By: Joe Noser
On March 17, 2016, the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans shocked Purdue 85-83 and joined the Yale Bulldogs as one of two #12 seed teams to advance past the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
In that game, senior Josh Hagins put up 31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and five steals to lead the Trojans, giving his team an individual performance not seen in Little Rock since the days of Derek Fisher, who played at UALR from 1992-1996. But Hagins has since graduated and now plays in Croatia, leaving the Trojans without their leading scorer. More significantly, following the Trojans’ round of 32 exit, head coach Chris Beard left to go coach at Texas Tech. While still a talented team full of upperclassmen who now have NCAA Tournament experience, the Trojans will enter the 2016-17 season with a new head coach, Wes Flanigan.
The questions surrounding Little Rock should create an opportunity for other teams in the Sun Belt to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. One such team is the University of Texas-Arlington Mavericks, who enter the 2016-17 season as the preseason coaches pick to win the conference. The Mavericks are returning all five of their starters from last year’s squad, which without a disappointing loss in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to University of Louisiana at Monroe, would have had a great chance to beat Little Rock and advance to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history. This year’s team will try to do just that, as junior forward and Preseason Player of the Year pick Kevin Hervey will be looking to put up a full season for his Mavericks. Before going down with a knee injury last year, Hervey was having a monster year (18.1 ppg/9.8 rpg). His performance should dictate how far his Mavericks go this season.
UT Arlington is not the only team with a chance to make noise in the Sun Belt this year. The Georgia State University Panthers, the 2014 and 2015 regular season conference champions and 2015 tournament champions, should be chomping at the bit to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Senior Jeremy Howell will be asked to add to his 14.8 ppg from last season in order to make up for the loss of Kevin Ware, a senior who was the team’s second leading scorer last season (behind Howell) and is known for breaking his leg in a grotesque way while playing for Louisville in 2013. If Howell can add to his totals from last year and distribute the ball better, the Panthers could make some serious noise in the Sun Belt.
Other teams to watch for include the Georgia Southern Eagles and the University of Louisiana at Monroe Warhawks. The Eagles are returning all five of their starters and eight of nine of players who were in rotation from last year’s squad, as well as 94% of their scoring and rebounding. Despite being the youngest team in the country in 2015-16, they were still able to go 16-14 and finish a very respectable 9-11 in conference play. Look for them to rely on perimeter shooting and an intricate defensive man scheme as they try to get back to the top of the Sun Belt.
Likewise, the Warhawks of UL Monroe will be relying on a more seasoned core of players, including senior guard and Preseason Third Team All-Conference Nick Coppola, to lead them back into the Sun Belt final. However, the Warhawks will be without Justin Roberson, who graduated in May after finishing last season with a team high 14.5 ppg and 1.6 spg. The team will have to rely heavily on Coppola to replace Roberson’s scoring. Without a huge season from Coppola, the Warhawks will be hard-pressed to win the Sun Belt and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.
Champion: UT Arlington
Darkhorse: Georgia Southern
Runner-Up: Georgia Southern