happened in the last 10 or so years. With all five starters back for the second year in a row, you know precisely what you’re going to get out of Mark Byington’s squad – a four-out offense with talented guards jacking up 3-pointers at by far the highest rate in the league (45.2 percent of GSU’s shot attempts were from beyond the arc), or their talented guards will get to the free throw line via penetration and Byington’s spread pick-and-roll offense, as the Eagles led the SBC in free throw rate as well. There is no post production to speak of, thus defensively Byington relies on an extended trapping and switching matchup zone with his four guards. Tookie Brown is the junior point guard that makes GSU’s offense go in Byington’s ubiquitous pick-and-roll offense. He’s a plus shooter but more importantly a devastatingly quick penetrator. Brown relies on Ike Smith and Mike Hughes as his go-to kick out options, with Smith being the primary off ball scorer. He led the SBC in usage and was second in shot rate and hit 44 percent from 3-point range. He’s also a steady ball handler at 6-foot-4 and is generally a headache to matchup with. Hughes’ bum knee can probably be directly correlated with GSU’s tailspin, but he’s reportedly 100 percent coming into this season. Hughes is the league’s best on-ball defender with his length and ridiculous athleticism on the perimeter. Hughes’ return to good health could be a huge factor in the SBC race this year. Jake Allsmiller returns to his role as a lethal spot shooter on the receiving end of Brown’s kick outs. Allsmiller hit 47 percent of his triples last year. Jared Hamilton and Quan Jackson provide some depth on the wing as freshmen, and their length/athleticism combo fits in nicely with Byington’s system on both ends. While the frontcourt isn’t nearly on the same level as the backcourt, they’re at least experienced. Montae Glenn is good for a few highlight dunks off Brown penetration and was Byington’s best option as a rim protector. His per minute offensive rebounding numbers were, to quote Jon Rothstein, "off the charts." B.J. Gladden can guard the 3 or 4 and crash the glass defensively, but he was something of a void offensively. Coye Simmons showed some flashes last year as a sophomore, while Shawn O’Connell provides some fouls. The backcourt is the clear strength of GSU again, and it’s arguably the best overall unit in the entire league. I get the sense, however, the ceiling of this team is fairly well established, and it isn’t league title, but rather contender.

5. Troy– I’m probably too low on the defending champs, but the glaring defensive issues are still there, and there’s a bit of a "catching lightning in a bottle" aspect to their run through the SBC tourney. That said, the Jordon Varnado/Wesley Person duo is as electric as they come in mid-majordom, and a significant chunk of the supporting cast returns around them. Varnado can literally do anything on the court, and he even has some of his brother’s shot blocking skills, but he’s most effective as a slasher and posting up smaller/less athletic 2s and 3s. Person can create off the dribble as well (he actually had a higher free throw rate than Varnado), but he’s by far the better shooter of the two. Kevin Baker returns as the primary ball handler, who needs to cut back on his jump shooting, as he’s most effective in the dribble drive/penetrate and kick role. He’s also a very good on-ball defender, and Troy’s fortunes changed when he replaced Daniel Peace at the point. Juan Davis is a quintessential stretch 4 who hit 40 percent from 3, while Alex Hicks was Troy’s best overall defender in the frontcourt, and the second-worst defense in the league could benefit from additional minutes from him at the 5. Phil Cunningham has to replace two athletic wings in Jeremy Hollimon and DeVon Walker. Hollimon was a scorer and Walker a defensive presence, and their minutes could fall to freshmen Javan Johnson and Darian Adams in a smaller lineup. The Varnado/Person duo is enough to keep Troy in contention, but I would be fairly surprised if they repeat, especially with a loaded top quarter of the league.

6. Coastal Carolina– Cliff Ellis is back for his 43rd year of coaching college basketball, his 11th with the Chants, and he has a decent squad led by one of the better frontcourts in the league. Demario Beck is a proven stalwart on the glass and decent rim protector. He also shot 59 percent when he operated out of the post, but he too often tried to incorporate an ineffective stretch game. He’s joined in the frontcourt by burgeoning SBC big Amidou Bamba, who could be in store for a big sophomore year. Both Beck and Bamba’s rebounding is key, as Ellis is as reliant on his myriad junk zone defenses as ever. In fact, no team in the country allowed a higher 3-point rate than the Chants last year, but they were still a very good defensive rebounding team, which is unique in a zone based defense, thanks to Beck and Bamba. Jaylen Shaw returns to the backcourt and has to shoulder the scoring load left behind by Colton Ray-St Cyr, Elijah Wilson and Shivaughn Wiggins. The good news is that he’s capable of doing that as a penetrating ball handler coupled with a 41 percent 3-point shooting mark in league play. Zach Cuthbertson comes in from the JUCO ranks and could immediately step in as a stretch 4 benefiting from Shaw’s penetration, while Artur Labinowicz is the most athletic wing option for Ellis, and he’s a plus shooter that can contest well out of the zone look. While luck plays a large factor in defensive 3PT%, it should be noted that while CCU gave up more 3- point attempts than anyone in the country, teams shot just 32 percent from deep against them in SBC play, the lowest mark in the league. Perhaps that’s just a result of generally poor shooting in the conference, but it’s now a two-year trend for the CCU defense. Overall, I expect a similar season to last year for the Chants. They’ll keep their heads above .500 and maybe make a lesser tournament, but they likely won’t be considered a legit title contender at any point in the SBC season.

7. Arkansas State– Grant McCasland left for the mean greener pastures of North Texas after just one season in Jonesboro, and Mike Balado comes in from the Rick Pitino tree, and without fail, Pitino assistants will run the same pressure schemed defenses. Balado has a lot of offense to replace, but the inherited roster is guard heavy and should be able to utilize the scheme effectively. Returnees C.J. Foster and Deven Simms should be at the heart of the press, while Rashad Lindsey should assume point guard duties. Lindsey can shoot and Simms is a lethal slasher, but outside of those two offense might be hard to come by for Balado, and thus generating turnovers via the press and a deep roster is the most likely path to consistent offense. JUCO Ty Cockfield and Connor Kern are likely Balado’s only real perimeter shooting threats, and Kern is merely a spot up shooter, albeit a good one. In the frontcourt, Tamas Bruce and Jahmiah Simmons are severely undersized, but they don’t play that way. Nobody in the league rebounded better than Bruce, as he led the SBC in both offensive and defensive rates and logged the third-highest block rate. Bruce is easily the most underrated player in the league and perhaps in all of mid-major basketball (which in turn puts him in the running for most underrated player in D1). Simmons, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-4 "5" who posted the fifth-highest block rate in the league and 10th and ninth highest rebounding rates. Simmons could be shifted to a more natural 3 position in defensive minded rotations with athletic Shaquillo Fritz covering the 5. Fritz was a player I was very high on for Stetson two years ago, but he never played a minute for the Hatters. Balado’s system will be a good fit for his inherited roster, meaning yet another transition season in Jonesboro won’t be a total rebuild, and the Red Wolves should stay more than competitive.

8. Texas State– It’s going to be tough for Danny Kaspar to build upon last year’s surprising third place finish and run to the SBC title game, as he loses do-everything wing Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, Bobby Conley and criminally underrated team leader and point guard Ojai Black. The lone "sure thing" returning for Kaspar is wing Nijal Pearson, who is coming off an outstanding freshman year. Canisius transfer Isaiah Gurley figures to be the second scoring option off the ball in Kaspar’s beyond methodical motion offense. Kaspar actually tinkered with the motion a bit last year, relying a little less on off-ball movement and more attacking gaps. It led to the best offensive season the Bobcats have had under Kaspar, but that was a low bar to begin with, and they still had only the seventh-most efficient offense in the SBC. Point guard is a major issue, and it’s probably going to be Tre Nottingham out of the JUCO ranks or freshman Reggie Miller. Nottingham is the better scorer, but Miller is probably the more reliable ball handler. That said, Kaspar may turn to Marlin Davis at the point, as he’s a sophomore and proven defender in Kaspar’s aggressive man to man. If you don’t defend, you won’t see the floor for the man with the mustache, and Davis defends. Shelby Adams could see minutes off the ball as a freshman as well. Nedeljko Prijovic and Immanuel King will form the frontcourt for the Bobcats, and both are plus rim protectors. Prijovic is a "stretch 4" only nominally, as he hit just seven of his 39 3-point attempts. Pearson and Gurley will have to buoy the offense this year, but the issues at PG are troublesome. That said, scoring on Kaspar’s man to man is a nightly chore, and if Davis/Nottingham comes through at the point, Texas State will be a top half SBC team again.

9. South Alabama– It’s likely a make or break year for Matthew Graves at USA, a coach who I know and like personally. I had high expectations for Graves when he brought his Butler/Brad Stevens philosophy to Mobile four years ago, and last year the Jags got off to a 5-0 start, including a win at UNLV to open the season. Then the wheels fell off, as the Jags couldn’t defend when their pressure defense (14th nationally in turnover rate) didn’t result in a turnover, couldn’t score on the other end consistently, and couldn’t rebound. Graves will be relying on a dual PG look this year with Dederick Lee and Herb McGee, and they’ll be aided by the addition of two potential off-ball scorers. Jordan Andrews comes in from Youngstown State as a lethal perimeter threat, and Rodrick Sikes is a cat-quick penetrator at 6-foot-1; he should be key in the press. Trhae Mitchell returns on the wing and is a key cog defensively with his 6-foot-6 athleticism. The frontcourt is headlined by Josh Ajayi, who is coming off a stellar freshman year. He’s a solid rebounder with a little bit of stretch to his game offensively. Graves added monstrous Pitt transfer Rozelle Nix to shore up the interior defense and rebounding, while Nick Davis should also be a factor in the frontcourt. A.J. Caldwell is Graves’ top-rated incoming freshman and will get every opportunity to prove himself early as a scorer on the wing. Overall, I think Sikes could be the biggest surprise in the SBC from a scoring standpoint, and I have USA targeted as a bit of a sleeper, with an upper half finish being the ceiling.

10. Little Rock– Wes Flanigan had a brutal first year in Little Rock, especially when you compare it to the success his predecessor had in turning around the Trojans in short order. Flanigan’s inaugural season was derailed before it even began when Dayshawn Watkins broke his foot, leaving the Trojans without a point guard. Local JUCO transfer Anthony Black will take over the lead guard role, while another JUCO, Camron Reedus, could lead Little Rock in scoring off the ball. Junior Deondre Burns shot 47 percent from 3-point range in SBC play, but he could lose time if Flanigan looks to shore up the pack line defense with newcomers, particularly K.J. Gilmore, who Flanigan knows well because his brother coached him on the JUCO level. On the wing, Ohio grad transfer Khari Harley could immediately become Little Rock’s go-to option, as he’s a total SBC mismatch as a 6-foot-9 player at the 3. Another Ohio grad transfer, Wadly Mompremier, will have to take over Lis Shoshi’s role in the frontcourt. Mompremier was rarely healthy in Athens, but he could be solid addition as a rim protector in what was a leaky pack line defense last year. Oliver Black has high-major talent in the frontcourt and could make a leap this year as a junior. There are a lot of question marks in Little Rock and a lot of new faces to answer them, but it can’t get much worse than last year for Flanigan.

11. Louisiana-Monroe– I like Keith Richard, and he orchestrated one heck of a turnaround in Monroe two seasons ago. But this looks like another long season, as the Warhawks’ putrid offense (0.96 points per possession, worst in the SBC) has to replace steady point guard Nick Coppola, who never left the floor in his four seasons at ULM. 6-foot-4 JUCO Brandon Newman is the most likely newcomer to step into Coppola’s shoes, and he could give Richard a more capable scoring option at the point with his size and mismatch potential. Jordon Harris and Michael Ertl could play on the ball as well, but Richard might want to utilize their shooting ability off the ball. Marvin Jean-Pierre is the leading returning scorer in the backcourt and a plus perimeter defender, but he’s a one way scorer without a jump shot. The strength of the team lies with Sam McDaniel and Travis Munnings on the wing. Both are solid rebounders, with Munnings being the best offensive threat on the team, as he can stretch out on the perimeter as well. Sam Alabakis and Rod Taylor slot in at the 5, but offer very little offensive upside. Defensively, I wish Richard would go back to the morphing amoeba zone he used when he first got to Monroe. It’s a perfect defense for this league of slashers.

12. Appalachian State– I’ve gone on for three years now that Jim Fox’s Bob McKillop inspired Davidson motion will take the SBC by storm soon… but it appears that it will never come to fruition. Fox has never got the shooters he needs for the motion offense, and App St. shot just 32 percent from 3, the worst mark in the league, while attempting them at the third-highest rate. This year, Fox is moving his best player, do-everything wing Ronshad Shabazz, to the point. Shabazz led the league in shot rate last year, and will almost certainly lead the league in usage rate this year. It’s not a bad idea to suck defenders into your best player, but I’m not sure Fox has assembled a supporting cast to make it an efficient plan. O’Showen Williams could start in the backcourt to give Fox dual ballhandlers, and D2 transfer Nick Hough is a potential shooter, but what gives McKillop’s motion its umph is the versatile bigs who can open up the floor. Fox simply doesn’t have that. Bennett Holley is the closest option in that regard, and his per minute rates are astounding, but so is his foul rate – and his defense, in a bad way. Tyrell Johnson and Isaac Johnson form a fairly solid rim protecting/rebounding duo along with Griffin Kinney, but they don’t fit in offensively with Fox’s scheme. Moving Shabazz sounds like a bit of a desperation measure, but it might be the best course of action at this point for Fox, as he simply hasn’t brought in the pieces necessary to run the Davidson motion offense. Defensively, the Mountaineers were a nightmare, and I remarked several times through the course of the season that they were the worst dribble penetration defense I had seen. I don’t see any reason to think that changes this year.

FINAL OUTLOOK: The top five SBC teams (UTA, Louisiana, the GSUs, and Troy) are probable locks for postseason play, with Coastal on the fringe. The battle between UTA and Louisiana for the league title should be a fun one to watch given the styles of both, but Georgia State could throw a wrench into that battle.

SBC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kevin Hervey, UTA

ALL SBC FIRST TEAM:
Kevin Hervey, UTA
D’Marcus Simonds, Georgia St
Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern
Jordon Varnado, Troy
Bryce Washington, Louisiana

ALL SBC SECOND TEAM:
Erick Neal, UTA
Ike Smith, Georgia Southern
Wesley Person, Troy
Ronshad Shabazz, App State
Deven Simms, Arkansas St

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