By this point in the college basketball season, separation often starts to take shape and conference championship races begin to develop clearer outlooks.
But that's not entirely the case in both the Sun Belt Conference men's and women's basketball standings, as each currently features a logjam at the top.
On the men's side, Coach Darrell Walker's University of Arkansas at Little Rock team (14-7), which has been the league's biggest surprise, sits atop the standings at 8-2 after an 81-63 victory over Troy on Wednesday at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock.
Five teams, including Arkansas State, entered Thursday's games within 21/2 games of UALR, with still the second half of the league schedule remaining over the next month.
The Trojans were picked to finish 11th of 12 in the preseason coaches poll, after they finished tied for last in the 2018-19 season. Now, they're on track to vie for their first Sun Belt regular season title since 2015-16.
Walker, though, has said he believes it's still a wide-open league and anything can happen.
"I thought anybody could beat anybody. That's been proven all year long," Walker said. "It's great for the media, for you guys and people in the state of Arkansas, in Little Rock, in Central Arkansas, that we're in first place. But at the end of the day, that's not my goal. My goal is to take one game at a time and just keep winning."
On the women's side, the standings are even tighter.
Coastal Carolina, Troy and Texas-Arlington each entered Thursday in a three-way tie for first, with Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama, Arkansas State and UALR all sitting a game back.
Coastal Carolina (15-2, 5-1) has been the biggest surprise in the women's league, after the Chanticleers were picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches poll.
Middle of the pack
The University of Central Arkansas men's basketball team has fallen to the middle of the pack in the Southland Conference race after recent back-to-back losses to two of the top teams in the league.
The Bears (5-14, 4-4) fell 77-76 to Stephen F. Austin -- a team that upset then-No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November -- on Jan. 15 before losing to Nicholls State 79-72 on the road Saturday.
Stephen F. Austin (16-3, 7-1) sits atop the conference standings, and Nicholls State (13-7, 7-2) is right behind.
With narrow defeats to those two teams, combined with an 89-82 victory over Sam Houston State (14-6, 7-2) on Jan. 11, UCA has shown it's capable of playing with anyone in the Southland.
"We certainly feel that we can be one of the better teams in the conference if we can get consistent, and that's what we're working on now," UCA interim Coach Anthony Boone said Thursday.
To do that, the Bears first need for junior point guard DeAndre Jones to stay healthy.
Jones missed the Stephen F. Austin game with an ankle injury, but he came back against Nicholls State and dropped 26 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds. Jones had already missed an eight-game stretch earlier this season with a high ankle sprain, which had required surgery, to his other leg. Boone said junior guard Rylan Bergersen, the team's second-leading scorer, also is dealing with a broken nose but is still expected to play with a mask.
UCA also needs to clean up its turnover issue, as the Bears average a Southland-worst 18.3 per game. But UCA has been under that season average in three of its past four games.
UCA didn't have a midweek game this week and will be plenty rested when it hosts Abilene Christian (10-8, 5-2) on Saturday at the Farris Center in Conway.
Headed to Texas
The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff men's basketball team (3-14, 2-3) started 2-1 in Southwestern Athletic Conference play but has since dropped back-to-back games at home.
The Golden Lions lost to Southern on Saturday in Pine Bluff 75-56 and then had a quick turnaround before a 82-54 loss to Alcorn State on Monday.
UAPB, though, is still only two games back in the SWAC standings.
UAPB heads out on its Texas road swing, beginning with Prairie View A&M (8-10, 4-1) on Saturday at 5 p.m. before facing Texas Southern (7-11, 4-1) on Monday at 7:30 p.m.
On two-game skid
The UAPB women's team (3-12, 2-3) has had an identical stretch as the men's team as of late.
The Lady Lions began SWAC play 2-1 before losing back-to-back home games -- first to Southern, 70-43, on Saturday, and then to Alcorn State, 77-75, on Monday.
UAPB sits 31/2 games back in the league standings.
The Golden Lions head to Texas this weekend with the men's team to face Prairie View A&M (4-13, 1-4) and Texas Southern (9-7, 4-1).
Sports on 01/24/2020
Print Headline: Sun Belt features tight races