Sun Belt men’s basketball coaches high on conference’s status _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns head coach Bob Marlin reacts to a play against the Texas State Bobcats at UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. Friday, March 13, 2015.

LAFAYETTE — A year after Georgia State became the darlings of the conference tournament and the Sun Belt Conference had its second straight player selected in the first round of the NBA draft, coaches are bullish on where the league currently stands.

Speaking via teleconference as part of the SBC’s Men’s Basketball Media Day, several coaches said they felt the league’s reputation has improved because of those factors.

“I think we’re one of the better basketball conferences in the country based on our coaches and our players, and I thought the national stage was able to prove that,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said.

Each of the top three teams in this year’s preseason poll made a run in the postseason last year, with Georgia State knocking off Baylor in memorable fashion in the NCAA Tournament, UL-Monroe reaching the finals of the College Basketball Invitational tournament, and UL-Lafayette reaching the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

The SBC announced the Cajuns as the favorites to win the league last week in its preseason coaches poll, with the Cajuns garnering nine of 11 first-place votes. It’s not necessarily an honor coach Bob Marlin wants, but it’s a sign his program is going in the right direction.

“As a coach, you’re not too enthusiastic about it at times, but you have to be picked somewhere,” Marlin said. “Certainly, I’d rather be picked first. It says there’s a lot of expectations about your team, and the coaches believe you’ve got some good players returning.

“We accept that challenge.”

The Cajuns are returning most of last year’s team that got hot at the end of the season, including preseason Player of the Year Shawn Long. But they’re not the only team returning a wealth of experience.

UL-Monroe, tabbed to finish third in the preseason poll, is also returning a healthy chunk from last season’s team that won 24 games, including four starters.

The one notable difference between the Cajuns and the Warhawks is that UL-Monroe does not return leading scorer Taylor Ongwae from last year’s team.

The challenge now for a team that has consistently finished in the bottom half of the league is to build on the success it had last year. But the Warhawks aren’t turning away the good vibes sent their way by the preseason poll.

“After being so down for numerous years, having those expectations, while many would think that would put some pressure on us, it doesn’t really,” coach Keith Richard said. “It feels good to have so many returning guys, it feels good that the other coaches in our league think we have a chance to have a good team by their preseason picks.

“While it means nothing as far as how it’s going to end up, it is a change in direction for us about how we’re perceived. We kind of welcome the expectations.”

If the Cajuns and Warhawks were picked to finish high in the league based off their returners, the outlier is Georgia State, who was picked to finish second in the league despite losing its star backcourt of R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow.

Hunter said his goal has always been to build his program to national prominence. The way to do that is through good players, he said, and he feels as if he’s got a couple of really good ones that haven’t had the chance to shine.

“We’ve lost some good players, but we had some guys that were sitting out that are terrific players,” Hunter said. “I don’t know the timing of when it’ll all come together, but when it comes together we’re going to be a really good basketball team defensively and offensively.”