Sun Belt Tournament Preview – The First Round
The Sun Belt Conference Men's basketball tournament begins Tuesday with first round games at campus sites. Here is a preview of the Tuesday games.
#7 ULM (16-14, 9-9) Coach: Keith Richard (9th season)
Home Record 12-2 (7-2 Sun Belt)
Leading Scorers: Daishon Smith (22.0), Michael Ertel (15.1), Travis Munnings (14.5), J. D Williams (12.6)
Leading rebounder: Munnings (7.6)
Leading Assists: Smith (3.9)
Regular Season vs. App State: Lost 84-85 (Boone), Won 81-75 (Monroe)
STRENGTHS: The best scoring guard tandem in the league, led by senior Daishon Smith, who finished second in the league in scoring (first in league games) and sophomore point guard Michael Ertel. Travis Munnings has had a solid career at ULM and is one of the league's most versatile players. He can score inside or beyond the arc and is a solid rebounder. The Warhawks are outstanding from beyond the arc and they put it up plenty. Don't foul these guys. They are among the nation's leaders in free throw percentage and shoot nearly 80 percent as a team in conference games. They won't beat themselves: ULM is tops in the league in assist/turnover ratio.
WEAKNESSES: There's precious little depth on this team and if they get in foul trouble, they are in trouble. They basically play just six guys and you have to wonder if that has taken a toll on them down the stretch. They don't have much of a post presence and that means Munnings has to do more inside than he should. They become very vulnerable if they struggle shooting from the outside, because they're not going to score a ton inside.
OUTLOOK: ULM has been very good at home and will be favored. If they get by App, they're looking at a matchup with Coastal Carolina. This team honestly hasn't been the same since their trip to Georgia, where they lost twice at the buzzer, once in very controversial fashion. It's a team that, in my opinion, is better than its record. They are a dangerous team, but their lack of depth will be an issue in this format.
#10 APPALACHIAN STATE (11-20, 6-12) Coach: Jim Fox (5th season)
Road record: 2-12, 2-7 Sun Belt
Leading Scorers: Ronshad Shabazz (18.5), Justin Forrest (15.7), Isaac Johnson (10.5)
Leading rebounder: I. Johnson (8.8)
Leading Assists: Forrest (2.5)
STRENGTHS: Outstanding scoring guard tandem of Shabazz and Forrest. Both can take the ball to the rack. Both can shoot it. Isaac Johnson is an outstanding rebounder. This is a deep team with ten players averaging double digit minutes. They have some length and bulk inside. Tyrell Johnson can bring some offense off the bench, and O'Shawon Williams and Mike Bibby can give them some stability off the bench in the half court.
WEAKNESSES: For a team with that kind of size, they don't rebound it very well outside of Johnson. Their starting five really doesn't have a point guard and that hurts them. Their point guards, Bibby and Williams aren't real scoring threats. They're one of the worst teams in the league in offensive rebound percentage. Sometimes Shabazz and Forrest get three point happy. This isn't a very good defensive team. They are slow at some positions and teams can take advantage of that.
OUTLOOK: The Mountaineers did just enough to squeeze into the tournament. And, there are some teams not happy about that. Why? Of App State's 12 losses in the league, seven are by six points or fewer. This is a capable team that just hasn't found ways to win. But they haven't been an easy out, even on the road despite their poor record away from Boone. Shabazz went off for 47 in a close loss in their game at ULM. They'll go to Monroe thinking they can win.
#8 SOUTH ALABAMA (15-16, 8-10) Coach: Richie Riley (1st season)
Home Record: 12-6, 5-4 in conference
Leading Scorers: Josh Ajayi (16.2), Trhae Mitchell (14.0), Rodrick Sikes (12.0), Kory Holden (10.2)
Leading Rebounder: Ajayi (7.6), Mitchell (7.5)
Leading Assists: Mitchell (3.6)
vs. Arkansas State: L 65-66 in Jonesboro, W 70-62 in Mobile
STRENGTHS: Josh Ajayi is one of the most physical players in the league. He's tough to guard because he's got some quickness for a big guy. He can muscle you inside. Trhae Mitchell is one of the league's toughest matchups. He's got size and quickness and can handle it, score it and rebound it. Herb McGee is solid at the point and he's increased his scoring load of late. South is one of the better teams in turnover margin in conference games.
WEAKNESSES: Their guard play can be shaky at times. Rodrick Sikes has been plagued by injury this year, and he hasn't been the offensive force he was expected to be. Ajayi and Mitchell are good rebounders, but they don't get any help from the guards and as a result, their rebound margin is among the league's worst. McGee and Pettway are good free throw shooters, but the others are just okay.
OUTLOOK: Injuries and inconsistency are two words to describe the Jaguars. They've been good enough to beat Texas State and bad enough to lose to Little Rock twice. Their guard play is going to be key in the tournament on both sides of the court, especially on defense. South is inside oriented in a guard's league. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
ARKANSAS STATE (11-17, 7-11) Coach: Mike Balado (2nd season)
Road record: 2-12, 2-7 Sun Belt
Leading Scorers: Ty Cockfield II (22.4), Marquis Eaton (11.3), Grantham Gillard (10.0)
Leading Rebounder: Gillard (5.7), Tristan Walley (5.5)
Leading Assists: Cockfield (3.2)
STRENGTHS: Cockfield is one of the league's most electrifying players. He can take it to the rack with his quickness, can shoot off the dribble and has unlimited range. He's more than capable of taking over a game. Gillard and Eaton are both good outside scorers and Gillard can be downright streaky at times. Arkansas State doesn't have anyone who dominates the boards, but they do an excellent job of team rebounding and are among the best in the league in rebound margin. This team is solid at the free throw line.
WEAKNESSES: They really don't have a dependable scorer inside, which means their three guards have to have good shooting nights to win. As good as Cockfield is, he's not great defensively and he can be turnover prone. That holds true for all of their guards. The Red Wolves have improved defensively from last year, but they still are far from great on the defensive end. If Eaton or Gillard have tough shooting nights, Arkansas State struggles to win. As good as Cockfield is, he can't do it alone.
OUTLOOK: Well, they haven't been good away from home and that's a concern in the first round. But if Cockfield is cooking, this team is capable. But he has to have help. Arkansas State's turnover issues and lack of scoring inside could lead to an early exit. But if Eaton and Gillard are big helps offensively, there could be a rematch with Louisiana in their future.