The first round of the Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball tournament starts Thursday with a pair of games between the Nos. 5-8 seeds, but the teams that you should have an eye on start playing Friday.
Here is a look at the teams to beat in this year’s conference tournament, including one four seed that is poised to possibly punch a return ticket to the big dance if it can keep its hot streak alive.
Georgia State (22-9, 15-5, No. 1 seed): The Panthers closed out the regular season strong, winning 11 of their final 13 games, to defend its regular-season title. They are arguably the most explosive team in the tournament, thanks to a backcourt led by two-time SBC Player of the Year R.J. Hunter and point guard Ryan Harrow. Harrow (20.2) and Hunter (19.7) were the top two scorers in the league.
THE DARK HORSE
UL-Lafayette (19-12, 13-7, No. 4 seed): Nobody in the league is playing better basketball than the Cajuns, who enter the tournament riding a six-game winning streak. They’ve done it by shoring up their efforts on the defensive side of the ball and by getting consistently excellent play from point guard Jay Wright. The question now is how long the Cajuns can keep the mojo going?
Georgia Southern (21-8, 14-6, No. 2 seed): The Eagles impressed in their first year in the Sun Belt, earning a No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament. They’re led by Jelani Hewitt, who was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and finished third in the league in scoring (18.2 ppg).
UL-Monroe (20-11, 14-6, No. 3 seed): The Warhawks spent a good chunk of the season at the top of the conference standings, but sagged a little down the stretch, losing three of their final five games. Their depth has been tested without big man Marvin Williams, but even without him, they’re still the toughest defensive team in the tournament.
UT-Arlington (16-14, 10-10, No. 5 seed): The Mavericks are the only team in the bottom half of the bracket with a winning record, but they went just 3-5 against the top four teams in the tournament.
South Alabama (11-20, 9-11, No. 6 seed): The Jaguars wish they could play the Cajuns and UALR every game; they swept the pair in convincing fashion this season. But South Alabama went just 1-9 against the other tournament teams.
Arkansas-Little Rock (13-17, 8-12, No. 7 seed): The Trojans played much better than their record indicates toward the end of the year, but it’s hard to see them getting past the second round.
Texas State (13-16, 7-13, No. 8 seed): The Bobcats would not only have to win their first round game, but would also have to advance past the Cajuns and Georgia State to get to the final. Not gonna happen.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Georgia State guard Ryan Harrow: His teammate R.J. Hunter — a likely first-rounder in the upcoming draft — has gotten deserved attention, but Harrow is the engine that drives the Panthers’ offense. He’s lightning quick off the dribble and is deadly on a fast break. Harrow can turn a game around in a heartbeat. And as he evidenced last season by scoring 57 points in two tournament games, he doesn’t shrink under pressure.
UL-Lafayette guard Hayward Register: The Cajuns won the tournament last year largely thanks to the huge contribution of Xavian Rimmer on the perimeter. Rimmer hasn’t panned out as expected this season, but Register might fill that role even better. His quick release from deep has been a big reason behind the Cajuns recent success, and he can fill up the points column as quick as anybody in the league.