The last of the low-majors gets previewed tonight, and leading the charge in the Sun Belt is a man who is no stranger to the big stage. Divisional picks will be made at the end of this post, by the way.
1) Florida Atlantic - Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of his, anyone who has the least appreciation for success in college basketball has to marvel at the job Mike Jarvis has done with the Owls in just a short period of time. Jarvis took a young team to a 21-11 record last year, and gets most of it back to contend for a Sun Belt championship this time around. What's even more impressive about that is only doing it with two seniors on this team and only one last year. Junior point guard Raymond Taylor may only be 5-6, but he's among the best in the conference. Backcourt partner Greg Gantt is the Owls' top returning scorer, but will look to improve his long-range shooting while Kore White makes things happen inside.
2) Western Kentucky - The Hilltoppers are about as loaded as Jarvis' Florida Atlantic squad, bringing back each of their top three scorers and rebounders. Together, the trio of Sergio Kerusch, Steffphon Pettigrew and Juan Pattillo averaged 44 points and 23 boards, accounting for more than half of the team's nightly averages of 70 and 37, respectively. Caden Dickerson returns as a three-point threat off the bench as well.
3) Arkansas State - Take a look at the Red Wolves one of these days and you'll find it even harder to believe head coach John Brady was dismissed at LSU shortly after leading the Tiger team that starred Glen "Big Baby" Davis to the Final Four in 2006. Bruising power forward Martavius Adams comes back for his senior season, and could be a double-double per night player for Brady this year. Trey Finn and Edward Townsel can change games with just one shot from the outside, and both guards return for ASU as well. The breakout star on this team, however, could be swingman Brandon Peterson. After averaging eight points per game in his first full season as a starter last year, the 6-7 junior should get more touches, which will improve his productivity.
4) Denver - The Pioneers return a group led by senior sharpshooter Brian Stafford as they attempt to improve on a 13-17 season. Stafford, a true marksman, heads into his final campaign on the heels of a junior year in which he shot 49 percent from the field and 44 from beyond the arc. He gets help in the backcourt once again with the return of the Hallam brothers, Travis and Chase, who are just as deadly from long range and just as accurate anywhere on the court, are a senior and junior, respectively.
5) Middle Tennessee State - UTEP transfer Jason Jones returns to lead the Blue Raiders for his junior season. Last year, the swingman enjoyed his most productive campaign, averaging thirteen points and just under five rebounds per game. Forward J.T. Sulton and 5-11 guard James Gallman, who shot 36 percent from three-point range last year, also return as MTSU should finish within the top half of the conference.
6) Louisiana-Monroe - ULM brings back guards Hugh Mingo and Marcelis Hansberry to anchor a team that won only seven games a year ago. The Warhawks also return the services of their two top big men in Steven McClellan and Brazilian import Fabio Ribeiro, but the biggest return comes from leading scorer and top three-point threat Fred Brown, who enters his senior season.
7) Louisiana-Lafayette - The Ragin' Cajuns return both of their leading scorers, sophomore swingman J.J. Thomas and senior guard Josh Brown. Raymone Andrews will be expected to pick up the slack at the point guard position to enhance the production of Brown and Thomas.
8) Arkansas-Little Rock - The Trojans came from eighth in the conference to shock the world and win the Sun Belt championship, but senior guard D'Andre Williams, the fifth-leading scorer on last year's team, is the man charged with the responsibility of leading this team as they look for an encore. Despite not scoring as often as some other players last year, Williams still averaged three assists per game and shot 37 percent from long distance. Fortunately for the Trojans, Williams will have help inside with the returning forward Courtney Jackson, who led UALR in rebounding last season.
9) North Texas - Just like Atkansas-Little Rock before them, North Texas also loses each of their top four scorers, which gives senior forward Kedrick Hogans the keys to the Mean Green offense to start the season. Jacob Holmen, a 6-8 forward, could be the second option on a team featuring five freshmen.
10) South Alabama - The Jaguars will be led by dominating big man Augustine Rubit, who made his presence known immediately by averaging thirteen points and eleven rebounds as a freshman last season. However, after Rubit, it gets a little harder to figure out who makes up the supporting cast. Junior forward Javier Carter should be the primary option, but senior Antione Lundy also returns after being limited to eight games last season.
11) Florida International - Isiah Thomas is back in Miami to lead FIU, and senior guard DeJuan Wright, a Detroit native, will be a full-time starter after leading the Panthers in scoring last year. Fellow Motown native Jeremy Allen joins him in the backcourt, and the former Central Michigan transfer's greatest strength is at the free throw line, where he shot 91 percent last season. Forward Dominique Ferguson is FIU's only other returning starter, and will serve as the inside presence on a guard-heavy squad.
12) Troy - Central Florida transfer Will Weathers will lead the Trojans as he embarks on his junior season, and the point guard will undoubtedly be the focal point for Troy after averaging twelve points and over six assists per game last year. After Weathers, however, lies a relatively unproven group led by swingman Steven Cunningham, who should be spending his first full season in the starting five.
Sun Belt East Division Picks
1) Florida Atlantic
2) Western Kentucky
3) Middle Tennessee State
4) South Alabama
5) Florida International
Sun Belt West Division Picks
1) Arkansas State
5) Arkansas-Little Rock
6) North Texas