Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball preview: The Advocate’s Luke Johnson breaks down the teams and players to watch _lowres

Arkansas-Little Rock coach Chris Beard shouts instructions in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

The contenders

1. Arkansas-Little Rock

First-year coach Chris Beard has implemented a stout defensive mindset that has led the Trojans to the best overall record in the league. They won their first 10 games — five on the road — and only allowed one team to score more than 60 points in that stretch. Senior guard Josh Hagins leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’s also averaging 12.2 points per game.

2. UT-Arlington

The Mavericks made some waves earlier this season when they knocked off Ohio State and Memphis on the road in a span of three days. They’ve stayed strong since, with their only losses coming at Louisiana Tech and Texas. At this stage, UT-Arlington has been the league’s most well-rounded team. The Mavericks are the Sun Belt’s top rebounding team and the top assisting team, and they rank second in scoring and fourth in scoring defense.

3. Louisiana-Monroe

The Warhawks limped into conference play with losses in five of their past six games, including a pair of double-digit losses to Canisius and Hampton in Las Vegas. But ULM’s 6-7 record probably isn’t indicative of how the rest of their season will play out. The Warhawks are still one of the league’s better defensive teams, and they have more threats on offense than they did last year.

4. Louisiana-Lafayette

The Cajuns also struggled against a difficult nonconference schedule, especially on defense. But they were a near-unanimous selection as the league’s top team for a reason. They have the most dominant individual player in Shawn Long, and he’s surrounded by experienced players who haven’t hit their stride yet. When things start clicking, the Cajuns could go on a big run.

5. Georgia State

This isn’t the same Panthers team that won the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament titles last year; it’s still figuring out how to play without stud scorers R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow. This year’s team is more focused on defense, where it has held opponents to just 61.9 points per game. But even as they transitioned to a different style, the Panthers won seven of their nine nonconference games. They definitely could be dangerous by the time the middle of March rolls around.

Players to know

Frank Eaves, Appalachian State

It has been a tough start for Appalachian State, but that isn’t any fault of Eaves, who is averaging 19.4 points. Eaves has been lethal from 3-point range. He not only leads the conference in 3-pointers (41) but also in 3-point shooting percentage (45.6).

Majok Deng, Louisiana-Monroe

Deng has done a marvelous job filling the shoes of Taylor Ongwae. He leads the SBC in scoring at 19.8 points per game and has a pair of 30-point nights already. He’s not a great shooter but does a great job drawing fouls — and he knocks down 86 percent of his free-throw attempts.

Kevin Hervey, UT-Arlington

Hervey is the Sun Belt’s best big man not named Shawn Long. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is scoring 17.5 points per game and is a half-rebound per game shy of averaging a double-double. He also has shown some skills passing the ball: He’s ranked eighth in the league in assists per game (3.1).

Numbers to know

55.2

What’s the biggest reason for UALR’s early success? Its defense is giving up 55.2 points per game, the best mark in the nation.

20

According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Cajuns have faced the 20th-most difficult schedule in the country. The next Sun Belt team: Georgia State, which has faced the 75th toughest.

16

At 10-2, UT-Arlington has been one of the league’s surprises so far. The Mavericks have outscored their opponents by a league-high 16 points per game.