Sun Belt Tournament Preview: How to Bet a Wide-Open Field
Louisiana Lafayette forward JaKeenan Gant
Louisiana Lafayette ran roughshod over the league, with two notable exceptions: a humiliating loss at Georgia State and a shocking home loss to last place Arkansas Little Rock to close out its regular season. ULL is still the team to beat, but the door is certainly open for a number of teams to grab an at-large bid. Isn’t it always in the Fun Belt?
Let’s analyze the bracket for any futures value and then finish up with ATS picks for today’s Fun Belt matchups.
2018 Sun Belt Tournament Overview
Dates: Mar. 7-Mar. 11
Location: Lakefront Arena – New Orleans
Defending Champion: Troy
Notable Injuries: ULL guard Johnathan Stove (?), ULL forward Justin Miller (?)
All 12 teams in the league will play in the Sun Belt conference tournament, with the top four seeds (ULL, UT Arlington, Georgia State, Georgia Southern) earning a bye to the quarterfinals on Friday. (The tourney will have no action on Thursday).
Who Should Win
Louisiana Lafayette +132
The Cajuns are loaded with high major talent from point guard (South Carolina transfer Marcus Stroman) to wing (USC transfer Malik Marquetti) to center (Missouri transfer Jakeenan Gant). With two senior “3 and D” guard Frank Bartley and paint workhorse Bryce Washington surrounding that trio, head coach Bob Marlin has a perfect roster for his “attack in transition” brand of basketball. There’s not a lot chinks in the armor of the Cajuns, as they led the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They also dominated on the glass on both ends. Defensively, ULL is one of the best in country at trapping ball screens and it also excelled in defending pick and roll.
ULL will kick off its Sun Belt tournament against the winner of the 8/9 game between Coastal Carolina and Texas State. The Cajuns didn’t have much trouble with either in the regular season, but man oh man, did the Chants and Bobcats struggle in their meetings Neither team cracked 60 points in either game of a series split, which includes an OT game.
Texas State has lost nine straight, but seven did stay within single digits and two came in OT. The most recent heartbreaker for the Bobcats came on Friday when UT Arlington nailed a ridiculous three at the buzzer. Texas State plays a typical Danny Kaspar defense, which means it switches on every screen and pressures the ball handler in ferocious man-to-man.
Coastal is big and athletic on the wings and wily head coach Cliff Ellis will throw every junk defense in the book at the Bobcats to turn them into jump shooters. However, the Chants are the most turnover prone team in the league and point guard Jaylen Shaw really struggled against Texas State’s halfcourt ball pressure this season.
If Not ULL, Then….
UT Arlington +460
The Mavs under-performed all season after being labeled the team to beat in the preseason. With an NBA caliber stretch 4 in Kevin Hervey, an electric play-making point guard in Erick Neal, and a 7′ high major rim protector in Johnny Hamilton, the Mavs were pegged as one of the best teams in all of mid-major basketball. Some even had them as a fringe top 25 team.
However, the most experienced team in the country often played with no cohesion. Neal was even handed a short suspension by head coach Scott Cross for practice issues. Hervey can often settle for jump shots instead of utilizing his athleticism advantage over every 4 in the league. Also, when the jump shots aren’t falling, the body language of this team goes downhill fast
That said, the Mavs figured some things out down the stretch, winning three straight games to close the season. Cross started to bring Hervey off the bench (even on Senior Day). He’s responded with a passion on the defensive end that I haven’t previously seen. Senior guard Kaelon Wilson has also made a healthy return to the lineup, which has had a big impact on both ends of the floor.
The mental state of the Mavs is the biggest x-factor in the tournament. If they play together, they can unquestionably win this tournament as the No. 4 seed. The Mavs did get worked by ULL in both meetings this season. The Cajuns busted Cross’ ball-line and 3-2 defensive zone schemes, which are meant to limit looks at the rim. UTA actually held a double digit second half lead at home in the first meeting, but completely fell apart down the stretch, as it tends to do.
The Mavs will first have to get past the winner of No. 5 seed Appalachian State and No. 12 seed Little Rock. Arkansas Little Rock was easily the worst team in the league, but it finished the year strong with a huge win at ULL. The Trojans have the least amount of raw talent in the league, but have played better since head coach Wes Flanagan released leading scorer guard Andre Jones. The Trojans nearly knocked off App State in both meetings and did defeat UTA for one of the their four SBC wins. App State meanwhile gave UTA all it could handle in both meetings, as the Mavs couldn’t stay in front of 6’5 penetrating guard Ronshad Shabazz.
Other Potential Champ
Georgia State +430
No. 2 seed Georgia State is always a difficult matchup because of Ron Hunter’s tricky and aggressive trapping matchup zone. The Panthers offense can get stagnant, as they tend to rely too much on D’Marcus Simonds to create offense, especially when the zone isn’t creating turnovers. (Simonds virtually impossible to keep out of the paint off the dribble). Hunter’s squad gets volatile results because a lot depends on how the other team shoots from outside. Georgia State ended the year on a sour note, losing four of six after running ULL off the court in Atlanta.
Georgia State has a tough draw, especially if No. 7 seed Troy defeats No. 10 seed South Alabama. Defending champion Troy has won four of the last five against the Panthers. The Trojans have figured out how to beat the morphing 1-3-1 zone better than any team in the league, thanks to sharp shooting guard Wes Person and versatile big Jordon Varnado.
Troy eased by South Alabama in both regular season meetings, as the one thing Troy does well defensively is defend in transition. That spells trouble for a Jags team that can’t score in the halfcourt. USA enters the tournament on a five game losing streak, and sophomore forward Josh Ajayi (12.8 ppg and 6.8 rpg) missed the last game of the regular season with a knee injury. South Alabama may have checked out, as I would also be stunned if Matthew Graves is retained as head coach.
Georgia Southern +570
Georgia Southern, which finished the year strong, has one of the most prolific pick and roll offenses in the country. Everything filters through the outstanding point guard Tookie Brown at the top.
Georgia Southern will first play against either No. 6 seed UL Monroe or No. 11 seed Arkansas State. The Eagles’ weakness lies on the interior and the glass, as head coach Mark Byington utilizes a 4 out lineup. However, neither ULM and ASU can consistently take advantage in that area. (Although, the Warhawks were swept by Arkansas State and had trouble matching up with the speed of the Red Wolves).
ULM moved to a 4 out pick and roll offense this year under head coach Keith Richard, who traditionally ran a two big flex motion. Meanwhile, ASU head coach Mike Balado has been forced to use a mostly 5 out lineup for his Rick Pitino inspired zone press. ULM has been using a six man rotation and could be out of gas, while Arkansas State’s myriad off court issues have left them without leading scorer senior guard Deven Simms (17.1 ppg). ULM looked like a league bottom feeder until Richard inserted freshman Mike Ertel at the point. The Warhawks proceeded to rattle off five straight wins, including a road sweep of the Georgia schools in two wild OT games.
Wednesday ATS Predictions
Texas State +2
Little Rock +4 (top ATS prediction)
Troy -5 (top ATS prediction)
Sun Belt Final Prediction
UT Arlington over Georgia Southern
Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports