Ron Hunter, pictured here with our good friend Jerry Beach of Defiantly Dutch after Georgia State defeated Hofstra last year, takes Panthers from CAA contender to Sun Belt favorite this season. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Beach)
Four more teams join the Sun Belt in 2014, but the current ten-team structure is the latest subject of tonight's "32 In 32" preview, with a newcomer poised to make a run for the conference championship:
The plaque that Jerry Beach presented Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, given "in honor of long and meritorious service vs. Hofstra." (Photo courtesy of Jerry Beach)
1) Georgia State - Ron Hunter moves into the Sun Belt from the Colonial Athletic Association with the Panthers, and already has a serious contender to return Georgia State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Lefty Driesell coached there in the early 2000s. Hunter, in addition to his son R.J.; his sophomore shooting guard and leading scorer last year, also gets the services of Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow at the point guard position, with senior Devonta White joining the duo. Size will be a concern, however, and 6-6 wings Manny Atkins and Markus Crider will be counted on to make a significant impact.
2) Arkansas-Little Rock - Englishman Will Neighbour will be the antithesis of Mister Rogers to Sun Belt opponents this season, as the Trojans' 6-10 senior comes back from a campaign in which he averaged nearly eleven points and seven rebounds per game. With John Gillon having graduated, UALR's supporting cast will be able to step up to complement Neighbour, starting with sophomore point guard Josh Hagins and continuing with senior swingman Leroy Isler and sophomore forward James White.
3) South Alabama - The Jaguars will have a little bit of the "Butler Way" instilled in them this season, as former Brad Stevens player and disciple Matthew Graves takes the reins at South Alabama. Dominating big man Augustine Rubit, a force last season en route to his 19-point, 10-rebound per game average, returns for his senior year to become one of the top big men in the nation, and certainly among the most underrated at his position. Guards Mychal Ammons and Antoine Allen are also back to form a deceptively strong backcourt.
4) Louisiana-Lafayette - The inside/outside scoring duo of burgeoning sophomore big man Shawn Long and junior point guard Elfrid Payton, who averaged over five assists per game for the Ragin' Cajuns, returns for Louisiana-Lafayette, and gets senior shooting guard Bryant Mbamalu back to support them. Sophomore guard Steven Wronkoski and senior swingman Elridge Moore will provide much-needed depth for the Cajuns.
5) Western Kentucky - Ray Harper and the two-time reigning Sun Belt champion Hilltoppers have a little more work to do this season if the three-peat is to be achieved. Juniors T.J. Price and George Fant, who averaged a combined 28 points per game for Western Kentucky as sophomores, return to lead the charge in the Bluegrass State. Senior shooting guard Brandon Harris, an Oklahoma City native who also averaged over five rebounds per game despite standing just 6-1, will be the Hilltoppers' X-factor.
6) Arkansas State - Head coach John Brady, who led Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas to the Final Four at LSU in 2006, gets the services of senior shooting guard Ed Townsel once again as the RedWolves seek to remain in contention for a Sun Belt championship. Sophomore shooting guard Cameron Golden will look to improve off a promising freshman season for Arkansas State, while burgeoning big man Kendrick Washington on his way to a productive senior year.
7) Texas State - Danny Kaspar arrives at the helm of the Bobcats after coming from Southland powerhouse Stephen F. Austin, and gets Brooklyn native Joel Wright; a forward who went to the same junior college as Cam Newton before averaging nearly eighteen points and seven rebounds per game for Texas State a year ago, back for his senior season. Reid Koenen and Corey Stern are also 6-7 senior forwards like Wright, and will serve as his supporting cast as Phil Hawkins and Wesley Davis anchor the backcourt.
8) Texas-Arlington - With the Mavericks' three leading scorers gone, senior forward Brandon Edwards becomes the primary option alongsid swingman Greg Gainey. Texas Tech expatriate Jamel Outler returns for his junior season on the heels of shooting 32 percent from three-point range a year ago.
9) Louisiana-Monroe - Senior guard Amos Olatayo will be the centerpiece of the offense for the Warhawks after leading the team in scoring and narrowly missing the team lead in rebounding last year. Fellow seniors Marcelis Hansberry and R.J. McCray anchor the ULM backcourt while power forward Jayon James, once an Iona castoff, is the Warhawks' glue guy, coming back for his senior year after providing Tommy Brenton-esque averages of nine points, six rebounds and five assists per game as a junior.
10) Troy - Senior combo guard Hunter Williams will lead the Trojans into battle while fellow fourth-year guard Antoine Myers will be his running mate at the point. New Jerseyan Tevin Calhoun and swingman Deonata Jethroe will be expected to pick up the slack as a supporting cast.