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The South Alabama Jaguars celebrate a Sun Belt Conference Tournament win last season in New Orleans. The Jaguars could be a dark-horse candidate to unseat Georgia State as the league champions.

SUN BELT STARTING FIVE

Preseason favorite

Georgia State lost an early entrant in the NBA draft in D’Marcus Simonds and its head coach in Ron Hunter, so that appears to give the rest of the league a major opportunity to unseat the two-time conference champions. Where better to look first than the team that finished second in the UTA Mavericks. Under first-year coach Chris Odgen, the Mavs finished second after being picked to finish 11th in last year’s preseason coaches poll. Even more encouraging, UTA returns four of its five leading scorers from a year ago. The Mavs led the league in field goal percentage, rebounds and points allowed last season.

Player of the Year candidates

If Simonds hadn’t left after his junior season at Georgia State, it would have been a virtual slam-dunk choice. As it is, it’s about as wide-open as the overall team race appears to be. Texas State’s Nijal Pearson (16.4 pts, 5.1 rebs last year) is the only returning first-team selection, but expect the South Alabama duo of Josh Ajayi (16.4 pts, 7.4 rebs) and Trhae Mitchell (13.6 pts, 7.6 rebs) to shine brightly this season.

Sleeper team

The South Alabama Jaguars only finished 17-17 overall and 8-10 in league play last season, but expect coach Richie Riley’s team to make a run at the top this season. For starters, Ajayi and Mitchell return, but the Jags also add a pair of transfers in Andre Fox from High Point and Don Coleman from Cal. Fox averaged 15.7 points and 4.8 boards in the Big South two years ago, while Coleman averaged 14.2 points for the Bears in the Pac-12. Georgia Southern would be another prime candidate in this category.

Best at-large candidate

The Sun Belt Conference is almost always a one-bid league, but when you look at non-conference schedules, the best chance of changing that if everything goes perfectly would be the UTA Mavericks. Four of UTA’s non-conference opponents – Nevada, Oregon, Gonzaga and Houston – made the NCAA Tournament field last year and another in Furman was an NIT participant. The Mavs are also scheduled to play Tulsa and UC Santa Barbara. Overall, six of the nine non-conference games will be against teams finishing in the top 100 a year ago.

Freshman to watch

UL guard Mylik Wilson will give the Cajuns a super athletic guard in the backcourt. If his shooting comes around, the Rayville High product could make an immediate impact. Other Freshman of the Year candidates could be: Arkansas State’s Caleb Fields, Appalachian State’s Donovan Gregory or UTA’s Sam Griffin.

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.