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Sun Belt men stacked at the top

by Mitchell Gladstone | December 30, 2021 at 2:15 a.m.

Nine teams at .500 or better. Half of the league's 12 teams in the KenPom top 200. Power-conference transfers scattered throughout.

There's little debate as to the strength of the Sun Belt Conference. But there may be more depth in the league than at any point in recent years.

"There's no team in this league that you can go in and just say, 'That's a win,'" Arkansas State Coach Mike Balado said. "You've got to come in with your A-game every night. If you don't, you're in big trouble -- there are good coaches and a lot of really good players."

Balado's Red Wolves will have to wait a little while longer to get their first shot at a Sun Belt foe, with tonight's tilt against Georgia State canceled due to covid-19 issues within the Panthers' program. Instead, ASU will open league play Saturday evening against Georgia Southern a little less than 48 hours after the Eagles visit the University of Arkansas-Little Rock -- a matchup set for 6:30 tonight at the Jack Stephens Center.

Although Trojans Coach Darrell Walker acknowledged he was frustrated in watching the film from his team's most recent game, an 87-67 loss to Jacksonville State last Tuesday, he, like Balado, understands that the conference portion of his team's season is somewhat of a clean slate.

"It is a reset," Walker said of his team's 5-7 start. "We played an extremely competitive non-conference [schedule] because we thought we'd have our full team. It didn't work out that way, but it is what it is."

In some ways, it may benefit both UALR and ASU (9-3) that they'll avoid their only regular-season matchup with Georgia State. The Panthers -- were voted the No. 1 team in the Sun Belt's preseason poll and are currently the second-best team in the league, per KenPom.

Georgia State is just the tip of the iceberg. Sean Paul, host of the Field of 68 Media Network's Mid-Major Top 25, said he thinks there are as many as five other teams that could vie for the top spot in the Sun Belt this season: Texas State, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State.

"It's one of the more entertaining leagues for that reason," Paul said of the SBC's depth. "It always has a bunch of competitive teams."

While neither the Trojans nor Red Wolves will see Texas State for the first time until late January, they'll both have to deal with the veteran Bobcats twice -- a group that features a pair of returning All-Sun Belt honorees from a year ago in seniors Mason Harrell and Caleb Asberry.

It'll be even longer until either team visits South Alabama, a side that tested the likes of No. 19 Alabama and Wichita State back in mid-November.

The Jaguars' rotation features four high-major transfers in Charles Manning (LSU), Jay Jay Chandler (Texas A&M), Diante Smith (TCU) and Javon Franklin (Auburn). With the NCAA's new one-time transfer rule now in place, it's something that Paul expects to give the league even more depth in the coming years.

"If you're [in] a mid-major league, that's kind of what you have to do," he added. "There are also a lot of guys that are going to slip through the cracks...and do a really good job at the D-I level [coming from up Division II or junior college]."

ASU is already reaping the rewards, bringing in Desi Sills after two years at Arkansas. And though the Red Wolves have yet to beat a team in the top 225 of the KenPom rankings, Balado is optimistic that the Jonesboro native can give his team a lift as they look to turn in a winning conference record for the first time since 2016-17.

"Desi has taken a while to understand the system. He came in new and he's such a big piece, there's a lot of pressure on him," Balado said. "He's kind of coming into his own and understanding where his strengths are during certain games."

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